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Zadbox Entertainment is a very small company from UK with an ambitious plan. This studio wants to reinvigorate the public’s interest to old-school hardcore adventure games with its new project Quern – Undying Thoughts (currently on Kickstarter). Developers shared their views about Unity 5, game optimization, testing and the methods of puzzle construction in 3D.
About Zadbox Entertainment
Our company is based in the UK, however three of us live and work in Hungary, and one of us works on the project from England. We don’t have any game development background as such, but we have worked on many different projects in our own work fields. The reason we decided to develop a video game is because we all had a passion for gaming, and luckily, our skills matched the ones needed to create a video game. The whole project started as a thesis for Daniel (our game designer), and it slowly grew bigger and bigger as we put more and more time and work into developing it together.
The main idea behind Quern was to create something old school but yet still fresh. Our goal is to revolutionize an old and almost forgotten genre – first person puzzle adventure. We always felt that these types of games are greatly underrepresented in the industry, and we want to change that. Plus we are also great fans of puzzles and adventures, especially Myst series.
We can’t really give you an in-depth story without actually spoiling it. We paid special attention not to give the protagonist such attributions which would compromise the immersion of the player – like gender, age or ethnicity. We wanted to create a storyline in which anyone can identify themselves with our main character.
The player assumes the role of a person, who has been trapped on a mysterious island surrounded by oceans as far as the eye can see. The player has to find out why he is there, and what he is supposed to do, by solving the mysteries of the island itself.
The gameplay is similar to the classic puzzle adventure games. The player progresses by finding hints and solving puzzles, which are often interrelated. We have an interactive inventory system and many obtainable items, which will all be needed at one point of the game at least – but there are items with multiple purposes as well! The further we progress the more complex these challenges become, and we have to say; Quern is a difficult game!
Using Unity 5
We started with the free version of Unity 4 and we transitioned to Unity 5 in March, which has some key features for the project. The main one is the 64bit editor (finally!) without doubt, as it helped our designer to really work as fast and well as he can, without the interruptions caused by the limited RAM usage of the 32bit editor. We really like the new Physically Based Standard Shader and the lighting settings as well, let alone the Profiler, which helps us during optimization.
While developing the game we also use Autodesk Maya, Autodesk Sketchbook, Autodesk Mudbox, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Unity Shader Forge. We use Git as our source code version control system, to easily merge and revert changes done in the program code.
We have more than a thousand assets, so Unity 5 was quite a big relief for us, migrating away from the limits of 32 bit. The engine also offers lots of help to handle huge amounts of objects in the game, it pre-calculates which objects can be seen from different parts of the map, and automatically hides the rest to optimize.
The light sources are tricky, because we really do have a lot. The hundreds of point lights on the map are optimized by having small range and falloff and/or not casting shadows. The ones that do are surrounded by static objects mainly.
Building Puzzles in 3D
Quern is actually a medium-sized island, and that’s why we chose to build it up with that much variety. The scenes you see on the pictures and in the video are all explorable and connected. The inspiration to build with such variety is the appreciation and wonder of being able to create a new world.
Planning the puzzles really takes countless hours of Skype conferences to achieve our desired effect with them. The biggest challenge is to set the difficulty of the puzzles so that anyone can solve it (in more or less time), but it is also challenging to even the most experienced players. We had a few people test the whole game after every alteration on these puzzles to make sure we prepared everything correctly.
The puzzles themselves have no problem with different aspects, as they are usually derived from 2D space, with a few exceptions. As long as the player looks at the right thing, he shouldn’t have any problem handling it. The coolest feature of it is that we see how people approach the same puzzles from different perspectives – even literally.
Managing a Big Game with A Small Team
All members of our little team are really passionate and talented.
As the head of the project, biggest part of the work was Daniel’s. Our game designer and the only visual artist of the team, dedicated his whole last year to this project, he went to sleep and woke up with Quern. All the concepts and visual work including all the animations were made by him.
Gergely, our programmer scripted a whole menu, puzzle and inventory layout with a smart system of obtainable items and event controlling, raising the limits of Unity editor’s efficiency to a whole new level.
Marcell, is our rarely talented composer, he learned to play several new instruments specifically to improve the quality of the project, he also works as our business director.
Abel, our sound designer had a difficult job creating the sounds of the fantastic elements for the project, such as the opening and closing of portals, appearing and vanishing spiritual creatures, or the buzzing of a charging energy crystals. He is also our PR manager.
Testing of the Indie Game
We mostly ask our friends to test the game. There have been some individual testers, but we also organized some “test parties”, where multiple people tested it together. Since the game is mostly about puzzles and logic, it’s also entertaining to those who are not controlling the game, but providing advice to the main tester.
During these tests, one of us sits there and takes notes of the gameplay, mostly about the parts that are relatively difficult / complex. After these tests we summarize and discuss the results, and when the majority of our testers consider a part too difficult (or easy, or illogical etc), we change some aspects of it, provide more hints, or in extreme cases redesign the whole puzzle.
Marketing and Financing Quern
So far we have no available financial assets, so our marketing options are pretty limited. We are trying to get as much media coverage as possible without a budget, so we highly rely on blogs. As for the funding, we’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign to gain some support, so we can dedicate even more time into development.
The video game journalism is at its peak nowadays, so it is an evident way to market the game if it is interesting enough for the public. Steam is also a great marketing platform with the continuous sales and staff picks. Not to mention social media, Facebook and Twitter mainly, which are both crucial forms of marketing for any small developer. We are trying to find the balance between marketing and productivity though, but it always sets back the development process when we have to work on our campaigns. Due to our lack of resources, we can’t dedicate a member to work on these campaigns full-time.
If everything goes right we are planning the release in the first quarter of 2016, but this depends on the result of our Kickstarter campaign and the Greenlight project.