Image courtesy of Tuque Games

How Tuque Games brought compelling co-op to Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance

July 29, 2021
Tuque Games, a subsidiary of Wizards of the Coast, is a video game developer based in Montreal, Canada. One of Montreal’s growing list of independent development studios, it released its first title, Livelock, in 2016 and is developing the co-op action brawler Dark Alliance set in the Forgotten Realms and based on the massively popular Dungeons & Dragons franchise. Learn more at www.tuquegames.com.
Tasked with reinventing the Dark Alliance formula, which started in 2001 as a top-down isometric hack-and-slash game, Canadian developer Tuque Games set out to develop a more immersive third-person action RPG that would showcase author R.A. Salvatore’s famed world of Icewind Dale like we’ve never seen before. 

To get further insight into the development of Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance, we interviewed several Tuque Games developers. They share what it was like working with the esteemed author, how their personal D&D experiences influenced the development of the game, and do a deep dive into the game’s free-flowing combat system.  

 

The original Dark Alliance games were top-down isometric hack-and-slash titles. Why was the transition to a third-person action RPG right for 2021's Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance

Studio Head and Creative Director Jeff Hattem: Icewind Dale is known for being a harsh and unforgiving place. We wanted to bring the camera in closer to help players get immersed in that environment like never before. From a moment-to-moment gameplay standpoint, going toe-to-toe with frost giants and verbeeg is quite impressive and visceral.

Considering Tuque Games worked with author R. A. Salvatore on the game, can you elaborate on how that relationship worked?

Hattem: R.A. Salvatore's books were a big inspiration to us, and we wanted to craft a game that brought the iconic action of Drizzt and his companions to life. We worked with R.A. Salvatore early in the development process to make sure we were being true to the characters and set them in a fun conflict that fans of the original books would recognize.
Image courtesy of Tuque Games
Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance has drawn comparisons to Assassin's Creed, Gears of War, and more. Considering it's been two decades since the original Dark Alliance game, were there any modern games that influenced 2021's Dark Alliance?

Game Designer Michael Menard: With Dark Alliance’s focus on cooperative play, it was only natural for us to look at co-op experiences that resonated with the team. Many of us love playing Warhammer: Vermintide, Remnant: From the Ashes, and Deep Rock Galactic. (There’s also a devoted group of Dead by Daylight diehards you can find lurking around after hours.) Players will also likely spot obvious inspirations in God of War and Dark Souls, but don’t let these few examples distract from the many; we have a team with such diverse interests that there are tons of games that have no doubt seeped into Dark Alliance’s DNA.

Tuque Games stated it wanted to lean into a heavy metal motif with Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance. What made that theme right for the game?
 
Art Director Stefan Leblanc: When I say heavy metal, think art style, not music. The game’s music is fully orchestral. Think of the look of heavy metal album covers and of how some metal bands dress. Our characters are dressed in leather, fur, chains, and skulls. Icewind Dale is a harsh and dangerous place populated by monsters, so going heavy metal in our artistic style made sense to us.

How much is Dark Alliance inspired by traditional D&D?

Menard:  Like our Creative Director Jeff says, Dark Alliance is about what happens after players roll for initiative. Our focus is almost entirely on combat and delivering an experience that does justice to our mental images and R.A. Salvatore’s incredible canon. That said, you can imagine that, as a bunch of D&D fans, we did everything we could to squeeze as much D&D into the game as possible; when designing, the first step for us was often to crack open the monster manual or player’s handbook to see what we could use. D&D players are going to notice a lot of nods to the tabletop experience.

The backdrops and environments in the game look great. Can you talk about the work that went into recreating the beloved Forgotten Realms world?
 
Leblanc: A big challenge from the outset was building this huge world. We didn't want to limit the Hinterlands to be a tundra (we thought that could get boring), so we took some artistic liberties and brought in various architecture to dress it up. We worked with architecture kits that are kind of like building blocks which rely on the creativity and imagination of the level artist to craft environments that look and feel different from map to map. We chose a giant architecture kit for Kelvin’s cairn and the Hinterlands, a Dwarven architecture for the Dwarven valley, a Cultist architecture for the spine of the world, and two kits to help dress the four biomes, a Duergar mining kit, and a Goblin wooden fortification kit. Those were our basic building blocks. Our art evolved by focusing on the enemies and making each mission’s tone and style reflect the enemy’s culture and beliefs. This helped us have a distinct feel for every mission and made our world so much richer and something that feels authentic to D&D fans.
Image courtesy of Tuque Games
Tuque Games has stated it designed Dark Alliance to have accessible, yet deep, and emergent combat that would allow players to be free flowing with their attacks. Can you elaborate on how you approached designing the game's combat system?

Senior Combat Designer Louis-David Tremblay: The first hurdle we had to go through on our way to making the combat system we wanted was to democratize it. We wanted to create a system that the largest possible number of people could use, but we also didn't want that to compromise the essence of the combat we were envisioning. So, the first problem was creating something that everyone can use, but that isn't shallow. Something forgiving, yet something that offers plenty of space for players' skills to grow.

Whether in a combat system or in games at large, the fun factor comes in when the player is learning. So, we wanted players to have room to learn, but we also didn't want players to have to learn input combinations by heart; we wanted them to intuitively learn the moves and focus on what enemies did instead.

One of the best things you can do for accessibility in terms of combat is remove the execution part, so that players get to shine. We created something where players need to use the right moves creatively and at the right time.

In terms of our freeform combat, each hero starts off with a limited move set, but it's complex enough to provide players with the fun of experimentation. For example, players can use the moves quick and fierce that you can string together into a combo with simple button presses. Holding forward or backward at the same time as you enter those presses branches off to different sequences. Sure, each sequence can be executed one-handed, but the variants provide different uses and purposes.

At first, players will only get a taste of where the freeform combat can take them: They only have a few standalone moves on a more complex input, but they’re absolutely free to cancel any move into those or insert those standalone moves into the combo string at any time. The only thing that limits a player’s creativity is the stamina cost of the moves, and the most powerful ones reduce your maximum stamina for a time, so you can’t use them too liberally. 

Players can regain their maximum stamina by playing riskier (such as performing parries) or by using a stamina potion, which forces you to pace your offense. This is akin to reloading your gun in a shooter. There is flair and strategy as to when and where to do it, and planning ahead for those downtime moments is part of what players get to learn.

Once players have mastered those simpler aspects, they start unlocking moves that are more powerful and have more distinct uses. Once again, those moves are entirely standalone (one input = one move) and can be inserted into a base combo string or be adjoined to one another to form a completely custom-made combo. 

And this is why we needed stamina: We wanted to provide players with the freedom to express themselves within the combat move set and really "Frankenstein" their own creations into existence, but we wanted to have a limiting factor to that tremendous upside, so as to still make the monsters challenging to fight against while also putting players into an "economy mindset," where they strategically consider the costs and drawbacks of a move rather than spam the attack button.

The whole of it results in an experience where the player inputs every move for the hero on the controller. You do feel like the pilot in control, and once you know your moves, heroes will never do something that you didn't expect. We do pull on some levers behind the curtains for comfort: such as easing the hero towards the enemy, or closing the gap imperceptibly to make the attack connect, but the hero will never change an action the player requested based on orientation context or proximity.
Image courtesy of Tuque Games
The general approach is absolutely player-centric, sort of like good game masters who empower their players to make their own decisions on how to succeed. At the same time, the combat represents the core difficulty and we have six challenge ratings to provide core players ample room to grind both their gear and skill towards excellence if they want to.

Combat is a dance and it takes two to tango, but we wanted more than a tango. Nevertheless, combat is indeed a dance, and ours needed to be both collaborative for co-op play, and an antagonistic choreography. We were after a flowing choreography of antagonism, if you will, with the player being the choreographer. Good combat is a language made from cues, incentives, and rules. It's up to the player to become fluent in those and craft them into a spectacle, as a conductor would an orchestra.

Some attacks can be blocked, some require evading, some cost stamina if you block them. If you're unwilling to play with health or stamina, you can pay by risking it and blocking it at the last possible moment for a parry that restores your stamina instead and sends the enemy staggering. 

Some attacks hit multiple enemies. Some attacks hit close, others far. Some attacks hit enemies hard but come out slow, and some barely damage but are unblockable, or the attack infects the enemy with a status ailment. Each attack has a place and a purpose, and it's up to the player to make those building blocks their own and chisel their own creation into existence.

That's what democratizing a combat system was to us. We wanted to give players the freedom to make their own choices and surprise us with different ways to take down enemies.

With four different playable characters that are based on R. A. Salvatore's Companions of the Hall, each with their own special abilities and ultimates, how do you approach designing and balancing them? 

Menard: When working with an established IP, particularly with characters that are so popular and appreciated, it’s important to be faithful to the source material regardless of how your game chooses to build on it. In our case, designing each character meant both looking at what R. A. Salvatore wrote while considering what player expectations would be.

The most important thing is ensuring each character is unique, and not leveling out the differences between them for the sake of “balance.” We think we’ve succeeded on that front; the characters play very differently, and what’s great is even though each one has a general role, you can still build them quite differently. My Wulfgar can look quite different from yours. We love it when players surprise us with their creativity.
Image courtesy of Tuque Games
Dark Alliance has numerous enemies and bosses that are based on D&D lore, many with their own strengths and weaknesses. How do you approach designing them for the game?

Tremblay: The design process starts with the selection of the monster itself. This is done with the team, as the monster must fulfill artistic needs, design needs, as well as fit in our production budget. 

Once we've agreed on the monster and what the lore says it looks like, we, in the design team, dissect what the attributes of that monster are. For instance, if the monster was going to be a giant wasp, we would probably think of stings or poison. A large monster like a Verbeeg immediately screams "tremor attacks" or "squishing the player" because its main attributes are its size and mass. So, unsurprisingly we'd give Verbeegs those types of attacks. Then, we look at the other attributes that are not immediately as visible. Verbeegs are holding large harpoons, which they use for hunting. We design all possible ways that a Verbeeg could attack with a harpoon and pick the ones that best fit our design needs.

When we speak of design needs, we really mean challenge. The reason for the monster's existence is to challenge the player, and that challenge's goal is to enforce the mechanics that the game proposes. Dark Alliance proposes a block, a parry (if you time your block properly) or an evade, which includes I-frames. Each of these options balances risk-taking versus cost. Block and evade cost stamina in accordance with the risk it entails to pull them off. Parry, on the other hand, has a null stamina cost, but it costs the player in skill and in risk-taking, and in willingness to gamble health, which is another resource players must manage. Blocking is the safest option, and that's why it also depletes your stamina the most. 

A monster's attacks are designed to entice a player into making those second-to-second micro choices throughout combat. As such, the Verbeeg has an array of attacks that challenges the player in every way. For some of these attacks, the dominant strategy is to evade, while for others, the block is better. For some, parrying is the most rewarding, while some attacks (such as when the Verbeeg has already planted the spear into the ground) are unavoidable. For those, players need to respect the area-denial ability of the spear and use their ranged attacks to damage it from afar. 

We design other attacks much later in production, when after playtesting when we realize a monster’s move set is incomplete. If we leave glaring vulnerabilities in a monster, that might make it easily exploitable. As an example, this happened with the Verbeeg. It walked slowly, which made heroes able to run circles around him (quite literally) and the only option the Verbeeg had from afar was its harpoon throw, which isn't all that difficult to dodge. 

So, we added attacks that displace the Verbeeg a great distance to the player (the flying elbow drop that the Binger Verbeeg uses). This is really a quick displacement disguised as an attack that the Verbeeg can use to close the distance and remain a threat. It serves the dual function of requiring a dodge and keeping the players on their toes, and to re-enter its optimal threat range, where the Verbeeg can resume using the rest of its attack set upon landing.

The same consideration goes into making every archetype. Archetypes that we want threatening at any range will tend to always have a few AOEs (area of effects) in its attack set. This is because we must be mindful of player behaviors, where they might be tempted to stay 100% behind the enemy, which either causes monsters to not be able to attack or need to slide very quickly 180 degrees or use instant pivots. Another patch can be to give large enemies AOEs so that regardless of where the hero is, the attack applies relevant pressure to alter the behavior and close the potential exploit. 

Once monsters are done and have their complete move set, we apply weaknesses and strengths to them in accordance with their design. For example, we might make a poisonous snake immune to poison, or an ice-spewing dragon very resistant to ice.

But there are other mechanics that we need to design that challenge and/or reward the player beyond simply damage affinities. Is the monster overall resistant to this or that status ailment? Can that monster be stunned? For example, should wraiths be able to run out of stamina and be vulnerable to exhaustion? If the notion of a ghost being cardio-ed out in combat might be funny to entertain, it's something we need to carefully consider in the design. There are tons of exceptions that each require a clever (or oftentimes, not-so-clever) workaround.
Image courtesy of Tuque Games
Considering the game is designed with co-op in mind, can you talk about some of the ways you've designed the world and missions to accommodate up to four players?

Level Designer Joseph Raya: First and foremost, we had to figure out the right size for each area. At the early stages of production, we tested a bunch of different sizes for the arenas and the paths until we found what felt comfortable with a full party of four. We also had the constraint of designing missions not only for four players in co-op, but for solo players too, which really changed our approach. We had to make sure everything was feasible in solo, which is why we had to simplify a lot of co-op-only features and ideas.

For the missions themselves, we wanted the players to share all pickable objects within the party so the group could move forward smoothly without waiting for the player or players who picked up the mission's objects.

The game features an innovative short-rest system that enables players to forego saving in exchange for better potential loot. Can you talk about how you came to that implementation?
 
Raya: We iterated a lot on that design. We wanted the short rests to be a strategic option, like in the tabletop game, where you only have a few but they are important decisions. We wanted to give that risk versus reward feel in the design. If the players wish to skip a short rest, they are rewarded with better loot potential, but that comes at the expense of refilling potions, health-point regeneration, and saving the party’s progress. And you can stack the better loot perk for each skipped short rest, so the risk versus reward increases as you advance through the mission.
Image courtesy of Tuque Games
Considering Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance is Tuque Games first Unreal Engine title, why was UE a good fit for the game?

Principal Programmer Jonathan Lacasse: Unreal Engine provided us with an excellent base to build our framework and designer tools to create Dark Alliance. The best example is our emergent combat system, which we created by using tools that we made within Unreal Engine. It gave our combat designers the ability to tweak combat timings, frame cancels, and hit frames, and all with excellent precision directly within Unreal's animation view. An experienced combat designer qualified it as "the best tool they were ever given," which is high praise for us and for Unreal Engine!

Considering Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance is available on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, what enhancements can next-gen console owners expect??

Lacasse: Next-gen console owners can expect fast loading times, breathtaking 4K visuals of Icewind Dale, and (finally) 60FPS combat!

What excites you most about working on the next-gen consoles?
 
Lacasse: Players may not realize it, but game developers also need to sit through loading screens. So many of them! The next-gen SSD storage certainly cuts down on iteration time and allows us to put our time where it matters: the gameplay. We are excited about getting this time back and using it to push the quality to new heights made capable by the new hardware.

Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance?

Hattem: You can find more info on https://darkalliance.wizards.com

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