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CEO of indie game company Fenix Fire Entertainment Brian McRae (former member of Blizzard, Midway, and High Voltage) talked about the new ambient exploration game Source and the technology behind this project.
Source (www.sourcevideogame.com) is a metroidvania action adventure game for next gen consoles and PC. The action takes place in an alternate dimension. You control a firefly creature with the unique power to manipulate energy with every living being in a strange, bio luminescent world. The game looks absolutely amazing sparkling with particle effects and unusual visuals. The project was initially built using Unity 4, but later the company switched to UE4. Naturally we were interested why did the team make such a huge decision and how did it influence the game.
Source Gameplay Mechanics
Finding the gameplay in Source was a very long road. It actually started out as a top down adventure game inspired by the original Zelda for NES with “rooms” which contained puzzles, creatures, locked doors, and secrets. Even in this early version we had a surreal, geometric, yet organic feel that we though was really interesting.
Source always had an energy exchange mechanic which was also working very early. We showed this version to the consoles at GDC 2013 and both parties really liked it and invited us into their development programs. We also pitched it to a publisher and began working with them on deal terms, design docs, etc. It was a fun GDC because I was able to bring my wife, 6 months pregneant at the time, to meet a lot of people I’ve known in the industry for years.
For the next few months we worked heavily on the design and in securing the publishing deal. About a week before our son was born the publisher dropped out of project negotiation stating that they wanted to focus on mobile and no longer had interest in console games, which was a big shock to us. We had no income, no publishing deal, and now we had real responsibilities. Around this time we started experimenting with a 3D camera which really opened the game up environmentally. It was this prototype that eventually became our demo for PAX East 2014 and E3 2014.
Switch from Unity to Unreal Engine
We have a deep love for the Unity engine. Being in the industry for 15 years I’ve had the good fortune to work in lots of proprietary engines while working at Blizzard, Midway, and High Voltage.
Back then the only way to create a game was to have an in house engine team capable of not only drawing graphics but a way to import assets. All these engines were only good enough to get the project done with very little effort put into usability. For instance, if you wanted to make a particle system you would have to type all the instructions in a text document, send to the Xbox, load the .exe and find it in game. The whole process took about 15 minutes to even see the particle system. I was blown away when Unity displayed a particle system running and being changed on the fly! Budding game developers have no idea how good they have it now!
The decision to switch engines occurred after GDC 2015. We’ve been having a really hard time pushing Unity 4x to get the lighting and detail that we wanted. The big thing at this year’s GDC was Unity 5 vs Unreal 4, and we’ve been impressed with Unreal’s graphics since forever but have been unsure about the scripting system. We decided to split our team in half: one side moved Source to Unity 5 the other tried to adopt Unreal 4. After we quickly found that Source wouldn’t open in Unity 5 we put everyone on the Unreal port. Within a week we had our core firefly movement in and some really good demo environments. We started to really enjoy the raw graphical power of the Unreal engine and began to get more comfortable with it’s node based scripting system.
Working Out The Visual Style
“Imagine a garden inside the world of Tron” is how I’ve always described the visual style. I personally have a deep love for early computer graphics, specifically the “Mind’s Eye” VHS series, Lawnmower Man, and of course the original Tron.
My wife and I consider ourselves 3d artists first and game designers second and we love creating 3D environments that you can explore in real time. There’s something really magical about that.
The original concept of the game occurred while working in our back yard. I was watching a hummingbird fly from flower to flower and thought that would make an amazing experience, especially if I fuse that with early computer graphics – to really give life to geometric shapes and creatures. Source is very much an artistic passion project. A once in a lifetime dream project.
Mixing Audio and Visuals with Gameplay
One of the core mechanics of Source is the energy exchange system. This energy has four different varieties, each with a specific color. Part of the Metroidvania aspect of Source is to find the ability to change to these different colors so that you can interact with a certain creature, puzzle, object, etc. The energy itself is expressed using Unreal’s GPU particles where we render millions of particles flowing to or from you depending on your actions. The more energy you use the less energy will follow you which in turn acts as your life meter. There’s no GUI in the game.
Porting the Game to Different Platforms
Support from porting in UE4 is limited. For porting you have the forums, but that’s about it. It’s very technical, tedious, and difficult bringing the game to Xbox One and PS4, and the engine is always changing which means we’ll have to do it all over again. It’s almost become a full time position to handle and maintain a good working build. I think one day this will be easier, but it’s tough and time consuming for now.
At first the project was self funded using our war chest from our contact work with companies like Oculus, John Deere, Chevron, Wow Wee, and Red Bull. We tried Kickstarter but did not reach our goal, which was unfortunate. Since then we raised some finishing funds from friends and family. We’re aiming to finish and release Source later this year, but most importantly when it’s ready. A game like Source is the collection of a lifetime of game experiences, artistic explorations, and the passion to create something really great and unique. If we delay a month or so it’s a small fraction of time when put into the larger picture.