Interview with Broken Window Studios: Making Grave With Unity

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Xsolla talked with Tristan Moore – one of the developers of an interesting horror game Grave – the main competitor at the Independent Game Festival (IGF) 2015. Tristan told us about this new project and explained what tools help his team build this scary open-world adventure.

Could you tell us a little about your studio?

We started Broken Window Studios specifically to make Grave. The team currently consists of 6 people: 3 artists, 2 programmers and me. I do a little bit of everything, from design to writing gameplay code, supplementary art to audio design. The company is founded by me and my wife Aby. We’ve all got a bit of industry experience. Aby spent some time in the UK working on Sony Home. I worked at Redacted Studios and at THQ. The rest of the team has experience in various areas, on both mobile and console development. We actually started Grave as a Gam Jam in 2013, and most of that team from that jam is now working on the full product.

What is Grave? What makes this game different from the competition?

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Grave is our loveletter to classic horror games. The game is about using light to survive confrontations with dangerous creatures in a dynamically changing surrealist world, inspired by the impressions of great painters like Salvador Dali. Our goal is to create a constantly unpredictable experience that has a strong grounding in time and place, almost like the way you feel playing games like Legend of Zelda or the original Silent Hill. We like the idea of creating a strange world that gradually becomes crazier while you play, and uses its unpredictability to increase the horror while still giving you a world that you feel you are genuinely exploring a meaningful space where your actions affect the world.

How do you manipulate the light to fight the monsters and discover the enviroment?

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In Grave, light is our solution to the core problem with typical survival horror. We want the player to have the tools for survival and not be limited to simply running or hiding. It’s extremely important that the player should not feel overpowered. Light is a tool, a weapon and a guide. Every creature in Grave has different reactions to light; some are afraid of it, some get enraged by it and others can be harmed by it. Our goal is to create a world where every type of item you find has a distinct use, and can drastically change the outcome of confrontations.

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The other major mechanic is one that the player has a lot less control of. The world is constantly altering while you play. We wanted to create a surreal space, and for Grave, this means chunks of the environment will be changing throughout your play experience. I think what really sets this apart is that these changes are dynamic. We aren’t randomly generating the world or setting up scripting that trips you out; we’re merging the best of both to keep the world constantly unpredictable. Imagine exploring the darkness looking for your way back to town, only to realize that the town has been replaced with an underground cavern or creepy abandoned home. Anything can happen under cover of darkness, and sometimes you’ll have to wait until light returns to discover what has changed.

Why did you pick up the survival horror genre? What makes it special to you and you your team?

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Some of the most influential games for me while I was growing up were horror titles. I always thought that the Dark World in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was terrifying as a kid. When I got older, Silent Hill and Resident Evil were my bread and butter, and I was one of those weird guys who did things like playing through the entire Resident Evil series (prior to 4) using only the starting Combat Knife. I’ve always loved the way that those games made you feel personally invested in the challenge at hand, and I know everyone on the team has a certain fondness for that type of gameplay. I particularly like the idea that these games are a combination of choice and risk assessment. You can play a lot of different ways, but the game still expects something of you. Its actually possible to make bad choices and a lot of the horror games have split off into a few directions since the hayday of “survival horror”. Triple A horror titles are now mostly action games with horror skins and the main area of advancement for that genre has been in the indie space.

What is RAIN? How is this AI system different and why did you choose it? How does it improve the game?

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RAIN is fully customizable AI system that helps us manage character animation, navigation and decision making. RAIN has been used in a number of titles other than ours, most recently in Among the Sleep. The main benefit it provides is the ability to set up the AI logic using “behavior trees”, where AI can easily transition between actions based on context. Grave has a lot of creatures in it, some that we have shown and some that are still waiting in the wings, but RAIN has been a really great tool for making changes rapidly and experimenting. We can drastically alter behavior of AI characters while the game is running and test logic quickly. It takes some getting used to, but it’s been a big part of our success up to now, and writing our own custom behavior and extensions has been super easy.

What kind of tools did you use to build the game? You’re using Unity and some of other plugins? What are the main benefits of such middleware? Does it make game development faster, cheaper or more complicated?

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It really depends on what you pick. We spent several months figuring out what the best middleware and tools were. Grave is being developed in Unity, but we have several asset store plugins that have made the process easier, including UFPS, RAIN, Shader Forge. Unity is a pretty «light», straightforward engine, so it benefits from having additional tools. We had experience with Unreal Engine before coming to Unity, so for us, the goal has basically been to get Unity to feel more like that, while still having the speed and flexibility that Unity offers.

For us, picking up middleware and assets where possible has been crucial in our success. As a small studio, it’s really important to make every dollar count. It could take 2 or 3 months of full-time work to have an engineer build a tool that is comparable to what we’ve gotten through middleware. Even if you aren’t paying industry standard wages (which we can’t right now), that costs thousands of dollars. Being about to pay $50-100 dollars to get a fully developed set of tools out of the box is invaluable.

Share some of your experience of working with Kickstarter? How much money did you get through the pledges and how do you plan to spend them? What are the most expensive parts of the development process?

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We ended up securing a bit over $37.000 in total pledges, but Kickstarter and Amazon take cuts and not all of the pledges end up going through. I think we came away with between 85% of that total when all was said and done. We used some of the pledges for licensing tools and have some on reserve for reward fulfillment (t-shirts, shipping, etc), but most of the money is going to wages. We pay the lowest possible salary while still keeping everyone going, but even so the funds drain fast. I don’t think people realize that $37.000 comes out to about 2 and a half people working at minimum wage for a year. We’ve had to stretch that out quite a bit but it’s been great to have. We wouldn’t be able to do this otherwise.

Do you think Kickstarter helps to make your game more visible? Is crowdfunding now more about the PR than about money?

I think it’s different for every team. Some games use it as a PR campaign but I still think that the majority are trying to get a shot at something that wouldn’t get made otherwise. For us, we genuinely couldn’t have made the game without doing the Kickstarter. I quit my design job at my last studio to start this project and I took a pretty big risk on the Kickstarter. If we had failed, I would have been out of a job and out of money. That being said, we’re really glad we did it. Grave is happening because of Kickstarter so, for us, the funding was very important.

How are you going to sell the game? What are the best ways to distribute games online currently?

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We are currently official for digital distribution on Steam, PS4 and Xbox One. We plan to hit a few other platforms for online distribution as well, but from the info we’ve received from other developers, Steam is far and away the strongest platform. We’ve had a few people ask about things like GOG or Desura, and I can’t say for sure because we honestly haven’t looked into it yet. In an ideal world, Grave will end up on every platform that it can. I’d do a Commodore 64 version if we could do it, but right now we’re focusing on those 3 main models, and selling the game directly from our website once that’s viable.

How did you manage to get to the PS4? Did Sony help you out with optimization and technologies? How did you come in contact with Sony and managed to get to the platform.

Good news is, we are bringing the game to PS4 and everyone who backed it is going to have that as an option, in addition to (obviously) or customers on release. We ended up with just shy of the funds we planned for our stretch goal, and we have gotten a pretty steady stream of PayPal backers so we have gotten closer to that number. To be honest, we aren’t yet sure what the costs will actually turn out to be. This is our first time doing this, so we hope we will have enough of a buffer to address whatever additional engineer, art and optimization has to be done.

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Regarding actually bringing Grave to PS4, I think a lot of people misunderstand the process of getting onto a platform as a new indie. Our process was actually pretty simple; we submitted a cold application to be a PS4 developer. This was in contrast to our communications with Microsoft; we met one of the ID@Xbox reps while we were showing the game at The Mix during GDC. Because he got to see it in person, he liked what he saw and moved us through the process quicker. With Sony, we had to wait until they responded to our application. Neither company is subsidizing or providing support beyond that which is general to their platform; we’re responsible for our own development, meeting certification requirements, etc. We’ve got access to their audience, which is the main benefit. Our goal now is to make sure all versions are as solid as possible.

Thanks so much for your time and good luck with your game.

Thank you.

 

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