It’s tempting to push game developers for new ideas, to force them to search for the next big thing, rather than iterate on the same old punching, shooting, and levelling systems we’ve seen for decades. But studios are often wary of just that: too many new ideas.
In the volatile and unpredictable world of development, it can be tricky enough just to ensure that the one or two central new ideas in a game come together in time for launch. It’s sensible – best practice, even – to build on the foundations left behind by other developers, knowing that with tried and tested mechanics on board, there are at least a few certainties.
That’s not how the first-time developers behind Sayri are doing it. Nominally influenced by Pikmin, their game builds on a strange setting, and stars an alien protagonist with frankly too many legs. It’s been a continuous challenge in the fields of design, art, maths, and animation, but it appears to be paying off for this Ukrainian team working in Unreal Engine 4.
The big idea(s)
“The idea was to make a game like Pikmin,” producer and financier Artem Savotin tells us. That would usually be goal enough for a first project. Especially when you consider Nintendo famously had difficulty finding a clear direction for Pikmin, and even by its second sequel was still finding the balance for accessibility and depth in its strange, colourful RTS. But Savotin actually started with two ideas.
“My other initial idea was that everything should be unique,” Savotin says. “I thought that we should be very different, because we’re new people in game development and we want to be recognised.
“Maybe it’s a mistake, and you shouldn’t do that – if you read the books, they say you need to copy other games to make something, at least, and go to market in six months. But we went the tough way, with a unique hero and a unique world.”
From the moment he was first conceptualised by the team’s artist, Sayri had big, beautiful eyes you could happily fall into – a creature with a head so adorable you could spend the day rolling around inside it. He also had four legs, two arms, six ears, and two apparent antennae, although the team insists they’re horns.
“We really fell in love with the initial concept, which was so cute on paper,” Savotin says. “Then we started to make a model for that, and we started to understand that it doesn’t work. We made six iterations with an animator and artist, it’s really crazy.”
The issue came in ensuring Sayri’s more alien elements didn’t wash away his relatable, baby-like sweetness. “When we started to animate it, the legs look like an octopus’s, which was a bit creepy,” Savotin says. “We don’t want you to feel that he’s an animal.”
In today’s build of Sayri, that almost-human quality is visible – the protagonist’s arms pump up and down like a jogger’s, even as his legs lend him a certain alien elegance. He trundles over blue and orange fields, strange plants springing up beneath bright white feet. “We made many iterations to come to the current status, which we don’t like yet,” Savotin says, “and we already understand how to make it better.”
The team has worked hard to introduce personality to Sayri’s followers, too, with the goal of separating the game from its primary influence. “Each Pikmin doesn’t have emotional attachment,” Savotin points out. “When the Pikmin dies, you don’t feel anything about it.”
To counter that emotional distance, the team reduced the number of followers to just two, and instilled each with individual behaviours. “You’re not their master, they’re friends you ask to help you,” Savotin says. “We built the relationship on quite complex artificial intelligence.”
The developers spent three months bringing the AI algorithm they’d developed into Unreal Engine 4, which is “quite configurable,” According to Savotin. “We have two friends now who have completely different behaviour in the game. One tries to overtake you, and you can lose him sometimes. The other is more of a slow guy; he’s always near you and kind of introverted.”
The team is confident it can pull together its ideas – untested by others in the industry – into a vertical slice. This will be a sample level which demonstrates every part of the game at the production quality of a finished product. But that in itself won’t be enough.
“Everyone who has played our game in the early stages really loved it,” Savotin says. “But from another side we’re still having a big problem with publishers, because they don’t know how to sell it. They test it and they say it’s too unique.”
Yet Sayri’s unique qualities are exactly what has allowed it to stand out in public. The team showcased the game just a couple of months into full development, winning a competition at a consumer conference in Ukraine, the prize being tickets for Casual Connect in Seattle.
Read more: Check out our list of the best indie game on PC
“We’ve had many discussions to cut Sayri’s back half and make two legs, because it would be much easier to animate,” Savotin says. “But we came to the decision that we need to proceed because he’s unique.”
Sayri is coming to PC in 2019. Unreal Engine 4 development 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 Artem Savotin.