One More Level is an indie studio based in Kraków, Poland. It was founded in 2014 and has been growing ever since, having worked on titles such as Deadlings, God’s Trigger, and most recently, Ghostrunner. The team consists of about30 people from around Poland that are mostly working remotely due to the pandemic.
Developed by Polish studio One More Level, Ghostrunner is one of the coolest post-apocalyptic games around. The action-platformer focuses on speed and leans into hardcore challenging gameplay. Everything in the game dies in one hit, including yourself. The best way to stay alive is to always be on the move with your arsenal of abilities that allow you to wall run, dash through the air, and more. The game sports a wide variety of dangerous enemies, all with their own strengths and weaknesses, which makes navigating levels a unique puzzle-like challenge. Hooked Gamers said in its review, “It’s rare to find a game that succeeds so well in everything it does, and the result is a game that absolutely everyone should check out.”
Despite being developed by a core team of about 30 people coupled with the fact that this is One More Level’s first Unreal Engine-powered game, Ghostrunner features AAA-quality visuals with a gorgeous neon-cyberpunk aesthetic that’s bolstered by ray-tracing support. With the title coming to next-generation consoles, we interviewed One More Level Narrative Designer/Writer Jan Gąsior and Lead 3D Artist Damian Tłuczkiewicz to see how they developed one of the slickest games on the market.
Can you elaborate on the inspiration behind Ghostrunner? What drove the team to make a melee-focused first-person platformer?
Narrative Designer and Writer Jan Gąsior: In a way, it was the logical next step for One More Level. Our previous game, God’s Trigger, was heavily focused on one-hit-one-kill mechanics and allowed players to learn from their mistakes. While that formula worked well from a top-down perspective, bringing it to first-person added extra layers of complexity and nuance, opening up a whole new dimension of possibilities for our level designers.
Whereas many studios opt to make a game that appeals to a wide audience, your team set out to make a challenging title geared towards hardcore gamers by leaning into trial-and-error mechanics. Why was this the right approach for Ghostrunner?
Gąsior: We’re an indie studio, so there are areas in which we can’t compete with industry giants. Luckily for us, creativity and innovation don’t rely solely on budget. What I’m trying to say is that for a small developer who’s trying to reach a wider audience, making their game unique is the way to go. This comes at a price, though; if you’re designing a system that’s one of a kind, there’s going to be a learning curve. Not everyone will be willing to put in the time and effort to learn how and why your game’s quirks make it worthwhile. There were moments during production when we thought that maybe the game was too hard; that maybe we should tune it down to be more palatable to a wider crowd. In the end, we stuck to the core principles we started out with, and I think we’re better for it. Ghostrunner wouldn’t be what it is without the ridiculous number of attempts it takes a newcomer to beat a level. The overall vibe of the high difficulty also evokes a sense of urgency. Besides, the majority of our team likes challenging games, and we think creating games that we would like to play is the best part of being a game developer.
Speedy parkour platforming is a big part of the game, with players being able to quickly run along walls, slide, dash, and mid-air strafe. Was there a lot of iteration involved in nailing the movement system?
Gąsior: Most of the core mechanics that you can see in the final game were in the very first prototype we put together at the beginning of production. There wasn’t much debate about what we wanted the movement system to look and feel like; the vision was clear. That being said, the devil is in the details, as is often the case. Nailing the perfect balance between smooth movement and precise control was a huge endeavor, although it mostly came down to a process of near-infinite fine-tuning and tweaking our initial system and not scrapping and starting from scratch every few weeks.
Ghostrunner has been praised for its open-ended, puzzle-like combat that encourages players to experiment. How did you execute here?
Gąsior: Our level designers put great effort into crafting the combat encounters in a way that allows for varied approaches. One of the keys to that philosophy is watching people play and analyzing their patterns of behavior. Everyone plays slightly differently; it’s not just about the level of skill but also about subtle preferences, timing, and general mannerisms the players themselves are often unaware of. If you watch enough people play a certain part of the game, you get the idea of the most probable routes players are likely to take. Armed with that knowledge, you’re able to balance the whole encounter accordingly, making sure that there’s enough variety and that no one approach is too obvious.
Every level in the game is clever and introduces new combat mechanics, whether it's adding rails players can glide along, slow-motion powerups, or enemy shield generators to take down. Can you elaborate on Ghostrunner's level design?
Gąsior: The most important thing was to keep the player moving. Mobility is at the core of Ghostrunner’s experience, and it’s vital for every aspect of the game to reinforce that. This means levels have to be readable and easy-to-navigate, while still allowing players to retain a degree of freedom when dealing with any given encounter. Most of the special moves supplementing the base combat system further enhance that mobility and most of the level design makes use of these boosts, setting up scenarios that push the player to jump further, run faster, and test the limits of their maneuverability.
Another interesting facet of the level design was the balance between combat, platforming, and puzzles. There’s a lot to be said about getting the ratio of these ingredients right, but all in all, it comes down to making sure that each of these appears as a welcome diversion and only lasts for as long as they stay fresh and engaging.
There are numerous enemy types in the game with different strengths and weaknesses. Can you talk about how you approached designing them?
Gąsior: Consistency and predictability are the keywords here. In a game as fast-paced as Ghostrunner, there’s plenty of action going on at any given moment, so making sure the enemies always behave the way you’d expect them to is a major way of preventing the painstakingly designed combat encounter from devolving into chaos. This is why enemies having perfect aim actually works in favor of the player; as long as every piece of the puzzle that is combat in Ghostrunner remains constant, you are able to eventually figure it out. Of course, it usually takes a fair share of deaths the first time around for players, but that’s part of the design; the player doesn't succeed through luck but through trial, error, and learning.
The enemy design is also an important factor when it comes to the flow of the game. For the most part, it’s obvious what an enemy does just from looking at them or from seeing them attack once; an Enforcer with a huge energy shield in front of him is invulnerable to frontal attacks, and you can probably even tell that without charging him head-on. Overly elaborate patterns or attack sequences that require waiting for an opportunity to strike would break momentum, stopping players in their tracks. This is why the overwhelming majority of foes the player faces are countered best by either closing in on them as soon as possible or outmaneuvering them.
How big was the development team, and how long did Ghostrunner take to make?
Gąsior: The core One More Level team consists of around 30 people. Some of them joined during the production of Ghostrunner, as the project grew larger and more ambitious. There was also help from Slipgate Ironworks and mentoring from 3D Realms, so it’s not quite easy to come up with an exact number of people that had their hand in crafting the final version of Ghostrunner.
The first notion of what game we were going to make next appeared towards the end of God’s Trigger’s development. A rough prototype showcasing the intended mechanics was made in the second half of 2018, and soon more and more members of the team began working on different aspects of what would become Ghostrunner. You could say that the entire process took around two years from start to finish.
Ghostrunner is One More Level's first Unreal Engine game. How has the transition been, and why was it a good fit for the title?
Lead 3D Artist Damian Tłuczkiewicz: UE is a much more robust engine compared to what we’ve worked with before. It provides better overall performance, visual scripting, great VFX, and shader tools that empower artists and designers to create complex systems in a short period of time. From a technical standpoint, we also can push poly counts much higher than before.
Despite the studio's relatively small size, Ghostrunner sports AAA quality sci-fi cyberpunk visuals with fantastic lighting, gorgeous water effects, and environments that feel lived-in. How did the team punch above its weight to pull off the game's gorgeous graphics?
Tłuczkiewicz: We started thinking about the visuals and structure of the game even before the first playable sections were finished. At a very early stage, we managed to create some visual templates and set-pieces that enabled us to get comfortable with the setting and the way we approached set dressing and lighting later in production.
The game supports several ray-tracing effects that culminate to offer a stellar neon light show. Can you elaborate on the work involved to incorporate ray tracing into the game?
Tłuczkiewicz: We support ray-traced reflections, shadows, and ambient occlusion. All of those effects become easier to enable with each iteration of Unreal Engine. We did not modify any major rendering features but rather focused on tweaking integrated features to get the best performance-to-quality ratio while making the game look as good as possible for those that stick with the classic rendering pipeline.
The team has previously stated that it uses many of UE's robust graphical features. Can you share some of your favorites?
Tłuczkiewicz: Due to the settings that we chose for Ghostrunner, the most important visual feature in our toolbox is definitely volumetric fog. You can see it everywhere in our levels. It helps us create an iconic, thick atmosphere that evokes inspirations like Bladerunner. Another feature that we leveraged to create cool-looking reflections and highlights without RTX ray tracing is complex reflection environment rendering.
Finally, Unreal's lighting system uses realistic physical quantities to define luminosity, temperature, and more. Combined with properly set up physically accurate materials, this allows for a much more intuitive workflow and natural-looking results compared to many other engines.
The team recently revealed that Ghostrunner would be coming to next-gen consoles. What enhancements can gamers expect to get here?
Gąsior: It’s too early to get into details just yet, but we’ll be definitely working closely with Slipgate Ironworks (who will be making the port) to make sure that the game looks as good and plays as smoothly as possible.
What excites you most about the next-gen platforms?
Gąsior: Every new generation brings about a leap in capabilities and raises the standard bar for gaming. This means more power in the hands of developers, which is always good news for us. During production, we often have to seek a balance between performance and beautiful visuals; every time technology progresses, we move closer to solving this dilemma.
Thank you for your time. Where can people learn more about Ghostrunner?
Gąsior: Check out Ghostrunner’s social media channels: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. There’s also a large (and growing) community on Ghostrunner’s Discord server. It’s a great place to learn about the game, exchange opinions with players (both old and new), and sometimes chat with us, the developers.
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