Indie Prize London at Casual Connect Europe 2018 has attracted an outstanding variety of games from Eastern Europe. Role playing is featured in many games, and is perhaps taken to new heights in a game where the player literally chooses a role to play on stage. Many also combine role playing with different types of adventure, such as surviving on a sinking island or digging through caves or being lost in a desert. There are games that challenge the brain with puzzles, multiplayer games, beautiful learning games for children, and even games that take players into accurate representations of history. There is something in this group of games that will attract everyone.
Theatre VR is the perfect game for aspiring actors and anyone who would like to experience what it would be like to be on stage. It allows you to choose a play and a role, then act that character. You say the lines while making gestures and moving around the stage. But you are not alone on stage; there are other characters driven by the computer. You can also create your own productions and share them with others and enjoy the play with your friends.
Carbon Studio will be bringing their game The Wizards to Casual Connect Europe 2018 to compete at Indie Prize. They won this opportunity through Respawn, an Indie Prize Partner event. They are excited to be with developers from all over the world where they can exchange experiences and be recharged with fresh ideas. Recently, Paweł Gajda, the Business Development Manager at Carbon Studio, answered Gamesauce’s questions about the studio and developing The Wizards.
Participating in the History of Virtual Reality
Carbon Studio was founded by three friends who had been working at The Farm 51 (known for the game Get Even) and go out on their own. They came to this decision after learning of the Oculus Rift Development Kit and discovering a desire to create games for this new platform from its earliest days. They wanted to take part in the history of virtual reality as it was being written. And the games they choose to develop are those they would like to play – a common motivation among game developers.
Carbon Studio has its office in Gliwice, Poland and all the team exceptPaweł work there; he works away from the office. The majority of the team members are from the Gliwice area, which is part of a larger metropolis in the culturally and industrially rich region of Upper Silesia, and others have moved their families there. Most feel lucky to work close to home.
Paweł came to Carbon Studios after working in the film industry as a set manager. A director who knew of his passion for video games and new technology invited him to join a meeting with the owners of Carbon Studio, and he came out of it with a strong desire to work as a VR game developer. Not long after he joined the studio and his first task was to write the story for their first game, Alice VR. He also designed one of the puzzles for Unreal Engine 4. Currently he is responsible for communication and managing business development.
Total Focus on VR
Carbon Studios decided to focus entirely on VR games since players with VR headsets usually stop playing traditional games. “When you try VR once, there’s no going back,” Paweł claims. They expect VR to become more and more popular, so they treat developing for VR as a long term investment. As Paweł said, “I don’t believe it will replace traditional games in the future, but I think it may become as popular as console games, with millions of units sold.”
They began working on The Wizards shortly after the Oculus Touch controllers were announced for the Oculus Rift headset. The idea of seeing and using your hands in a natural way in virtual reality was something they found deeply inspiring. At Carbon Studio they didn’t just want to reproduce activities from ordinary life; they were determined to create something that was possible only in the limitless world of VR. So they decided to fulfill a dream of becoming a powerful wizard and casting spells. Both Dr. Strange and Harry Potter were useful inspirations in their direction.
The Wizards has something no other game can claim: the ability to cast spells with hand gestures. Traditional video games make motions by pressing buttons. In contrast, in The Wizards the player learns specific hand motions to summon spells. Once they are mastered, the player uses them intuitively in a way that is unlike any other experience that simulates magic. As Paweł explains, the gestures are easy to remember and perform and the functioning of each spell is realistic; throwing the fire ball, aiming the bow and deflecting with the shield all are familiar mechanics that feel lifelike.
The development of The Wizards took a few unexpected turns along the way. The game started out as a simple wave shooter that could be completed in less than an hour. The idea of the game was to have the player stand on a platform and prevent the enemies from reaching the village behind. As they were developing the game, they realized it would be more interesting if the player could teleport between many platforms. It still felt too limiting, so they added free movement and free teleportation. The Wizards turned from a simple wave shooter to an action adventure with a lot of exploration.
As they were developing The Wizards, Carbon Studio decided to test at a very early stage of development. They organized alpha and beta testing, each time using the VR community, with testers filling out a beta form. It was extremely useful and gave them many outstanding ideas, but the results turned out to be a bit misleading. The feedback on the movement scheme was overly positive. Once the game was released, players who had paid for the game criticized Carbon Studio’s choice to stick with node-based teleportation. Apparently the beta testers were happy to have been chosen to test the game and were unwilling to criticize too much. This is something the company will keep in mind for the future.
On the other hand, some of the testers gave much more than they were asked for. One not only filled out his survey, he also provided several hours of videos of him playing the game, finding bugs and giving feedback. He then pitched the game to his boss, owner of a VR arcade, and has become one of the game’s most avid fans. When someone on the internet suggests the game is similar to another, he responds that it is, but better. He has now become one of Paweł’s personal friends, and Paweł says, “It was worth organizing the testing just to meet this guy.”
After Carbon Studio released The Wizards on Steam Early Access, they had many players criticizing the movement scheme and soon there were “mixed” reviews on Steam. This was totally unexpected because of the positive reviews from closed beta testing. They responded three days after the release by announcing that they would add free locomotion, a less restrictive way of moving in VR, which the players had requested. As soon as this feature was promised, the positive reviews on Steam began. Now that the free movement update is out The Wizards is a much better game. There have been even more positive reviews and a significant increase in sales.
The Virtual Reality Revolution
Carbon Studio wants to be part of the virtual reality revolution and provide the people willing to buy expensive headsets with even more interesting games. With The Wizards they wanted to make a game that allows players to feel like they are really casting powerful spells, a game that lets them experience something that might have been a childhood dream but was impossible to fulfill before VR headsets were invented.
Carbon Studio’s monetization method is the premium model, releasing their games on Steam and the Oculus Store. The user base for VR is not yet large enough for freemium to be a workable method.
Inspirations for their games can come from anywhere. For example, Alice was influenced by Alice in Wonderland but the plot of the game is original. However, characters, themes and mechanics do have references to the book, such as shrinking and growing, or the Hatter’s riddles.
Carbon Studio’s projects are led by one of the three founders of the company, supported by the other two. Each of them has different skill sets and specialize in different areas of production.
How the Project Grows
A project usually begins with a brainstorming session with the entire team. They want to be sure they are working on a project that is relevant, interesting and completely understandable for everyone. After establishing this basis, most of the decisions will be made by the leads, but they are always open to ideas and suggestions from all team members throughout the development process. And, of course, changes are made all along the way.
As their experience in game development grows, they put increasing importance on alpha and beta testing. With The Wizards, they turned to Reddit and active users on the platform for their users. They were reaching out to future potential users and building a fan base. The choice was not quite as good as they anticipated, with the results more positive than was seen in users after early release. In the future, Carbon Studio will find more impartial testers as well as using the VR community.
When designing the visuals for their games, their basic principle is to minimize the compromises involved in designing for VR. They are fascinated by mega-scans and realistic assets, but there is a certain amount of unavoidable stylization. Although compromises are unavoidable, constantly improving optimization on UE4’s end mean the options for visuals are also constantly expanding.
The humor of The Wizard comes from the narrator played by Jason Marnocha, who leads the player through the world and its story with flair and sass. As well, the designers hid curios and Easter eggs for those who explore the levels in detail. And the developers are particularly proud of the first encounter with the dragon.
Six weeks after the early release, Carbon Studio introduced a Free Locomotion Update. The update allowed the players the choice between free movement and free teleportation which were both new ways to explore the world. There were also new map areas, item pick-ups, and new interactive world elements, each crafted to encourage and reward thorough exploration. Last November they released Arena Mode in which players can face off with endless waves of enemies, testing skills and spells they have learned in the campaign. They also added another new region and new chapter to the story called Shrike’s Desert, concluding the commitments to the Early Access and marking the full release of the game.
On March 8th, Carbon Studio had a full release of The Wizards. The full release of the game comes with epic boss fights, new story chapters, and empowered spells for the ultimate experience in wizardry. Paweł reflects, “We are grateful to everyone who trusted and supported us with invaluable feedback during Early Access. We are humbled that so many players joined us on this exciting adventure and we hope that the new content will meet our players’ expectations.”
If you are an indie developer, Carbon Studio reminds you that it pays to iterate fast and fail early. Don’t be afraid of criticism; feedback is incredibly valuable throughout the development process. Share an early demo on a platform with many users. If the feedback is negative, you will save months of working on potentially unpopular features; if it is positive, you have the beginnings of your fan base. Similarly, it is useful to create a Steam page and social media profiles to spread the word about the game, allowing people to observe it and add it to their wishlist.
You should never release a game without gathering feedback during production. And never tell someone who gives you negative feedback that they are wrong. If you are selling a product it won’t help to antagonize anyone.
Europe and India are bringing a fascinating variety of games to Indie Prize during Casual Connect USA at Disneyland® Hotel. This group of games include beautiful puzzle games, games requiring skills, learning fairy tales for children, games of suspense and, of course, games of competition. Indie Prize is seeing amazing innovation and diversity in these new games.
Game Title:Stack & Crack Developer:Jambav Platform: iOS Country: India
Stack & Crack is a 3D puzzle game with beautiful levels. There is no tutorial; the levels are designed in a way that makes a tutorial unnecessary. But it is not an easy game. Each chapter introduces a different creative element that makes cracking the game a challenge to the brain.
Stack & Crack was shortlisted in the “Upcoming Game of the Year” section of NGDC 2017, Hyderabad, India.
Europe and Asia are bringing some exciting participants to the Indie Prize during Casual Connect USA 2018 at Disneyland® Hotel. The games bring a variety of worlds and experiences, imaginary, realistic and even historical. The story lines are as varied as the environments, and challenge, adventure and learning are involved in all of them.
Game Title:Bushy Tail Developer:Fuero Games Platform: Desktop Win Country: Poland
In Bushy Tail, three children are processing their experiences when refugees and foreign cultures suddenly arrive. They dive into the fictional world and tell the story of their hero, Little Fox, who goes through, adapts and overcomes the challenges of change. The game is constantly transforming, depending on which child is telling the story, giving the player the sense of influencing the plot.
The winner of Indie Games Poland (an Indie Prize Partner Event) is a game studio based in Warsaw, Poland. As a winner, Juggler Games had the opportunity to participate in Indie Prize Kyiv 2017. Although Juggler Games is relatively new on the game scene, it was formed by industry veterans who collectively bring more than twenty-five years of experience to this company. The three founders, Mikolaj Pawlowski, Jakub Jabloński and Łukasz Janczuk, discussed the possibilities for more than a year before taking the leap to start the company. The undeniable fact that led to forming the company was that when you work for someone else you have limited opportunities to explore your own ideas for games. In order to make their own dream game they had to have their own company.
What Sort of Company?
During their year of preparation they spent a great deal of time analyzing what sort of company they would have and what their first project should be. They also looked for an investor to help them get started. In February, 2016 they founded the company and by August they had a working prototype of their first project to take to GameCom.
If something’s bothering people’s mind, it’s just a matter of time till there’s a game about it. Fake news have been trending for a while, and resulted, among other things, in HEADLINER: a short adventure game about media bias and how it affects the society, families and careers. The Seattle-based developer Unbound Creations has worked with teams up to 6 people on their previous titles, but HEADLINER has mostly been just Jakub Kasztalski.
“I had some brainstorming help from one of my friends in the early stages, and also hired an editor for the texts. In the last two months I also worked with Hashbang Games on marketing”, the developer comments. Friends have also been involved in the initial conception about a year ago: “The idea was actually given to me by a friend and over some beers we fleshed it out a bit more”, Jakub recall. :The direction of the game was a bit different initially, focusing on racing the clock to approve the articles in time and then getting home before a curfew started while avoiding paroling guards”.
However, as prototyping went on and Jakub observed what was happening around the world, the design shifted towards the narrative and media bias. “Here’s an article I wrote that goes into more details of how I mined Facebook and Google data to stay relevant to today’s issues”, he shares.
Try Before You Decide
“I started with free/public domain 3rd party assets and simple scenes built in Blender to nail down the look/feel/setting”, the developer recalls. “I went through 2-3 iterations before arriving at the final look. Overall, that wasted a lot of time, but not being an artist myself, it helped me figure out what “felt right” and what I wanted to really communicate. I’m very “try before you decide” when it comes to visuals”.
“I settled on Vector Art as I realized it’s the one style I could actually do myself. I researched a lot of references, the biggest being the awesome Lyft commercial.”
The street scene remained a 3rd party pixel artwork, but Jakub had upscaled it and did a lot of post-processing. He also used the baseline sprites to create new variations, such as police or rioters.
Music was also public domain/creative commons, but again the developer spent a lot of time researching: “I’d just play different tracks in the background while coding and testing, until I found ones that felt right”.
Someone Might Get Offended
When asked how not to offend anyone with a game on a touchy subject, Jakub confesses: “Honestly, I just follow my gut feeling. I’ll admit I used to be really socially awkward when I was younger (as many geeks are), but through great friends and few years of freelancing I learned where the social boundaries lie. I just apply the same skills to my work instinctively I suppose”.
“I also listen to the feedback I get. For example, many testers asked me why your spouse was always of opposite gender – why you couldn’t have same-sex marriages in the game? And I realized there really isn’t a good reason not to, so I added that”.
“There are some ideas I am trying to communicate in the game so it is inevitable that someone might get offended. And honestly if they do – well, that’s just what I stand for I guess. You can’t please everyone”.
Learn From Others'(and His Own) Mistakes
Learning from others’ experiences is what Jakub fully uses in his dev practice. Being inspired by titles like Papers, Please and Westport Independent, he read through Steam and press reviews. “I really tried to find what worked and what didn’t, building on the formula instead of simply copying”, he explains. “For example, in Papers, at the end of the day you might get a white text on black screen telling you your wife died. Well, that’s not very engaging. That’s why I wanted the whole street and home section – show, don’t tell. Make the player care about the world he’s building (or destroying).
“Show, don’t tell. Make the player care about the world he’s building (or destroying)”.
“There are many pitfalls I’ve learned and still need to learn. Brevity is very important I realized, as most gamers don’t want to be reading a book while playing (purely text-games and interactive fiction aside). Secondly, players want to really feel the impact of their actions, even if it may feel like over-explaining at times (I tend to be overly subtle). Lastly, fleshing out the world may seem wasteful, but it can do a lot for immersion – all my games have been praised for creating a believable sense of space (even if you only see a fraction of all the research and backstory I wrote)”. Jakub hints there’s a ton more lessons he could come up with, “but that’s probably a whole different topic in an of itself”
Looking back, Jakub says he’s pretty happy with how things went. “All the significant improvements I would have liked to add at this point would have taken several months and considerable investment. However, for various reasons, I did not want to go down that route, instead preferring to spread the additional effort and lessons learned over future episodes and new games”. If he still had to pick one area to improve, it would be artwork: “it was a big learning experience for me and I think it shows”.
Meanwhile, a fresh wave of fake news is coming up. “I’ve got a few ideas brewing in my head right now, but two of the major changes would be a bit randomized newspaper system for more engaging replays, and more personal interactions with various characters you meet”, Jakub shares. You can also join the world domination through news planning through the game’s official Discord, and keep track of updates on Twitter.
Arkadiusz Reikowski is the soundtrack composer of the recently released cyberpunk video game Observer. Originally a performer for several Polish bands, Arkadiusz is a self-taught musician; however, over the past eight years, he has composed the soundtracks for nearly thirty games, including Kholat, Layers of Fear, and Husk.
He said the process for creating a videogame soundtrack changes depending on the project. For Observer, Arkadiusz was brought on board early in the game development process. “There wasn’t really any gameplay yet, just a storyline and some art,” he said. “We obviously had a lot of talks about how and what we wanted to achieve through sound and music. It was a comfortable situation.”
“I always start with colors and overall tone of the game,” He said. “These are the elements that are most important when I decide in what scale the soundtrack should be and what instruments I’m going to use. With Observer it was really interesting because in the end, the music turned out to be a lot darker than at the very beginning. I thought I would use much more melody and lighter themes but they didn’t quite fit the tone of the game. So we stayed with these dirty, heavy, dark themes.”
The grungy themes fit with the aesthetic of Observer, which takes place in a future version of Krakow beset with violence, war, and poverty. The half-human half-machine Detective Daniel Lazarski hacks into the minds of people both alive and dead to uncover clues in his investigation. The dark and surreal scenes in people’s minds firmly set the game in the horror genre.
Arkadiusz said that he tries to create shapes in his music, and in this particular soundtrack he focused on shapes that can barely be seen, something caught by the corner of your eye, but you can’t be sure of what it is. This is particularly fitting for a horror game. “The emotions told through music are like shapes coming into existence. But also like colors that you can feel and almost be touched by them,” he said. “Weird, I know.”
The game is reminiscent of Blade Runner, and Rutger Hauer who even does the voice of Daniel Lazarski. Arkadiusz said his favorite part of the project was meeting Rutger. “We listened to the music from Observer together. So when he told me that it is really good I knew that we were in the right direction. Also, I just love cyberpunk. So doing a score like this was a real blast and a pleasure,” he said.
Arkadiusz watches Blade Runner at least once a year, but Ghost in the Shell and Akira also inspired his compositions. “I’m deeply in love with Ghost in the Shell and the Akira soundtrack and I wanted to create similar emotions while scoring Observer,” he said. “The game itself is heavily inspired by Ghost in the Shell, but you know…who doesn’t want to be inspired by such a masterpiece.”
With the exception of the singing, all the music in Observer is electronic. This was a departure from his previous work that often featured piano and voice arranged in simpler textures than the ones found in Observer. Arkadiusz said that it was challenging switching to mostly electronic music, but he really wanted to do it.
“Just before I started to work on Observer I bought a Moog Sub 37, and it was my first hardware synth ever,” he said. “I was really happy to put it to work. The love for synths still lasts and is stronger than ever. I like losing track of time and just improvising on my Moog and Dave Smith’s Prophet 6.”
He said the approach to composing for electronic instruments was not very different from composing pieces for real instruments. “I think they all serve a similar purpose – to create emotions and underline what is happening on the screen. But when you write for real instruments you need to be more focused. When it comes to real instruments, I often use a piano. I record pieces on piano and then do mock up and then orchestrate them (although I rarely orchestrate my tracks myself),” he said.
The major difference was how much he improvised while writing electronic music. “Playing on a synth is sometimes like child’s play. Lots of experiments and generally having fun with creating the sound from scratch. When you write a melody for a cello or a piano, you know exactly what kind of melody you’d like to achieve. Experimenting on a synth is interesting because often one sound can create others, which are different but at the same time they fit your vision of the music. Or they don’t and you have to turn the knobs a little more.”
Even the pieces in the Observer soundtrack that appear to have required complex planning were the result of improvising. One of the first tracks features a choir reminiscent of early church music. A set of voices introduces a short theme that is soon taken up by other voices and weaves together in complex patterns. Arkadiusz said that it was all improvisation though.
“The recording session with the band was such a creative and unique experience that I will remember for a long time,” he said. “We sat in the studio and listened to track and thought about what we could do with vocals there. I was prepared before the session, but it turned out that we created something much more interesting by just going with the flow. Those tracks refer mainly to Adam and his mind and they appear only during the ‘dream-eater’ sequences.”
In it, the choir sings in what almost sounds like a real language. “The language was made specifically for this occasion,” he said. “We thought that it would be really interesting, especially for Western audiences. The themes are based on Slavic mythology and chants. They created this unique, dream-like but also dark and ritualistic atmosphere. The only guidance was my background track with drones and such. Then we just sat in the studio and started to improvise. At one time I hade to play an additional rhythm, but in general the voices came into existence really naturally and without notes.”
In parts of the soundtrack, Arkadiusz created a background layer of what sound like real instruments, such as strings, and slides the pitches and distorts the sound to match it with another layer of electronic sounds. It creates a trippy, unbalanced feeling, and it is easy to imagine it being used during a mind-hack sequence.
“It was the result of playing around in post-production,” he said. “There are times when you record something and even put something else in by accident. Just before removing the part of it you realize – hey! That sounded nice, let’s just leave this as it is. I like those kinds of nice surprises.”
Improvising on electronics allowed Arkadiusz to compose complex pieces containing layers of juxtaposing textures, rhythms, and sounds, but he had already set the groundwork for it in some of his previous work. “As far as I remember I created something like this in Kholat,” he said.
Every project brings new skills and experiences that he can use on his next project, even if he doesn’t realize it. “You know, it’s just like in Skyrim,” he said. “You keep using this hammer and suddenly pop! And your skill is better.”
Casual Connect Kyiv 2017 has been going strong in beautiful Kyiv, a city known for its history, creativity and culture, October 24, 25 and 26. And now we have the results of the exciting 20th Indie Prize competition.
Best Game Audio
Best Game Audio was awarded to Kenshō developed by FIFTYTWO, a Russian game studio. Kenshō is a mysterious game that takes place within a ruined room with doors opening onto beautiful landscapes. It is an addictive puzzle game with the player matching blocks and overcoming challenges to unfold the narrative.
Nominated for Best Game Audio were Melody Streaks by Beeble Games of India, a game where the player creates music with every move the character makes; Talking ABC by Hey-Clay of Ukraine, which uses animal characters to make learning fun; and Guns ‘n’ Stories: Bulletproof VR by Mirowin of Ukraine, bringing VR to the Wild West Era.
Paweł Jędrysiak is the Co-founder/Game Designer at Digital Melody. The indie developer created Masky, which was honored with the IGJAM 2016 mobile game category award.
“Participation in game jams let’s you test your skills under pressure of time. It’s also a lot of fun,” said Paweł. “Winning IGJAM 2016 in mobile game category was a truly great award! People appreciate our work while we had tons of fun – for what more could you ask for?”
“Game Jam is an extreme test of our skills as game developers,” Paweł continued. “Working as a team can be compared to a factory. To keep it productive every one needs to focus on their job that’s why we need to understand each other clearly. This kind of experience improves our everyday work. Especially process management and we improve our work as a team.”
The Expanding Polish Development Scene
Digital Melody is supported by Indie Games Polska, a game developer organization in Poland. The organization works to help developers, particularly indies, with support as needed.
Four developers from Poland will be participating in the 20th Indie Prize at Casual Connect Kyiv 2017. The games require skills in racing, shooting, agility, determination and even friendship. To win any of the games you must overcome great obstacles.
Game Title:My Memory of Us Developer: Juggler Games Platform: Desktop Win Website:www.jugglergames.com
Good, evil, human relationships – these are all things children experience differently from adults. My Memory of Us tell the story of two children from different worlds who meet and enjoy their friendship. Unfortunately, war breaks out and they must fight for survival. Robot soldiers are everywhere and some citizens are marked and forced to live in an area sealed behind a huge wall. As much as events seem to be pulling the children apart, their friendship holds them together.