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Very impressive article Jake! You are very talented.
nice article! i love seeing the breakdowns.
Developers of WARTILE talked about the creation of their impressive tabletop-inspired game with the help of Unreal Engine 4.
I have actually been studying Ceramic and glass at the Danish design academy for 4 years. But figured out that I rather tell my stories about shapes and colors not in clay but with pixels. So studying design for 7 years I graduated with specialty in game design & art. This was where it started. Next I worked as Lead environment artist and level designer for a small indie developer called Zeitguys on Recoil: Retrograd that unfortunately got canceled after three years of production. That leaded me to IO-Interactive where I have been working for almost 7 years as 3d artist on Kane & Lynch 2 and game/lead game designer on Hitman until I resigned in 2014 to startup my own small game studio. Together with Tom Rethaller also a former IO-Interactive senior we started to build up the foundation for what later would become WARTILE.
Today we are a small team of two full time developers, me and Jens Emil Kristensen who handle all the game code. We also have some really dedicated and experienced freelancers connected to the team – Simon Holm List and Chris Ebeling working with music and animation, both with many different AAA- game and movie titles behind them.
WARTILE is a Tabletop inspired video game, where you take control of a small band of miniature figurines and battle it out on beautiful diorama battle boards. You can choose to play single player in campaign missions with cultural themes or against friends in multiplayer duals. It’s a real time strategy game with a twist of turn based elements, where you move your figurines around while applying different types of cards ability or tactical cards during the battle.
Dungeons & dragons, Warhammer and table top games such as Gettysburg and Advanced Squard took up the most of my childhood and I have so many really good memories with setting up figurines in homemade landscapes and play out different scenarios. This was the experience we wanted to recreate, the feeling of actually have a few figurines that you moved around in a small diorama world. And making this into a game, we could enforce the whole illusion with nice art, animation and a system that backed up the playfulness of the player.
Choosing Art Direction with Unreal Engine 4
We really wanted the illusion to be complete and achieve the feeling of high production value due to the fact that we are a very small team making a fairly simple game. Very early we aimed at a look that almost gave you the impression that you were looking through a glass onto a real table top board and figurines. I think we still have some way to go, but have come a long way to create something truly convincing. To achieve this UE4 was the obvious choice for us as it has a really strong render and have been used for a long time in AAA-production. Another reason we choose UE4 was the blueprint system that allows a non-coder as myself to actual do some really in depth visual scripting allowing me to actual setup game play level design systems.
As a small studio aiming at a high production value especially in art can be a dangerous two edged sword as you risk that when you start expand and create more content for the game, the expenses and time required on art can sky rocket, unless you have been really smart about it. With WARTILE being a digital table top game we aimed to re-use as much as possible. We consider everything in the game as a physical piece, everything from the tiles, to rocks, bushes, towers. This way we create a palette of objects we can use to build and decorate all the battle boards. We have different themes such as Winter hillside, Coastlines and grass fields that adds to our palette and gives us more options for future battle boards. We avoid creating art that can only be used once.
This approach allows us to work very fast and iterative on the Battle boards when we setup the environment art for them. We have all the different pieces and we mix it all together to achieve the best possible result
We aim to make as few objects as possible but then focus on high quality. For characters they are made in Zbrush fairly detailed and then the low poly, unwrap is done partly in Maya. We divide the texture maps into many segments to ensure that we in the future easily can change skins on the figurines. This is not really optimal on performance but we hope that it will make it easier to create versions of the different figurines, in the future.
With the environment, we use vertex painting to blend different textures together on the surfaces in the level. Both on rocks and ground tiles. This allow us to create different looks and themes in the environment, but also help us paint everything together as we try to create a uniform look of a handmade Tabletop environment.
Working Out the Perfect Mechanics
The perfect game mechanics are found by trial and error. We had a really strong direction to start from with a clear goal of what the game experience should be like. And from there we started with the key Mechanics – the cooldown system and spent much time to iterate – test and iterate again. And we have changed many game mechanics over the time, but never did we lose track of the overall game experience we were aiming at. One very key thing that we did right from the start was making a playable prototype. We also did some test on an actual physical board game we made, but the in-game testing gave us all the answers and helped us ask the right questions. In my experience game ideas can be written on paper, but designing the actual game is done in the game engine with hands in the code, where you try out different things and constantly use friends, family and strangers to test your game on and learn embrace feedback given to you. With WARTILE we ideally worked with small sprints where we did some play testing – got feedback -adjusted gameplay– did new playtesting with a different audience, got feedback and so we went over and over again in 2-3 week loops until you mostly have very subjective opinions left regarding the game experience. We are still running these loops, but with a Demo on steam and hundreds of Let’s play videos on Youtube we now have access to more feedback than you as a developer ever could have hoped for this early in development.
We don’t have any story flow inside the actual levels. We want the player to experience his or her own story while playing the game and solving the different challenges. We however do have story in WARTILE its just presented to the player outside each level. There are have two branches of story in WARTILE. The overall plot about the Viking king and his ambition to reunite the Viking tribes together on a conquest to England and smaller stories presented by the individual figurines as they take part in your mission to fulfill the Kings wishes.
So with no story flow inside a level, except the objective cards that will mark your goals, we use the level design patterns to create the story and strong game experience. Therefore, each map need to have both a very atmospheric environment design that works well with the level design and the challenges presented to the player.
To begin with we have been making game play Gyms. In a game play gym we test different scenarios we think could be fun to play. When we have a few of these scenarios we just like with the environment art begin to have a small palette of game play challenges that we can start implementing into the different levels in a way so they scale well together as we keep tight control of the players learning curve. Playing games is about both in game progression but also user progression. Our audience is on a small adventure where he or she learns to handle increasingly harder challenges as we unlock them during the game. Again making the levels in Wartile is a continuously loop between observation and iteration, where we as designers might have a have a specific idea of what we want to achieve with the level but often players see, think and react differently than we anticipated.
A good map in WARTILE is when you load it up and think wow… what the hell, this looks awesome, I wonder what I need to do here. We might have limited resources to make our levels with, but our imagination of how to put these resources together are unlimited. And in WARTILE we want the player to enjoy all the different ways we can challenge him or her, and prove that under the right conditions, our own imagination is the best source to make a good story.
Firstly, we have started spending more and more time on PR. We promote and communicate to our audience on Facebook and Twitter and through our newsletter. We have not always been good at that, but during the last few month of exposure we have truly learned the value in being open, show and share as well as listen and communicate to our community. When people like the project they help spread the word and that is a huge help for us. Lately we have had a lot of really positive press coverage, I think this was because we had something unique and newsworthy with a strong visual and a few different game mechanics. It is important for any Indie developer to work on something unique with its own identity and strong visual style. It doesn’t have to be high production value or anything, just make sure that it stands out from the crowd both in visuals and in game play. So to conclude, work hard on the game to ensure its really good and fun to play, while building up your community and look for exhibitions or competitions where you can show and share your project. Take part in the local and global game community, spend time talk about your own game but also with others about their games, be helpful and supportive to everyone and most important share your knowledge.