These days new games are often made to look identical to the subject. Smooth skin, sleek skies, shaded cities – developers are getting better and better at replicating on screens what we might see in real life. Despite this – or perhaps because of it – retro aesthetics persist.
Look at the blocks of Minecraft, the pixels of Celeste, or polygons of Old School Runescape for examples where shiny graphics aren’t always the desired end point. There’s such a thing as old school cool, you know? And now you can add Shores Unknown to that list of retro-looking, but modern feeling, games.
Shores Unknown is a turn-based tactical RPG with a low-poly aesthetic. Think of Runescape’s design, and then dial back its edges by 20% – it’s charming and characterful. In the game you put together a team of mercenaries to fight with you as you explore the world beyond the ‘Murk’ – a terrible wall of fog. Every decision matters in this narrative-driven adventure designed by the team at Vallynne. But despite those nostalgic visuals, the tech behind Shores Unknown is very modern indeed.
So why the visual style? Designer Ilya Rudnev tells us that it was “a combination of budget, scope, and aesthetic considerations,” a line of thinking partially born from Shores Unknown’s relatively large size for an Indie project – around 20 to 30 hours of content, all in all.
“Going with realistic assets would have been problematic from both budget and performance perspectives,” Rudnev continues, “and 2D was out of the picture right away as Unreal really wasn’t the best engine to make a 2D game in – we’d just be throwing a lot of power it gave us away while keeping all the performance overhead.”
Initially, the team fell in love with the assets created by Synty Studios. But while they ticked all the boxes for the project, Vallynne wasn’t the only studio to have noticed their appeal. “Literally dozens of games using not just the same style, but also the exact same models as us started appearing on Steam and other marketplaces. The artist in me was hurting.
“Luckily, we managed to get some publisher interest with the prototype build we had on our hands, which eventually led to a partnership deal with Hitcents – an indie publisher based in Kentucky, USA. With the resources that gave us, we understood we still couldn’t afford AAA realistic graphics, but what we absolutely could do was split off into our own sub-branch of low poly, which I pretentiously (and jokingly) dubbed ‘lo-poly hi-fidelity’. We completely remade all the character models we had in the game and a large number of environment assets, while still maintaining compatibility with the packs we had purchased previously.”
From this new, and unique, base, the team worked to develop their look to an even higher quality. “With this change, we really went all out on small details, capitalising on Unreal’s strengths even further.” Rudnev explains. “We added physical cloth deformation where appropriate, animated character hair, made the grass react to characters walking in it, and implemented a weather system which dynamically altered the look of the whole scene depending on whether it is raining or snowing, for example.
“And ultimately, we have Unreal to thank for allowing us to quickly update character models and environment assets with our newly-made custom ones, implementing new materials (Unreal’s shaders), remapping the existing animations to new skeletons, and updating the levels with a very non-destructive flow.”
While Unreal Engine has proven invaluable, the decision to adopt it was made with surprising spontaneity. “I started studying UE4 in my spare time as a hobby of sorts,” Rudnev recalls, “and I wanted to have it in my professional skill set as a game designer.
“When starting out, I spent a couple of months running a variety of tutorials and reading the documentation. Then, as my grip on the basic concepts got stronger, I started gradually deviating from the tutorials I watched, trying my own things – breaking stuff and then repairing it to work the way I wanted. Unreal is, admittedly, absolutely huge, and depending on the kind of game you’re making with it, you’ll only touch a small part of it at any given time. Three years later, I have to google random questions about the engine a lot less frequently, but I still run into undiscovered areas on the map quite often.”
Unreal Engine 4’s approachability smoothed the transition.. “I was fascinated with its built-in Blueprint visual scripting language and how empowering it felt for the non-programmer folks. As I mentioned, I am first and foremost a game designer, although I did receive some formal programming education. Compared to something like Unity with C#, Blueprints felt extremely fluid and enabling to me.”
Blueprints in Unreal Engine 4 are one of the most widely praised features in this series. They’re a visual scripting system that allows anyone in a development team the freedom and understanding to help with coding the game. Its visual nature makes it understandable to a wide range of coding abilities, while also allowing a high level of polish.
“I really want to emphasize Blueprints are a game-changer,” Rudnev stresses. “I absolutely think visual scripting tools like it are the future of game dev, enabling more and more folks to turn their ideas into reality. Sure, there are areas of development where Blueprints are suboptimal – like multiplayer or demanding math calculations, and I know some old-school programmers tend to wrinkle their noses when visual scripting is mentioned – which really isn’t nice towards the beginners among us, by the way!
“Shores Unknown started as a fully Blueprint project itself, and I had to move certain parts of the code, like data structures or game saving, to C++ as I got more proficient with the engine, because of how unwieldy these things were getting when implemented in Blueprint. Still, a large part of the game’s logic runs on it, and it didn’t even take us that long to make sure it performed decently (and by decently, I mean stable 30 fps) when porting it to Nintendo Switch.”
Rudnev also praises the Sequencer tool, despite having a tumultuous relationship with it. “I’d love to honour the Sequencer tool, with which I have a love and hate relationship of sorts,” he explains. “It’s an extremely powerful tool which basically allows you to create cinematics directly in the engine, without using any external tools. I think some people are actually making movies in it – it’s no joke.”
“It’s not an easy tool to use, though, especially when used in a game environment and taking in actual game actors to animate. Sequencer is pretty new, and I had to report quite a few bugs directly to Epic because those were affecting our productivity. But ultimately, Sequencer did allow us to make almost all of our cutscenes directly in-engine – and people who saw these cutscenes while playtesting said they looked good, so I’m happy!”
As with any game development endeavour, there are going to be bumps in the road. For Shores Unknown, some of these were inherent in the RPG aspects of the gameplay, but also the process of adding in a bespoke take on tactical combat. “Some of the biggest challenges we had to face were: designing the original tactical battle system of Shores; maintaining the persistent state of the world between game saves; designing a robust dialogue system allowing for branching non-linear dialogues with Excel import/export integration; creating a production pipeline to support hundreds of unique modular characters in our game’s world; and, finally, ensuring that it all ran at a decent frame rate on lower-end hardware and Nintendo Switch.”
An intimidating list of struggles for anyone to look over. Thankfully some of these problems could be worked through with the support Unreal had to offer. “The coolest part of working with Unreal, for me, was that it came as a complete solution for game creation – as compared to Unity, for example, where the developer is provided with a bare minimum framework and then all the rest is DIY or buy it on the asset store.”
It all paid off, too. Shores of Unknown received an award at Indie Cup 2019 – the team won Best Unreal Game, a category dedicated to just indie creations made in the Unreal Engine.. It’s indicative of the tools and care being given to indie developers, and Unreal is being picked up by more of them all the time.
“I don’t think it was a common thing at all a couple of years ago, but Unreal is increasingly becoming the norm everywhere I look nowadays. A lot of it, I think, is due to Epic’s very proactive stance on supporting indie game development specifically in a number of ways, ranging for sponsoring booths at events (we had an honour of getting one at DevGamm Moscow in 2019) to actually funding entire dev teams via their MegaGrant campaign. And then, as the percentage of UE4 users in indie game development increases, so does the number events including Unreal in some form, from thematic meetups to these Unreal-centric prizes at championships.
“So I guess it’s a two-way street, with Epic giving us devs a reason to trust them and their software, and then the devs, in turn, creating these cool beautiful games which just wouldn’t be made possible otherwise. I really like it. The reality is that game development is often harsh and unrewarding, and having an entity like Epic genuinely care makes it that much more manageable.”
Shores Unknown is a great example of a game which is developed to live up to the loves of the developers. They’re passionate about RPGs and are dedicated to making Shores Unknown a great RPG on their own terms. Through hard work, and rethinking their plans, they’ve already seen success with an award or two. The finished product, then, promises much. .
Shores Unknown is due to release in Q2 2020. 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 Vallynne.