Of Bird & Cage: Music-Driven Indie Game

Of Bird & Cage: Music-Driven Indie Game

Capricia Productions team kindly shared some of the details behind their project under development Of Bird and Cage: how they are making an attempt to create a new genre, interpreting Beauty and the Beast tale, working on characters, and more.

Introduction

Arnold: I’m Arnold, the CEO and composer of “Capricia Productions”.
Before founding Capricia, I was mostly (and still am) composing for video games. I’ve worked on quite a few games over the years, like “Small World 2”, “60 Parsecs!” and others.

I think music and gaming were the two most important things in my life since I can remember myself. When I grew up, I decided that I wanted to be a musician and studied film scoring at Rimon School of Music. What I actually wanted to do however wasn’t to compose for films as much as tell stories with music. I formed a progressive metal band that had the idea of telling stories behind it and I started working as a game composer. With time, this band which was called “Capricia” turned into “Capricia Productions” - a game studio focusing on story-driven music games (currently working on “Of Bird and Cage”).

Ben: Game development has been a dream since I can remember myself.  In the past, I’ve worked in the film industry for a few years and even ran my own company producing shorts and documentaries for clients.

Music and gaming have always been an integral part of my life, and when I first heard of the project’s idea (back then it was ‘The Birdcage’), I just knew I had to join in.

Arnold came to work as a sound-designer on one of the projects I’ve worked on back then and we just clicked and I think it was quite clear (at least for me) that we’re going to be partners and make games together.

Are You Musicians or Game Developers?

Arnold: So, as I said earlier, “Capricia” was originally a metal band.
We had some success over the years - got an album out, signed a deal with a record company from the U.S, performed on the biggest Israel’s stages and more. When we started working on our second album, we were looking for something more special to do than just a normal album and with me being a composer for games, the answer to how to do that kinda hit me in the face… making a concept album as a video game.

Are we musicians or game developers? That’s a great question. If you ask me I would surely say that I myself am a musician. That being said, Capricia has grown to be about 15 people and while most of them have a passion for the music they are game developers. On top of that, we are working with a lot of musicians, some of whom are pretty well-known, like Ron ‘Bumblefoot'' Thal (ex-Guns N’ Roses), Rob van der Loo (Epica), Ruud Jolie (Within Temptation) and others. Music is a huge part and the core of what we are trying to do. 

Also, we found that the people who are most enthusiastic about joining the project were somewhat musicians themselves - whether they write their own songs, or just play instruments - but the team we’ve built is mostly comprised of people who have a great passion for music.

While this was always supposed to be “just” a game, we have somehow found ourselves on stages, performing the music from the game in a few live shows, even with symphonic orchestras and choirs. So I’d say we are both - musicians and game developers who came together to try and create something unique for gaming and music. 

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An Attempt to Create a New Game Genre

Arnold: Being a composer, mostly for video games, I have found myself in between two industries (music and gaming). The album we (as a band) wanted to make was going to be a modern version of ‘The Beauty and the Beast’, but when we started composing I felt that something was missing - that this story deserved a bit more than “just” a usual album. When I closed my eyes, I would see a huge city, a girl running away from a wall of fire, characters, images and a whole world.

I didn’t want my listeners to experience that story by just putting it on YouTube and browsing away - I wanted them to become a part of the story... to be IN the story. We decided to make a music game, but like no other - a narrative based music game. Maybe we can say it’s the equivalent of musicals in games.

We were musicians so we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. Making a game sounded easy enough. It’s funny but it was a good thing because otherwise, we would never have done it. Not only had we to figure out how to make games, - but making a music-based, story-driven game (something that I don’t think has really been done this way before) is a whole new level of pain. We had to figure out everything from scratch. 

The process is completely different and pretty insane, to be honest - it’s a normal game, but everything is driven by the music and synced to the music. The first huge difference is that like in a musical, the music needs to be produced first. Everything else is going to be programmed and built upon it and if something is not working with the music, it needs to be changed. This is just a pipeline difference but it actually creates a huge amount of problems in the game design front as well - how do you do a puzzle/exploration game which is time-limited? The two things seem to be contradicting at the very base of it. How do you branch a few stories when all the lengths of the branches need to be the same? And even technically speaking - how do you make sure everything is on time? The human ear-eye sync can spot displacements of anything over 2 frames so all the game events that are synced with the music (and there are thousands of those) need to be exactly on time. One fps drop can ruin everything. How do you QA? In a normal game, you can test specific parts but in our case, you need to test the music-level sync in minute 7 of the level... This means you need to play 7 minutes every time. Thousands of times.

We ended up developing a lot of in-house specific systems for QA, time management, AI that is completely synced to music and music times, systems that analyze frequencies and can have elements in UE4 automatically reacting to them. It’s been total madness and the worst part was that we not only had no experience going into this but we also had no one to consult with. Whenever we tried approaching experienced people, even from huge companies, they always pretty much said “yeah… we don’t know… I don’t know anyone who’s done this before”.

At the end of the day, as ambitious as it sounds, we are not just trying to make a game but a new genre. I’m not even saying it’s a good idea or that it’s going to work - but this is what we are trying to do. There were endless things we needed to figure out and we still run into those almost every day. We do feel we are on the right path and finally almost “there”. The game sure feels like nothing you have experienced before - but still, like a game. It’s intuitive and though it takes a few minutes for gamers to “adjust” to, once they do, it just seems to “click” and they go like “ooohhh! I get it!”, which is great, but took literally years to get to. 

Beauty and the Beast Interpretation

Arnold: The story behind the game is a modern, dark and disturbing version of “Beauty and the Beast”. It tells the story of Gitta, a young girl (or rather a young woman) who’s being kidnapped by a mysterious guy, develops a Stockholm Syndrome and falls in love with him.

At some point (depending on the players’ choices) she is no longer really imprisoned by him, but mostly by her mind. Her cage turns from an actual cage to a mental one. It’s a fragile cage which can easily be broken, just not by her. We thought that playing on a birdcage idea, in this case, is pretty perfect.

I mean seriously - did you ever think of how messed up the story of “Beauty and the Beast’ is? A girl is being kidnapped/sold to this crazy monster, falls in love with him and he suddenly turns into a prince? Even as a kid I always felt like there are some untold horrible things happening there, between the lines. Also, I felt there is no way that this is how the story ends. There is no way someone is going through all that and is staying at her normal, stable self after. I think that’s what we did - we made the story modern, added the dark side that we felt was skipped in the original versions for the sake of the kids, turned the “monster/beast” part into a metaphor and not an actual monster and changed the ending.. or… better phrased - added a continuation to the original story - what happens to them after he turns into the “prince”. 

Game Design

Ben: We’ve played quite a lot with the design of the game - and in our original concept there were even a few ideas to make it somewhat stylized. However, since we wanted to bring the original Beauty and the Beast story into the “real” world, we decided to go for a more realistic view. 

Looking back, it was the right decision narrative-wise, but a whole new world of pain for an inexperienced indie team. Uncanny valley was kicking us in the butt at every step we took. Eventually, I think we were almost naturally led to half realistic style - a bit in the general art direction of “Life is Strange” (maybe inclining a bit more to realism).

That being said, it’s something we are still struggling with. Making something indie but realistic while you can’t afford any fps drops (because of the music-sync) is not an easy task, putting it gently. It took us a while to find our own direction. As the team got better with time, levels progressed differently, so we had to go back to earlier levels and re-do them to have a single style for the whole game. We are still not done with it, but at least we finally feel that we found the right style and are “getting there”.

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I think the most awesome visual thing we have in the game is the insanity system. Gitta (the main character) is a drug addict. When she is missing the drug, she is experiencing side effects in the form of hallucinations that involve fire, crows and a smaller DOF. It makes the game even more challenging at points - especially for inexperienced players, but our main hope is that it’ll also be a drive to play the game (and listen to the album) more than just once.

How Work Is Organized

Ben: The way we worked was basically getting people who want to build video games, and adding them to the team. At the time we couldn’t pay salaries to anyone (including ourselves), so we offered rev-share for anyone who was willing to work with us and showed enough drive to create something new - and at the end of it, we managed to create an amazing, a very talented and eager to learn team.

Before we started to work on the actual art, we had a lot of discussions on which formats we should work with, and a LOT of trial and error with Unreal Engine to see what’s the best way to put in any kind of asset - be it an animation, a mesh or a texture.

Because of the nature of our team, and the fact that we didn’t have an office to work at (at the time we used TeamSpeak - today our office is Discord), and also because of how we hired people - we couldn’t really come with a lot of demands regarding software solutions so we had to flexible in our pipeline. We went through each software that our team was using (3ds Max, Maya, ZBrush, Substance), saw what the best way to get the needed things from that program was and wrote quite a detailed document for exports - which also led to us learning a LOT of programs in a very short time. We were also lucky to meet a lot of people who helped us along the way and offered advice or even actual support (like iClone who helped us a lot when Mixamo was moving off UE4, which caused massive amounts of problems for us).

We still don’t have a key-platform, and we’re still working across the board with whatever we can get. For the environment development, we had a concept designer (Alon Dagan) who created an amazing world. We translated his designs into Unreal Engine and just played with them until we found something that worked for us and play-tested well.

Creating Characters

Ofek Angel (Lead Animator):

Like any character design, our characters went from script to concept to model and finally rig. Throughout each part of the process, the higher-ups of the team gave their input to make sure the characters look and feel like who they are in the script and lyrics.

At first, when the company was just a handful of people, creating a character was a milestone of its own, yet over time we upgraded and even re-made some of the characters for various reasons; either to improve small stuff, like the way they emote, or to change the look of their design to fit better with our vision.

Design-wise, the characters had a big “problem” we had to struggle with - there are no “heroes” or “bad guys” here. Gitta is not the most beautiful girl, nor the ugliest one. She is not special. Bres is not really a monster - just a soundman with a sad story. The story is what we call “small drama” - it’s a story about “normal” people being pushed over the edge, so we didn’t want the characters to look too thin/fat/weird… they needed to look like me and you - like average people, and yet, be distinct, easy to relate to and memorable. That took a few tries.

Gitta Progression: early concept; more advanced concept art, first model; second model; final model; in-game

Animation-wise, it also took us a long time to find our path. We have begun trying to use Mixamo or similar things as much as possible, but quickly found out that it just didn’t work for us… story-driven games have just way too many specific animations and you just can’t work based on stock animations. So, we tried using mo-cap. We tried cameras, mo-cap suits and pretty much everything you can think of. Still, we ran into a few problems - syncing it with music was almost impossible and again, uncanny valley showed its ugly face (literally). 

Today, the way we animate the cut scenes in the game is actually pretty cool and I think not very common - we do it by hand keying, just like you'd make an animated film - but those are based on real shots made with actors for the scenes. The cinematic nature of the game makes it very intuitive for an animator to approach a shot.

Each animator gets a reference for his shot. The shots themselves were played by real professional actors who we filmed in Germany together with our friends’ studio called Monokel Games (that also redid our rigs to make all of this possible). And all the shots were synced to the music of the album. This makes the acting more believable and the process of animation more smooth and effective.

As the lead animator, I make sure each shot gives the right feeling. If it's camera direction, small acting choices, or principles of animation, I give the animators my input on their shots and make sure the story of the game comes across.

Game Distribution

Arnold: The game is coming out during 2020. I can’t say an official date yet but 2020 will be the year of the final release. It’s going to be for PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch. As for playing… we are not planning on releasing anything or having a public beta run before the full release so… you'll need to wait!

Capricia Productions Team

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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Comments 1

  • Ruti Nevon

    I've been following it for a long time and can't wait! Also, looks so much better than the early days!

    2

    Ruti Nevon

    ·7 months ago·

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Of Bird & Cage: Music-Driven Indie Game