A two person team brings the immersive world of Elea to life with UE4
Leaving their full time jobs within the gaming industry, Koralsky and Todorov formed Kyodai Ltd. so they could bring their elaborate vision for their project Elea to fruition. Being a two man team, Unreal Engine 4’s tools proved to be a vital part of keeping their workflow smooth and development advancing at a regular pace. Of course, that isn’t to say it wasn’t without its challenges. Plenty of hurdles presented themselves over the course of the game’s journey, but with lots of family support and a brotherly relationship in tow, their project was finally released on September 6 for Xbox One and Steam.
Speaking with Koralsky, we explored the trials and tribulations of indie development, the importance of staying grounded, and all the ways in which Unreal Engine 4 helped the co-founders of Kyodai Ltd make their dream of creating their very own game a reality. Elea is the first project from Kyodai Ltd. What can you tell us about the studio, your past experience and what motivated you to dive into indie development?
We are a small, two-person Bulgarian studio, founded in 2015. In regards to industry experience, my partner and I come from vastly different backgrounds.
I have experience in a wide spectrum of game industry disciplines - retail business (brand manager for the Bulgarian branches on companies like SEGA, Nintendo, Ubisoft, THQ and Midway), managing/editor-in-chief for a wide range of print gaming magazines and websites, game-tester and I’m still co-owner of the biggest gaming forum in Bulgaria.
Todor is an architect by education and worked as an environmental artist with Ubisoft where he took an active role in two globally acclaimed AAA projects – Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed: Rogue.
The driving force behind the decision to dive into indie development was simple and straightforward - pure love for the games. Elea is our first project under Kyodai, but it’s not our first attempt at indie game development. While still working our day jobs, we started brainstorming on a SHMUP game for mobile platforms, but the whole thing stalled in the initial stages, mostly because of time constraints. This experience was the main reason for us to leave our full-time jobs and concentrate exclusively on Project Elea (the working title of the game). As we are very close friends, we named our studio Kyodai which mean brothers in Japanese as perfectly describes our working relationship.
For readers unfamiliar with Elea, can you please tell us a little bit about the game and its narrative based gameplay?
Our greatest inspiration for Elea comes from the numerous hours we spent as kids reading and watching sci-fi books and movies including the works of classic authors like Stanislaw Lem and Arthur C. Clarke as well as films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars.
Elea can easily be assigned to the increasingly popular ‘experience’ products, where the mentioned experience, storytelling and emotionally touching moments are paramount to the player’s enjoyment.
Among other themes, the game’s narrative examines the human existence and identity in the context of interstellar travel in the wake of omniscient artificial intelligence. Our approach toward story-driven first-person adventures is a bit different compared to most of the games in the genre.
At the beginning of the development, we asked ourselves, ‘What innovation can we offer to the genre? What can be the distinctive element?’ Of course, the narrative is very important, but every ‘walking simulator’ wants to tell a specific story that different players will understand differently.
As a result of these brainstorming sessions, and the fact that this is our first game, we found out that it would be really hard to stand out when the main catchy element of our game would be just the story. In turn, we chose Elea’s narrative to be told in the veins of the old platformer-like titles, where almost every level is different - a lava level, snow level, underwater level, etc.
We also chose to diversify the locations because we are huge fans of the aforementioned old-school games and also because most of the story-driven FPS adventures offer just one distinctive location, with one specific visual tone. Gameplay wise, Elea is a mixture of all the genre’s tropes.
The story of the game is completely original and it is born from a collaboration between myself, Todor and the screenwriter of the game Decho Taralezhkov. For the role of Elea, we worked with experienced Hollywood actress Leslie Fleming-Mitchell.
The deep space setting for Elea allows for a lot of uniquely lit environments - from flickers in a cold, cramped hallway to epic starlit vistas. How did Unreal Engine help you create these environments effectively?
In the planning stages of the game, we chose Unreal Engine 4 because of the toolset that comes with the engine by default. Unreal is the main reason we can make a game with Elea's scope and visuals by a team that consists of just two core members. The truth is that five years ago, at least in our case, Elea would be an impossible project to create. We can talk only from the perspective of our experience, but the whole workflow of the engine is almost flawless for a small team like ours.
The engine's streaming system provided the opportunity for both of us to work at the same time on different maps without interrupting each other's work. Reusing Blueprints classes was also very, very helpful. Actually, a huge portion of the game is made with the Unreal Engine 4's native visual scripting language. Blueprints are absolutely perfect for our case because of the ease for prototyping gameplay chunks and also because we need very few tick events in our game, so the performance isn't struggling.
For Elea, we are also using fully dynamic lighting - there aren't any prebaked lights in the game. We started with static lights at the beginning of the development process, but because of the scope of Elea and our limited resources, the iteration time was very slow for our needs. Luckily for us, Elea's story is a futuristic one, so we chose to work with a fully dynamic lighting system. This gave us the option for faster iterations of our lighting design and the opportunity to create more dynamic scenes and a specific atmosphere on the fly.
Unreal Engine 4 has many tools at its disposal for developers. What was your favorite tool while developing Elea and why?
As a two-person team, we needed to use the engine in a lot of ways. As for our favorites, the Material editor is absolutely amazing to work with – for both of us. Its node-based system is easy to understand and by default, the limitations are very few and far between.
Of course, Blueprints provide the flexibility for anyone on the team to create gameplay and the opportunity to call C++ events is another powerful tool that we consider a favorite.
Another amazing feature that we love, which helped us to achieve solid performance, was the automatic LOD creation tools.
In the end, the whole engine gives us the opportunity to become kids again, using it as a constructor base to create worlds with specific rules. From our point of view, Unreal Engine 4 is a magic wand with practically limitless potential for learning and creativity. A magic wand that helped us to release our game on PC and Xbox platforms (with full Xbox One X support) at the same time.
Elea is said to be inspired by notable classic sci-fi authors like Frank Herbert, Stanislaw Lem, and Arthur C. Clarke. How difficult was it for you to develop a narrative you were happy with when comparing yourself to such lofty inspiration?
For the narrative part of Elea, we worked with the screenwriter Decho Taralezhkov (he has an excellent track record for writing in the movie industry). In the planning stages, the story underwent a few metamorphoses before we were finally able to say “This is it!” – this is the message we want to convey.
We are perfectly aware that the first episode is very abstract at times and is mostly asking the player questions without giving many answers, but there are explanations and connections for and to everything. Some of them are ‘hidden’ even in the first episode.
Elea tackles some heavy topics focusing on big questions like humanity's place in the universe and the meaning of faith. What hurdles did the team have to jump over as they attempted to put such a weighty narrative together?
The game’s main goal is to tell a nuanced and mature story about grief and acceptance. And as you guessed, this is not an easy task for such a small team. Not just for the writing itself, but also the way everything is presented visually, how the sound design is working in conjunction with the visuals, etc. Most of the music tracks are written by the Bulgarian composer Simeon Hristov exclusively for Elea, and the sound design is made by us.
We faced many limitations during the first episode’s development, and it is not just the technical stuff – managing the whole project was a big challenge as well. From the planning stages, budgeting for us to live while developing the game (remember both of us quit our other jobs) to constant communications with our freelance devs, we were constantly challenged. Of course, we’ve gained some valuable experience during the development of episode one, which, no doubt, will come in handy for the work on the future episodes.
Indie game development is known to be one of the most stressful endeavors any person can take on. With Kyodai being only a two-person team were there any times where you felt like you were in over your head? If so, how did you get past those tough moments?
We are not gonna lie – there were a lot of stressful moments during the development of the first episode of Elea. On one hand this was our first project as a team, on the other, the scale of the game is huge and of course, when you do something for the first time it is only logical to make mistakes along the road.
In these difficult moments, it was very important for us to be supportive of each other – in the end, we are Kyodai (brothers), right? Another big bonus for the game was the fact that we never had a serious conflict between us.
We also have an arcade machine in our working place and when the tension and the weight of the challenges got too high, we just played NBA JAM like crazy.
Of course, the support from our families was also hugely important - our better halves Ralitsa and Slavena helped us with the script and the budgeting. My sister, Virginia, helped us edit the script, and Todor’s father gave us ideas and support.
Now that you've released episode one of Elea, what can players look forward to in episode two (without giving too much away!)?
Because at the beginning of the development the story progression wasn't created with an episodic structure in mind, the players can expect a tangible different tone in episode two – the narrative will be more straightforward and there will be more answers to be found. Let's also say that the memories will still be part of episode two, but this time the players will know for sure when they are triggered.
There will be some new gameplay mechanics and the pacing will be faster – the players will be able to sprint right from the start by design.
Actually, I have to admit that the second episode is already at a playable state, of course, the visuals are on a white box level and the scripting is very basic, but still. From a technical point of view, we will know better how to tackle Xbox platforms on a memory management level this time.
Many people reading are only beginning their journeys into developing with Unreal Engine 4. What advice would you give to someone jumping into Unreal Engine for the first time?
Our advice to the younger (or the ones without any previous experience working with gaming engines) Unreal Engine 4 newcomers is to spend a couple of months with the engine before starting serious development. Make a few gameplay prototypes, learn the basics. The documentation of the engine nowadays is more than generous and there are plenty of tutorials from Epic and the community that can be of assistance. Also, don't be shy to ask for help when you are facing challenges – Unreal's community is excellent and can assist you greatly in these situations.
For the record, both of us spent five months with the first few versions of the engine, just learning the basics, while the game was in the preproduction phase.
Where can people go to learn more about Elea and Kyodai Ltd?
You can learn more about us and the game on our page - www.projectelea.com, our Twitter profile and our Facebook page.