Marek Markuszewski, CEO & Project Lead at Starward Industries, shared the story of developing The Invincible, a sci-fi game based on the novel by S. Lem.
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Starward Industries is a Cracow-based development studio composed of accomplished AAA developers who have worked on the likes of Cyberpunk 2077, The Witcher 3, Dying Light, Dead Island, and several other household names for gamers.
The company originated from the desire to establish an independent AA+ studio and bring to life one of the most successful yet forgotten sci-fi novels, The Invincible. After completing initial arrangements related to obtaining the license, and designing the project’s core concepts, in June 2018 the initial team raised the first round of financing from a group of individual investors in Poland, and began working on the action plan to establish the company structure and a long-term operational and financial plan. It led to incorporating the venture in September 2018 as a joint-stock company and began production with an outstanding team on board.
The Invincible: Idea and Adaptation
The Invincible is a great read as if written with adaptation in mind. Once I decided on launching a new studio, the idea was planted in my mind for quite some time already, I knew it would be a strong starting project for a new ambitious studio. The novel has quite a deft theme related to space exploration, yet expanding as you read to the extent which exceeded the imagination of characters and readers alike. Lem in his brilliance proposed a fresh and startling scenario of meeting different species on the far end of the Universe. The encounter is directed in an incredibly credible way, leaving no doubt that we’re experiencing true science-fiction, not a naive fantasy. We’ve chosen to adapt this as a first-person thriller – a great setup to deliver an unforgettable experience with the immersive feeling of being there and playing a role in the story.
Why This Novel?
Among Lem’s works, The Invincible stands out as adaptation-friendly: unfolding at a good tempo, immersing readers into the intriguing and increasingly staggering sequence of events. The book is stunningly picturesque and reads like a ready-made movie script. It’s both epic and believable, combining space exploration and strong dynamics among the spaceship crew. The imaginative value of the novel has been praised several times by critics and other writers, e.g. Theodore Sturgeon highlighted The Invincible as "sf in the grand tradition", saying that "The Science is hard. The descriptions are vivid and powerful.”
Work on the visual style and art direction has started long before establishing the studio. Our Art Director Wojtek Ostrycharz prepared hundreds of sketches, drafts, and artworks before deciding on the style. A great deal in looking for direction was owed to various reference material from the era of the space race. The most exciting was to study industrial design and in particular those intended to be used in space. Our approach to visualizing the descriptions found in the novel was to make it serious, believable, and functional. Every device, instrument, or piece of equipment had to be founded in science and engineering, of course in the times before digitization, computing, and miniaturization arrived. This work resulted in something we call a mature atompunk.
Work on every piece of the world starts with the script defining what actions are going to take place in a particular location. Before moving to the visual design we decide what feelings we want this place to impose on gamers, what emotions they’re going to experience, and how it sits with the rest of the world. To keep control of directing we also review how the place corresponds with neighbouring areas, what gameplay pacing we want to induce, what elements such as mechanics will be used, and finally, what particular aspects of non-linearity we want to implement. Only then we’re able to start sketching the location and prepare some very brief 3D prototypes. The process subsequently enters a ping-pong mode between the art director and level designers with the aim to arrive at the big picture design using placeholder objects and only core effects that build the planned impression. At that stage finalizing art would be time-consuming and could distract from designing the actual experience. Once we’re happy with the results, we’re ready to streamline production, finally moving towards environment art.
The person in charge is our highly talented Sebastian Spłuszka, highly experienced as an environment artist for The Witcher 3 and a Lead 3D Artist for several games at Bloober Team, most recently The Blair Witch. Starting with the previously described process of developing base layouts of levels, we slice each level into smaller pieces for streamlining the workflow. Each slice gets a pass through an external terrain landscaping tool that applies the final shape and palette to maximize the visual effect of realism. For best results and with performance in mind we use both static and dynamic lighting. Furthermore, to distinguish morning from evening and day from night, we blend parameters, sometimes having to reload some assets.
Regarding the planet’s surface, there’s not much vegetation, however, we use Unreal’s foliage system to scatter rocks and other non-organic objects around. We use high-res scans, with some major modifications, we expand sets of objects and use a kind of super-advanced material to blend all objects with the ground to avoid artificial seams. A fun part is painting particle effects using Unreal’s foliage system to deploy various atmospheric conditions in certain areas. Particle objects are displayed by our own system to keep them in an orderly manner.
The debate on traditional animation versus motion capture has been long going. We’re very aware of the pros and cons of both, with a long experience of our head animator Mateusz Lendor in working with both modes. After performing several experiments we’ve decided to rely on the former. It gave us better control in terms of appropriately directing movements and gestures of the protagonist and actually provided for being more robust in production.
Literature can be a good starting point especially for new studios, but there are no shortcuts. Every story needs to be told with respect to the medium, and to the contemporary modes of communication. Because it’s not about delivering any specific ready-made content, but rather the underlying message and feeling, and transporting the relevance of the original work into the present. From this standpoint we are reinventing every aspect of the novel into a visual, interactive experience, giving the gamer a steering wheel in the story.
Plans for Release
We’re aiming for the second half of 2021. A more precise date is subject to many factors, so we need more time to be able to offer a narrower window. Also, Starward Industries has been supported and advised up to this point by a group of industry experts including journalists, fellow game developers, marketing practitioners, and many others, but this has stayed in narrow professional circles. By revealing the game to the public right now, we’re also opening to wider feedback from the industry, media, influencers, and of course gamers. We’ll be sharing more details of The Invincible including videos as we go, so there will be opportunities to look closer.