amazing stuff man
Am I tripping? I Always thought "pixel art" was based on those 8-bit old games, with hard pixels and little shapes to form scenes. THis is NO PIXEL ART in my conception, but mere digital images.
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Former developers of Battlefield, Medal of Honor, Lost Planet and Shadows of the Damned have recently launched on Steam Early Access their first big indie game Into The Stars. It’s a massive project described as “Oregon Trail meets FTL with AAA graphics“. The game features top-notch visuals, lots of complicated mechanics and direct control of the massive spaceship. Art Director Alden Filion (former DICE employee) shared in this exclusive article the intricate details of the game’s creation and talked about the development tools used to build Into The Stars.
You can actually try Into The Stars of Steam already. Just follow this link.
Fugitive Games is essentially four guys working remotely out of our living rooms in the Santa Monica area. We all came out of AAA development to try and do our own thing in the indie world.
I worked previously as an Art Director on smaller titles like Despicable Me and also some more campy titles like Eat Lead and EDF: Insect Armageddon. I moved out to LA about 5 years ago where I first met Roy (our Creative Director), we worked on Lost Planet 3 at Spark. Most recently I worked at DICE LA where I worked on Battlefield 4 multiplayer maps. That’s where I met Ben (our Development Director) and Marc (our Project Architect).
It was a tough decision for me to go indie. DICE is an amazing place to work and I was very happy working there, but the overwhelming appeal to doing things your way and doubling down on the expectation that an audience is also going to enjoy the choices you as a small team make…you just can’t pass up that opportunity. It takes game development back into its grass roots of a couple people grinding in a garage, making games. Surprisingly, my own personal artistic skills have reached new boundaries that could have only been reached working indie.
The Journey Into The Stars
Our quick elevator pitch is “Oregon Trail meets FTL with AAA graphics”. It truly is essentially that. It’s a space survival game where after countless attacks from an alien race (the Skorn), you have to get the last members of your civilization across the galaxy to the only habitable planet for your kind. You get to pick the loadout of your ship, the starting resources you want to take and also pick what crew officers you want. The beginning of our game is vital. Those choices will drastically change how the game is played and how successful your journey will be. After that, you set off into the unknown towards Titus Nova in a sandbox world where you get to interact with planets, fight or trade with aliens, and investigate everything for resources to continue your journey and keep everyone alive.
The Creation of the Visuals
We outsourced the character models to Eric Valdes. The crew, aliens, and landscape portraits were done by IronKlad Studios. Lastly the awesome mood concept pieces in our Kickstarter were done by Stu Kim…all amazing artist and also close friends.
My motivation for the art style was to find a unique visual style within space games…a lot harder than I imagined. After watching Guardians of the Galaxy (read our interview with the concept artist, who worked on this movie), I was enamored with how bold and colorful they depicted all the space shots. I love brave, unapologetic art styles when they are executed properly. I mean, yeah that’s not what space looks like at all, but here is this gorgeous visual composition based off the coolest satellite images available…sign me up! That movie really made me go towards a vibrant art direction.
As far as visual goals go, honestly I just wanted to compete with the big guys, visually. Space is a popular setting right now and with good reason (cause it’s awesome). The market has some really gorgeous space games available and I knew the other guys on my team where making this really unique and new blend of gameplay, I didn’t want our visuals to be responsible for skirting our game under a rug while standing next to those titles. Granted those other teams are much larger. I just had to at least give it shot and try to be competitive in that regard.
Using Unreal Engine 4
UE4 is amazing! I’m an old school modder, so I have personally been messing with the Unreal Editor since about 2004. I know Roy has been using Unreal for many years on several games and Marc has done some pretty insane stuff in our game using blueprint. One aspect that Marc implemented while R&D’ing streaming methods was called “world browser,” which was in its beta phase at the time. He and Roy took hand into constructing our world using that streaming system. Now we have this huge star system that you can literally go anywhere you want without load screens. That was a big win and pretty much the back bone to our game.
Unreal Engine has come a long ways through the years, but they have had the same unspoken motto since day one… “For Devs, By Devs”. Any good dev that’s never used UE4 before, can pick it up on a Friday and they will have a high quality prototype game, playable by Monday. Honestly something like that was almost impossible until UE4 was released.
Working out Into The Stars
I actually did a lot of planning before I touched any software. A key aspect to all the content in the game is using parent and instance shaders. I also leveraged high res noise and tileables to make sure the texel density of everything remained sharp. The planets are built off a parent shader that has several mask to determine three different masses or shapes within the planet and within those mask. I have several tileables setup to make them look like terrain or clouds and things of that nature. Each one of those have some vector parameters that let the designer specify what colors the planet will use. The same techniques were used for all the particles and even the ship materials too.
The deferred rendering in Unreal lets me leverage my personal art style. I’m an old school oil painter, so I literally paint with lights. Since our entire game uses dynamic lighting, I’m able to just let the Directional light handle the main lighting and shadows, while I place hundreds of point lights with no shadows to do all the shading work at minimal cost to the frame. I’m also using an HDRI map for image based lighting to make sure there is another level of surface variance specially for both diffused and specular reflections.
The Best Tools Make The Best Game
I don’t put any object in game without running it through a tool from the Quixel suite…It’s my utility belt. I save so much time using it…literally making things that should take me days to do and letting it be accessible within a couple hours. I use 3ds Max for all my 3d work and let’s not forget the unsung hero for so many games, Xnormal.
When we started developing the game, UMG was not available but we had to start making a game. We implemented the Radiant SDK which is a third party plugin for UE4 that lets us use Adobe Edge Animate to make all the UI.
Modern game development tools have drastically changed the landscape of game development. The texture creation tools alone have made task that use to take several days and made them into this fun parametric way of being creative. Some might argue that it takes away some creativity, but there will never be a replacement for a good artistic eye. Let’s be honest, there is nothing fun or creative about painting rust dripping off the washers of 20 bolts you have on a metal panel. Adding character and story to your objects is a must, but I rather spend my time on standing up a design feature or making sure the game runs at all. That’s where these tools have really changed the game. They let you shift time that you would have spent on some really trivial stuff and let you direct that time on more pressing issues. The end product should always be a game that both looks awesome and plays awesome.
Prototyping is the Key
The guys prototype their stuff all the time, specially using some of the Unreal templates as a test bed. It gives them something that’s playable but essentially “clean” to test if something is going to work. I personally stood up a prototype of a ship flying and switching between captain and ship view, using the flying template as a base. Had it all working within a day and honestly I had just downloaded the editor the week before. It’s just such an intuitive toolset.
The direct control of the spaceship is so much fun for us. It’s an essential part of the gameloop to be able to go and explore anything you want while managing your ship. At first it can seem overwhelming to beginning players because the game does not pull any punches, but once you learn the game systems and how to properly get your bearings using the external camera, then you will feel a sense of accomplishment. I personally haven’t felt that accomplished in a game for a long time. It definitely makes you feel like you are in charge.
Getting Jack Wall to Score the Game
I worked with Jack Wall on Lost Planet 3. You could write an entire essay on how amazing that man is, but I will refrain. I gave him a call and told him about our project and he liked it a lot. Anytime a new track would come in, as a creative I would get super pumped. It even influenced couple things in the game cause we wanted to showcase the tracks more than we already were. The music and the sound FX were the key that we were missing to make the game really have a cinematic feel to it.
Designing the Universe
Scale wise the game is way bigger than anything we have ever worked on combined. The ship you are flying is itself the roughly the size of a single player level in a shooter. One “tile” is about 5-8 times the size of ship and we have 90 “tiles” in the game.
The planets are placed by Roy our creative director and then I go and make those tiles look good by compiling areas and having some key composition shots for the player to look at and be guided with. We would love to, down the road be able to add more star systems…we shall see how much people enjoy the star system we have for them to explore now.
Financing the Game
Roy and Ben had done some initial rounds to get funds long before the Kickstarter. That’s what essentially started Fugitive Games. We try to be super transparent with everything that we do. The Kickstarter was primarily focused to have funds for an amazing score and cool sound FX for the game. Anything after that would be used on getting localization and variations of things in the game. Truth be told I don’t think we would be where we are at today without Kickstarter. It’s an amazing platform to not only get funding but also to get exposure for your project.
Bringing Into The Stars to the general public
Thankfully we were able to sign on with Iceberg Interactive to help us out with that. There are some streamers playing the game right now and it’s insanely fun to watch them play. They really seem to be having a great time with the game, which in and of itself serves as a great marketing tool. Our game is niche in the sense that it is tough and almost rogue like in several aspects. We knew the identity of the game very early on and that helps to narrow down who is going to be interested in the game.