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We were lucky to talk to Jonny Ree about his most recent project TaleSpire. This is a very good-looking project, which sort of gives a virtual take on the traditional tabletop dungeon crawlers. We were very interested in the technology behind this project and some of the tools the team used to build the amazing game content.
My Name is Jonny Ree, I work as a Programmer / Technical Artist at Rock Pocket Games in Tønsberg, Norway. Most recently we released Shiftlings a puzzle platformer on Steam/XBox One/PS4 and the Wii U and currently working on a Lovecraft inspired game set on mars called Moons of Madness.
During my relax time I’m a co-founder of Bouncyrock Entertainment working on TaleSpire with three others. Doing a lot of coding, design and artwork. Bouncyrock started as a mod’ing team for Neverwinter Nights about a decade ago, which is also how I made my way into the Game Industry.
This is a big project, which is produced by me, Jason Roy, Hannah Eckbo and Rachel L. Cadran who are the other minds behind Bouncyrock Entertainment. We’ve always wanted to make something that could recreate the feeling we had when mod’ing back in the day. I spent a lot of my teenage years playing on persistent worlds in Neverwinter Nights (NWN), which were basically mini MMOs with maybe about 30-60 active players at a time, customized to fit the vision of whomever was running the server. So custom built areas with multiple dungeon masters roaming the land to create fun for unexpecting players. Imagine having the feeling of playing an MMO, but where your character could actually change the world, not by running through instances and having some fireworks spawn at the end of it, just so the world would go back to being the same.
But become the major of a town, be the party to slay the dragons and have your statues erected permanently in the city square. Now that you’re all hyped about NWN… TaleSpire isn’t quite like that. Although it certainly shaped one of the philosophies behind its design, the feeling that anything can happen and the collective storytelling aspect. In shorter terms: TaleSpire is way of playing Pen & Paper style RPGs with systems focusing around digital play rather than paper simulation. Meaning that the features will aim to enhance people’s ability to collectively craft stories with an esthetic which will hopefully keep people immersed with the game without stripping away the power to inject your own imagination onto the board. Now if that sounds a bit vague, it is because we’re still figuring a lot of this stuff out.
We wanted to create something with a lot of content. So we needed to figure out a style which would allow us to produce a whole lot. There were some ideas bouncing around making a HeroQuest like experience using board pieces (another source of inspiration for us).
Making rough sculpts sounded like a good solution as it is a lot of fun to do, and if we opted out of doing rigged characters we could take a lot of shortcuts in the creation pipeline. Semi-Automating the parts that are less fun while spending more time with the digital clay. This was our initial reasoning. Doability. After some testing with this, we ended up doubling down on the board-game aesthetics. We started to see other benefits of making things simple.
It became fairly tactile, and the lack of animated characters made them feel like more of an extension of the player rather than a separate entity. Our guidelines now are still not that strict. We keep just keep a lot of miniatures open as the reference.
There is very little magic going on with the dice. Although it has certainly captured people’s imagination. We’ve made a system for handling any type of object that can land on a flat surface as a dice. This is probably the most complicated part. Art wise it is just built up by Unity’s standard components. The shading is Unity5 standard and so is the depth of field. The bouncing around is the built in physics system with some tweaks made to the solving and gravity to make them feel nice. The fact that they live in the same space as everything else on the board adds to the effect I think. I didn’t initially think it would work, but it really does.
Reason for Choosing Unity
Experience for the most part. Personally I’ve been using Unity3D for several years and I’ve gotten quite familiar with the API. It feels a lot lighter to use compared to some of the others available. It is stable and easy to extend through editor scripting. It is difficult to come up with dislikes. There were certainly times where stability and lack of features were a problem, it has been a while since I’ve experienced that however. It has overall been a wonderful fit for a game like TaleSpire.
The actual level building takes place inside the game itself, however we’ve built a separate Unity Project we’ve dubbed Taleweaver which we’re using to add assets into the game. Currently it allows you to add new Creatures and setup tiles, but all content will hopefully be moved into this project, including rule definitions etc. The Taleweaver Unity Project will then be available for download so people can mod the game by adding their own content, or combining it with what already exist in game.
The materials are also primarily Unity5 Standard PBR shading. We have however created a filter in Substance Designer which handles unifying all of our assets. We focus primarily on the sculpts, so after block out, we spend most time getting the detail size about right. Then we load it up in Substance Painter, paint base colors and just apply the filter. That’s pretty much it.
There are some custom shaders as well, such as the plastic fire. It was done using Shader Forge.
Sticking to Stylization
We did make a conscious choice to reduce workload per asset. So the style is very much a result of that. We can get away with things not being perfect as it almost adds to the charm of each pieces. There was some time spent on the pipeline, the filters etc. But now, bringing assets through the pipeline is a breeze.
Although the dice run on built in physics, everything else is done with code and AnimationCurve objects. I’m a huge fan of using AnimationCurve objects in Unity, so I tend to go a bit crazy at times. The board pieces has different states. On pickup and drop it basically just runs the course of a curve. While being carried it takes the pieces delta movement and transforms it into rotation above the character. This makes it feel like it is dragging a bit behind the pickup point, which ended up feeling rather satisfying. The tiles being placed uses a very similar curve to board pieces being dropped. A slight bounce at the end.
How do you plan to distribute and sell the game?
Wow, yeah. So this is a question that has been haunting us a bit as well. It is a bit early to say. We do want the ability to develop the game with a players though, so maybe some sort of early access model could work. Will have to get back to you on that one.