Katana Kata: Indie Game Development in a Two-Man Team

Katana Kata: Indie Game Development in a Two-Man Team

Stas Shostak and Alexander Sitnikov shared their experience of developing Katana Kata, an indie game released on Steam in Early Access.

Introduction

Stas: Hi! My name is Stas Shostak, I am 30. Over the past five years I have been making small indie games.

I didn't have a computer until I was 12, so I got acquainted with my first video games when visiting friends. It made the process even funnier - I played too little to get bored. It inspired me to make my own RPG board games - I drew my own game cards and modified D&D rules to “play” video games of my dreams. So, I got used to doing something new, despite a long pause when I was studying at university and working as a programmer in a non-gaming field. 

I got into indie game development pretty straightforward - I watched Indie Game: The Movie and decided that I can make games too. I spent a year making the prototype in my spare time. After that, I quitted my job to release my first game in a team of 3 people. In 2016, we launched Tribal Pass, which barely managed to bring the profit, yet gave us a chance to continue working independently.

In 2017, I released JASEM: Just Another Shooter with Electronic Music. It wasn’t profitable at all but taught me a lot of things, mostly about time management, money, and workflow priorities. 

In 2018, in three months, I made Save One More, a heal'em up game about a combat medic. I also announced The Road of Dust and Rust, a tactic car battle game, taking place in the wasteland. But I stuck and haven’t finished it yet.

Towards the end of 2018, I cut a deal with an indie investor and started Katana Kata, which I had been making until 2020. 

Just a little while ago, I announced a new experimental game Titan Chaser, which I made being inspired by games Jalopy, Shadow of the Colossus, and Trollhunter,  a Norwegian dark fantasy film.

Alexander: Hi! My name is Alexander Sitnikov, I am 32. I have been making games for 10 years. I am a game designer, producer, and full-cycle project manager.

My story isn’t as interesting. When I was 6, I got ZX Spectrum and the moment I launched Dizzy, I realized what I wanted to do in my life. I was an avid gamer, I played every game on every platform I could find. Nothing much has really changed today… 

When I was 20, I got my first job in QA at a game studio and went through nine circles of hell. I'm self-taught because there was little information on game design 10 years ago and I still keep among my files Riaba the Hen, a game design document widely known in RuNet at that time. Some of the titles I worked on were successful and some of them not. I had been growing together with the industry - went from the browser, social, mobile games to PC and AR\VR projects.

How We Worked Together on Katana Kata

Stas: I'm used to working alone or in small teams, however, my implementation of the game features is often a pure improvisation, so it might be quite difficult to work with me. Sometimes, we discuss one thing, my teammates do their part of the job, but the results turn out to be different because I decided to use their assets in my own way. It has its pros and cons. Sometimes, when I see something that seemed good in theory but doesn't work in practice, I change it immediately instead of wasting a week of work. The disadvantage is, it might devastate the integrity of the project, making other teammates feel underestimated.

Alexander: I worked in all kinds of teams, with at least 5-7 members, and it was the first time when I worked on a project with just one partner. It was amusing to try and change Stas’s habit to work alone introducing some methods from large projects into his workflow. When working with him, I spent plenty of time clarifying some of the things, while in the past I used to simply set the task and get the result.  

Our development life cycle didn't differ greatly from what big teams do. Our first goal was to develop good core gameplay. In our case, it was an enjoyable katana fight mechanic. The progress, level-ups, skills, and other features were added later. 

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Challenging Aspects of Indie Game Development

Stas: For me, the hardest part of the game development is the final, polishing one, when you spend a lot of time improving small details without much visible result. It demotivates, so I don’t usually do that part when working on small solo projects. But the larger the budget, the more important the polishing stage is. 

In general, the problem is exactly the opposite. Most indie developers are polishing minor details before getting real feedback from players. As a result, the project that meant to be released as MVP (Minimum Valuable Product) in a few months, takes 3-5 years if the developer doesn't give it up earlier.  

Speaking of marketing, I don't have any special tricks when it comes to a game release. The only thing I've learned is that the game must catch your attention from the first glance, be it a text description or a video trailer. 

Wealthy and experienced teams can afford to make projects in popular genres and focus on quality as a key selling point but when you are making a game alone in a tight timeframe, it is hardly likely that you will be able to compete in a popular genre. That is why, regardless of any similar game a potential player may or may not know, your game must look worth buying from the very first words of the description. Sometimes I fail to build a game around one core idea but I always strive to do it. 

Reference & Inspiration

Stas: Usually, I draw inspiration from movies. In recent 2-3 years, I have become less interested in common game mechanics, I don’t enjoy the current presentation of the narrative. The best place to learn how to present a story is cinematography. For sure, the heart of Katana Kata is its mechanics but I tried to pick an interesting color palette to support the player's attention in each location.  

Alexander: I rewatched all Akira Kurosawa movies, read Bushido, watched some anime about samurai, and studied lots of information about the weapons and everyday life in those years. As a result, we gave our weapons original names as well as took into account their weight, material, etc.

We also watched tons of videos with modern katana masters cutting mats and other objects to understand how the animations should look like. Some parts of the locations were based on the paintings from those centuries.

Game Production Details

Stas: Similarly to my other projects, Katana Kata started spontaneously. I was playing with fighting animations and prototyping sword fights, then my gifs drew the attention of an investor, and the next month we were already planning the workflow for our new game. 

In 1.5 years of development, the vision of the metagame changed several times, until we opted for a rouge-like system with constant Souls-like enemies. 

As for the style, it was chosen in the early days of development: low poly models, no faces, volumetric lighting with visible light rays, fog, and particles floating in the air. 

Unfortunately, I couldn’t handle the procedural level generation. Each level and enemy was adjusted manually. But still, there is a procedural change of enemies after each reloading. 

All the models were made in Blender; animations, and other things - in Unity. 

Alexander: We had to abandon a lot of ideas such as weapon crafting system, character aging with each replay that resulted in the loss of some skills, traps and mechanisms set in the locations, the possibility to learn and manage particular fighting skills. But it is totally normal - developers always have more ideas than they can fulfill.   

Level Design

Stas: Each level of the game started with the main idea, emotion, or aim it should convey.  The Lake was one of the first locations we made - I knew how it would look like from the very beginning, a few arbors connected by overwater bridges. 

The Bath Houses, the first level that introduces the game mechanics through the fights against simple enemies and an easy sumo wrestler boss, was made at the end of the production.

The creation of each level started with a few base buildings arranged in a nice composition. Then I turned some ways into dead ends and shortcuts and placed the enemies, testing the gameplay pace several times. 

The final step was to rearrange the places overloaded with objects and enemies in order to reduce rendering times. It was also done in order to keep only important objects in the player's sight to hint at the direction or a shortcut.

Alexander: The location design began with rough sketches where we outlined the player path and the enemy positions. Then, we analyzed references to understand how things looked like in those times and eventually assembled the levels.

Animation

Stas: As there were no animators in our team, we had to rely on ready sword fighting animations with different styles. Developing our fighting system, I manually arranged event markers to control timings, acceleration, and transitions between animations. When all the animations were adjusted, I chose a few ones that looked best and used them to build the gameplay and enemies upon. That's how we came up with our set of weapons and fighting styles: hand-to-hand combat, two-handed sword, two short swords, and a spear. 

The core idea of the fighting system we invented is that the main character can take any weapon from a defeated enemy and change the fighting style accordingly.

Varied Parameters in the Game

Alexander: We have quite many parameters in the game, but there are two types of them: the main parameters and the changeable modifications. For example, each enemy in the level has a weapon that is randomly generated within the currently available list. We also varied the strength of the enemies slightly to diversify them. We even tried to add variation to their height and size - for example, a fist fighter is supposed to be stronger and therefore look more muscular, - but we abandoned this idea after a while.  

Utilizing Ready Assets

Stas: Over the years of working on my own, I still haven’t succeeded in 3D modeling. That is why I learned how to build a desirable atmosphere from any ready assets using lighting and color correction. A tool that helps me a lot is Unity Post-Processing Stack. I use it to pick up a proper color palette, create a glow around the light sources, and adjust the depth of field. I also use volumetric lighting plugins. In Katana Kata, it was Hx Volumetric Lighting, now I am playing with Aura 2. They are perfect instruments to create a dense atmosphere. 

Since I usually work with low poly models from different creators, I have to unify their style on my own. The best way to do it is to use foggy shadows with light rays emphasizing important details. This technique is often used in movies. 

Almost every level in Katana Kata has Atmospheric Fog and Directional Light, a combination of Point Lights coming from the lamps, and soft Fill Light aimed at the player at a 45-degree angle to avoid blending the character with the environment in dark places.  

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SFX

Stas: While working on SFX for my projects, I gradually gathered a collection of thousands of sounds for all occasions and I try to use them wherever possible to preserve a united style. For Katana Kata, I also used a few SFX assets for sword fighting and Japanese and Chinese music. The music you hear in the dojo was composed by my girlfriend. She often writes music for my games but this time, we had a chance to work only on one track. 

Challenges of the Project

Stas: The biggest challenge for me was to complete the project after 1.5 years of development. Besides my first release, it was by far the longest and the largest project I’ve ever done. Before Katana Kata, I’ve never worked with humanoid animations, fighting and progression systems, and replayability. I had been figuring all of that out throughout the development.

It was a very ambitious project but it pushed me to grow as a developer. At the same time, it made the development twice longer than our early expectations. The Indie Cup became a good motivation to finish the game and get it to Steam Early Access. We got a chance to assess whether players will be interested in the gameplay or not. We took their feedback into account when polishing the game. One of the most helpful features of the Indie Cup was its streams where people played our games - we could see their natural reaction and analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the gameplay.  

Alexander: As for me, it was difficult to design the game UI on my own and keep up with Stas's flow of ideas. He generated ideas, I offered mechanics and solutions.

But the biggest challenge was to stay motivated and finish the project even after cutting a few very interesting mechanics. One of the main problems was the desire to save on nearly all aspects of the game (animation, art, models, and so on) which had some negative impact on the quality. At the same time, we were motivated to showcase the project, to prove that two developers can make a great game that deserves positive feedback from players.  

Stas Shostak & Alexander Sitnikov, Developers of Katana Kata

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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