Courtesy of KeelWorks

How KeelWorks moved from animation to game dev to create CYGNI: All Guns Blazing

Mike Williams


KeelWorks is a Scotland based video game development and 3D animation company who are currently working on their debut game CYGNI: All Guns Blazing, which is published by Konami Digital Entertainment.

Meher Kalenderian

Meher Kalenderian is the Founder and CEO of KeelWorks, he has a background in business management and politics with over 17 years of experience in project and grant management, collaborating on noteworthy projects with government bodies and organizations in the UK and abroad.

Nareg Kalenderian

Nareg Kalenderian is the Founder, Game Director, and 3D Artist at KeelWorks. He has over 20 years of production experience as a director, 3D artist, and animator. His experience includes work at Pixar, and various Hollywood films as Lead VFX artist.
A young pilot flies into battle, as the wind and rain whip around her and a battle rages below. The camera pulls away and we become the pilot, dodging and weaving through a storm of colored lasers and mechanical misfits. As our pilot forges ahead, tentacled Cthulhu-esque machines of enormous scale rise from below to tear her lone ship apart. It’s one pilot versus an army that has terrible plans for humanity.

CYGNI: All Guns Blazing is a top-down shoot ‘em up with the presentation of a Hollywood blockbuster. That makes sense, as the studio, KeelWorks, originally got its start as a 3D animation company. After honing those skills in film and animation, including a co-founders’ time at famed animation studio Pixar, the team decided to bring its efforts to bear on a video game.

Inspired by shoot ‘em ups like RayForce and Gradius, CYGNI: All Guns Blazing seeks to redefine classic gameplay for a modern era. KeelWorks’ efforts have even caught the attention of Konami, one of the publishers of those classics. We talked with KeelWorks about developing its first game, the transition from animation to game development, and how two Epic MegaGrants played a “vital role” in the team’s journey.

Can you tell us about your studio, KeelWorks?

Meher Kalenderian, CEO:
KeelWorks is a Scottish video game development and 3D animation company which I founded together with my brother Nareg Kalenderian and Helen Saouma. While I take care of all business matters, Nareg leads the production and development of the game as Game Director and 3D Artist.

Our debut game, CYGNI: All Guns Blazing, was first announced in 2020, showcasing an early prototype stage, entirely created, and developed by Nareg and Helen in their spare time. The initial trailer for CYGNI gained significant online traction and media interest, leading to a publishing deal with Konami Digital Entertainment in late October 2021. With this new partnership, the team gradually grew to around 11 members, dedicated full-time to the production of CYGNI.

Can you explain what CYGNI: All Guns Blazing is about?

Meher Kalenderian:
CYGNI is a twin-stick hybrid cinematic shooter that embraces the essence of classical arcade shoot ’em ups, while introducing great visuals to the genre. Each level, enemy unit, and background is unique and beautifully designed. With immersive atmospheric gameplay and orchestrated soundtrack, we hope that CYGNI gives the player a remarkable shooter experience.

CYGNI is a planet colonized by humans 100’s of years ago. On this planet, humans benefit from ancient alien technology and artifacts left over in ruins by an unknown alien civilization. These are being used as a power source for the human colony, and to advance their tech. CYGNI faces a sudden onslaught of biomechanical alien attacks. Ava, our protagonist pilot, is a new recruit on Aircraft Carrier 41, Leviathan, and serves in the CYGNI Force protecting the planet. The game begins with an emergency call for action against the invading aliens, potentially the original inhabitants of CYGNI. Leviathan is dispatched to one of the sectors to confront the threat.
Courtesy of KeelWorks
Why did the team decide that a twin-stick shooter was the right genre for its first game? Were you influenced by any other games?

Meher Kalenderian:
During the 80’s and early 90’s, the shooter genre held a special place in our hearts as we grew up. It was a genre that appealed to everyone, not just experts chasing high scores. Playing games like Super Mario Bros., RayForce, Gradius, Castlevania, and Thunderforce with friends created lasting memories and brought us immense joy. Back then, going to the cinema and visiting arcades were the defining activities of our childhood.

Now, equipped with modern technology and drawing from our background in 3D animation, we sought to recreate that cherished experience. We recognized that a mere replication of past shooters wouldn't suffice. We needed a fresh, new-generation approach that would be enjoyable for a wider audience, focusing on immersive gameplay which is fun, and filled with stunning and high-quality visuals and orchestrated music.

Coming from a storytelling background, we also wanted to incorporate a story element into our game—a delicate balance that enhances the player's experience without becoming a distraction.

So we really wanted to create a “shmup” that we would like to see now, on next gen consoles. While our childhood memories of arcade shooters form the core inspiration for CYGNI, it's crucial to note that our creative journey has been enriched by many games we've played and loved across different genres over our lifetimes. These diverse influences have played an instrumental role in shaping the development of CYGNI.

Some members of your studio previously worked in animation and music. Can you talk about transitioning from those industries to game development?

Nareg Kalenderian, Game Director:
Transitioning from animation and VFX to game development shares many similarities in terms of art, asset, and character building. However, there are certain aspects that require a more delicate approach, necessitating the use of specialized tools and techniques. From an animation point of view, developers can still encounter various limitations for which standardized workarounds have yet to be established. I think addressing these limitations is crucial to effectively integrating animations into seamless gameplay.

Looking at the bigger picture, the entire challenge can be summarized as follows: In animation productions, we typically follow a strict process involving storyboarding, scriptwriting, and previsualization. The expected results and outcomes are more predictable at different stages. A well-executed storyboard serves as the foundation of a successful film production; if it fails there, it will likely fail elsewhere.

In contrast, in video game production, storyboards and design documents can only take you so far. When it comes to gameplay and development itself, it often becomes an unpredictable journey that keeps you constantly on your toes. Troubleshooting is a constant occurrence, requiring frequent iterations and on-the-fly restructuring. And you better be ready for it.
Courtesy of KeelWorks
How did the studio’s previous work in cinematics and music influence the development of CYGNI: All Guns Blazing?

Nareg Kalenderian:
We have always loved working on cinematics and story-driven moments. So naturally, whatever game we wanted to make, had to include these elements. We took a genre we loved growing up, and decided to add an extra flare to it. It's important to always find a delicate balance between cinematic moments and gameplay. Excessive focus on either can disrupt the overall flow of the experience.

It is equally important to understand one's resources and time at hand when it comes to quality and polish in any production. For example, instead of creating 20 average cutscenes simply because it’s possible, crafting six exceptional ones will have a better impact. The remaining info can be conveyed through alternative means or eliminated entirely if it doesn’t contribute significantly to the experience.

The studio calls CYGNI: All Guns Blazing a “cinematic shoot 'em up.” Can you explain how you iterated on the game’s visuals to really deliver that cinematic feel?

Nareg Kalenderian:
It is important to mention that in art, it is said that one of the hardest perspectives to get right, in terms of aesthetics and depth, is the top-down view. It is much easier to get pleasing images pointing a camera up to define scale or create silhouettes and rims, than looking down from a plane, drone, or a satellite.

Lighting and shadow detail is what comes to mind first right after composition.
Courtesy of KeelWorks
After many tests in the engine and trying to get the look we are after, we decided to go another way to accomplish the lighting in the game. Especially since shadow and contact detail is important and we can’t have realtime light shadows that cause bias problems or cascade issues with distances, not to mention a lack of moving soft shadows and high-quality light baking that would require thousands of lights in some instances. Managing all this to set up a map and have full control was proving to be difficult in Unreal Engine 4; it should be noted that Unreal Engine 5 has brought many enhancements in these areas.

We opted to go against the [physically based rendering (PBR)] workflow, which has become the standard these days in modern engines; a risky move for us, since we are a very small team with tight timelines. But we couldn’t see it any other way.

Unreal’s powerful Material Editor and Blueprints workflow opened up the door for us to render all frames outside the engine using V-Ray, and then bring them back as pre-rendered, high-quality Global Illumination ray-traced textures and shadow passes. To achieve this, we developed complex custom shader setups incorporating multiple layers of internal fake reflections, meticulously-positioned Ambient Occlusion maps, key light passes, and fills. We also rendered out ray-traced Subsurface Scattering passes for the creatures.

In addition, we created 360° light passes that take into account light directionality based on body parts, and cast pre-rendered moving ray-traced area self-shadows as well as those on the ground for some of our units. For others, we created special decals that scale up or down with distance giving the illusion of movement. We had to do all this in order to keep some form of soft shadowing under the units regardless of camera distance. And since most of our scenes are overcast, we needed those soft shadows without resorting to full blobs for moving actors while equally baking in high quality lighting for the environments, something we are more familiar with coming from animation VFX background.

In a fast-paced, “bullet hell” shooter like CYGNI: All Guns Blazing, a player’s readability is important. Can you talk about how the team approached this aspect of the game?

Nareg Kalenderian:
Good question, and something that comes up a lot in the shmup community. This also directly relates to the previous answer regarding how everything can get tricky with top-down perspective.

We had to be very careful in this regard, since every level in CYGNI is entirely different and unique. Other than the usual color coding, we had to introduce certain subtleties visually. This includes color grading based on height on all units, fog and depth for environments, and almost always keeping the background environment exposure under control in relation to the foreground.

For instance, we have massive swarm units that sometimes traverse towards the play area from the depth below. We create and alter their color and lights based on the player height in relation to the map, this also works as a visual cue to the player as to when they can take damage. We believe it works very well given the nature of the game and how much goes on screen at the same time. The trick is to make sure they all blend together well with the environment without resorting to UI indicators and so on.
Courtesy of KeelWorks
The first boss players will face in CYGNI: All Guns Blazing is the huge mechanical beast, “Scarab.” Can you guide us through the process of designing your bosses and implementing their scope and scale within the game?

Nareg Kalenderian:
The bosses in CYGNI have been an incredible challenge to pull off at every corner. We again wanted to opt out going the regular route: slap in an animation or two of walk cycle, get sliding feet all over, throw in AI for good measure, and call it a day. In CYGNI, even if we wanted to do that, it would’ve been a great pain. We have creatures with multiple legs and multiple tentacles, they need to be highly controllable and timed perfectly for various scenarios in the game.

As for scale, it is also another interesting topic altogether. In CYGNI, the assets are all built and scaled down by many folds. This was done to be able to better manage scene scale both in and out of the engine. There is no way a boss that is supposed to look stratospherically high is built on that scale in any 3D package; same for environments and ships.

Scarab is one such complicated boss. It has six tentacles, three legs and about 6,000 frames of animation on its base body alone. Below which, we have hundreds of units battling each other while the player fights above. Creating tentacles on screen with stretchable and scalable bones was one large challenge, putting those onto a moving body is another. Just to get the rig working the way it did took us long days and weeks of iteration, as did understanding the workarounds and limitations we have to deal with introducing it into the engine.

Long sequences were hand-animated carefully ensuring leg movement and placement. It had multiple modes of attack so there's an entire sequence of it walking backwards upright and then one at a lower height; while keeping foot placements identical for perfectly smooth blending giving the illusion of IK when there is none. We did something similar for the tentacle movements since none of the spline IK methods worked out predictably, and more than often broke, especially onto scaled tentacles. Instead, we created hundreds of frames of animations blending into 12 poses for each player-interactable tentacle, then applied a short IK at the tip for special occasions as an additive effect.

A key to any bullet hell shooter is the large number of objects on screen. How did you optimize CYGNI: All Guns Blazing to keep its high-speed combat while so many bullets and objects are visible?

Nareg Kalenderian:
CYGNI is still in production. We are trying our best to keep optimizing as we go and there’s still much work to be done here. The short answer as to how we manage large numbers is challenging. It is a daily struggle to keep things balanced and to make sure how much we can afford to push, and how much we need to pull.

For large swarms, we had to write our own systems that use Niagara in combination with instances that can take damage from high-speed projectiles and still register. It was a massive effort, the results of which only saw the light of day by mid-production. As a system, it worked in the end to give us what we needed to achieve what we were after for that particular case. But there are many cases and multiple systems in the game, each with their own unique characteristics.

In the end, we pool the bullets as much as possible, create instances where we can, optimize AI and their behavior, and for ground units, approach them using the AtomsUnreal plugin. We helped in the plugin’s development to be more game ready. At some point, we were joking about the fact that CYGNI has enough systems that it can become a strategy game, a first person shooter, and a shmup if we wanted it to.
Courtesy of KeelWorks
How did receiving two Epic MegaGrants help the development of CYGNI: All Guns Blazing?

Meher Kalenderian:
The two epic MegaGrants we received played a vital role in our journey. They provided support for us to focus on building the CYGNI prototype, which ultimately led to talking to publishers and securing a publishing deal. It was great to have the team at Epic recognize the potential of our project and understand our vision. This support has been instrumental in starting CYGNI’s journey through prototype and taking it to the next level.

Why was Unreal Engine the right choice for CYGNI: All Guns Blazing’s development?

Nareg Kalenderian:
Simple answer is that Blueprints are incredible for artists and for fast iterations. So we get the best of both worlds from a programming or scripting point of view. As a small team, we were able to jump in and hook up animations and shaders on a base level, sometimes create whole workable systems, or quickly prototype one before a programmer takes over. Of course, there are other benefits such as a very flexible material system, good workflow in certain areas concerning visuals, but the above is the most important in my point of view.
Courtesy of KeelWorks
This is KeelWorks’ first game. What has the team learned in the process of development?

Meher Kalenderian:
There is a lot that we’ve learned during this journey. This could be an article on its own. But here are a few key learnings:
  1. The importance of having awareness between the different disciplines: In video game development, it is crucial to foster awareness and understanding among different disciplines. Game artists should grasp technical aspects, while programmers should comprehend the artistic process. This promotes effective communication, problem solving, and alignment with the larger vision. While specializing in a particular area is valuable, gaining an understanding of the overall picture is also beneficial and helps to align with the larger vision effectively.
  2. The importance of having a dedicated person who deals with all business and management matters.
  3. In game development, we strive not to rely solely on our past knowledge and experiences. The frequent troubleshooting and problem-solving lead to delays that are beyond our control, so it’s important to factor in additional production time to accommodate unforeseen challenges. While other productions may have an error margin of 10-15%, in game development I would say this margin expands to approximately 30-35%.
Courtesy of KeelWorks
What tips do you have for other aspiring game developers or creatives that want to make the jump into game development?

Meher Kalenderian:
  • Embrace continuous learning: The game development landscape is constantly evolving. Stay updated and focus on self-learning and development to enhance your skills.
  • Build a portfolio: While university degrees are important to give you a good foundation, portfolios are key to accessing the industry. Create a portfolio showcasing your best work.
  • Perseverance: Game development can be challenging and demanding. Embrace setbacks as learning points and keep pushing forward. Perseverance is key and a positive mindset will certainly help.
  • Stay passionate and motivated: Game dev requires dedication and passion. Stay connected to your initial inspiration.
  • If you have established your own company to make games, don’t forget that you’d also be running a business.
  • Enjoy the journey and the creative process of bringing your ideas to life.

The publisher for CYGNI: All Guns Blazing is Konami, the historic company behind classic shooters like Gradius and Twin Bee. Can you tell us more about how that relationship came about for your debut game?

Meher Kalenderian:
As newcomers to the gaming scene with no track record of published titles, we faced difficulties in gaining the attention of certain publishers we approached. To generate interest, we took a daring step and released a trailer featuring our early prototype, eagerly awaiting the response from gamers and the media. Fortunately, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive and organic, with major outlets like IGN and Playstation Magazine providing coverage. This caught the attention of several publishers, including Konami.
Although we received two other offers from different publishers while negotiating with Konami, we followed our instincts and decided to stick with Konami. The choice was driven by their extensive experience in the shmup genre and their deep understanding of our vision for CYGNI. We believed that partnering with Konami would provide the best opportunity to bring CYGNI to life. Since making that decision, we have had an incredible relationship with the Konami team, who have been consistently supportive. We are hopeful that this marks the beginning of many more amazing journeys together.
Courtesy of KeelWorks
Thanks for your time, where can people learn more about CYGNI: All Guns Blazing?

You can find more about KeelWorks and CYGNI: All Guns Blazing on the social media platforms below:

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