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Pawel Miechowski and Patryk Grzeszczuk from 11 bit studios team talked about their successful title This War of Mine: how it started, the language of the game, character production, and some technical peculiarities.
How the Game Started
80.lv: Pawel, could you tell us a little bit about the way This War of Mine was created? How did you start working on it? What were the core ideas and experiences that you wanted to implement?
Pawel Miechowski: The initial idea came from Grzegorz, CEO at 11 bit, during a brainstorming session sometime in 2013. He has said something like “let’s make a game about civilians in war, regular people like all of us. Living in war is a heavy burden, not only physically, but also emotionally. It’s incredibly hard to stay human in times of war. Let’s picture this in a game, with all the seriousness and the respect this topic requires”. More or less in these words, he has sparked the idea in us and literally everyone got ignited and agreed this would be a great idea for a game. There has been a great enthusiasm among the team but of course, everybody knew this was going to be a really serious work with a heavy, serious game somewhere at the end of the journey.
The work has been started and Przemyslaw (art director) started to sketch first images for the art style, while Michal (creative director) sat down with the designers to think about the systems that would represent living in war through gameplay. We knew we would need to know people’s stories from war and I mean particularly stories or memories that got stuck in their minds, as in such situations emotions sink in and that’s what we were looking for. Members of 11 bit team have brought a lot of personal stories from their families about war. I’m sure This War of Mine became then a very personal project for each team member.
Everything was being wrapped around the topic of a game, not around a genre or anything else and so the experience was supposed to evoke certain emotions that we imagine war survivors feel. It’s sadness, feeling strengthless, depressed when things go wrong but on the other hand, determination, protectiveness for others, anger and the need to survive and overcome all the evil. And when you do, when you survive, there should come the feeling of relief. Not a satisfaction, not a traditional sense of winning, but a feel of katharsis. Also, the important focus was on creating an experience in which player sometimes does not have a good choice and each decision brings sacrifice either of yourself or others. I have to note, that when creating the game we knew it would have to stay as close to reality as possible.
80.lv: How did you guys decide on this perspective? Could you talk about the way you’d worked out the way of showing the side of the building sliced in the middle? How did you figure it out and why do you think it is important to have this particular look at the situation?
There were different approaches to how the perspective should work. First person perspective wouldn’t make sense if you play a group of people and you switch from one civilian to another. The top-down view didn’t really work for showing people living in a multi-storey building. Side-scroll view turned out to be the best and natural for playing a group of people in a ruined city. The visual style, I mean color palette, hand-drawn style and a feel of sort of old sepia photography have been combined into one by Przemyslaw and he has created this style to give a feel of a real story and yet something that could be captured on an old black and white photography, like photos from war from 20 or 50 years ago. Something you know is real although it can be distanced from you. I also remember Przemyslaw looking specifically at A-ha “Take on me” video clip as an example of mixing reality with a hand-drawn “unrealistic” world. This was an inspiration, I mean visual inspiration, for the game’s look and how you can combine real footage with some art style to have in the end a look that is real and distinctively artistic at the same time.
80.lv: Could you discuss some of the technical side behind the project? What is 2D and what is 3D here? How are these two united to achieve the image you wanted?
Everything we do is made in our own engine, simply called Liquid Engine. On a side note, programmers are now working on a major upgrade to the new one, 2.0. Anyway, everything in This War of Mine is 3D. It just pretends it’s a 2D side-scrolling game as the experience works the best this way, but still it’s all 3D. Just the far background texture is flat. All the people, buildings, environment – it is all 3-dimensional but the camera is tight to this view and moves left / right and up / down with zooming in and out possible, but still, the camera is limited and moves parallel to the viewer. That gives you side-scroller perspective and a feel that is more like 2.5D. But like I mentioned before, this perspective when you see things from a side was the best choice for playing with a group of people, exploring buildings, streets and generally city architecture. It has this a bit sim-like feel, but that was our intention too, honestly speaking.
80.lv: We’re really interested to hear about the way you worked with the characters. Could you tell us a bit about it: how do you create their look, movements, gameplay features? Would be awesome to look at how you handled it.
Let’s begin with how the characters’ physical look has been created. First of all, we scanned ourselves in 3D. That was a home-made improvised method of scanning, quite an interesting one: one guy had a wooden spinning platform and another person was standing on it in a T-pose. The first guy was spinning the platform to turn around the T-pose person a few times. Few cameras have been recording the spinning person from different angles and dedicated software (sorry, can’t remember the name of it) has been rendering the person into a 3D model. That was quite a messy model, badly textured and the mesh has had some flaws, so each such model would have to be fixed and cleared later by 3D artists.
Then the animator was using the models to make the characters walk, run, eat, sleep, fight and do hundreds of other activities. This way, we scanned ourselves and family members and we have become civilians in This War of Mine. I think I can say that somehow we have immortalized ourselves in digital experience. Anyway, there is a reason why we scanned ourselves. We didn’t want to have anonymous models or models that look like superhumans from Hollywood. Like I mentioned before, we wanted the game to stay as close to reality as possible and have models that resemble real people: skinny, chubby, tall, short etc.
The features of the civilians in the game resemble real people, too. So we’re not having soldiers in a war game, but civilians, regular people – some cook better, some can fight, some are defenseless, some are lawyers or teachers which seem to be useless skills during times of war. Some walk slowly because their age does not allow them to run fast anymore and so on.
Each civilian has some personality traits, talents and behavior patterns. Furthermore, their behavior in the game is determined by their physical and mental state. A person can be sick, wounded, hungry and you can make sure this person is healed, treated or fed. If you don’t, their mental state can go worse. Most importantly, they react to the deeds you make. They can go depressed if you do something evil unless they’re selfish or tough and don’t care. People who feel for others are sensitive and they can suffer a nervous breakdown if you decide as a player to do something against their moral spine. Behind these digital civilians, there is a quite complicated AI that tries to simulate different kinds of personalities and those personalities react in a different way to whatever is happening just because people are like that. Again, staying as close to reality as possible.
Language of Games
80.lv: What way do you think the gameplay helps you influence the player and build the feeling you’re looking for to build? We’re sure you’ve heard stories about people dropping the game because they couldn’t do it anymore as they had to do things they didn’t want to. This is some heavy stuff, you’re basically bringing the person far out of his or her comfort zone in a very interesting form.
Lately, we’ve been thinking about what the proper language of games is. If you think about books, the language is the word. If you think about music, it’s the sound and the moving pictures assembled with sound for films. What is it for games then? It’s the interaction. Interaction realizes itself through decisions and this is driven by engaging gameplay. So this is utterly important to speak through engaging gameplay first.
Of course, it’s easy to say, hard to make, but when you realize you use gameplay as a language to communicate, you can achieve certain goals. And Michal had this super interesting observation that through decades of evolution of games, gamers have been programmed to expect certain patterns in games. Like, there’s always a riddle to be solved on a level, or that an NPC is either an enemy or a friend or is supposed to give you quests, or that an RPG team member needs to have always some useful skill or function like cleric or warrior. Players expect a game to „behave” in a way they understand. And then he proposed to break this scheme. By designing certain in-game situations players were confronted with patterns they were not prepared for. That pushed them far away from their comfort zone. And when this happens they are surprised and they start to play with great attention to the details. And when looking at possibly every detail in the game, the bond between a gamer and a game is largely strengthened. They get attached to the civilians they play and they see the entire experience from definitely a more emotional perspective. This mechanism allows to evoke certain emotions and provoke to thinking. Even if players drop the game because it’s heavy and makes them feel sad, they’re still triggered to feel certain emotions and think about what they’ve just played. This is a good start to think about what war is and the game’s anti-war message. Of course, we are fully aware that the perception might be very different and personal for thousands of players.
Coming to Switch
80.lv: Why Switch? What makes this platform so good for you?
Patryk Grzeszczuk: There were several factors that influenced our decision. First of all – availability. We believe that This War of Mine is an important game that has something to say. Something meaningful to offer. Our aim is to make it available to gamers out there, no matter the platform.
Secondly, our game is clearly different from what Nintendo players can usually find on the platform. It differs in terms of aesthetics, tonality and, we will call it, the weight of the experience as a whole. We believe that is valuable but also that it may have business potential.
Finally, the fact that Switch is a semi-stationary and semi-handheld console was not without significance as it fit the way This War of Mine can be played. Having some time you can sink into the game and spend hours taking care of your virtual characters. What you can also do, though, is, you can play it on the go, in short chunks and still have a great experience.
All of these factors considered, we felt and still feel it is a game that can find its place and recognition among the Switch owners.
80.lv: Were there any technical problems connected with Switch? Did you have to do a lot of optimization?
At the time we have released the Switch version This War of Mine has been already available on Xbox One, PS4, and mobile devices so we pretty much knew how to deal with most of the things. Still, there were some challenges we had to overcome (optimization being one of them). Having an experienced team of our devs, Crunching Koalas and some guidance from Nintendo definitely helped!
Pawel Miechowski, Partnerships Manager at 11 bit
Patryk Grzeszczuk, Marketing Director at 11 bit
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev
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