October 15, 2018

Ghost Slinks From the Shadows to the Spotlight Thanks to Unreal Dev Grant

By Shawn Petraschuk

Sky Machine Studios is in the beginning chapters of developing its very first game, Ghost. Jumping into the indie-development scene fueled by their love of the industry they grew up with, this team of six from Sydney, Australia are one of the very grateful recipients of Epic’s Unreal Dev Grants.

In the demanding world of video game development, it can be hard to carve out your piece of the pie, and Sky Machine isn’t taking their good fortune for granted. Extra funding thanks to the Unreal Dev Grant is opening new avenues in their game’s development and also in their marketing and promotion. 

While the stealth genre has seen some hits and misses over the past few years, there’s no denying that a hungry fan base still exists for what could arguably be considered a grossly underserved audience. Specifically taking on the isometric stealth genre, Lead Project Director Robert Wahby and the rest of Sky Machine Studios aim to deliver an engrossing experience that benefits as much as possible from the one thing that every indie studio needs a little bit of — faith.

We caught up with the team to learn more about the project and their approach to a reimagined stealth genre.
 

Sky Machine Studios is a small team comprised of six people and Ghost is your first title. Tell us what brought the team together and what's driving you to jump into the often daunting world of indie development.

One of the driving forces in developing Ghost is the opportunity to break into the indie scene. We are aware of the challenges that come with indie development, but nothing is worth pursuing unless there is a bit of trial. After all, that is how you learn. But most of all, we are all avid gamers and want to be part of the culture and industry that we fondly grew up in.

Ghost is a pretty ambitious game for a small team like ours. We are a close-knit team, and proud that we are able to bring Ghost to life without needing an army of programmers and artists.

Ghost is in very early stages of development and not on a lot of people's radar just yet so please tell us a little bit about the game and its premise.

Ghost is an immersive isometric stealth game, set in the city of Anargal. You’re cast in the role of Arthur Artorias, a man stripped of his past, tortured and forced to escape into isolation. Thought to be dead, you return eight years later, a changed man, seeking answers and pursuing revenge.

In Ghost, you’ll explore a world full of mystery, eccentric characters, and compelling missions. Hide in the shadows, ready your blade and seek your revenge. You must hide, explore, and survive if you wish to last the first night of winter.

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Does anyone on the team have prior experience with Unreal Engine 4? If so, how is that existing experience benefitting the team now? If not, how has the team found the learning process of such a robust engine? 

Yes, Lucas, our programmer, has had extensive experience with Unreal Engine. As for the rest of the team, we’ve become accustomed to the engine, and while there’s a bit of a learning curve at first (as expected with any piece of complicated software), it didn’t take too long to get a grasp of the engine.

One thing I must say is the level building and lighting portion of the engine is fantastic and very easy to use. Being able to quickly prototype a level has assisted us in fully fleshing out environments and script events.

The main protagonist in Ghost, Arthur, loses his entire family in an attempt on his own life and comes back eight years later to exact his revenge. What can you tell us of Arthur's motivation? Is it more than just revenge?  

The ideas and concepts seen here revolve around falling into hell and ascending out of the muck. Arthur’s story is one of great demise and the fighting spirit that some individuals have to rise above their dilemma. It’s a narrative of growth, mystery and yes, it’s also a story of revenge. 

From an archetypal point of view, Arthur is no hero. He’s a custodian of his family’s wealth, accustomed to living an extravagant life. However, in Ghost, Arthur is cast out of his familiar world, everything he deems valuable has been stripped from him, forcing Arthur into a life of destitution, to return with a new sense of courage and conviction. Telling a tale of rebirth.

As Arthur continues his story, he will begin to notice how the world has changed in his absence. A religious militant group called the Greater Heaven has taken over the city with their tyrannical ideology. Arthur will soon discover, things are not what they appear to be.

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A few months ago, Sky Machine Studios was one of the recipients of an Unreal Dev Grant. Congratulations on this prestigious honor! When you submitted your application, did you ever expect to win? Did you have any fears about submitting your work in such a manner?

Thank you! It’s pretty insane actually. At the time, we were developing a prototype build, fundamentally teaching ourselves how to work as a team, developing a workflow, figuring out how the various systems should function, etc. We submitted the prototype build in the hopes that it was good enough. You know, in the back of your mind, you’re always wondering if the project stands out. After we submitted Ghost to Epic, we, of course, continued developing and eventually turned the prototype into a much more functional game. We really revamped everything.

All in all, it was a pleasant surprise. We had no clue whether or not we would be selected, and as the months went by, our doubts increased. Then, one day, we received an email informing us that we were one of the recipients. I had to read the email a few times just to comprehend what just happened! It’s not every day you are recognized for something as special as this. 

Now that you have the grant, how much does this mean to the studio? How do you think this award will benefit not only your team but the game itself?

Winning the grant was a clear indication to me and the team that we are heading in the right direction with Ghost. The grant essentially places a spotlight on the project and not to mention a healthy boost to motivation.

The grant gives us some breathing room and allows us to be able to implement more elaborate ideas and concepts, such as new 3D assets. For example, we have a pretty cool sequence on a moving train, that may not have come to life if it wasn’t for the Dev Grant. The grant has also allowed us to push some development pipelines forward. For instance, we are currently working on character designs and investing in more advanced animations to bring these characters to life.

Along with improving the current state of the game, we plan on using a portion of the grant in getting our name out there via a marketing push. We are aware that the project is not on a lot of people’s radar at the moment, but hopefully, it will be in the coming months.        

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If you were to offer words of encouragement or advice to someone thinking about submitting their own project to the Unreal Dev Grant program, what would you say?

Make sure the project has potential. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but the Unreal Engine team and the public need to see that there is something there. If the game looks too rough or it doesn’t stand out, you’re most likely not going to turn heads, especially considering the caliber of projects that are submitted. Just keep going at it and don’t be fearful of delaying the project until that potential is there.

Isometric stealth games have seen some success in recent years with games like Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun and Seven: The Days Long Gone. How do you feel Ghost stands out against its peers in the genre? Were there any other games that gave you particular inspiration?

With Ghost, we are trying to take the classic staples seen within the genre; such as hiding in the shadows, keeping your feet light, as to not make a sound, and grounding the experience within an isometric perspective, a true stealth experience. I believe this perspective has become somewhat popular in recent years, due to the fact that the stealth genre has primarily been played from a first-person or third-person viewpoint. It’s a reimagining of the genre.

Ghost takes plenty of inspiration from the titans of the stealth genre, primarily from the Thief and Splinter Cell series as they are the bedrock of stealth gaming. Besides the interplay between exposing yourself and not being seen, there is a great sense of open exploration these games offer.

Ghost, much in the same way, is a sandbox experience with the spirit of exploration at its core. Ghost is all about options and is a stealth experience built from the ground up to take advantage of the isometric perspective. This open-ended design is seen through our emphases on seamless verticality and the systems we have implemented to achieve this. This is particularly displayed in multistory buildings. As the player ascends each floor, the entire level is completely animated up into existence (floor, props, walls etc) within a blink of an eye. This allows the player to explore alternative avenues and grant access to such paths as a second story balcony or windows, no matter the elevation and nothing blocking the camera. The entire system, in my opinion, works quite well.

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From a graphical perspective, the team spent a lot of time working on lighting and developing a sense of claustrophobia to interior locations such as buildings. For example, the entire outside world is blacked out with a heavy focus on what is in the player's immediate environment, whenever a player enters a building.

However, one of the stand-out features seen in Ghost is our arrow-crafting system. From crafting water arrows to extinguishing torches, to poison arrows, and even electric-powered ones, it’s a fairly robust system. Now where the system really shines is how you can combine these elements, essentially creating more complicated arrow types. For example: If you take the poison arrow and add smoke to the mix, you’ll get an area-of-effect, basically engulfing the environment with poison smoke. This is one of many examples out of the 30+ different arrow combinations seen in Ghost. The arrow-crafting system, while used for offensive and defensive playstyle, will be an integral part of solving puzzles as well.

Despite being early in your development, how has Unreal Engine 4 helped you to create your environments of contrasting dark and light (which is very important in stealth games!)? Has there been a specific tool you've found especially helpful?

I’d have to say the lighting system has been one of the most useful systems found inside Unreal. The flexibility to tweak every scenario, with ease, from mood to directional lighting, has allowed Ghost to have that stylized look. There is something satisfying when placing assets and 3D objects inside the engine. Things just pop out. It makes you appreciate the cumulative efforts and constant refinement the engine has gone through over the years. I fundamentally believe Ghost would have been a much different looking game if we used an alternative engine.   

When it comes to specific tools, I would have to say that Unreal’s profiling tool assisted us in tweaking and optimizing performance. Instead of manually having to check each actor in a scene, the tool allowed us to locate what was causing any performance drops in any given scenario. 

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You've still got a healthy amount of development in front of you for Ghost. Are there any other tools in Unreal Engine 4 you're looking forward to using as you work toward release and how do you feel they'll aid you in the game's development?

We're definitely looking to explore a bit more into Sequencer for creating great in-game cinematics since Unreal provides one of the best cinematic tools on the market. Also, we want to make sure we get the best LOD practices from the tools provided, not only on polygon reduction but on instance meshes to give us that little extra performance juice.

Where can people go to find out more about Sky Machine Studios and Ghost?

You can find information on Ghost via our website and social pages across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.