Image courtesy of Ratloop Games Canada

How Lemnis Gate blends turn-based time loops with first-person action

Mat Paget |
December 8, 2021
Ratloop Games Canada is an independent development studio based in Montreal, Quebec. With a focus on innovation of gameplay mechanics and an unwavering “gameplay first” philosophy, Ratloop Canada is geared to bring exciting and disruptive new products to all major video game platforms.
After years of working at AAA game companies, several Montreal developers went independent and formed Ratloop Games Canada with a sharp focus on the feel of gameplay. In all facets of Ratloop's development philosophy, gameplay comes first and foremost. That's the approach the team took when starting development on Lemnis Gate, a first-person shooter that sees players completing objectives, killing opponents, or denying the other team from performing the same actions. The twist is that the game is turn-based, and you have to choose how to play each turn carefully. This unique blend of genre has earned it critical acclaim, with PC Gamer saying it could be "the sleeper shooter of 2021."

It's a rare blend of genre, but game director James Anderson told us the team at Ratloop likes to take risks and try things other studios haven't. The small independent studio started with six people nearly four years ago and has since grown to a team of 15 who all share the same passion for bringing innovative new gameplay mechanics to life.

We spoke with Anderson about the intricate design of Lemnis Gate and how Ratloop Games Canada struck that fine balance between first-person action and turn-based strategy.
 

How did the team come up with the idea of mixing an arena first-person shooter with turn-based, time-looping strategy?

James Anderson, Ratloop Games Canada game director:
It was actually the “turn-based” aspect of the game that came about first. We were imagining some cool interactions and abilities for operatives, like shooting a bullet out of the air with another bullet or protecting a teammate by throwing yourself into the line of a sniper shot—Kevin Costner style. Just by talking about how these events would work in an actual game forced us to think about them from a turn-based point of view. For example, to stop a bullet tactically, you need to know that a bullet would be fired from A to B at a moment in time. From discussing scenarios like these, we kept asking ourselves, "What then?" wondering what the next counter-play would be. We quickly realized how multifaceted things could get when dealing with cause and effect (causality) when taking turns and modifying what happened each time. We were curious to see how deep the cause-and-effect strategy could go if we kept adding more and more operatives into the scenario. The next step was to get some answers by prototyping the gameplay. So, naturally, we created a "turn-based first-person shooter" core loop. We didn't know exactly what all the rules needed to be and how it would all play out, but after a month of prototyping, we had our first answers and a fully playable prototype version, which clearly demonstrated a functional new formula for how a first-person shooter could work. It was incredibly exciting!

Did Lemnis Gate have any influences?

Anderson:
We already had a pretty compelling fundamental mechanic at the heart of the game, so we wanted to stay traditional with all of the first-person shooter mechanics and bring a strong sense of familiarity with weapons, abilities, game modes, and offer a pick-up-and-play control scheme. 

Given this, and the fact that we only had a limited play time per turn (25 seconds), we turned to classic arena shooters like Unreal Tournament and Quake to find what worked well and was well established in the arena shooter space.

We also took inspiration from the more recent crop of shooters, such as Apex Legends and Overwatch, which have established a very popular genre we knew we couldn't ignore. These games have really brought the heroes and characters to the forefront, so we had to make sure our operatives had these standout elements to ensure they were in line with players' expectations.
Image courtesy of Ratloop Games Canada
With the varied assortment of characters and abilities, how did the team balance the roster to ensure each character is a valuable addition to a match's strategy?

Anderson:
When designing and prototyping our operatives and their abilities, it was vital to ensure there weren't any major functional overlaps. Each operative needed to either move or deal damage in a unique way compared to their counterparts. Essentially, we wanted to ensure each operative brought something new to the table. With the variety of maps and game modes available, there are a number of different contexts where a specific operative may be better utilized. Once our operatives were defined, the rest boiled down to a lot of playtesting, tuning, and iteration. "Time to settle" is something I think cannot be undervalued. Finding a balance that works just takes time and can't be rushed. You need to learn the game, master the operatives, and experience them in a variety of matches to really get a feel for the subtleties of balance. Together, all of this fed into the "No room for favorites" mantra we felt helped separate Lemnis Gate from other similar titles.
Image courtesy of Ratloop Games Canada
The balance of abilities, shooting, and strategy feels great when you nail an effective time loop. At what point did you realize you had something special with Lemnis Gate?
 
Anderson:
Since a functional prototype was one of the first assets we built on the project, we knew from a pretty early stage that we had something special. Even without the different operatives, abilities, and game modes, the basic strategies which emerged from the prototype's core loop were pretty strong and seemed to be ever-changing. The more we played, the more ideas we had for different moves and strategies. One strong piece of feedback that kept coming up due to the turn-based nature of the game was that it "feels like a game of chess." This was great to hear and an indicator that the game would have significant depth and replay value over the long term. I think once we started thinking of the game as a chess match played in first person, we realized the full extent of Lemnis Gate's potential.

With all of those abilities, guns, and systems at play, how long did it take to find the right mix of time within the loop and objectives to make each match feel exciting?

Anderson:
This was something that took a lot of iterations to get right. We had to experiment with map size, operative navigation speeds, and the length of the time loop. As you can imagine, all three of these variables are heavily intertwined. Do we make the maps big and the movement speed fast or make the maps smaller with a slower movement speed and more time on the clock? We ended up initially prioritizing the joy of navigation. Basically, we wanted it to be fun to run, jump, slide, and bounce around with an operative. If basic navigation was fun, then chances are the rest of the game will only enhance that fun, right? Once that was locked down as a constraint, we tried larger and smaller maps with different loop times. We eventually realized that 25 seconds was enough time to execute a reasonably intricate plan or strategy without too much waiting around time once that execution was complete or in the case the plan didn't come to fruition. To this day, we're still learning, tweaking, and iterating on these kinds of systems to make it feel and flow better.
Image courtesy of Ratloop Games Canada
Can you talk about your approach to creating maps that would work well within the 25-second time loop?
 
Anderson:
Given the interplay between weapons, abilities, and time loops, we didn't want the additional burden of complex pathing choices to overwhelm players during matches. We tried to keep simple path choices and just a few objectives per map, so that from spawn, you have a quick decision to make as to whether you want to go for A, B, or C, where each objective has a well-defined direction. For comparison, a chess board has 8x8 squares. If, suddenly, you added more path options—say 12x12 squares—the mental burden of calculating all possible moves becomes exponentially more complicated and overwhelming for the average player to handle. We needed to ensure our maps read well from above, since the drone view presents the map as the “board” and your operatives as the “pieces.” In order to support our strategic gameplay to the fullest, our maps must offer the player a clear view of both objectives and operatives re-enacting their loops as well as clear but decisive path choices they could take.

On top of all of this, Lemnis Gate also has a Ghost mode, where you can keep playing past death and continue setting up moves in case a future character takes out the one who killed you. How challenging was it to implement this with all of the other levels of strategy already going on?

Anderson:
For us, Ghost mode was an essential feature to include in Lemnis Gate. Before we had it implemented, if you were killed in the very early stages of the time loop, you would have to wait around until the time loop played out, which became frustrating. Furthermore, if you managed to prevent yourself from dying in the following round, your newly saved operative would have no further role in the match since there was no additional information recorded after your death in the previous round. Ghost mode enabled the game to know what a “saved” operative did for the full 25 second loop. This required us to take a live player and turn everything they would normally do into “ghost” versions (all weapons and abilities), so they no longer damage or disrupt live players. All of this needed to happen while still giving all the right feedback and feel to the person playing as the ghost.

Why was Unreal Engine a good fit for Lemnis Gate?

Anderson:
The arena shooter has been the foundation of Unreal Engine development since the very beginning. The character movement systems, network replication, collision, projectiles, stability, and performance… all of these aspects are more mature and robust than most other engines out there. Everything you need to make a great shooter is included right out of the box. We are also very thankful to Epic for providing such a great cross-platform implementation, making it possible for an indie team such as ours to launch an online game on six different platforms simultaneously. Unreal Engine is a great piece of technology, offering smaller teams the kind of toolkits usually reserved for AAA teams and budgets.
Image courtesy of Ratloop Games Canada
Lemnis Gate has a very distinctive style. Can you walk us through your artistic workflow?
 
Anderson:
We created a set of diverse worlds for our operatives to travel to and bring variety to the gameplay experience as players cycle through the map list during a session. All our worlds are alien and distinct from each other, but by using a standard kit of human-built outposts in each of the levels, we have a nice connective thread that ties them together. Narratively, the “human tech” found in each map is equipment that the humans have brought along with them when establishing the outpost on each world. Familiar outposts give players identifiable artifacts to play around with as well as help tie the game's universe together. It's also worth mentioning that we took an approach where we built a small set of bespoke scenery exclusively for each world. These are unique scenery pieces or foliage found only on that world to ensure some key distinctiveness and to support lore of the location itself.

In terms of our operatives, we were inspired by chess pieces where the key pieces are all visually distinctive from one another and easily identifiable by silhouette alone. As turns are 25 seconds long, this was particularly important to ensure that players could quickly distinguish between operatives on the field of play. This also fed into the distinct weapons and abilities that each operative had. We wanted to ensure that all operatives were equally important depending on the situation a player might find themselves in.

Can you walk us through how you implemented the game's photo mode?

Anderson:
Photo mode was a natural fit in Lemnis Gate as an extension of the in-game reconnaissance drone. Due to our turn-based nature, while your opponent plays, you take control of the recon drone to observe the battlefield and plan your next moves. From this viewpoint, you can get up close and personal with the operatives and action during gameplay. It was straightforward from here to allow players to pause the game, zoom the camera, and add a screen capture button. Once we had this, we added a few more options to allow for a more cinematic result, like depth of field and letterboxing.

How has the response from the community been so far?

Anderson:
The reception from critics and the community alike has been fantastic, and we've gotten a lot of comments from players thanking us for doing something new and bringing a fresh take to the FPS genre. We've also seen a huge evolution in meta strategies forming from our players. It seems to evolve week by week which is pretty insane to see unfold. Counters for the previous week's top plays get figured out the following week, which keeps everyone on their toes. We also have a fantastic group of high-level players who run weekly tournaments, which are spectacular to watch. We're super excited to see how the game and player base evolves over time.

Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Lemnis Gate

Anderson:
It's been a pleasure!

For anyone interested in finding out more about Lemnis Gate, our website has a ton of information or if you prefer to stay in the loop, you can check out our social channels:

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