Developer Tigerton’s Jupiter & Mars is leading the way for “Games that Inspire Change”
Working towards providing entertainment with a splash of education, Tigertron strives to create “Games That Inspire Change,” according to their company motto. In doing so, the studio pulls its inspiration from the world around us in an effort to craft experiences that keep players engaged, but also provokes them to pause and reflect on current environmental scenarios.
Created with Unreal Engine 4, Jupiter & Mars is a neon-soaked underwater utopia focusing on unique gameplay elements such as echolocation to bring its environments to life. No stranger to the glow of bright lights contrasted by darkness, Creative Director James Mielke draws on his past experience being a scuba diver and developing games such as Child of Eden and Lumines to create something bold and wondrous for an entirely new audience. We spoke with James alongside artists and programmers from the Jupiter & Mars development team to discover what they hoped to accomplish with the game’s message and discuss how Unreal Engine helped them achieve their goals. Tigertron was founded in 2015 with a motto to create “Games That Inspire Change.” Tell us how the studio came together and why this message is so important to you as a developer.
James Mielke: When I was around 14-15 years old, I did two things that influenced my outlook on life — I joined the Boy Scouts (later than most kids, surely) and I was certified as a scuba diver. These things put me in touch with our natural world, both above and beneath the ocean’s surface. My interest in marine biology, biodiversity, and all things related to these areas almost led me to apply to schools like Cornell University. Instead, I followed the safer path, which was design and illustration at the School of Visual Arts.
Over the next 30 years or so, I split time between doing design work and my eventual role in the editorial field of gaming publications and game development, where I got to put my collective experience to work making games. But after I had two children, I started to get really anxious about the state of the world we lived in. I recalled the later days of my time at 1UP.com when Earth Day would pop up; I spent a lot of time arguing with people who simply couldn’t be bothered to make a symbolic effort to reduce their electricity use for an hour. I’m really bothered by the willful ignorance and denial some people openly flaunt when the science is right there in front of our faces — our planet cannot sustain our current lifestyles. While the planet may survive, its creatures (including us) cannot unless we make some serious and meaningful adjustments.
So, after leaving a half decade of game development experience in Japan behind, I worked for a couple of development studios in New York City. Neither situation was the perfect match for me, so I decided to get off the sidelines and start my own thing while I still could. So at the encouragement of my wife, I brought in my good friend Sam Kennedy, who I’d worked with for over a decade, and formed Tigertron, which in regards to its name is a hybrid of nature and technology.
Instead of leaving the game industry and becoming a full-time environmentalist — which is something I seriously considered — I figured I’d get more mileage out of combining my experience making games with an environmental ethos, and try to get the huge global gaming audience interested in their futures.
Many people would assume that being an environmentally-focused studio means your products fall into the 'edutainment' category, but with Jupiter & Mars, your goal is to make people think and leave an impression on them long after they put down the game. Can you talk a bit about how Jupiter & Mars came together as an idea and what you hope to achieve with its release?
James: Yeah. We’re not trying to make “edutainment.” That term is fine for things that you might find in schools and whatnot, but it doesn’t accurately describe what we’re trying to make. It’s difficult to pave new roads in an industry that is largely formulaic, but being an independent developer lets us try different things. That’s the best part about being small, is that we can work on a game like Jupiter & Mars. We’re a low-risk, high-potential game maker, and that’s just bolted into my head, from my time spent at Q Entertainment in Tokyo, and the similar-sounding but very different Q-Games in Kyoto. I like to make smaller, more nimble games that are interesting, but that don’t overstay their welcome.
I first started dreaming about Jupiter & Mars in Tokyo, after seeing the documentary The Cove, which details the now-annual dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan. Watching that film is a gut check, as there’s no reason to lure in and kill creatures as intelligent and socially diverse as dolphins, but The Cove is also inspiring. It’s encouraging to see these activists and filmmakers use their medium to do something unique and compelling.
Likewise, in partnering with SeaLegacy to help spread their message to an all-new audience, we’re inspired by what they do and how they do it. Instead of proselytizing and trying to holler at people about how bad things are getting, SeaLegacy simply shows you a beautiful photograph, or more accurately a haunting photograph, and lets that spark conversation.
With Jupiter & Mars, we’re hoping to achieve something similar. You’ll see familiar environments like London, Greece, and New York City, but in the very unusual circumstance of being almost completely underwater. If this makes a player wonder whether this could actually happen and inspires them to Wikipedia some stuff, then we’ve helped move the needle. There’s nothing more powerful than an informed, educated, and motivated person. If I can take my concern and form a company and create a video game about the environment, think about what 90 million PlayStation owners could achieve.
Another group that inspires me is the Oceanic Preservation Society, who made The Cove and also the film “Racing Extinction.” Racing Extinction is proof of environmental multimedia in action, collaborating with like-minded tech savvy, environmentally-concerned activists. I’m partly in awe and in tears when I watch the OPS team project visual images and statistics of dying animal species on places like the Empire State Building, the United Nations, and the Vatican. Truly awesome stuff. That’s what Tigertron hopes to do.
Coming soon to PlayStation 4 and PSVR, can you tell us what Jupiter & Mars is about for the readers hearing about the game for the first time?
James: While humans have disappeared from planet Earth, their legacy still haunts the planet leaving behind still-functioning machinery to pollute the oceans in more ways than one. One devastating effect on the oceans is noise pollution; it’s harmful, damaging to sea life, and has been revealed to be one factor that drives whales up on beaches around the world. An ancient race of whales, known as The Elders, enlists the help of the infinitely more nimble Jupiter and Mars to assist them in shutting down acoustic harassment devices (AHD). AHDs were designed by scientists to keep certain sea creatures, like orcas, away from their typical feeding grounds so scientists could conduct their work without danger. Even in instances like this where there’s no malice intended, technology can still be harmful.
There are other environmentally-inspired challenges found in the game, like freeing crabs, manta rays, and others from man-made hazards, but the core of the game is disabling the AHDs so that sea life can return to the reefs and the oceans can thrive again.
It also explores the relationship between Jupiter and Mars. Our game is a very narrative-driven experience. We want people to remember these characters and their predicament for a long time to come. My five-year-old son was in tears over some of the game’s events the other day, and while he is a little young, I do hope this game resonates with people the way my favorite games have stuck with me over the years.
James, your resume includes producing games like Lumines and Child of Eden. At first glance, it's not hard to see that influence in Jupiter & Mars. How did that past experience help as a catalyst for creating the stunning visuals present in the game?
James: When I was preparing to move into game development, I was lucky enough to have a couple offers to choose from. One was from Valhalla Games (ex-Team Ninja guys) and the other was from Q Entertainment, whose alumni have made games like Sega Rally, Rez, Space Channel 5, and others. It was really hard to turn Valhalla’s Tomonobu Itagaki down. As much as I loved Ninja Gaiden, I was more interested in making games like Rez.
Spending those years at Q Entertainment, under the direct tutelage of Tetsuya Mizuguchi, was instrumental in shaping my interests, but to be honest, the aesthetic of those games was always in my DNA. Electronic music, vector graphics, and day-glo colors is something you’re always going to find in stuff that I work on. Mizuguchi-san calls it the “synesthesia engine,” but what that really means is simply reinforcing player feedback. For every action you make in the game, you should feel a visual, audio, and tactile response to what you do. I think this makes perfect sense. You find it at work in Pachinko parlors all over Japan, and it’s part of what makes that game, gambling elements aside, so satisfying to players.
Making video games enables me to work with collaborators who inspire me, in particular musicians and artists. Combine that with the ability to tell the stories I want to tell, my design background comes in handy in being able to package things in ways that are unique and, hopefully, compelling.
Playable in a standard mode and also on PlayStation VR, how hard was it to transition the base game to a VR experience and were there any ways Unreal Engine 4 helped streamline the process?
Harold Absalom (Programmer): Unreal Engine did a lot of the heavy lifting for getting things working in VR. Stripping that back to get things rendering in non-VR was very easy.
Tim Ninnis (Designer): One of the most challenging things was setting up the cameras so that they would work in both formats. In VR, we can't change the camera's pitch to frame the action and we have to minimize unnecessary movement. We set up the cameras so that the action was framed well in non-VR and reverted their pitch to 0 whilst in VR mode, allowing the player to look up or down to where the action was happening whilst keeping the horizon line where they would expect. Panning and forcefully rotating the camera can trigger nausea, so these were used sparingly. The in-game sequencer allowed us to iterate on the camera work reasonably quickly to find solutions that felt comfortable in VR whilst framing the shots well in non-VR.
Partially inspired by games like Ico and The Last Guardian, tell us about how that inspiration has worked into Jupiter & Mars and what other unique mechanics you were able to incorporate with the help of Unreal Engine.
James: Ico and The Last Guardian specifically put you in control, more or less, of two characters. While you primarily control one, you have a companion throughout the majority of both of these games who is reliant on you to varying degrees, for direction and guidance. In Ico, your partner Yorda is fragile, and you can feel her physical weakness whenever she loses your grip or is in danger of being swept away by shadow monsters. In The Last Guardian, you’re heavily reliant on Trico to help you advance in the game, as it has the power that you do not.
In Jupiter & Mars, you are the thoughtful, analytic Jupiter, but Mars is your brute force action button. You can play the game without VR — it looks really sharp on a PS4 Pro — but it certainly takes on a new level of immersion as a virtual reality game. Since most VR games are solitary experiences, we wanted to make sure you never felt alone, especially in the crushing darkness of the deep ocean areas, with only echolocation to light your way. So, from a utilitarian perspective, Mars is there as a companion to help you through the darkness.
Unreal Engine helped us achieve a lot of cool things that were integral to a game-jam-like experience. First, we needed to be able to create large, expansive, unusual environments with a small team. To replicate (with some poetic license taken) familiar cities, that a small team of artists could manage, was integral to the game’s development. Unreal Engine made it possible for both 3D artists and game designers to work together and implement things quickly allowing for iteration and quick turnaround. Since Tigertron is based in NYC, but the development team is based in Melbourne, Australia, speed was of the essence to reduce the reaction time and implementation of feedback and ideas across the world.
The other thing that is our foremost game mechanic is echolocation. We’re throwing a lot of calculations around, as Jupiter casts out echo after echo, lighting up even the darkest areas with the press of a button. This is probably the most “Q Entertainment” type of visual you’re going to see in the game. Using echolocation is like mapping out your immediate environment in an instantaneous neon web of vector visuals that highlights the area’s geometry. Initially, it just looks really cool, but in actual practice, it is integral to the game experience. You’re not necessarily blind playing through the game, but echolocation definitely makes it easier to see key elements that you’re searching for, and in certain areas in the game, it’s essential to being able to “see” clearly. Underwater caves, night-time portions of the game, and deep-sea zones all require echolocation in order to tell you where you’re going.
Items are also color-coded to indicate threat level, so it’s important to keep echolocation pinging, lest you find yourself swimming through a tunnel, only to discover too late that you’re surrounded by poisonous anemone or a jellyfish barrier. I think that without Unreal Engine, it would have been very difficult to achieve all of these things, especially in VR. We decided early on that this was pretty much the only choice for what we wanted to do with the game, and I’m pleased that Jupiter & Mars looks very unlike what people probably associate with an Unreal Engine game. I think this points to the versatility of the engine’s tech.
Over the development of Jupiter & Mars, which of Unreal Engine 4's tools have proven the most valuable and why? Do you have a favorite?
Harold: The most valuable would be Blueprints, which helped our artists directly contribute functionality to the game. My favorite is the Material Editor, though, which is so powerful, and lets you make some truly amazing effects very easily.
Steve Anderson (Programmer): UDN, while not an engine tool, is fantastic. Any stumbling blocks we encountered were often dealt with by another developer already. Being able to access that wealth of knowledge and, if need be, ask our own questions sped production along greatly, especially in the final stages of the game. The particle and material editors are also amazing and allow a huge amount of creative freedom with great accessibility. My favorite part though is probably the animation Blueprints editor. I had a lot of fun there!
Tim: When it came to improving the framerate, the optimization view modes, profiling tools, and statistics were very useful for identifying expensive objects and areas. Auto-LODing was very helpful for optimizing meshes that were too costly. And Blueprints allowed all team members to access and edit many of the commonly used assets.
JJ Garcia (Artist): Terrain & foliage tools! Also, while Blueprints are great for quick development, don’t underestimate the power of C++ coding to support it.
With a wealth of experience behind you in Unreal Engine, what advice would you give to someone deciding to learn the engine for the first time?
Harold: Learn to balance Blueprints and C++. It's easy to get carried away implementing everything in Blueprints because it's so fast to iterate in, but sometimes C++ is the right tool for the job.
Tim: Unreal Engine takes time to learn, but if you stick to it eventually things will become second nature and you'll end up being able to work quickly and efficiently.
There are plenty of tutorials out there and even some very affordable courses. Make the most of them.
Steve: Dive into the example projects and tutorials. There is so much available to see how different things are done, which makes for a great launching off point for your own development.
Where are all the places people can go to keep up with Tigertron and Jupiter & Mars?
James: Anyone who’s interested in keeping up with our exploits, Jupiter & Mars and otherwise, can follow and interact with us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.