Planet Alpha 31: Building a Platformer to Manipulate Time

Planet Alpha 31: Building a Platformer to Manipulate Time

IO Interactive developer and an indie game creator Adrian Lazar describes his work on an Unreal Engine 4 powered platformer Planet Alpha 31 and his Casual Connect Asia experience.

Adrian Lazar is a senior cinematic artist at IO Interactive. Recently, he started work on his new indie game Planet Alpha 31. The game has not been released yet, but it received 3 awards at Casual Connect Asia 2015. The project is created with the help of Unreal Engine 4 and the powerful Houdini middleware from SideFX. In this exclusive interview Adrian shared some of his thoughts on indie development, the search for unique mechanics, and the main secret of his game making – “the love of games”.

Planet Alpha 31: A Labor of Love

My name is Adrian Lazar, I’m 31 years old and I live in Copenhagen, Denmark. I started working in post-production when I was 17 and in 2009 I switched to game development and haven’t looked back since. For me, this industry has the perfect combination of creative freedom and technical wonder.

Over the years my role shifted from a primarily creative role to more of a technical role. The transition accelerated at the previous work place, FullControl – a medium sized studio that focused on core PC games like Space Hulk: Ascension. I’ve been working on pet projects in my spare time ever since I remember, such as CG animations or more recently video games (most of which never saw the light of day but where great for learning). As I gathered more experience and know-how, the desire to develop my own game grew. I felt I could bring something unique to the industry, but I wanted to do it with complete creative and technical control.

In December 2014, I started working on the original version of Planet Alpha 31 and I haven’t stopped since. I’m not completely independent though, as my project is yet unfunded and I have a full-time job at IO Interactive; the developer of the Hitman franchise – a company I worked before twice.

Planet Alpha 31 © Adrian Lazar, 2015

Developing a complex game like Planet Alpha 31 alone is both challenging and rewarding, and for the moment is the only choice I have. I would love to get some help with the assets and audio so I can focus more on gameplay, but I first need to get the project funded.

On the other hand doing everything on my own is a challenge I enjoy most of the time. I have to figure out things that I never had to deal with before and that’s very interesting. The other side to that is there are boring tasks as well. For example, with localization [laughs], but fortunately these are in the minority.

Planet Alpha 31 © Adrian Lazar, 2015

What I’m certain about is that you really really need to love developing video games otherwise you won’t make it. There will be times and situations so difficult, either personal, financial, or with the project itself that if you don’t truly love what you’re doing your motivation will shatter. And that is because no matter how supportive your friends and family are – and I’m happy to have both – you will realize that you are truly alone. No one will fully understand what you’re going through when you’re at the lowest point and no one will be able to help you climb back. If you manage to do it then you’ll know this is what you love doing.

Organizing the Development Process on Your Own

I believe developing a video game is a very subjective process where there is not just one right way. While some people prefer working with very specific ordered tasks and deadlines, I’ve found that developing the game organically works best for me. For example, I often re-shuffle tasks based on what I’m in the mood for and this is not just something I can afford doing because I work alone. I actually need to do it in order to avoid getting tired or frustrated with the project.

One of the few benefits of being a one man team is that I don’t have to worry much about the project structure and management. In a collaborative environment, a lot of time and effort is being spent on ensuring good communication between team members. This translates to meetings, detailed description for tasks, design documents, etc – they all add up to eat a big chunk of time that could be used in the actual production.

From the start, I wanted to have a slim planning process. I have a few high-level tasks set for myself using Trello and a paper notebook where I write down notes and ideas and that’s basically it. I’m trying not to set deadlines as I would rather do it right then do it fast and besides, time-boxing creativity never works.

The Choice of Middleware

A fast and flexible pipeline relies on solid tools, but of course personal preference plays a role as well. It’s never been easier or cheaper to develop a video game. Below are the main tools I’m using:

Unreal Engine 4: Simply amazing. Powerful node based workflow, awesome features and the best renderer in its class. That combined with the great support Epic Games offer to indie devs makes it the perfect fit for me. This is the first project I’m doing with Unreal and I couldn’t be happier.
Houdini from SideFX: Maybe Houdini is not the obvious choice when doing game dev and that’s a shame. The software has strong modeling and texturing tools but where it really shines is in the node based procedural workflow and in the data I/O capabilities.
FMOD: Very powerful audio middleware, free for projects with a budget under $100.000.
Trello: Slim task manager.
Dropbox: Great for sharing stuff.
SVN: Always stay safe, even if you work alone.

Description of Planet Alpha 31

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Planet Alpha 31 is an immersive, story driven puzzle platformer mixed with bits of agility, action and exploration that takes place in a beautiful but dangerous world.

A tribute to the old-school games I grew up with, there will be little to no hand-holding. To survive, you will have to explore and be observant of this strange place. The head-on approach rarely works so you must think before you shoot. During your stay on the planet, you will face both alien and human enemies who each have to be overcome in a different way.

Here are the main features:

  • Diverse gameplay that includes puzzles, agility and action, making use of both human and alien technology.
    Planet Alpha 31 has a unique mix of platforming, puzzle solving, and action elements while offering breathtaking moments to explore and enjoy the beauty of this planet.
  • Ability to change the planet rotation that controls special alien structures and affects the biosphere.
    By acquiring the power to change the planet rotation (going fast forward or fast backward) you will be able to make use of special Alien Technology and to change the behavior of the different lifeforms that are populating the planet.
  • Real-time day/night cycle changing both the environment and the game mechanics.
  • The planet flora and fauna, and all the strange life forms in between, react naturally to the succession of day and night. You will have to observe and make use of the different behaviors in order to survive on this beautiful but dangerous world.
  • If I have to pick one thing that I believe people will love, that would be the experience – the experience of exploring this beautiful but dangerous planet, the experience of solving puzzles, conquering agility challenges and confronting diverse enemies, and the experience of unfolding the story.

The Choice of the Engine

Planet Alpha 31 in UE4 © Adrian Lazar, 2015

Having a flexible pipeline always helps and the game makes use of Unreal’s great support for dynamic lighting with everything being rendered real-time. This requires more care when setting up the lighting, vfx, and shaders so that the game will perform smoothly. In return, the game has a fully real-time, dynamic environment that offers many gameplay opportunities.

I researched and developed the art-style over many months to ensure it can offer and immersive experience for the players but that is also something I could pull off on my own if needed. Again, developing my own project means that I can play my strengths and cut corners where I think works best.

Unreal Engine uses physically-based materials that are great for keeping a consistent look but they are hard to stylize, so I’m relying heavily on lighting to achieve the final style. I’m trying to create a living world where the visuals influence the game-mechanics and vice versa. For example, the real-time day and night cycle affects the gameplay but at the same time the player can affect the day and night cycle. For me, this constant connection between gameplay, visuals and audio, is key to create an immersive experience.

Planet Alpha 31 in UE4 © Adrian Lazar, 2015

There are many sources that inspire the visuals of Planet Alpha 31. From ancient Greek architecture, to the amazing futuristic design found in cities like Singapore, to space photography – we live in an amazing world with no shortage of inspiring sights.

I started working on the first version of Planet Alpha 31 using Unity3D and progress went fine at the beginning. However, after a while I started to need more control from the engine because the prefab system was becoming limiting, there were few options to debug render issues, and post-processing lacked in overall quality.

Unity is a good engine, but my project outgrew it. As the game became more and more complex, so did the requirements for the tools grew. After half a year I stopped the development, becoming frustrated with the slow pace the project was advancing at that point.

I took a break for a couple of months and then I started experimenting with UE4 . It was still new but I was instantly impressed. The blueprint system is extremely powerful, it offers more debug options then I would ever use and the renderer is state of the art. More importantly, the node-based workflow fit me better since both Houdini and ICE (XSI) tools that I worked with for years, share the same design.

Having solid tools that you can trust is always important, but it is even more important when you are indie. Limited time and resources means that I need to rely heavily on the software developers and good communication. Luckily, Epic Games does a great job at being transparent with weekly streams with lots of devs joining the discussions on the forum and a public roadmap so you know what’s coming next.

The Search for a Unique Mechanics

I’ve passed through a few stages developing the game mechanics for Planet Alpha 31. First, there was the exploration – an explosion of ideas where everything went. There was nothing was too crazy or too stupid. Some were prototypes on paper, others were tested directly in-engine, but most were just thought about. The tricky part was picking the ones that were fun and offered most gameplay opportunities and implement them. Rejecting my own ideas isn’t easy, but I’d rather have a few solid mechanics that work well than risk spreading the game too thin. Working alone means that I have to constantly keep an eye on the big picture while at the same time focus on the small details – a skill I learned over time the hard way.

That being said, there were a few moments when I got an idea for a visual feature or for a game mechanic that I just knew I had to implement no matter how difficult or time-consuming it would be, otherwise I wouldn’t make my own game.

The most important one was developed while I was on vacation waiting for feedback from an investor interested in supporting Planet Alpha 31. He got back to me saying that he loves the game but feels like it’s missing some feature to make it more unique. It was a bit of a shock because I thought at that point the game was strong enough, but it was also a huge motivation to come up with something special.

After a few days of brainstorming and panic it clicked: I have this real-time day and night cycle, so what if the player could affect it somehow? Visually it would look impressive, but more importantly it’s a mechanic that can be tied to all three main gameplay pillars: puzzles, platforming, and action.

The Daytime Manipulation Mechanic gives the player the ability to change the planet rotation, going fast forward or fast backwards, and this allows him to interact with special Alien structures and to affect the planet biosphere. This is the kind of feature that requires changes throughout the entire game from visuals, to gameplay, to audio. However, I had to implement it, otherwise I knew I wouldn’t make the best game I could.

The investor talks didn’t work out due to other reasons, but I’m very happy about getting this kick to push the game to another level.

The Triumph at Casual Connect Asia 2015

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In mid-May I visited Singapore to attend Casual Connect Asia where Planet Alpha 31 was chosen to be part of the Indie Showcase Program. It was the first public hands-on event for my game and I was terrified. I knew from the screenshots and short videos posted online that people liked the visuals so that wasn’t my worry. But with PA31 being the 1st game I’ve done alone, I did have a lot of questions about everything else. Are the core mechanics solid? Is the level-design good? Are the puzzles too hard or too easy? Maybe the platforming is too frustrating?

Attending Casual Connect and the Indie Prize Showcase was totally worth it. I met some great people that I hope I’ll see again. Also, Planet Alpha 31 won three awards (!) during the Indie Prize Ceremony, including: Critic’s Choice and Best in Show and I gathered some very useful feedback from the first public hands-on event. I also received a huge morale boost from the great reception Planet Alpha 31 had and most importantly I got the confirmation that I am on the right track with my game.

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Having a face-to-face connection with the players, being able to see how they react to certain events in the game, what frustrates them, what they liked and how they played in general was very useful. I hope to attend many other events like these, but time and money are always an issue and I would like to thank Epic Games for awarding Planet Alpha 31 the Unreal Dev Grant that made attending Casual Connect Asia possible.

Selling The Game

My hope is to bring Planet Alpha 31 on as many platforms as possible. However, with limited resources I will have to do it one at the time. Currently, the lead platform is PC and the game passed Steam Greenlight in just 14 days, a few months back. Planet Alpha 31 is a premium product that will have a fixed price and at this moment there are no plans for DLC’s.

Planet Alpha 31, gamedev, indiedev, IO Interactive, Adrian Lazar, Unreal Engine 4, Unity 5, indie games, platformer, Casual Connect Asia, developing mechanics, UE4, Houdini, SideFX

Adrian Lazar, Game Artist and Game Developer

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