July 31, 2018

Embarking on an Emotional Journey in the Student Game “Hollowed”

By Project Polish Productions

Hello, we are Leah Augustine, Douglas Halley, Paul Salas, Charley Choucard, Jerrick Flores, Brandon Kidwell and Erin Marek - otherwise known as Project Polish Productions, a team of graduate students at the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy. We recently completed our Capstone game, Hollowed, and we wanted to give you more insight into the game's creative process and its overall development in UE4.

How the Project Started

Hollowed was our team’s “Capstone” game for our Master’s program, which made it equivalent to a Master’s Thesis’. Through this Capstone process, our group of student game developers — with minimal game development experience —  would come together and develop a game through an entire project cycle. The Capstone process was slightly game-ified for our cohort.  Development would be under constant evaluation by our professors who, acting as pseudo-stakeholders, had the ability to “cut” a project, ending its development and requiring the students on that team to join another project. With the intricacies of the Capstone, the stakes were high - develop an incredible game, or get cut.

The intimidating context was fuel for us, and we took to the stage with fervor. Our team had one core ambition above all else - we were determined to make a polished game that could be released and viewed as more of an “indie” game rather than a “student” game. This goal of polish made us more considerate of any possibility where our game could get cut and further informed our decision-making when it came to scope, design, any many other aspects of Hollowed’s development. It even became the basis for our team’s name: Project Polish (pō-lish) Productions.



It took a lot of iteration for us to find our way to our final style. Initially, we were heavily influenced by the game Ori and the Blind Forest and the films of Studio Ghibli. This led us to try hand-painted textures for our assets. We did a few early experiments with this workflow in Substance Painter and it can be seen in our vertical slice demo of the game from February 2017.


After the rush to create the vertical slice, we took a step back and really analyzed the game again. We realized a few things. The textures felt muddy and things were getting lost. As a 3D side scrolling platformer, readability is crucial to the players. Another issue was time. As students with a relatively small team and short development time, the amount of effort needed to create quality hand painted textures was too much.

These constraints heavily influenced the style we landed upon although we still took influence from Ori and the Blind Forest and Studio Ghibli for their use of color, fantastical elements, and mood/themes. We decided to also look at other games in similar genres. Games like Inside, Journey, and the work of artist Mikael Gustafsson became huge influences. Clean silhouettes, exaggerated lighting, color, and contrast became the tentpoles of our style.
With a little more direction, we went back to our vertical slice and made changes to try and reflect our new style. This was a test to feel out a new and improved workflow to our asset creation and lighting.
Although we ended up reworking this scene before the release of the game, this proved a few things for us. First, asset creation was indeed faster. We could now focus mostly on shape, and textures could be more simplified. We could skip a high poly to low poly workflow for most assets and utilize flat colors for things in the distance that would only appear silhouetted. Secondly, this felt closer to the mood we were trying to nail down for the game. Things felt a lot more fantastical and otherworldly, while at the same time reading a bit more clean to players. 

It was a bit easier to proceed once our style was nailed down, even though this wasn't the end of our iterations. Throughout almost the entire project we wanted Halia's journey to go from daylight, to night time, to dawn. This meant that early parts of our game needed the lighting to reflect that. When we completed the first chapter of the game, we took a step back and looked at it. Although we felt we were in a better place than the vertical slice, we still weren't satisfied. Our team noticed that with the daytime lighting there was a lack of contrast between the real world and the underworld (where Halia would spend most of the game). Narratively and design-wise we needed these two worlds to feel and look different; however, both worlds looked dull. The underworld didn't look appealing because it did not have the saturated and exaggerated colors we were able to get in our reworked vertical slice.
We decided to make the entire game take place during the night, leading into dawn at the end of the game. Because of that, we were able to really push the light and colors. Not only did this give us more contrast between the real world and the underworld, but it also provided a stronger narrative parallel to Halia's journey into darkness and arriving at a new dawn.
During the process, we experienced a lot of back and forth when it came to art. For future projects, we believe more time in pre-production would be key. Unfortunately, with our very short development phase we couldn't devote too much time before we had to move into production. All in all, we appreciate all the hard work our artists put into the game and we are extremely proud of where we were able to take it. Prior to completion, we ended up having to redo textures, lighting, and set dressing several times to get where we needed to be. None of this could have been accomplished without the hard work of everyone on the team.

Tech Art

To achieve the visual style for Hollowed it was important to standardize how our Materials were setup. Initially, functionality had to be copy/pasted across multiple Materials. Material functions allowed us to re-use and edit functionality and have it permeate out. Using Material Instances, Parameters, and Material Functions, we were able to create Materials that non-artist team members could use. This saved us time since we could tweak Materials in-engine without having to go to an external tool to edit and then re-import them.

Materials Instances were also created and manipulated within Blueprints in order to animate textures. By using Lerps and time within a Blueprint we were able to control Parameters in a material behaviour, resulting in moving textures. Examples of this can be seen in Hollowed when the lover disintegrates and when the god’s arm appears and disappears in the intro. 
UE4’s Material Editor is so powerful that we are able to access aspects of how a given scene is rendered. This allowed us to make post processing and rendering tricks to make the visual aesthetic unique. Since UE4 is open source, our programmers modified how UE4’s render operates in order to control how they can reveal a hidden world within the levels of Hollowed. By applying a Material Function to an object, they were able to create a stencil and either hide or reveal that object to the player: 



As a team, Project Polish was fascinated by how movies and video games could convey powerful and interpretive lasting emotions through storytelling, visuals, and imagery. Ghibli movies like Spirited Away and games like Inside were the base of our inspiration. Spirited Away’s beautiful imagery and Inside’s storytelling without a single word were the base for our game.

Once we had our inspirations, we started to interpret and adapt them to create a new vision and design for our game. It was clear to us that we wanted to create a game that would convey the feeling of melancholy. An emotion that lies between happiness and sadness can be very personal and interpretive per individual. We built a story and a world that could reflect that feeling. This ultimately lead to the stages of grief becoming a clear foundation for our story, world, and mechanics. 
The key to basing the mechanics around the stages of grief was to create a strong foundation to ensure that the player would never feel lost. Each ability state had to create an interaction that affected both the heroine and the spirit. From there, our team would interpret what each stage meant for them and how it could be adapted into a mechanic. With Denial, for example, we interpreted this stage as the inability to face the reality of the world. This inspired the reveal mechanic, a way of showing objects that were not there in the first place. This was a satisfying way for us to portray how the heroine was unable to clearly perceive the world for what it was and only with the help of her spirit could she temporarily face her reality.
Overall, like Inside, it was clear for us that our game was meant to be a journey of discovery for our players. It was our pursuit to make sure that nothing was ever on the nose. We wanted players to interpret our game as they see fit. For us, if a player was able to create their own story that satisfies him or her during their playthrough, even if it is vastly different than what we had in our minds during development, then our game experience would become all the more richer for it.

Level Design

The tools associated with the Level Editor were a boon, allowing quick iteration on Blockmesh Maps and several ways to accomplish creating the base shape of a level. UE4  provides us with basic shape Static Meshes, but also provides us with the ability to use “brush shapes” for more customizable block mesh shapes. Using a Box Brush, it was easy to create a box, scale it up then hollow it out. From there, it was easy to duplicate that box and scale it down into the shape of a door and cut out as many doorways needed. In a matter of seconds the base shape of a room was created.
It was also possible to take time to create more complex geometry inside a room, then convert the brush to a Static Mesh for an artist to pull out for scale. UE4 provides many of the basic tools needed from 3D modeling programs and places them at the fingertips of the designer. Iteration became simple because whatever needed to be altered was easily cut, modified, or shaped to what it represents. Combining these tools with the Material Editor and the Level Designer, our team was able to move expeditiously while creating an accurate representation of the intended level.

Thank you for reading. We hope this recap of the work put into Hollowed encourages or inspires you in some way. To learn more about the project, please visit Project Polish Productions.

Hollowed is available for free on Steam. You can also follow Project Polish Productions on Twitter and YouTube.

The Team

Intel University

Project Polish ProductionsThe-Team-1---Project-Polish-Productions.jpg

Erin Marek - Project Lead
Charley Choucard - Lead Designer
Leah Augustine - Lead Artist
Louis Hofer - Lead Programmer
Paul Salas - Character Artist
Matthew Trupiano - Character Artist
Melissa Almirall - Animator
Will Perez-Valines - Animator
Douglas Halley - Art Manager / Technical Artist
Yunhao Huo - VFX / Technical Artist
Anthony German Ballinas - Environmental Artist
Brandon Kidwell - Writer / Level Designer
Gabi Capraro -  Level Designer 
Cameron M. Schwach - UI/AI Technical Designer
Jerrick Flores - Audio/Technical Designer
Kayla Garand - Audio Designer
Martin Holtkamp - Gameplay/Graphics Programmer
Siddharth Suresh - Gameplay/Animation Programmer

Special Thanks

Richard Hall
Tom Carbone
Ron Weaver
Bailey Steggerda
Jackson King