Developer Invisible Walls creates asymmetrical multiplayer game with no previous Unreal experience
Players take on the role of one of the last remaining survivors on this ship as it experiences severe technical difficulties. Chief among these problems is that both the A.I. and onboard robotic servants have decided to kill every human onboard. They’ve already wiped out most of the passengers by simply turning the air off, but a lucky few with Oxygen Rebreathers survived.
The band of surviving players must now work together to try and reset the A.I. to revert it to a non-homicidal state, but all is not as it seems. Some of the survivors are robots in disguise, and cooperation is key to success, but trust will be in short supply as players attempt to figure out who the robots in their ranks are.
First Class Trouble has gone through a handful of changes throughout development. We spoke with Creative Director Sebastian Hurup Bevensee, who elaborated on the tools and processes that are helping studio Invisible Walls develop the game. What was key to First Class Trouble’s conceptualization and development?
Creative Director Sebastian Hurup Bevensee: Our concept has gone through a pretty hard birth so far. We actually built a prototype in the first couple of months, which on paper seemed fun, but when we played it in a more complex setting, it proved to offer very little replayability and wasn’t that engaging. What we wanted to facilitate was a high degree of information exchange, because that is, at its core, trust inducing. However, the mechanics and design we had chosen did the opposite and was, at points, almost boring. It hit us hard because we had to decide whether it was sunk cost or if it was merely a question of small changes to our design. In the midst of that process, we recognized a lot of the flaws that didn’t make it appealing, and we started to recognize those elements and design choices that would make it a fun game to play.
Now, the design is a lot better, and with the help of the Unreal Engine team, we have had the opportunity to test it with audiences in Cologne and at Nordic Game. Testing with non-biased players and communicating with your end users is at the core of creating a great experience.
However, whenever you are doing anything artistic, it is natural to doubt yourself along the way. It seems to be a flowing motion; where at times, we can get very excited about how well it works. We then work on it, test it, play it, and then get “tired” of it, which causes us to start doubting it. So, up until release day, we’ll be unsure of whether we have made something that is appealing. It ultimately comes down to if the audience likes it. And we will try to involve them as much as we can along the way.
Did prior experience with Unreal Engine inspire some of the decisions that went into the game?
Bevensee: Funnily enough, it did not. We started using UE with this project and we were really surprised by how fast we learned to use it. The flexibility and openness of the engine made it easy for us to tailor the engine to achieve our visual and gameplay goals. Even in a project like First Class Trouble, where the game changed a lot from its early stages, we really appreciated how adaptable the engine scaled to the different needs of the project.
Beforehand in our other projects, we had sometimes felt a bit hindered by the specific game engine, which at times negatively influenced our decision making. Now we can develop for all platforms and know that the end goal will function as intended.
What was the team’s history with other engines prior to this project? Why was Unreal Engine a good fit?
Bevensee: We have previously primarily worked with CryEngine, where we developed our previous game Aporia: Beyond the Valley. We really enjoyed our partnerships with Crytek, but it became quite evident that UE4’s development was at a different level. So, when we were done with the project, we looked at our options. A lot of people would expect us to use Unity because we are a Danish studio coupled with Unity being [founded in Denmark]. However, with the type of game we’re making, we instead decided to go with UE4 due to how well it performs. We really like how fast-paced implementation of the roadmap appeared to be and the Blueprints system seemed to be as powerful, if not more powerful than the flowgraph system. Moreover, because we put a large emphasis on visuals, it seemed like UE4 offered the fastest and most affordable way to reach our visual goals.
What Unreal tools helped the team realize that visual fidelity?
Bevensee: We have extensively used UE’s post-processing effects to achieve our unique visual style. Moreover, the Material system and shaders really help create a unified and coherent visual presentation across the board. The mere fact that what the engine shows you in the editor is what the player sees in the game makes it tremendously easy to achieve the visual fidelity. Even a novice designer can create something beautiful effortlessly.
Furthermore, lighting and VFX in UE4 has an incredibly low-performance cost on hardware, which means we can reach an even higher level of aesthetics while creating a deep and rich presentation to players across different graphical specs. It is important to us that players and audiences have a sense of awe and wonder when they traverse the space cruise ship, because on a space cruise ship, it should be almost magical. Filling the ship with procedural light and particle effects really helps in achieving that feeling.
Beyond social interactions, what are the other ways players will be able to interact with their surroundings as players work to find the robotic Personoids and human residents?
Bevensee: This is a game about social interaction, but we didn’t want to just build a 3D tabletop board game where people stand around and discuss who to get rid of. There are other types of games in this genre, which focus a lot on stealth, disguise, and [dispatching your enemies]. We really wanted to keep the core experience centered around trust, because that makes the betrayal or deceit that much more powerful. So, a lot of the interactions are created to build trust. You will need to work together opening doors in some areas, and you need to put your life in the hands of others, such as with the “emergency airlock” in order to get items that let you progress in the game. You need to replenish your oxygen tank. You need to pick up passenger logs that give you information about other players and you will need to explore the areas for key cards that allow the whole team to progress. These mechanics will require you to work with other people to get them and facilitate a social gaming experience.
Besides the core mechanics, we want the game to emanate a 50’s leisure cruise [motif]. This means lots of cigars, cigarettes, and alcohol all over the place; because if you are on a cruise to the stars, you should have a good time on the way there, and those things are synonymous with the 1950s. For instance, you can pick up champagne bottles and knock other players unconscious just for the fun of it, or you could use them to your advantage. When people die, they aren’t immediately taken out of the game; instead, they become one of the many robotic vacuum cleaners that roam the ship, knocking over furniture in front of the other players and generally messing about, while still being able to follow the rest of the game.
Of course, the environments will have unique mechanics that fit with the given environment; for example, playing dress-up at the mall or getting drinks at the ship’s bar.
What inspired the decision to build this social experience within a sci-fi world?
Bevensee: Our first game, Aporia: Beyond the Valley, was an ambitious semi-open world adventure puzzle game with a big emphasis on story. We think coming from the Nordics, we have a strong tradition of storytelling. We are a team who really likes world-building. It’s sort of in our DNA.
Science fiction is a great genre, because it allows you to explore both the dystopian and utopian aspects of the human condition, without it becoming too “academic.” Sci-fi has a great storytelling tradition with so much inspiration to draw upon. It allows us to create imaginary worlds that you can traverse around in. The genre is not just a backdrop, but instead, for us, science-fiction is a sandbox that opens up endless possibilities. It has allowed us to elevate the gameplay so you can be serious without losing the thrill that [you’re] playing a game. Trust and deceit is a pretty serious topic when it comes down to it, but with First Class Trouble, we, first of all, want to create a super entertaining game that facilitates having a lot of fun with your friends.
Moreover, we wanted to create an experience where your appearance matters. The 1950s is a very expressive time period with very well-defined social roles, which works great for a game like this. The 50s also stand as a very civilized period in our society (which, of course, wasn’t). And we wanted to play around with those structures and dichotomies of civilized feeling vs. brutal mob-like behavior.
The sci-fi element helps us in every part of the design, as we can bend all the rules. When we play games, we do it to escape. Hopefully, we are on the path to do that. A lot of the fun in playing a game is the ability to be someone or do something you can’t do in real life.
Are there any key Unreal Engine development tools that were instrumental in realizing First Class Trouble’s ideas?
Bevensee: Blueprints! The Blueprints system has been one of the decisive factors when developing First Class Trouble. As a studio, we are quite starved for dedicated back-end programmers and therefore need the capability for any member on the team to design and implement their own ideas into the game. We are comprised of a lot of generalists on our team. Therefore, our knowledge, which is basically “a little bit of everything,” is really helped along by the Unreal Engine Blueprints system as it takes our “generalist” knowledge and visualizes for us. It presents it on the screen clearly and makes it easy to forge new connections. It is a highly versatile development tool throughout the prototype and production phases. Its ease of use and speed in which you can combine the different elements of the engine facilitate us to achieve our overall design goals.
Another instrumental UE feature was the network model, because with First Class Trouble, we ventured into something we hadn’t done before; namely real-time online multiplayer. As a team, we have experience creating single-player games and moving into multiplayer was, to put it bluntly, nerve-wracking. To go from a state where everything seamlessly worked as intended to the fact that we now had to work with clients, servers, replication, and so forth. It really was a daunting task, but when we got the general understanding of it all, we really benefited from the way UE4’s networking is set up. UE4, being built around the client-server model, already includes a basic framework for networked games that gave us a solid foundation to work with. It’s quite easy, in relative terms, to reach the goals of our game design given how everything is connected and well-documented.
How has First Class Trouble evolved since starting as Project Cainwood? What inspired the official name?
Bevensee: Going from Project Cainwood to First Class Trouble has been a long and winding path. Initially, the game was a cabin/ranch in the woods title where you played as different flat colored characters. This is where the name Cainwood originated, i.e. “CAbIN in the WOODs,” and Cain was the biblical character who killed his brother. So, it was a great working title. However, it mostly functioned as a minimal viable prototype for the core concept of a game based on trust and deceit. We then talked for weeks and decided to transform the game into a more arctic setting, ala “The Thing,” however, the eerie, action-paced, and more horror-oriented direction eliminated a lot of things that we felt were imperative for the vision we were looking for. For example, when people are scared, they are not really communicating. As we transitioned into the new setting, we knew we had to change the name of the game. We kept CAIN as the name of the “Central Artificial Intelligence Network,” because it's still a great reference to the ultimate betrayal between two brothers.
Considering First Class Trouble’s art direction features a lot of retro-future designs, was it at all influenced by the Tex Avery cartoon “The House of Tomorrow?”
Bevensee: Quite early in the development, we fell in love with the creative possibilities that science fiction could provide for the game. Science fiction, as a genre, opens up to a lot of world-building, which we as a team love. From a historical perspective, it serves as a great genre to frame more serious topics in an exciting and thrilling way. We started to envision how our space future could look, and how other people have tried to predict the future in the past. It obviously became quite evident that the future is not progressing as fast as people predicted it.
Modern technology is far less integrated into everyday objects than has been imagined in a lot of sci-fi. In our homes today, technology sits among classic interior design; for instance, a table is still a pretty solid concept and hasn’t changed that much. This is where we saw a unique take on the art style and overall feel. We started to think about how a 1950’s technological vision could be paired with some of the many traditional design aesthetics still used today. Being a Danish developer, this meant utilizing some of our renowned design legends as an influence for the interior. This is also exactly where we fell in love with classics such as the “The House of Tomorrow,” but also classics such as “Westinghouse All-Electric House,” Jacques Tati’s “Mon Oncle,” General Motors’ vision of the highways “Key to the Future,” and Disney’s “Monsanto House of the Future,” EPCOT center, and so forth.
What “The House of Tomorrow” perfectly combines is the marriage of humor and technological innovation. We strive to have as many mechanics and design elements as we can from that world combination; of course the humor in First Class Trouble is not quite as satirized as it is in "The House of Tomorrow," but it is important for us that the actions that you carry out allow for humorous role-play between players. For example, the spectating robotic vacuum cleaners that knock over furniture in front of other players.
Where are all the places people can go to learn about First Class Trouble?