Take one look at Dice Legacy and you won’t forget it. Not, at least, if your camera is on the floor looking up: in this distinctive take on the city building genre, your world is shaped like a ring. Press shots show the terrain curving upwards where you should expect to find a horizon. It’s pretty disorientating.
As if that in itself weren’t enough to stand out, Italian developer DESTINYbit has designed the entire game around the use of dice.
“Most games out there think of dice as just a way to obtain a random result,” creative director Gian Paolo Vernocchi explains. “Maybe they represent how powerful your attacks are, or what kind of attacks you can perform. We started with the idea of ‘what if everything was a die?’. In the very first iteration of the game, people, animals, resources were all dice and it was a bit of a crazy experience. Eventually we liked the idea of ‘dice as people’, and wanting to customise your dice and see your people grow and succeed.”
And so, in Dice Legacy, the six-faced entities beloved of analogue gamers are essentially your population. They must be fed, healed, assigned to work, and upgraded through new citizen tiers according to your strategy and your vision for your society. Naturally dice exist to be rolled, so you’ll roll, re-roll, and otherwise manipulate yours until you get the faces you need to deliver on that vision. You’ll gather resources to build and develop your town, explore the wilds around it, and trade with or fight the mysterious factions inhabiting the rest of the ring.
“We built the game to be as varied as possible, allowing the player to focus on different aspects of society such as religion, economy, or war,” Vernocchi says. “This plays into not only the buildings the player has available, but also how the player can interact with the other factions that inhabit the ring.”
Hatch more plans: Check out the best strategy games in 2020
They also affect Dice Legacy’s roguelite elements. Each ring is procedurally generated, so the placement of the game’s resources and other factions will vary from playthrough to playthrough. Your settlement will also be hit with randomly generated events to which you’ll need to adapt on the fly, such as blizzards and other hostile weather. Again, your dice hold the solutions: “The player is free to enhance and forge dice together, creating more and more powerful dice,” Vernocchi says. You’ll even be able to develop your die over multiple playthroughs “to really create the ‘perfect die’ that can be used to respond to any situation.”
It’s a point of difference from most other city builders as typified by Cities: Skylines or the Anno series, which are all about constructing buildings and pulling policy levers to manage supply chains and urban phenomena like crime, fire risk, or sanitation. “We wanted to take a different approach and go for a more intimate experience, in which your tools – your people – are right there in front of you, and you manipulate them like you’re moving pieces on a board,” Vernocchi says. “Obviously RNG is a factor, which we think plays well into the game’s roguelike aspects, but we treat them in a slightly different way. For starters we show most of them directly to the player: this is your die, this is what it can do. Secondly we give the player a lot of options to customise the dice, possibly mitigating the RNG aspect.”
The idea to make such use of dice came from a “crazy concept”, in Vernocchi’s words, that the team had early last year. “It involved forging dice together to get crazier and crazier combinations of resulting dice all tied by blockchain, of all things. Eventually this got paired with our love for board games, especially worker placement games such as Agricola. Instead of making it turn-based, we opted for real time, and eventually the concept evolved to include roguelike elements.”
A real-time strategy/management game powered by dice with a number of unpredictable, roguelike challenges is every bit as information-dense as any other strategy game – perhaps more so. It’s here that the developers’ choice to make Dice Legacy in Unreal Engine 4 starts to pay off. “Making a strategy game requires communicating information constantly to the player, and luckily UMG [Unreal Motion Graphics UI Designer, a UE4 tool] made things a lot more easy to deal with,” Vernocchi says. “Being able to effortlessly add rich text with symbols, or quickly go from Photoshop to a working, scalable UI, has been great for us.”
If communicating information from dice was a key challenge in UI design, Dice Legacy’s other key feature – its ring world – presented a number of problems from a technical perspective. “Everything, from the camera to the snow falling to clouds passing to the pathfinding of peasants, must work on a ring rather than on a flat surface. This is definitely an interesting challenge as many of the assumptions you normally make on a regular game go out of the window, but with some technical wizardry we were able to make it work.”
Unreal was the obvious choice of engine to overcome these challenges, both due to the team’s experience with it – “we’ve been using Unreal since Unreal Engine 3, and our last game, Empires Apart, was made in UE4” – as well as its features and the depth of access it offers to its inner workings.
“Having full access to the source code means that we can easily take a look under the hood and see what’s the best way to address certain issues, such as pathfinding on a curved surface, for example,” Vernocchi says. “Most of the challenges though have been on the visual side of things, and the Material Editor is just an irreplaceable tool for us.” This is a tool that enables developers to create custom shaders, or, in tandem with other tools, a whole range of new materials from which to build videogame assets. “Paired with Blueprints, it allows us to create very cool effects very quickly, and helped create the game’s unique look.”
Blueprints, another UE4 tool that draws regular praise in this series, is a visual scripting system that allows even developers who don’t specialise in programming to write code, unlocking synergies across the team and ensuring everyone, from artists to designers, is able to contribute at all times. “Among the engines that are available out there, we simply consider UE4 to be the best one. For us it comes down to access to the source code, incredible tools like the Material Editor, Blueprints and Sequencer, and the constant, significant updates that are being made to the engine.”
With all the computational power of a PC to call upon, one may wonder why a videogame designer would ever think that the humble six-sided die still had a place. But Vernocchi’s enthusiasm for his team’s big idea is infectious. “Dice are an incredibly versatile tool which we feel are very much underexplored in modern games,” he says. “Everybody chased after the ‘cards’ craze with collectible games such as Hearthstone first, and then with deck builders like Slay the Spire. We feel like people are still ‘sleeping’ on dice and we hope this can be one of the first games that really employs dice in new and interesting ways.”
For more to optimise: See the best management games on PC
Dice Legacy is due for release on Steam later this summer. Unreal Engine 4 is now free.
In this sponsored series, we’re looking at how game developers are taking advantage of Unreal Engine 4 to create a new generation of PC games. With thanks to Epic Games and DESTINYbit.