January 8, 2020
Former Rocksteady devs form new studio to develop indie darling Trials of Fire
In our discussion, they talk about their influences and elaborate on how they eschewed pen and paper to prototype the game entirely in-engine. They also detail how they came up with the game’s stylized hand-drawn visuals and integrated Trials of Fire’s beautiful particle effects. Being a rogue-like game, they talk about how they created a challenging bite-sized gameplay loop and leaned on “semi-procedural” techniques to create the game’s world. As a new indie studio, they also share developmental learnings and tips. With an extensive background working at Rocksteady, can you elaborate on the specifics of your combined development experience?
Game Director Adam Doherty: I worked at Rocksteady for 10 great years as the lead player programmer and player director on the Arkham games, which meant I was responsible for the implementation and design of all features relating to the main character (Batman). [This included] controls, traversal, gadgets, camera, and more.
After wrapping up the Arkham series, I worked as game director on an unannounced project at Rocksteady before deciding to make the move into indie gaming.
Studio Director Dax Ginn: At Rocksteady, I headed up marketing, PR, and community for Batman: Arkham City, Arkham Knight, and Arkham VR. This involved the creation and direction of all promotional assets from screenshots through to trailers as well as conducting game demos whenever and wherever they were needed.
Is the core development team really just comprised of two people? Did you lean on contractors for help? If so, how did that dynamic work?
Doherty: It’s actually only one person on the dev side – for design and implementation! That being said, we have relied quite extensively on our network of freelancers we know very well from our time in the industry to produce the art and audio assets for the game. Most of the freelancers we work with are great people we’ve worked with in AAA development before, so they understand the level of quality we’re going for and expect.
This worked really well for us – particularly for the more technical stuff like VFX and Material work because our artists are so familiar with the Unreal toolset and how to get the best results.
What have you learned building out a new studio to facilitate the game's development?
Ginn: Setting up an indie studio can be pretty challenging, especially when you are used to a big AAA dev environment where most things are taken care of for you. I think the biggest learning was how to focus the resources that you have so that it all goes into the game. Adam and I both work remotely from our homes and we work with freelancers who have their own ways of working. So, rather than spend the first few months finding and renting a studio space, working remotely meant we could focus on getting the game up and running and out into gamers’ hands as quickly as possible. The drawback, though, is how it impacts communication and collaboration. Good communication throughout the team is critical, so ensuring that we have some tools in place to handle that (such as Slack and Skype) was one of the first things we did. Also, really embracing the power of networking was a big lesson. Some of the best freelancers we have worked with have come from recommendations from other people, so take every opportunity you can to meet and connect with other developers and always be willing to share your contacts with other devs if you can help them out – they will do the same for you when you really need it!
Do you have any development tips you can share with other small teams?
Doherty: Be very focused on getting something playable very quickly. Pick a toolset you and your team are familiar with. Get as much feedback as you can at an early stage.
From this point, don’t be afraid to let the game’s design evolve. The player experience is key, keep in mind what you want the player to be feeling/doing at any point in the game rather than be fixated on any particular design or mechanic.
What made Unreal Engine a good fit for the game?
Doherty: First and foremost, it was a good fit for me, as I’ve had years of experience using Unreal Engine in my career, so the speed we were able to get a prototype up and running was very important.
Also, coming from AAA development, most of the freelance artists we know are people we’ve worked with on the engine, so we knew that we’d be able to get great results from people with Unreal Engine experience.
It has so many features that have been integral to getting the experience I wanted that I know are there and work really well. I wanted to keep everything feeling very physical and “in-world,” and the engine’s proven ability to deliver amazing quality 3D content was very important.
Do you have any favorite Unreal Engine tools or features?
Doherty: One of the fun challenges was having the world map and battle arenas grow out of the page and that is primarily done entirely with dynamic shader effects. I worked very closely with a very talented freelance friend of ours, Jody Sargent, to get the Materials working just right and we’re very happy with the results.
Also, far less flashy, but I really love to make use of Unreal’s seamless level streaming and async loading technology to ensure we can have high-quality assets for environments and game element textures that are loaded only when we need them without any loading screens. The game is 100 percent [devoid of] loading screens, camera cuts, and fades from the main menu through the entire adventure. I think that’s very important for the compelling, all-important “just one more encounter” feel to keep players engaged.
Finally, as we are working with some very talented technical artists and sound designers, I find that limited use of Blueprints to expose certain events to content creators can be extremely powerful. The game is very modular so we can easily add new visual effects for attacks and abilities with the artists having total control over how they implement their effects.
The battles feature awesome particle effects that showcase fire, electricity, and more. How did you create these polished VFX?
Doherty: We worked with a super-talented VFX artist, Klemen Lozar, another Rocksteady alumnus who has moved into freelance. He is great at producing really high quality assets quickly with Materials and UE4’s built-in particle editor. As I’ve worked with him extensively before, we work together very well and he knows what I expect! The game is very modular so he can go off and work on effects – even putting them directly into game without much programmer [assistance]!
Having worked on several Batman Arkham games, what motivated Whatboy Games to make a single-player card-based strategy game?
Doherty: Partly because it’s completely different! I love new challenges and finding different ways to do things. Primarily though, it was to match my passions as a gamer. As I get older and family life seems to change my priorities and free time, I find that I spend a lot more time with shorter form, tactical games, both in digital and physical tabletop form. I’ve always had a passion for RPGs and tactical combat (I’m pretty old-school) so I wanted to try to do something unique and exciting in this area.
Ginn: There’s also a really interesting transition happening at the moment in the way that games are promoted that I wanted to be part of. When [marketing] a huge game like Batman, you throw a lot of money at TV advertising and Times Square takeovers, but when you are making an indie game with a tiny budget, that just isn’t possible. What is possible though is using Early Access to share the development process with the community and get the word out through streamers and other fans of what you’re doing, so driving awareness of the game through community outreach was an interesting and exciting motivation for me.
Even in its Early Access state, Trials of Fire is being praised for its accessible yet deep gameplay. Can you talk about how you designed the game's combat system? Was much of it prototyped on paper or in-engine?
Doherty: Everything was prototyped in-engine. With its ease of use and my experience with the engine, it was probably quicker to do it this way! For me, game design is all about rapid prototyping and iteration, so being able to test the game by myself, even with rudimentary AI, was crucial.
My main design ethos for the combat was to make a turn-based RPG combat system where every turn gives you an interesting, new puzzle to try to make the most out of. So no mana/cooldowns/ability rotations where you were just running through a fixed plan for a particular enemy. Deck-building was a really good fit for this because I think it simulates the chaos of a skirmish battle quite well. You can plan going in what types of attacks and tactics you’re going to employ, but you’re never sure when an opening is going to come up or if your plans will have to adapt to new situations.
With that goal clear in mind, it just came down to trying lots and lots of things and refining the design continually until we end up with something I’m happy with and resonates well with testers and players.
Trials of Fire features a detailed hand-drawn pop-up-book aesthetic that exudes a dark and dangerous atmosphere. How did Whatboy Games come up with and execute on the look of the game?
Doherty: A lot of the inspiration came from the choose-your-own-adventure books that I grew up with. Leaning into that look really helped to define the physical feel of the game, we wanted to make sure everything kept true to this pen-and-paper, tabletop world I had in my head.
As for execution, keeping the game seamlessly within this book was one of the tougher technical challenges for myself and our 3D artist, Jody Sargent. We were both committed to making sure everything looked like it belonged on the page or grew out of the page in a way that makes the book feel very real and a physical object – we have no on-screen UI other than when you mouse over game elements. This involved quite a lot of fun Material and lighting trickery for the overworld environment and the maps, but I’m very proud of the results we achieved in a short time.
For the content of the adventure pages, we use Unreal’s UMG frontend system, with lots of custom code and widgets, rendered onto a texture that is then used by the book’s Materials. This gives us a lot of flexibility and control over the contents of the pages.
Outside of combat, players will explore the game's treacherous tile-based world. Can you talk about how you constructed it?
Doherty: The world is what we call semi-procedural. The land mass, geography, and landmarks are the same each time you play, but the towns, settlements, ruins, and other points of interest, as well as the party’s starting location is different every run. This means that you can potentially build up a conceptual map of the world over multiple playthroughs, but the adventure will never feel the same.
The map itself is made up of hex meshes divided into different “biomes” (glasslands, forest, mountains, etc.). We then use a Master Material to seamlessly blend these biomes together and decorate them with meshes and VFX placed in a seeded-random fashion.
How do you plan to evolve the game over Early Access?
Doherty: The game has already evolved quite a lot since we went into Early Access in May. We launched with just a single quest and three playable characters and we are now up to six quests/game modes and seven playable characters so you can see there are already lots of different ways to play the game.
We have a plan to continue to add new content in the form of quests, playable characters, game modes, items etc. and you can find our content roadmap on our Discord or our Steam page.
But beyond the content plan, the game has changed a lot due to feedback from our dedicated community. It’s a new experience for me personally, throwing the game out there to the public before it is finished. This was pretty scary at the start. Being only a very small team, though, this feedback has been invaluable in balancing and shaping the game going forward and I love having that direct contact with our players, which was not really possible in the large-scale development environments I’ve worked in before.
Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Trials of Fire?
Doherty: You can find out more on our Steam page or by joining us on Discord!