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SPRAWL: Developing a Hardcore Retro FPS

Developer Carlos Lizarraga told us about the nuances of creating games in a team of two, discussed how SPRAWL is being developed in Unreal Engine 4, and spoke about the game's combat and movement mechanics.

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My name is Carlos Lizarraga, I'm a 27-year-old music producer, DJ, sound designer, and as of late, a game developer working on my first project, SPRAWL.

My introduction to video games happened early, and I have distinct memories of playing Mech Warrior on an Apple computer from the 90s. Growing up, I was connected to the web, and when I was about 11 years old, I somehow figured out how to mod Halo CE on the PC. I joined a community and began making maps, weapons, characters, and sounds, all of which fed into my need to create and build.

My obsessions guided me, and eventually, my sound design for Halo mods turned into music production at a very young age. Although my obsession with music took over for some time, I always tinkered with modding in the background, whether it was source engine games or quake engine games, as it was all an extension of the time I spent with Halo. This cultivated a skillset that has sustained me for some time now.

At the age of 17, I went on my first tour as a DJ all across the US, living that dream for some time before pursuing another. But in the back of my mind, I always toyed with the idea of making a game, specifically one with the distinct 95 Ghost in the Shell cyberpunk aesthetic that SPRAWL embodies. I played around in the source engine and even made a few levels for fun in 2015-2016, which ultimately led me to gamedev in some respects.

SPRAWL Development Team

SPRAWL is being developed by myself and my co-dev, Hannah Crawford, with support from a wonderful crew of people at Rogue on the publisher's side. We collaborate on most things and have discussions on them, but our responsibilities are divided according to our strengths.

I envision our world, levels, story, weapons, and enemies, and design, model, and texture them. I also handle all the sound and music. I come to Hannah to discuss the best way of implementing them, and the implementation and engineering are left to her. When issues crop up or things become too complex, we discuss how to best trim the fat and focus on the core elements. The wall-running design, how AI works, and how our game is engineered under the hood are all Hannah's responsibilities.

The biggest key to success is clear and frequent communication, whether it be daily or as often as possible. Our most productive moments are the ones we spend together on calls, discussing, designing, and talking ourselves off the ledge. As creatives, we can often enter a state of paralysis where we get stuck on the nuances of what we're creating, polishing off an edge that no one will ever notice, or getting bogged down with a myriad of things that prevent us from moving forward with an aspect of the project. We're our own worst critics, and having a friend to snap us out of it can make all the difference.

The skills you need to create a game with a small team or even as a solo developer depend on the type of game you're making, the fidelity you're trying to achieve, and your interests. Game development in the indie space is usually stylized to play to our strengths and mask imperfections as aesthetic. If you're a good programmer but not the best artist, you can play to your strengths. Diving deeper into areas where you may not be the best can help you improve quickly.


SPRAWL has existed in some capacity in my mind since those early days when I was making a SourceMod seven years ago that had an aesthetic and narrative similar to that of SPRAWL. It looked like the 1995 version of Ghost in the Shell, where a mysterious voice guided you through a setting resembling Kowloon Walled City. However, I never pursued it seriously until COVID hit.

At that time, I was producing and playing dance music, which is a genre that I love and have always been drawn to. My project, REVEL, is all about paying homage to the 90s. Dance music, to me, exists and thrives in the live space, and without any shows during the pandemic, I had to reconsider how I could contextualize my art. I went back to my childhood memories of what got me into dance music in the first place, which was games.

Games like Wipeout had an incredible soundtrack with DnB, breaks, and a host of legendary artists. The intersection of games and dance music was very interesting to me, so that's how I initially approached SPRAWL. It was to be a medium for me to contextualize my music, a place to lay down the world that an album could inhabit.

I began working in the Quake engine, creating something that looked and felt like the 90s to me. I designed a logo for it and posted my progress online. Hannah reached out shortly after, as she was looking for an artist to collaborate on her own project, which was a movement test area. It felt great just jumping around in this gray box, kicking off walls. There was something there, and after some discussion, we decided to work together.

Every moment spent playing a source engine game inspired SPRAWL including games like Team Fortress 2, Half-Life 2, Garry's Mod, and Counter-Strike, where movement interplays with combat; the 90s titans, such as Quake, Quake 3, the first Half-Life, and Unreal Tournament, that emphasized movement in arena first-person shooter games; single-player experiences that offer different options and approaches to combat; modern games that pushed the movement forward, such as Titanfall and Mirror's Edge – all played a part in the development of SPRAWL.

The Game's Cyberpunk World

SPRAWL is being developed inside Unreal Engine 4. The game's art style is best described as the games you grew up playing, as you remember them, not as they were. They elicit those memories but aren't period-accurate.

Influenced by the technical limitations of the time, and how those limitations inspired aesthetics, imperfections of an encoding medium became the stylistic jumping-off point for the aesthetics of the genre. There was a particular look and feel to Source engine era games because of the toolsets they used. So all our maps are built with a brush-based editor similar to Hammer, called Trenchbroom, and then imported into the game.

The overall aesthetic is a combination of this and a very particular branch of cyberpunk that I don't feel has been explored enough in games. There are two lineages of cyberpunk, Eastern and Western, which informed each other in a sense, but Western cyberpunk, of the lineage of Blade Runner, is usually what comes to mind when the word is mentioned. That's typically the aesthetic that cyberpunk games go for.

There's nothing wrong with it, but neon for the sake of neon became tiresome, and I personally always gravitated more to the aesthetic established and informed by the Eastern lineage like Ghost in the Shell '95, its sequel, Akira, and Blame!. Grounded and grungy but in a different way. It resembled the slums I saw often in Tijuana. I took this as a jumping-off point and built from there, injecting some Eastern European brutalism, and we ended up with what we have for SPRAWL.

SPRAWL's Gameplay Mechanics

The gameplay loop for SPRAWL was inspired almost entirely by the late nights I spent playing games with my friends. Every experience I found that I enjoyed revolved around the concept of emergent gameplay. As a result, SPRAWL is designed as a game that provides you with options and thrives in the intersection of those options. Certain combinations of movement mechanics interplay with combat and reward you for exploring those. You can wall run, slide, slow down time, and use a shotgun that gives you a bit too much knockback because it's so strong.

Most enemies have weak points, usually the head, and targeting those rewards you with health, ammo, and adrenaline, which gives you more bullet time. The same goes for overkilling enemies and turning them into a pile of meat and blood on the floor. Headshots are difficult to hit and can only be done with precision weapons, so you have to switch weapons often to capitalize on these rewards. It's like combat chess.

The game rewards you for being good at it and being flashy. Staying mobile means enemies have a harder time hitting you, so you end up moving around a lot. Staying on walls helps, so you use that mechanic as well. Hitting headshots while moving is pretty difficult, so you slow down time to assist. Hitting headshots is also easier when you are above an enemy, so using your shotgun to impulse you in the air becomes very useful for this. You end up combining many different puzzle pieces to manage your resources effectively.

All of this creates a sandbox that incentivizes the discovery of emergent gameplay and rewards you for being creative.

Carlos and Hannah's Approach to Promoting the Game

I've treated SPRAWL's online presence the same that I did with a lot of the music projects I've built. I think building a world is important, I think connecting with people is important. I value aesthetics a lot, so there's always a lot of effort on that side. Logos, branding, etc. But I always try to engage with people and answer as many questions as I can when the opportunity presents itself. Our community is everything to me, 90% of the time when someone is asking a question in our Discord, or on Twitter, I try to answer it.

Carlos and Hannah's Future Plans

We hope to continue to support the game after its release and expand on it when possible. There's nothing I can solidly commit to right this moment, but understand that we both LOVE what we've built and are excited to foster it as much as we can.

You can keep up with the development on our socials (Steam, Discord, Twitter, YouTube).

Carlos Lizarraga, Game Developer

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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