Warhalla: Indie Game About Dwarves & Guns
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by Ayato
4 hours ago

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Warhalla: Indie Game About Dwarves & Guns
13 February, 2017
Interview

A small team of game developers is building a very interesting online action title with Unreal Engine 4. Here’s how they’re doing it.

Introduction

We are a team of five students from Darmstadt, Germany studying “Animation & Games” together. Due to the fact that as students we are free to experiment styles and mechanics without our existence depending on it we created Warhalla to test a lot of things that we believe make for an interesting new perspective on 3rd person shooters. The project started as a 3-month semester project in 2015 from a scratch and will now be continued as part of our bachelor thesis and hopefully even beyond.

Left to right: Jannic / Eva / Tom / Katharina /Missing – Julian

Tom Nietfeld has been working with the European Space Agency on a Virtual Reality application for astronaut training in 2015, won the 3rd place in the NASA 3D printed Mars Habitat Challenge and Runner up for “Rookie of the Year in Next Gen Gaming” 2016.

He works as the Lead Level Designer on Island of Nyne: Battle Royale and for Warhalla takes over the roles of Producer, Level Designer, Programmer, Technical Artist, Environment Artist and Community Manager.

Eva Kaup is the Concept, Interface and Texture artist of Warhalla.

Katharina Ricken was responsible for rigging and animation.

Julian Neagu took care of character modeling.

Jannic Boehme joined the Warhalla team as part of his own Bachelor thesis. He wrote the soundtrack, designed and implemented the adaptive music system. He was also in charge of the Greenlight trailer.

Warhalla

We are convinced that Warhalla offers a unique combination of known genres and original mechanics underlined by a lovely art style. Our key feature is the so called “Thors Champion” game mode. It changes the gameplay during phase 2 of each match from Synchronous to Asynchronous Gameplay (as defined by Nintendo*). It turns the deathmatch into a bossfight, where instead of all against each other, players have to unite and fight the one player who won the first phase. One player versus all the others.

Shooters are perceived as violent game genres, but we are convinced that this is not necessarily the case. We believe that a shooter is rather about competition than violence.

A typical match in Warhalla starts with 10 players spawning, spreading around the map and trying to get ahead of each other in a race for the highest score count. These score points are essentially the damage the player causes to other players + additional points for a kill. In order to do this, the players need to be constantly moving, picking up items, heals and new weapons since those have a timer that will leave them with only the weak hammer when it runs out. Also to prevent camping.

Phase two is initiated when one of the players hits the maximum score count. He then will become “Thors Champion”(TC) and receive Thor’s Hammer as the ultimate weapon, but cannot pick up items anymore. TC now has to fight against all other players in order to win the gold medal. If the other players manage to bring him down within a certain time everyone receives the silver medal.

As of now this game mode mainly addresses competitive players, fans of the shooter genre and solo / survival players, but some game modes we have planned out for future development will also address team players without losing it’s original chárme.

Gameplay

Trying to find the right balance between core and casual audience is never an easy task, and it is inevitable to lose depth in order to make your game more accessible for a wider audience. We tried to keep the ruleset as simple as possible, which we seemed to have managed successfully as seen in this picture:

We actually kept it far too simple and had to learn that our number of weapons was far too limited. We did not give our players enough potential to “write their own stories” and the game is mastered too easy.

We are now trying bit by bit to add more strategic depth by adding new weapons and mechanics to make it more appealing to core gamers, without losing too much of that original accessibility. The most recent mechanic is a rather simple one, that is easy to understand, but adds a whole new range of strategic possibilities for our core audience. A knockback on the rocket launcher and a dedicated knockback grenade. Mechanics like these are also very important to increase replay value of your game in the long term as it is another “sandbox-mechanic” that can cause a lot of memorable situations (e.g. throwing 3 people at the same time off the map with only one knockback grenade)

By having the first phase of the game being so similar to the classical deathmatch genre we can increase complexity of the game quite a bit. Even if the player does not understand the second phase at first, they can still relate to that deathmatch ruleset and do decent until they completely understood our own introduced mechanics.

Some examples we use to introduce our own rules to the player are Tooltips and the UI Highlights.

Also we use a specific color key to highlight all gameplay-relevant items, while still having them grounded in our world and lore (Asgard power – Lighting)


Production

Humor was the topic given by our university for the semester project and therefore our only external guideline for design-choices. Our vision was to develop a game that lets the players create humorous situations themselves by providing gameplay-mechanics that would allow them to do so. We underlined this with a playful environment, vivid music and derpy character-designs and animations.

– Small details to keep it interesting in the long run

The “sheep-launcher” is a good example of the development of humor in Warhalla. We started off with the decision to make all sheep on the map explosive to support the creation of humorous situations through the players interactive possibilities. After that we realized that those sheep would make for a good ammunition for a weapon and the sheep-launcher was created. We wanted all the weapons to be drastically bigger than the player-character could possibly carry to support his “derpiness” and make his goofy animations barely controlling the weapon more believable. Also the we treat the weapons in Warhalla as Characters. Very important characters. It is mostly through the weapons that we convey our story.

All Weapons are supposed add to the Characters story and tell a little more about the world of Warhalla. The Characters are key and everything else shall underline them. Even if your character does not need to have a particular background story, you should always create one. You don’t need to tell it, but you as the creator should know it. And everything you create should complement this story.

All the weapons have their own rig and animations with some being more complex than others, which was really important to express the weapons “character”. To push this even more we tried to have significant elements like the chicken or the sheep in the back of the weapon, facing the player.

Clever Levels

The three key things we kept in mind while laying out the map:

  1. We want it to be fast paced, chaotic and as dense as possible while maintaining various playstyles and strategies.
  2. We want the map to be as readable and easy to navigate as possible.
  3. We want to have meaningful environmental storytelling.

The first steps for our map designs were always pen and paper.

Gameplaywise for our first Map we wanted to combine an arena and circular type of arena (as described by Tim Willits) and have a lot of verticality to increase the chaotic factor of the gameplay.

Since we only had 3 months to get this game as far as we could we had to limit our testing-phases for map-iterations a whole lot more than we liked and started producing art far too early. We definitely learned our lesson to only start producing art once you are completely satisfied with the mapflow during whitebox stage. And the map as it is now is being reworked completely in order to make it more readable.

One key factor to the map is, that every spot on the map can be accessed through at least two alternative routes making camping almost impossible.

A lot of mechanics we implemented were only created in order to keep the player moving. The circularity of the map, the weapon timer that runs out, the explosion that happens when a pick up respawns are our key elements to keep the player constantly moving. Again our big lesson learned here is that if you decide to go with this approach, the map has to be 100% readable and a lot cleaner than what we had. That is why we rework it right now.

Special Effects

In order to create a humorous effect and have those massive explosions that the player can trigger by simply hitting a sheep we used After Effects, Photoshop and GlueIt to create a spritesheet for the different parts of the explosions.

In Unreal we then just blend those together and get these results:

Stylized Content

A big challenge for stylized texturing is to create a unified look. Strong art lead is necessary especially as multiple people were working on modeling and texturing.

To get a better unified vision we started by creating on big assets that would be an example for the style and production techniques. Documentation of the process helped to communicate the working methods more clearly to the other team members.

As we are a small team we tried to decrease the production time for each asset as much as possible using fast tools and workflows.

For most assets the production process started in Maya for creating the low poly version of the asset. Zbrush was used to create a high poly details. Using premade materials in either Substance Designer or in Zbrush we could easily texture the assets in Substance using the “dynamic material layering workflow” introduced in version 2.2. Our tileable Materials were created in either Zbrush or Substance Designer.

Zbrush workflow

Characters

Reference first. Working from reference, good concept Art and mood boards is the key for appealing game characters. Anatomy blockout with special regards to joints and limbs for holding and using the special weapons. Shape language is very important. To check the characters Silhouette using the flat shader material in ZBush. Every character has a unique primitive shape (square, triangle, sphere) for displaying the attributes connected with the shape and for contrast to the other in game characters.

For achieving a very stylized look even in the sculpting before adding any textures the polish tool in addition to dynamesh and a good palette of clean carving brushes are key. Also the bodyplanes of the characters based on human anatomy are very important for this process.

Armor pieces and clothing are added on top but should not interfere with the characters initial shape and should support the mood of the design. An exception in our character creation are the helmets; their design is very individual and important to change the appearance of the character in game to identify with the player and his opponents.

Textures

  • Layered materials

  • Baked some maps to use in the unreal shader

  • Metall had standard reflective values

  • Used substance painter for generating detail masks

  • Multiple master material for material groups e.g. “Wood Group” vs “God’s Realm Group” for better overview

We knew from first previous map, that with stylized assets especially large adjustments in material look cause a lot of work. Therefore we were looking for a more flexible setup that would still enable combining custom details on top.

We had to carefully weigh the pros and cons of this technique:

Disadvantage: less uniqueness for the textures

Advantage: Higher texture resolution, easier to make adjustments on a big scale easier

To compensate for that we use unique textures for special materials.

Our current approach to solving this problem is using the material layering system of Unreal.

The biggest advantage of the Unreal Engine was the easy to use node based shading system, that allowed us to develop the material layering shader further. The base material came with the dynamic material layering workflow in Substance and was modified to our needs. (The base shader can be found here: https://share.allegorithmic.com/libraries/2125)

We chose to create multiple master materials contrary to one in order have them more clearly arranged.

In general we hardly used any of the PBR features of Unreal. Most of our assets have the same Roughness and rely mostly on Albedo only to create a stylized look.

Optimization

When optimizing the game we figured out, that a lot of frames can be squeezed out the directional light. We used the GPU Profiler to see where exactly our render-times go and found out that a good chunk of performance went into light and post, which was easy to reduce without sacrificing the look. Apart from that we tried to stay away from things like planar reflection, used LOD’s for all assets and generally tried to keep things simple. Also all Tick events are kept simple to save performance on the CPU.

Soundtrack

We wanted the music in Warhalla convey the action-packed, humorous, “drunk” theme of the game. Before Jannic joined production, the we used placeholder tracks from various Folk Metal bands; we immediately agreed on arranging the soundtrack in a similar style.

The music in Warhalla is completely adaptive, meaning that it instantly responds to whatever happens during the match. For instance, when the player picks up a gun, the music changes in style, giving the player an immediate sense of empowerment. Also, the music adapts depending on whether a player is in combat, on low health, dead, in the spawn area or experiencing other gameplay states.

Mostly vertical techniques were used to achieve this, by either swapping out a track with a synced, alternate variant (interchange) or layering instruments on top of existing music (additive).

For longer playing sessions we’ll need to add more music and implement opportunities for it to calm down a little to prevent listener fatigue. That said, playtesters overall felt greatly motivated by the soundtrack, especially the basic idea of “pick up a gun – music turns to metal” took off very well.

Future

We are happy to announce that the game got greenlit successfully on steam and we are planning on a release soon, but might need to consider a lot of options before doing so. We also lack a backend C++ programmer in our team and are on the lookout for one to help with dedicated server support and AI.

We are also thinking about approaching a publisher, but as a team of students we do not see our chances too high there, but if you would like to get in touch you can email me personally here or there.

We are also planning on releasing tutorials and commented breakdowns of our particles, materials and literally all requests we have gotten so far on our youtube channel.

And more personal breakdowns and tutorials can be expected to be on my personal channel soon and also on request.

Tom Nietfeld, Level Designer

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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