6.10.2016

Innovation and Imagination Collide in the UE4-Crafted Solitairica

By Daniel Kayser

While solitaire has been a gaming staple around the world since the mid-18th century, the digital age has brought about the opportunity to experience the classic card game in all-new ways. But with hundreds (if not thousands) of solitaire games and apps already available to consumers, how would a developer go about delivering something fresh that truly differentiates itself from the crowd? 

Well, Righteous Hammer’s Solitairica seeks to answer this question by taking RPG combat and challenging roguelike progression to a fresh new place - the world of solitaire. By using a variety of magical items and powerful spells, players are tasked with battling their way through a horde of ever-changing enemies in an attempt to defeat the horrible Emperor Stuck.

With a compelling premise and lots of promise for future growth, I reached out to Righteous Hammer’s Creative Director Clint Jorgenson and Technical Director Joe Van Zeipel to discover more about the recently-released project’s path from concept to completion.

 

Q: How did the concept for Solitairica come about?
 
CLINT: This is going to sound nuts, but when Unreal first announced it would license the engine to everyone a while back, Joe and I joked that we should make a totally badass hyper realistic solitaire game on Unreal. Use it as a way of learning the engine and diving into it, as well as just doing something silly.
 
Then, with that thought hanging in my mind, I started thinking about solitaire and how there are a ton of games out there that have added basic mechanics like locking a column, or tapping a card twice to remove it. I am a huge fan of hybrid RPG games such as puzzle quest, so one day the light bulb went off as I asked myself, "why hasn't anyone used solitaire as the basis for an RPG game?"
 
What followed was rounds of prototyping starting with a normal 52 card deck, then a series of flash prototypes experimenting with different mechanics until we landed on the fundamentals that worked - Energy, Enemy turns and Spells.
 
Q: Who do you feel is your target audience for the game?
 
CLINT: One of the things Righteous Hammer is trying to do is appeal to everyone and not second guess our decisions based on demographics too much. Things like "hey, the use of all these hearts could be alienating to the hardcore male 18-34 gamer market so maybe make it a big pizza" always bother me and it’s part of why we started our own company.
 
That being said, I think there are fans of specific genres who will be almost certain to love our game. People who like laid back solitaire/puzzle games, turn based strategy and card games will especially dig this as a fresh experience. I would also add to that list people who enjoy a challenge with a good dash of luck (it is solitaire after all...) so people who like roguelikes, board games, CCGs will love it too.
 
Q: How does player progression work in Solitairica?
 
CLINT: You journey through a gauntlet of 18 dynamic, increasingly difficult enemies followed by a final boss, Emperor Stuck. Taking him down is the goal of the game, defeat the Armies of Stuck!
As you progress on your Journey, you earn coins which you use to buy new spells and items which make you more powerful. When you are defeated (and you will be often as the game is challenging!), you lose everything from that run, but are rewarded with Wildstone based on your efforts. Wildstone is then used to purchase new decks and powerful upgrade cards for your deck which can be anything from an energy boost to a flying dagger that destroys a card.
 

Q: Procedural enemies help to keep things both entertaining and fresh. What can you tell us about the foes we’ll face in the game?
 
CLINT: There are 18 enemies introduced 3 at a time in 6 regions, in a randomized order. They each have a unique base deck of 20 cards. To mix up the experience, traits are added which shuffle in extra cards, or tweak the conditions of the match. These traits become extra words added to the name. So on one run you may fight a Colossal Ice Skelezoid and the next a Flying Skelezoid Beard Priest. Those battles would feel nothing like each other, and you might slot your spells and items very differently. That is a big part of the skill in Solitairica, preparing a build to counter your enemy.
 
All the enemies and traits in the game try to be as wild and original as possible, one of our first thoughts was "no one wants to chase the wolves away from the farm or be ambushed by goblin bandits on the road ever again". So you definitely get some absurd combinations which is part of the fun. Like, we may be the first game with a flying beard priest...I will have to double check that though.

Q: How do the Attack, Defense, Agility and Willpower energies work in the game?
 
CLINT: The four energies each have a unique gameplay theme. Attack is about destroying cards. Defense is about armor, counters and stuns. Agility is about time and the tableau, things like splitting a column in two, drawing an extra card or peeking at face down cards. Willpower is healing and arcane, the cool magic spell stuff.
 
Every card in the tableau has a type and when you remove a front card you gather that resource. There are coin cards, even Wildstone cards, but most hold one of the four energies. You can store up to 10 of each energy type and you use that energy to cast spells.
 
Your deck has 2 energy types in it, and every card you turn will grant you an energy, which makes the various decks interesting. Beyond the exclusive spells and upgrades each deck has, the two energies which form your foundation have a dramatic effect on the feel of the game. It really works out to feel just like the classes they represent. Rogue is deadly and fast paced, but vulnerable if it runs out of steam. Paladin has crazy survivability but can be slow.

Q: Solitairica has a visually stunning art style. Did you land on it right away or did it take numerous attempts to lock down its unique identity?
 
CLINT: Thank you, it has been super cool to see the reaction to it, it gives us energy to keep trying new ideas.
 
Creatively, I love the 70s and early 80s fantasy before it got locked into these tropes like “a dwarf has a coarse beard knotted into a bronze ring and sounds Scottish and if he doesn't well...it's wrong.” I know it’s a common gag to have a ninja riding a laser dinosaur and poke fun of that era, but when you think about stuff like Tron, Labyrinth, NeverEnding Story, Dark Crystal, Dragon's Lair...it's intense stuff! It's DARK. But it is also fun. Like the part of Dragon's Lair where he is in an endless dimension of colorful checkers with balls rolling around...why is that in the castle? Why not, it's insanely cool. Our audio design is also inspired by this era. Listen to 80s fantasy audio design...super synth based, cosmic...just a blast.
 
Wizard of Oz is another one I love...just, wildly creative. Flying monkeys descending upon a girl and a scarecrow, tin man...like seriously think about that. Think about coming up with that from nothing...it’s an inspiration.  I think it's an issue these days that we talk ourselves out of great ideas. There was this rule I had in my head over the years of AAA, the ideas where everyone would laugh, then there was a pause, then someone would say "yeah we can't do that though". Those were the ones that got away.
 
So, the illustration work is this pent up explosion of the kind of creative I have been dying to do. I have always been inspired by Robert Crumb, 80s cartoons, Mad Magazine, Adventure Time, Heavy Metal Magazine...stuff like that. Wildly imaginative, line illustrated art. So mostly it clicked right away but we did have a few evolutions along the way.
 
When working out the first enemy, Elklops, we hit on one key part of this particular look.  Having the line colors be lit rather than one solid color, but also separate from the fill...not trying to blend them. Instead of pushing the lines back, make them a flashy part of the illustration. It ended up being really fun looking and the unifying thing about our art style.
 
Joe and I both have a taste for really clean, crisp art with really well thought out hierarchy. So the other iterations were usually minimizing, simplifying and boiling things down.
 
With the other areas, like animation, graphic design, typography, Joe and I tend to send things back and forth a couple times improving on each other's attempt. It's basically a jam session and it really works out. I don't think we have hit an impasse doing that yet!

Q: Solitairica seems like the type of experience that’s easy to learn, but hard to master. How difficult was it to find the balance that makes the game both approachable and richly rewarding?
 
CLINT: One tough choice was sticking with the difficulty curve knowing it might polarize the reaction to the game, as there is a luck element already inherent in solitaire. We have some great playtesters who were clearly addicted to it, so we listened to them over someone playing a few levels and making an offhand comment that it needs to be easier. It's solitaire, it just isn't as fun if it doesn't have that nail biting tension of coming down to the wire.
 
There is definitely more mastery than meets the eye! Out of the gates people often have the impression that it is all luck, but there are quite a few subtle tactics in the game that aren't obvious at first. The game definitely grows as you unravel those things and it’s rewarding to get more and more perfect with your tactical choices.
 
Another layer of skill is knowing your enemy and preparing for that. One difficult design choice was not giving the player an exact breakdown of every enemy card - part of the fun is playing it multiple times and learning your enemies and traits and experimenting in how to counter them.
 
Q: Why did you choose Unreal Engine for the development of Solitairica and how did it help you accomplish your goals - especially as a 2D game?
 
JOE: Before Epic announced Unreal Engine 4, we had spent a couple years working on small game prototypes in our spare time. Since we were both artists, mastering a programming language was enough of a challenge and building the engine ourselves bogged us down. We were persevering, but progress was slow to say the least!
 
We knew that we needed to speed our development loop up significantly and started looking into Unreal Engine 4 when it was announced. Being both programmers and artists, the Blueprint system really hooked us. There are some things that are so much easier to accomplish when they can be controlled independently of code. The development time it takes to tweak an animation is so much faster when we only need to spend a few seconds tweaking a timeline node in a Blueprint and then hit a big “Play in Editor” button to see if it feels right.
 
Although we initially envisioned Solitairica as a 2D game, we didn’t want to limit ourselves to only using a grid of sprites. We wanted our toolbox to be big enough to do some really cool things that just aren’t possible in a 2D coordinate space. Unreal makes it as easy as checking a box to toggle between a 2D isometric camera and 3D camera, so we were able to quickly find the right balance for our game.
 
Q: Considering the fact that Righteous Hammer is a very small studio, how does working in Unreal Engine help you get the most out of your development time?
 
JOE: Having just gotten familiar with C++ by the time we installed Unreal, the community and support network were invaluable in helping us get up to speed writing game code and not having to worry about allocating and freeing memory or counting references ourselves. The macros built into the engine’s codebase allowed us to focus on building our game rather than writing unnecessary code to get some system talking to another system...everything just works out of the box!
 
Blueprints are where we get the most out of our development time. We can easily leave the code to handle the complex logic and let the Blueprint drive our visual feedback. For example, when a card is destroyed we want to have an impactful animation that may last several seconds. The code handles all the dirty-work of making sure the right card is destroyed and then sends an event to the Blueprint to trigger our effect. The Blueprint only cares about that particular event and controls the animation through a timeline node. Once it’s finished, it tells the code we can move on to the next card in the queue. The code is quick to write and easy to understand because it just needs to handle our game logic. The Blueprint is faster to iterate on because it’s only job is to handle the animation.
 
One of the biggest advantage to us is Unreal’s robust multi-platform support. One common project can be built on any number of platforms without the need for any hacks or branching to make things run correctly. We don’t need to carve out a huge chunk of our development budget in order to stand up a version of Solitairica for Mac or iOS, we can just hit a button and it works.

 
Q: How did the Unreal Dev Grant, which you received in March 2016, impact the development of Solitairica?
 
JOE: The Dev Grant has opened a lot of doors for us. Right away, we were able to hire an amazing composer, Matt Black, to score the game. Incorporating his music brought the game’s experience up to a whole new level! Secondly, the grant gave us some much-needed flexibility. We brought on a couple people to assist with our marketing efforts, allowing us to focus more of our time on polishing the final bits of the game and fixing a few last-minute bugs our beta testers found.
 
Q: Solitairica is a premium game that doesn’t feature ads or in-app purchases. Why did you choose this pricing approach for the game?
 
CLINT: We were inspired by some of the indie developers who still make really tight, polished premium games on mobile like Ustwo, Tiny TouchTales, Mika Mobile, Capybara. There is a definite design and feel difference between a game driven by microtransactions and one that is premium. We play both, enjoy both, but felt it was a bit more in our wheelhouse to make a contained, complete experience with a premium title.
 
For Solitairica, beyond the core mechanic being fun, the main design goal was to make the final looming Castle really meaningful. We showed no video of the boss fight and have only flashed his image in the trailer because we want getting to that point to be an emotional moment and a huge deal! That kind of design feels like it works better as a premium game to me. Solitairica is kind of an old school game - challenging, with an end goal.
 
Q: Now that the game has launched, what are your ongoing goals for Solitairica?
 
JOE: We’re just getting started with Solitairica! The positive response so far has been absolutely fantastic and we’ve been getting some great feedback since our launch on Steam. Right now we’re concentrating on fine tuning the experience, adding in the great suggestions our players have shared with us, and building in a big new feature to coincide with our iOS launch this fall.
 
Q: Where can our community go to learn more about (and start playing) Solitairica?
 
The website is a great place to start. We’re available on both Steam and the Humble Store.

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