The Cost of Recovery: Developing a Narrative Game in Unity

Members of the Off The Beaten Track team discuss the challenges of creating niche games and talk about why narrative games are a beautiful, underrated genre that has a lot to offer.

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Introduction

80.lv: Please introduce yourself and your team. What do you do? Where did you study? What projects have you contributed to as a team?

Jens Bahr, Founder & Managing Director: My name is Jens and I am the one who started this whole thing. I am originally a programmer but I also handle a bunch of other stuff at Off The Beaten Track, such as administration, taxes, planning, story writing, game design, and so on. I started Off The Beaten Track several years ago and had been working on solo projects before that. But when the opportunity appeared in front of me, I grew the team and started our first big project, The Cost of Recovery.

Ines Neumann, Marketing & Community Management: Hey, my name is Ines and I am the one responsible for Marketing and Social Media Management at Off The Beaten Track. I am still working on finishing my Master's degree here at the university in Kiel, where our studio is located. Overall, our studio currently has 7 members, some of them are still studying while the others have worked in the game industry for quite a while. I would say we are a good mix of experienced devs and young ones that are just starting out.

Developing the Cost of Recovery

80.lv: Could you tell us about The Cost of Recovery? How did you start this project? What inspired you?

Jens Bahr: Most of my game ideas circle around telling stories. I think as game creators we have the opportunity to try new things and tell stories that have not been told before, at least within our medium. Games are a perfect medium for storytelling because the immersion is so strong. The players really feel like they are being a part of the story, and not just consuming it. They can slip into the roles of the protagonists which enables us as game creators to let them live through the situations they normally would not.

So when the idea of letting the players experience an emotional story from different viewpoints appeared, I was immediately hooked. So many stories circle around superheroes or fantasy worlds, and that is great, but we wanted to tell a story focused on empathy. A story that is relatable, down to earth and that could happen to anyone. In other words, a story that is not usually told in games. Which makes it all the more important for us to create a game that does.

Ines Neumann: When Jens told me and the rest of the team about his idea for The Cost of Recovery, I immediately identified with the story. No one close to me had a stroke, but some other things happened in my life that left me and those close to me disconnected and unable to understand each other. That is one of the things that I value about The Cost of Recovery: we are certainly serious about telling the story of a stroke survivor right. But it is also a story about different members of a family trying to do the right thing but disconnecting in the process, and that is something that a lot of people can relate to.

Developing the Storyline

80.lv: Please tell us about the game’s story. How did you work on it? How did it evolve?

Jens Bahr: The Cost of Recovery tells the story of a family whose 9-year old son suddenly suffers a stroke. We get to play as himself, his mother, father, and best friend, who are each going through their own journey to come to terms with this situation. Of course, the central figure is Liam, the boy, but we spend just as much time with the other characters as we do with him. Our main goal is to show players that everybody has their own way of dealing with life, and their own viewpoints on what is happening. At its core, it is a game about empathy and understanding.

Personal experience plays a big part when writing a story like this. Some members of our team have gone through similar situations, so we can write from experience which gives the story some realness. It is also important to us to get the facts right, which is why we spent a lot of time researching strokes and are in contact with a few professionals who help us check the details of our story. At some points, we had to change big story points because things simply work differently in reality than we had imagined. For example, we had planned for Liam to stay in the hospital for several weeks but in reality, most stroke patients are released much earlier.

The story evolved a lot over the years. I remember that in the early stages, we discussed focusing on another illness, or maybe not naming the illness at all. We also switched around the constellation of characters quite a bit.

80.lv: How difficult is it to touch upon such a serious topic with a game? Are players ready to deal with such scenarios? Were you afraid at some point that the game might not find its audience?

Jens Bahr: There are not too many games that tell stories like that yet. Games like That Dragon, Cancer, or Beyond Eyes are the ones that come to mind right away, but the list is quite short. So researching the size of a potential audience has been a challenge because there is not much data to build on, but there definitely is a pool of players who are interested in games like ours. The feedback we received so far has told us that players are not only ready to deal with scenarios like ours, but are desperate for stories like these to be told in games. Our game is also interesting to a lot of people who do not usually play many video games, which is great to see. We are also putting a lot of effort into our accessibility features, for which we have received great feedback.

Production Process

80.lv: Could you also tell us about your art direction and production process? What tools and an engine do you use? How do you use different visual elements to tell your story?

Jens Bahr: When we created our art style two main factors influenced our decision: the story of the game and the size of our team. We currently have one 3D and one 2D artist in our team, so it is important to have an art style that allows us to create assets and characters efficiently. At the same time, we want the characters to be relatable and easy to read while avoiding the uncanny valley. We are using Unity 2020.3 and Blender.

That is why we decided on a cel-shaded look with strong colors, but small color palettes. Most of our textures are simply flat colors or gradients, and the 3D assets we create are pretty low-poly. We are using a combination of custom and proprietary shaders to achieve our look. We have recently started adding the outlines which was a decision we pondered on early in production and revisited recently. We are very pleased with how the outlines make shapes more readable but are subtle enough to not be noisy or too cartoony. We also added quite strong colored fog to our scenes to bring the colors together and make the scenes feel consistent.

For our animations, we are using a combination of motion capture and procedural animation. We have a Rokoko motion suit which we use to record all the body movements, and we have a custom-built solution for facial animation that builds on a GDC talk about the facial animations in Star Wars: The Old Republic. This allows us to be quite efficient in the creation of our animations while still enabling our characters to express a range of different emotions.

Marketing Strategy for Narrative Games

80.lv: How do you deal with the business side of things? How do you approach marketing and attract the audience? What are the main challenges?

Ines Neumann: Marketing a story-rich game is something that needs a special approach and it has its pros and cons, or let us say opportunities and challenges. With a narrative game, we have to be careful with what we show and what we want to keep hidden from the public to not give away too much of the story. And also, since our game features a very sensitive topic, we want to treat it seriously. So while others have an easier time showing gameplay that makes you want to play the game yourself or sharing a lot of fun stuff that happened during production, we are always evaluating whether these things fit us and The Cost of Recovery.

One of the great things, on the other hand, is the solidarity of the narrative genre. While, for example, big multiplayer games have to compete for players and have to make things 'better than their competition, that is not the case in the narrative genre at all! A lot of us are making short but impactful experiences that might leave players craving more of those since you only spend so much time in them. And that is where us devs step in and recommend other games that might be somewhat similar. So we are really all working together to get attention to the genre and not so much trying to rally players just to our own game.

Jens Bahr: Finding a publisher has been a challenge for us. We had some potential partners close their notebooks the second we mentioned the word "narrative", and others saying that they believe it is important that a game like this is made, but it just does not fit their portfolio. We are still looking for a publishing partner who understands us and the game we are working on. So far, we have done all the marketing ourselves, but we believe that a game like ours deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. We have been lucky that our game has been financed by the government until now and we were able to win some prizes that help with paying the bills.

Conclusion

80.lv: What advice could you give to aspiring developers willing to create their own games? What things should they consider? What are the main challenges when creating games?

Ines Neumann: One thing that I have learned in the last years is that yes, there is a place for you in the videogame industry. It is a whole industry with all those different branches, so if programming is not for you, there are still other positions that might be right for you.

And also remember that you are not alone! That can be both a pro and a con: there are so many other people just starting out in the industry and that is great for finding support, finding those who want to help and be helped, and for being part of a community. On the other hand, it also means that your first game probably will not automatically become the big hit, since platforms like Steam, etc. are crowded with so many new games every day.

Jens Bahr: You cannot get anywhere if you do not get started. Just do it, start creating small games yourself, or join a small team and help them with their projects. Participate in game jams. Build up a portfolio. I have been working on my own little projects for years before I had the opportunity to grow Off The Beaten Track into the team that it is now. Creating games is an art that you can only get better at through practice.

Off the Beaten Track Team

Jens Bahr, Founder & Managing Director

Ines Neumann, Marketing & Community Management

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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