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Katie Nelson from Blueprint Games did a super detailed talk about the way her company produces game content for the new horror game Relapse. It’s a great look into the pipeline, which could be used by any game developer: AAA or indie.
Blueprint Games was founded in 2015 by James and Katie after graduating Games Technology at Bournemouth University. James took on the role of the programmer whilst I work on the art. We were joined by Andy who helped us with project management and writing the full story. Relapse will be our first project and original IP.
For the first few months James and I worked alone until we got a place in Tranzfuser, a contest run by the UK games fund. Tranzfuser gave us 10 weeks to build a prototype from scratch to showcase at EGX. We expanded the team with two part time artists Emanuel Francis and Richard Piskorz who helped with the assets for the surgery room and doctors office.
We have also recently taken four undergraduates, Dave, Guy, Sam and Gabriel, from Bournemouth University for their placement year who will be helping us in the coming months.
My final year project and dissertation was on the Psychology of Fear in Video Games; I wanted to find a recipe for fear. This included hooking people up to blood pressure and heart rate monitors and recording their reactions to different types of horror games.
I then took my findings and created a crude prototype using Unreal Engine 4 to test my hypothesis, this was the first build of Relapse. After receiving a good response from the Festival of Design and Innovation James and I decided to continue the project on a larger scale. We incorporated puzzles to bump up the tension and also because my favorite childhood games included Grim Fandango, Monkey Island and Myst. I wanted to make a game I would want to play.
Plot and characterization is also very important to us. We want to recreate the feeling of helplessness and dread of Franz Kafka’s novels. We have a set of golden rules we measure ourselves against – one of which is that everything must happen for a reason. There will be no random unexplained events just to get cheap scares; everything builds up slowly and for players that are interested there will be a back story and narrative about the history of Victorian Insane Asylums to discover – both from the perspective of the patients and the staff. Some horrific things happened in these places when you judge from today’s standards. However, almost universally the staff were doing what they thought was right for the patients.
During my dissertation research I realized that old buildings and clichés work better in horror games as we already associate these locations with fear or danger. We set the game within a UK insane asylum. We’ve had some backlash on the choice of setting due to its overuse in video games but our reasoning behind this is because we wanted multiple environments to work with…
UK Insane asylums functioned as small cities, this gives us the flexibility to include many different types of rooms and keep each section of the game fresh and environmentally interesting. It won’t just be endless wards or surgery rooms, but also include a library, clock tower, water tower, residential staff housing, art rooms, kitchens, greenhouses and farms and more.
We’ve also included optional interactive flash back sequences for notes. In early tests people found reading the notes tiresome, now when you read a note you are transported back in time to “witness” the events of the note unfold. This means all our assets are textured twice to show when the asylum was still in use during these flashbacks.
Hidden rooms are also in the asylum, with optional locations and puzzles we hope this adds replayability to the player as they unlock the mystery behind the antagonist and the location. Clues like video tapes, items and notes will be left behind by the antagonists previous victims giving you the chance to unlock these new areas.
Here are some speed sculpt videos for some of the games assets, some videos are old so the pipeline shown in them is outdated, our most recent example of our pipeline is the suitcase speed sculpt:
We use real life photos and locations for reference
The first step is to gather references for 3D models and scenes; as the building was abandoned in the 1980’s we make sure that the models fit within the time period. We sketch out a map layout for each level on paper then prototype it using a quick block out in UE4.
the level is blocked out using supergrid
Zbrush is used to make normal maps
Characters are also modelled using Zbrush
The assets are then used to replace the block out, unwrapping, texturing and colours are left until the room is fully blocked out. This allows the artist to focus on the composition of the room.
After all the items for that room are added the models are unwrapped and grouped together. Smaller objects share a texture sheet to maximize on space, whilst larger objects have their own sheet. Everything is textured in Substance Painter.
A selection of assets used in the janitor’s room, these all share a UV sheet and come with several variations.
A selection of books from the library, these also share the same UV sheet and come with multiple variations
All our walls,floors and ceilings use modular pieces, all of these are made in 3DS Max and will snap together inside of UE4. All the modular pieces for one room will share a texture sheet.
After texturing the items inside substance painter the assets are implemented into UE4. Some assets are then made into a Blueprint, this allows us to add instant interactivity and customization to a new level. A good example is our modular doors, we can mix and match different handles, doors and frames using the Blueprint.
All our materials are PBR, we use Substance Painter; Bitmap2texture and Substance Designer. We assemble them together using a parent material in UE4. We also use Gametextures.com to help with some of the floors and walls.
Vertex painting is used in many ways in the level, we can paint dust, moss, dirt and puddles into any scene using our master material.
Blending debris with the floor
Variation is added by painting in moss
Our base material used for vertex painting
Lighting was pretty hard to get right and took a lot of trial and error to get the right atmosphere. The scene has very little natural light so low intensity static point lights are used to light up the scene, a skylight was used originally but this wasn’t giving the desired effect.
Light fixtures are then added. A orange stationary light is added for each set of light fixtures.
Detail lighting view, the blue and orange lights complement one another and make the scene more visually interesting.
Points of interest also have additional lights nearby to draw attention to them
Volumetric lighting is a static mesh cone we made in 3DS Max with a material setup in UE4.
Volumetric Lights are used to enhance the artificial lights in the scene
Volumetric light setup
A blue stationary directional light is finally used to create the moonlight. Godrays are then lined up with the window silhouette.
Post-processing is the final step to completing the look
A colour lookup table was the easiest way to control and adjust the scene
Building Atmospheric Horror Adventures
We decided early on we didn’t want to go for cheap jump scares but to instead build tension through the environment and ambience. The sightings of the antagonist should be rare and meaningful. We have built the sections of gameplay to work in two separate blocks, puzzles and stealth.
We want the puzzles to be logical and realistic with multiple solutions for each puzzle. However we also noticed from our free Prologue that some players found the puzzles challenging. Hence we are designing the game so that it can be played in two modes – Anxiety and Psychosis. Psychosis is the original game as we intended it to be played with all puzzles; Anxiety mode has the puzzles scaled back for people who are only interested in the horror game aspect.
The difficulty with designing a game like this is balancing the scares, players take different amounts of time with puzzles, if people take a while solving a puzzle they can quickly become bored when backtracking through areas, when they soon realize there is no real threat and that the area is considered “safe”, thus we have added a timer, if a player takes too long in a certain area we can bring the antagonist back in again to kick up the tension before withdrawing him again.
We are aiming for late 2017 although we will be having open testing periods closer to release.
Katie Nelson, developer at Blueprint Games
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev.