Nela System is an indie team based in New York. Zack Zhang founded the studio in 2015, and was initially the sole developer crafting the game, Signal Decay, for a long time. Now Nela System is working on bringing Signal Decay to Steam and consoles. Zack recalls how it’s all been since the beginning.
Back in 2014, when I was still an MFA candidate at NYU Game Center, Signal Decay (initially named SAVIORS) was conceived as an ambitious thesis project. Journey showed me how social interactions evolve video games, and inspired me to make a game that goes the other way — instead of anonymous interactions, it creates rich social dynamics using interesting game systems like board games.
The original vision already required a lot of design work. Signal Decay was influenced by XCOM and Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine, determined to be a co-op game about player communication and coordination. It integrated the collaboration behaviors among the soldiers in XCOM with the interaction design of Monaco. On top of the micro gameplay, there is also a strategy layer in which players manage resources and pilot an aircraft to prepare for the next mission. After all, Signal Decay could be described as a stealth action roguelite.
Graphics: Achieve More With Less?
It was not easy to assemble all the parts and hook them to each other, let alone making a co-op game and stealth action. From the very beginning, Signal Decay focused on the gameplay and the content, so lowering the budget on the production side was the first thing we considered.
Looking into Teleglitch, we found that it uses a low resolution to present a vivid world. The graphics look good despite being simple. We believed it was a good approach for Signal Decay as well.
In the end, we used 8×8 tiles to implement the graphics. It turned out to work great: required little time and effort to experiment with different appearances and elements. We created a 2D lighting system to make the world look more special, which is an important mechanic as well.
Visual works better
Making a game from a single mechanic could be easy. Moving floating pieces around to build certain dynamics, however, is always hard. It took us a long time to get the basic design done, longer than I expected. As a result. people got surprised by how refined the game is after playing. Signal Decay was selected as a finalist in IGF China 2015, which was a huge encouragement.
For a long time after that, it was still a problem to show the game online. The gameplay can never be fully presented in a short video and screenshots. It was hard to get noticed just with the original art style.
We had submitted Signal Decay to various competitions, and only a few selected us and the results looked arbitrary. We suspected that it was the graphics that didn’t get the game a good chance to be played by judges, let alone being a not-fast-paced multiplayer game. As to promoting the game on social media, it was just harder only with texts, screenshots and videos.
Upgrade art to stand out
The indie scene is flooded by different games these years. For newcomers, the only way to stand out is either winning awards or going popular on the internet. In any case, there must be something that invites players to get in. Some games are easy to pick up, with a cool or hilarious mechanic that instantly triggers curiosity. As a strategy game, Signal Decay does not work like that, so the art is the only key to get new players interested.
Honestly speaking, the original art was not as good as that of Teleglitch for the lack of details and variety. We didn’t spend much time on the art while iterating the gameplay. Then we were faced with a choice: making intricate art in a higher resolution or adding more content and variety. Higher resolution is much more expensive and we were prone to avoid that. Was the original approach enough to present a convincing world? Or was it worthwhile to make the graphics charming so the game could be more accessible?
Having put this issue aside for months, we finally decided to go for 32×32 tile-based graphics. Examining all the games, we found beautiful ones usually attract more players. We believed the new graphics would reach more players to prove all the extra effort worthwhile. As a result, a lot of viewers told us they thought the graphics were impressive! We put Signal Decay on Steam Greenlight and got great responses. The new graphics seemed to get Signal Decay a lot more exposure.
Mind the game nature
In the end, does the original art style fit Signal Decay at all? Probably not. Firstly, it is not easy to make the graphics readable in this style. Secondly – and this is the most important – Signal Decay is different from games like Teleglitch and Crawl in nature.
During the making of Signal Decay, we made a design decision and that changed everything by slowing the pace of game down, and thus meaningful player coordination emerged.
While Teleglitch, for example, is opposite: it’s a fast-paced game, the player moves fast. This allows huge rooms and long passages, which adds lots of variety to the visuals. The player quickly moves from one room to another, collecting resources and fighting monsters. When the player keeps engaged with new information and battles, pixel art is just enough.
As a stealth game, Signal Decay has relatively sparse dynamics. Players sneak cautiously and better be prepared for hazards lurking around. In this kind of games, there should be more visual and auditory details as part of the experience. Additionally, Signal Decay is not easy to pick up, and the art is that hook that keeps new people interested. So, the graphics do play a more important role in Signal Decay — those overly simple along with slow pace are not appealing.
It is hard to tell whether we should have upgraded the graphics earlier. We saved a lot of time using the original art while iterating. Then, we found the flaws. Changing the graphics might be part of the process. It is all about problem-solving. When the discoverability becomes a problem with so many indie games in the market, every developer has to figure out a way to make their games more attractive.
While making an effort to get Signal Decay known by more people, Nela System is looking for publisher deals to help reach a bigger audience. “This will save us a lot of time so we can spend more on developing the game. Welcome to contact us on Twitter, Facebook or via email!” – the devs invite.