The Creation of Nebula: Sole Survivor

The Creation of Nebula: Sole Survivor

Game developer Bruno Gruber explained how he managed to create an impressive isometric game by himself.

Bruno Gruber has recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to gather the funds to finance his upcoming isometric game Nebula: Sole Survivor. We’ve discussed his approach to game development, the choice of engine and the difficulties of creating a game on your own.


The Creation of Nebula: Sole Survivor

Hi, I’m Bruno Gruber and I’m a CG Artist, programmer, product designer, and I’m also the creator of Nebula: Sole Survivor. My very first job was as a web developer on a company focused on e-commerce, about 9 years ago. That was when I was in college, studying Product Design.

After the webdev job, I had the opportunity to work on a very vanguardist furniture design studio. This is when I had the first ideas for what would become Nebula: Sole Survivor many years later. That job opened some doors for me and, after about 4 years, I decided to go Solo and open my own business, this time focusing on CG Art but always carrying with me that product design background. This allowed me to build a strong CG portfolio.

Meanwhile, I was already thinking about leaving my home country. My wife and I applied for an immigration program, and got accepted. We packed our things and off we went to Canada. We’re living in Vancouver now, where I work as a CG Artist on an awesome agency.

This changed things. In all those years, back in my home country, I was working on my personal projects and on the ideas that would one day become Nebula: Sole Survivor. Now I started to see that developing this game by myself was really possible, instead of just a dream. It also helped me a lot that Unreal Engine 4 was out. I bought in as soon as they launched it, being a big fan of Tim Sweeney and Epic Games in general.

NEBULA: Sole Survivor

The Creation of Nebula: Sole Survivor

NEBULA: Sole Survivor tells the story of Ivy Howlett. She is a scientist and an engineer and working with heavy and complex space machinery is her responsibility at the CICADA Base. She used to be part of a small team of engineers, but now every single member of the Europa Mission’s crew is missing. They may all be dead for all she knows. Ivy is stranded on a deadly moon of Jupiter, surrounded by terrorizing alien life forms, and with no contact to Earth and no hope for rescue.
The game takes place on the icy moon of Jupiter, Europa. In a near future, the United Interstellar Administration has settled an underground top¬notch research station on Europa’s surface, called CICADA Biomass and Geology Ground Base. The station’s purpose is to study life forms found deep in the caves of Europa, and to start laying ground for the first human colony within the Jupiter Sector.

The Creation of Nebula: Sole Survivor

The game is being developed on Unreal Engine 4. From my perspective, as an artist for trade and not having lots of experience with C++, this engine is a very game-focused solution. You don’t have to know traditional coding, and Blueprints (the alternative to coding) are easy to learn and understand, as they are based on pure logic. The engine is robust, and allows for any kind of game you can imagine. I believe people tend to associate it with first person shooters at first, because of Unreal Tournament, but make no mistake: this is a very flexible game engine, and can even be used to develop real time architecture and industrial simulations, and for me that proves how flexible UE4 really is.

Exploration in Game

In Nebula: Sole Survivor, the player will be able to explore many different scenarios that are connected to each other as one large open world. The game starts on the CICADA Base, but it will be possible to go outside the base, and onto the vast ice desert of the Europa Moon. You’ll be able to explore caves and even other outposts. When on the surface, you’ll drive the V7¬16 Planetary Rover, but first you’ll need to find the correct parts to fix it and get it up and running again.

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When the player is inside a base or a cave, if he’s on an unexplored area there will be a dark overlay covering the rooms that were not visited before. This is usually called “fog of war”, as its origins are from real time strategy war games. I decided to use this same kind of effect on Nebula: Sole Survivor, as it helps creating an atmosphere of mystery, and it’s also really satisfying to explore the levels, find new areas, and find out what’s hidden there. [fog of war gif]

Creating Atmosphere

The Creation of Nebula: Sole Survivor

When it comes to immersion, lighting is one of the most important aspects of a 3D scene. The same concept applies to a game like this. On Nebula: Sole Survivor, I tried to achieve a certain setting that puts the player in a cold, industrial, infested by creatures, underground sci¬fi base. There are many layers of lights overlaying each other, projecting shadows and highlighting important parts of the scenario. There’s also a dense fog almost everywhere, and on top of that, the player can also use a flashlight that not only lights the way, but also expands the visibility, cleaning the fog of war. It all comes down to elements that improve the gameplay experience of exploration.

Building Games Alone

The Creation of Nebula: Sole Survivor

Making a game as complex as this requires incredible focus, specially if you are doing it by yourself. It’s also incredibly rewarding to see your own original game taking shape, and people being interested on playing it. A lot of people have “great ideas” for games, but never pursuit them correctly. Remember, having an idea is easy. Millions of people have great ideas every day, but making an idea come true is hard. To help me get the job done, I sometimes hire freelancers for some things that I could use some help with, such as some of the game’s music, advertising art, and such. This doesn’t happen often and I can count in one hand the number of people that were involved in the project, and of course, they are all properly credited.

The Creation of Nebula: Sole Survivor

Also, I have to say that the game wouldn’t look the same if it weren’t by some tools that I use on my modelling workflow. Both Zbrush and Quixel Suite along with Photoshop are backbones of my workflow when creating new models and textures. The things you can do in 10-30 minutes in Quixel these days would take hours if made by hand, and the results are amazing.

That also goes for Unreal Engine 4: the core of the engine is a node based scripting system called Blueprints, so instead of writing many lines of code again and again, you are now plugging nodes onto each other. That allows you for quick prototyping gameplay concepts, creating and editing new materials, UI and artificial intelligence. It’s perfect for people that are not that comfortable with traditional programming, and it also allows for a better visualization of sorts, as if you were working with mindmaps.

Release and Kickstarter

The Creation of Nebula: Sole Survivor

You can expect to see the Beta Version rolling out by the end of January 2016. It will be a quick demo with around 30 minutes of gameplay, so the players can give feedback and participate actively on the game’s development. It’ll be available for download on the game’s official website, and you can subscribe to the Beta List right now. You can also vote for Nebula: Sole Survivor on Steam’s Greenlight right now, and donate on our Kickstarter page to help fund the game.

Download the Free Beta of Nebula: Sole Survivor.


Bruno Gruber, Game Developer

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