By John Gaudiosi
Before being acquired by Epic Games, Chair Entertainment impressed the gaming world with its introductory use of Unreal Engine 3 for the critically acclaimed and successful downloadable shooter, Undertow. Now with Epic’s full resources behind them, the studio has created Shadow Complex, an old school-inspired, side-scrolling action game that further shows off the downloadable content (DLC) potential of the Unreal Engine and also illustrates how this technology can be used beyond the first-person shooter genre.
Donald Mustard, creative director at Chair Entertainment, said his team was inspired by Nintendo’s Super Metroid from a gameplay standpoint. He said the goal was to take the best of that “Metroidvania” style design and combine it with modern design ideas and their own sensibilities.
Shadow Complex, which won nine accolades at its publish unveiling at E3, was created with a team of 11 people, including six artists, three programmers, and two business and marketing reps. Mustard said it was having the full support of Epic and the Unreal Engine that enabled this project to become a reality.
“We shipped Undertow in November 2007, and by February 2008 we had a fully playable version of Shadow Complex up and running,” explained Mustard. “With technology this robust and full-featured we were able to totally focus on crafting a fun and polished game experience, and at the end of the day that’s what is best for the gamer – one hundred percent of our development time was spent creating the game, not the tech. Unreal Engine is the best and most stable game technology in existence, and we were lucky to have it.”
Mustard said the biggest lesson Chair learned from Undertow came from Xbox LIVE Arcade’s original 50 megabyte size constraint. It forced the team to boil the game down to its core essence of fun, and that really carried over into the design of Shadow Complex.
“Undertow was pretty full-featured with 16-player multiplayer, co-op, etc, and it was a great exercise for our team to do all that in just 49 MB,” said Mustard. “Shadow Complex is all about the evolution of the player character. When the game begins you are armed with nothing more than a flashlight and your wits. But as you begin to uncover and explore the shadow complex you will discover that your only chance of survival is to find the Restoration’s high-tech weaponry, steal it, and then use it against them. By the end of the game, you will have transformed from a regular dude into the ultimate engine of destruction.”
Shadow Complex is the first game from the Empire universe. Chair partnered with bestselling author Orson Scott Card to create the universe, which already has a New York Times bestselling book called Empire. Card is authoring two more books, and Warner Bros. and producer Joel Silver have signed on to develop the movie adaptation. And now Shadow Complex offers the origin story for what will ultimately become a modern-day civil war in the United States between the red and blue states.
“In launching the novels first, our intent was to create a universe that would inspire games that complement the story,” explained Mustard. “We wanted a universe that was big enough and rich enough that there could be lots of stories to tell across any medium. With Shadow Complex, we wanted to tell more of the origin story of the Restoration - the fanatical military group whose goal is to collapse America into a new civil war. We thought it would be cool to reveal that story through the eyes of a regular guy who just happens to stumble across one of their secret underground facilities. Plus, it worked perfectly with the type of gameplay we wanted to feature.”
Mustard said that from a premise standpoint, his team grew up with the opinion that G.I. Joe was one of the coolest things ever. They loved the dichotomy of high-tech bad guy versus low or regular tech good guy. That core idea was the catalyst for the Empire franchise. And that plays out in the Shadow Complex game.
“Working together (with Card) on the books and game designs really allowed us all to develop the larger plot and ideas that are core to the franchise,” added Mustard. “Once we had firmly established the who’s and why’s, we were able to map out how we wanted everything to fit together. It has been amazing to work with Scott on something from the ground up that we can fully collaborate on together.”
Mustard said that most gamers will take anywhere from 10 to 12 hours to get through their first play-through of the game – and they will have just begun to uncover all of the mysteries of Shadow Complex.
“There is so much in the game for the player to explore and discover – there are over 120 power-ups, and tons of secrets to find,” added Mustard. “We think this really adds to the replayability factor of the game and will have players going back again and again to find new ways to complete the game.”
One of the unique weapons in the game is the foam gun, which is a device that allows players to shoot quick-hardening foam anywhere in the environment. This lets gamers build their own cover, make their own bridges, and even clog up the rotors of helicopters so they crash to the ground. Mustard said this weapon really encourages some crazy gameplay and will let players pull off some incredible moves.
Looking ahead, Mustard believes Shadow Complex will show other game developers, as Undertow did before it, that Unreal is ripe for DLC content.
“I am thrilled to see some of the truly awesome games that are being released digitally by smaller teams,” said Mustard. “I know for us UE3 is the backbone of our success. We are able to make games much quicker and at very reasonable cost, but still achieve a very high production and content value. We have a very small team but because of the Unreal Engine, we don’t have to make small games – they get to be epic.”
It’s fitting that this epic game comes from a studio now owned by Epic Games. Shadow Complex will deliver a full game experience for a fraction of the cost, allowing gamers to download the action-packed experience straight from Xbox LIVE Marketplace and into their living rooms.