©️ 2023 DogHowl Games ©️ 2023 tinyBuild

Inside Level Zero’s war-torn game development

Brian Crecente |
May 31, 2023
Alex Pimenov, born and raised in Ukraine, is co-founder of Doghowl Games and game director of the Level Zero project. He provides project vision for the Doghowl Games team. In the past, Alex worked in the film industry as a director and producer of various projects for more than nine years.
“All of my goals and dreams were erased in an instant starting from Feb. 24 and were replaced with the simple principles of making sure that my family and I were safe. Any material things had lost their value. Everything seemed like a dream made real, literally. It was only possible to fall asleep when my body was completely exhausted, and when I woke up, I wanted to believe that none of this was real.”

Like so many living in Ukraine, life for Alex Pimenov, co-founder of Ukraine-based studio Doghowl Games, changed forever in February 2022.

Just a month after founding the studio and Doghowl landing a publishing deal for their inaugural game–Level Zero–they would see their daily lives impacted in ways that were once unimaginable. Work on the game ground to a halt in the first weeks following the war, but soon Pimenov and the rest of the team decided that they couldn’t put their lives on hold and returned to working on the project.

“The team consists of very good people right now who support each other and who are all united by the single goal of making a great project, which is what we are doing now,” he said. “The war resulted in certain changes to Ukrainian game development and has given us incredible experience in dealing with extreme unforeseeable circumstances.”

In a March interview, Pimenov described what war-time game development is like, how the asymmetric horror title Level Zero has evolved since its early development, and the inspirations the team draws from to make the game using Unreal Engine.
 

How and when did Doghowl Games form?

Alex Pimenov, Doghowl Games co-founder:
We met when we were playing multiplayer games together 10 years ago while living in different countries. We were already interested in making our own servers and mods for different games even back then. The release of Unreal Engine 4 caught our attention and that is when we started to get interested and study it. Once we knew enough about Unreal Engine, we came up with the idea of making our own project called Level Zero. The team consisted of four members back then, and we worked on the project in our spare time from our jobs. Our many years of experience ranging from game development to the video production industry made it easy for us to make the game look like a product that could attract the attention of publishers. In order to build all of the processes in the team correctly, we joined together with our old friends who were the founders of Outloud and already had huge experience in the game development industry.

Doghowl Games started its existence at the beginning of 2022 before the start of the war. We got a deal with a publisher at the same time. Our team now consists of around 20 people, who are professionals that came from already famous titles like Metro, Call of Duty, Dead Space, and many others.

Where are you located?

Pimenov:
Many of us are in Ukraine, Europe, and North America. The entire team works remotely.

What have you been doing to keep yourself and your studio safe?

Pimenov:
I believe that the start of the war affected absolutely everyone in Ukraine with no exception. There is no way to prepare for something like this, but we tried to reduce all of the risks.

When the war began, our first order of priority was to provide the team with all that it required. We bought laptops, generators, batteries, and other devices so that the guys could work in safety and be mobile. The war resulted in certain changes to Ukrainian game development and has given us incredible experience in dealing with extreme unforeseeable circumstances.

How does the war impact your day-to-day operations and ability to focus on creating this game?

Pimenov: We have provided the team with everything required to work normally. The studio is working in its usual way and moving along a clear plan even though there is a war. When there are bombings, people go down into the bomb shelter and then return to their work. During power cuts, the team switches to alternative power sources and keeps working.
©️ 2023 DogHowl Games ©️ 2023 tinyBuild
The stack of generators the team purchased for use during power-cuts.
How do you feel like what you’ve experienced and what your friends and relatives are experiencing in Ukraine has impacted the game’s look and feel?

Pimenov:
The war has not affected the way the game feels and looks in any way. We are completing all of the goals that lie before us. Perhaps everything would have been different if there was no war, but we will never ever find this out now.

Have you ever thought about stopping work on the game when so much else is going on around you?

Pimenov:
To be honest, nobody was even thinking of the project in the first weeks of the war. Speaking for myself, all of my goals and dreams were erased in an instant starting from February 24 and were replaced with the simple principles of making sure that my family and I were safe. Any material things had lost their value. Everything seemed like a dream made real, literally. It was only possible to fall asleep when my body was completely exhausted, and when I woke up, I wanted to believe that none of this was real.

A month later, the realization came that putting life on pause was no solution and we had to continue working on the project. The team consists of very good people right now who support each other and who are all united by the single goal of making a great project, which is what we are doing now.

What are your future hopes for the studio?

Pimenov:
We are planning to continue to expand and grow as a studio, creating cool new projects and making Ukrainian game development stand out and develop. We want to show the world that Ukrainian developers can be trusted with complex projects that have high budgets even in wartime conditions. Ukraine has a very rich culture which has a style all of its own when creating media.

Back in 2021, after a trailer for Level Zero hit, the studio decided to postpone an alpha release for the game because of publisher interest. Can you walk us through what happened and how that will impact the game’s final look and features?

Pimenov:
The publisher gave us the opportunity to make the project better even in wartime conditions and this support is priceless to us. We have completely reworked the entire game environment as well as the characters because 80 percent of it had been made using assets from the Unreal Marketplace before. I am really happy with the new characters and it’s one of the strong sides to our game.

We have also moved the game to dedicated servers to create a matchmaking system for player selection. We literally had to rewrite the entire code in a way that would allow for the game to be expanded and for new functionalities to be easily added for its development, such as character customization, perks, and game progression. The whole animation system has also undergone changes and we made our own locomotion so that the movements of the characters would feel realistic. We are also working on new maps which will feel different both visually and in terms of gameplay. The lore of the game is written in such a way that it covers both a space setting and an Earth-bound one for those who don’t like sci-fi.

Why are you using Unreal Engine to create the game?

Pimenov:
We love Unreal Engine. It is absolutely fantastic. There are many reasons why we chose UE, but one of the main ones is the visual part of the game and the possibility of quickly prototyping projects. UE allows us to do cool graphics without having too many tools for it. When you have a vision of how to create a great picture, you will definitely be able to do it in Unreal Engine. I can’t wait for us to have the chance to move onto Unreal Engine 5 and use the new tools.

As a small independent game development studio, how did Unreal Engine help you achieve the goals you were hoping to achieve with Level Zero?

Pimenov:
The fact that Unreal Engine is free is important to indie developers. It’s also important that there are so many materials available about Unreal Engine on the Internet to study. Blueprint Visual Scripting allows for the first project to be easily created. The use of Marketplace assets and Megascans allow for the visual part to be sketched out at the starting stage without having a big budget for it.
©️ 2023 DogHowl Games ©️ 2023 tinyBuild
What made you decide to create an asymmetric horror game?

Pimenov:
The game was initially designed for a two-versus-two mode. We wanted to convey the feeling of one monster being stronger than one survivor, which is why we made the decision to increase the number of survivors to make playing as a survivor easier.

Why did you decide to make your game four humans versus two creatures, instead of having them take on a single enemy?

Pimenov:
The reason for this is that when you play with random players, you have no one to share the emotions you get from the game with, while sharing your impressions with someone is a very important part of games. You can’t play with your friends for the same team, which is also a disadvantage. In a project like Dead by Daylight, when you play as a monster against powerful survivor players, you feel humiliated and it doesn’t seem to us that this is particularly comfortable for a player to be left alone with these emotions.

Were there any particular video games that inspired you when creating this game?

Pimenov:
We actually wanted to create something new with the gameplay as we are gamers ourselves. We feel that the market is short of new and fresh projects with new ideas, which is why the key mechanic where the light is the main weapon in the game is unlike other multiplayer projects.

Were there any horror movies or other works that you looked to for inspiration?

Pimenov:
When we were creating the environment, we paid attention to different films like The Martian, Prometheus, and the Another Life series to find atmospheric inspiration, more than stylistic. When it comes to the characters and creatures, we tried to make something as original as possible so we would not have our game compared to other titles. Whether we managed to or not, is for you to judge.

How did game design and the look of Level Zero evolve over time?

Pimenov:
The visual design of the game mainly changed from the use of assets to original content. When it comes to the style of the project, we always kept to a single vision, trying to avoid changing it. The key style of the game is the near future without excessive sci-fi. We wanted to create an ergonomic and logical environment with realistic, understandable and familiar elements, where every player can believe in what they see. We are against making a design simply to make a design and to make sci-fi simply so we have sci-fi.
©️ 2023 DogHowl Games ©️ 2023 tinyBuild
What can you tell us about Level Zero’s story and background?

Pimenov:
We have fully-featured lore for the game in the form of an audio series. When it comes to the lore itself, we would like to keep it a secret for now.

Since this is a multiplayer game, how will the game’s underlying story be told?

Pimenov:
You may know the Calls audio series. We want the lore to feel like a fully-featured series of interconnected voice calls. In order to reveal the lore, you will have to find hidden carriers during the game sessions that you can use to reveal a consistent story and to get significant game currency and other items for revealing it. All of the maps in the game are connected to the consistent lore and will require careful study. As you discover the lore, you will get access to secret locations on different maps. 

The look of the game’s space suits is amazing. They invoke a very specific style of science fiction. It looks like there was a pretty significant change between the current look and what was shown in the original trailer from a year ago. Where did you come up with the current aesthetic? Why change it, and what were you hoping to achieve?

Pimenov:
The characters had been taken from the Unreal Marketplace in the past and did not have their own original style, but were still realist as they were similar to something that everyone knows. The current characters were completely created from the ground up apart from their faces. They were generated in Metahuman, which is another advantage that makes it worth working with Unreal Engine. The quality of the characters you get using Metahuman is incredible. And when it comes to style, we faced the challenge of creating characters that would look like defenseless, unarmed scientists. In the lore of the game, the corporation which is studying other planets is not militarized, so the scientists should not look like soldiers either.  

The creature design is really wonderful. How did they came about?

Pimenov:
When we were looking for solutions to create the creatures, our goal was to make them logical. We were thinking about their biological establishment as a species. These creatures began in the depths of underground waters and evolved from deep water creatures which had never seen the light. This is why you can see fish-like features in them. They are cannibals, consuming their own offspring to restore their strength if they feel a threat to their lives and they can affect electrical currents. They have no gender and reproduce through eggs which look like fish eggs that they carry on their backs.
©️ 2023 DogHowl Games ©️ 2023 tinyBuild
The idea of the aliens being light sensitive is an interesting concept. What drove that design decision and how did it impact game design?

Pimenov:
Any game with new and original mechanics requires thorough prototyping. This is one of those difficult things when you want to make an original game. The coolest thing that these mechanics gives us is the feeling that the survivors don’t have the firearms we are used to, which makes them feel helpless. This makes the project more immersive and feels very fresh. It’s really interesting to observe the way new players cower in a dark corner, thinking that they are in safety but not realizing that it is the darkness which is their worst enemy as the creatures can see in the dark very well. Once they understand this, the game becomes even more tense. The creatures feel that they are hunters and attack when the survivors do not expect it.

How did you use Unreal Engine to fully make use of the light and dark mechanic in the game and some of those special lighting, like that wonderful flare effect?

Pimenov:
We did not use the skylight that everyone is used to in order to make the dark zones completely dark for the survivors. Conversely, we displayed the skylight for the monsters so that they could see in the dark. We used Niagara for the flare effect as a powerful effects tool, which is what gave us such a good result.

Asymmetric multiplayer games are very reliant on having robust pools of players to really work. What are you doing to make sure that doesn’t become a problem?

Pimenov:
I think that any multiplayer game requires a pool of players. In order to maintain player retention, we will have an advanced progression system which will motivate the support of the online side of the game. We perfectly understand that there should be more survivor players as the game mode is two-versus-four, which is why the progression will be a little more extensive for the survivors. In order to discover the lore of the game, you will have to only play as a survivor, which will help us to ensure a sufficient survivor player base.

How will you matchmake players?

Pimenov:
The player selection in our game will take place with the use of matchmaking, where you will be matched by rank with players of the same skill level as yourself. The better you play, the higher you rise in rank and the more powerful your opponent is.
©️ 2023 DogHowl Games ©️ 2023 tinyBuild
What sort of player progression will the game feature and how will it work?

Pimenov:
In order to unlock skins, customize your character, and unlock perks, you will need to accumulate game currency which you will get for various useful activities and for completing tasks. You will need to collect various items that you will find on the map that you can exchange for currency. The main feature that is special about our progression is that you will only be able to progress effectively when you leave the game session alive and victorious. For instance, to reveal some lore, you will have to find an information carrier and win the game, so that this carrier gives you bonuses and you can continue discovering the lore. In order to unlock a perk, you will also need currency. However, the unlocking of new perk also won’t give you the opportunity to take it into the game if you don’t have the currency for it. This will make your life and the victory of your team even more valuable in the game. We want to give strong players content which they must earn. For instance, you won’t be able to simply buy a skin that requires the completion of complicated quests. This will give you the opportunity to stand out among other players when you get a skin like that if you complete the required tasks.

Will players have access to different sorts of character roles and monsters?

Pimenov:
We would not want the image of the character to be tied to their role because we don’t like this much in games ourselves. You can create your own build from perks and base the playstyle you like the most on it.
©️ 2023 DogHowl Games ©️ 2023 tinyBuild
What can you tell us about the game’s launch maps and what were you hoping to deliver with them?

Pimenov:
We are planning to make three maps for the release. The first map is the Turion Caves, where you are on an alien planet. That is where the whole story with creatures from the lore began. We wanted to make this map organic with the dominance of an alien environment. You are a guest in it, a scientist. We like the vibe from the film “Prometheus” and it also features caves. The second map is a space station for those who love sci-fi. Its special feature will be a huge number of ventilation shafts that the creatures will use to move around. The third map is a research base on the South Pole of the Earth, among the glaciers. What is special about it is that it is as close to the reality of these times as possible for those who don’t like sci-fi and want to see familiar elements from real life. All three maps will be very different in their level design. You will find it difficult to hide from the creatures on one of them and you will have to act more aggressive, while you will have to be more stealthy on another, and the level design will give you this opportunity. You will have to adapt, because we don’t want to give the players the option to select the map.

Will the game have any sort of spectator mode and if so, how will it work?

Pimenov:
Because our game is strongly tied to progression and victory, we decided against having a spectator mode so that the players would not leave the session if they have been killed. This is why when you play for the survivors after death, you become a flying drone that can cause damage to monsters, as well as helping your team to win in various ways. You won’t be able to win on your own with a drone, but you will be able to help your team significantly. When you play as a monster, you can also die, but then you complete a mini-game and return to continue playing.
©️ 2023 DogHowl Games ©️ 2023 tinyBuild
Level Zero seems, at its heart, a game about fear. What sort of design tricks did you use to tap into that and push the fear level of your game?

Pimenov:
We have dynamic sound events as well as others that create tension in the game. For instance, random blackouts on the map, earthquakes and many other things. At first glance, some of the mechanics might seem complicated, but this is done to increase the player’s tension. One example is that if you want to open a locked door, you will have to interact with a code lock using your targeting reticle on the screen. Many might call this pixel-hunting, but in our case, this works to make things atmospheric by creating even more atmosphere.

Unreal Engine 5 released well into your game’s development. Are there any specific features the new engine offers that you’re looking forward to using on your next game?

Pimenov:
We are planning to convert the game to UE5 after release. We can’t wait to do this, because it will significantly improve the visual part of the game. Our game is about light and the use of Lumen and Nanite will definitely make the project cooler. We also would like to use MetaSounds in our project, as well as new tools to improve the animations. We really like that all that we need is inside one engine.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Where can people find out more about Doghowl and Level Zero?

Pimenov:
We are always online and ready to answer all the questions that interest you. You can join us on Discord and other social networks through our website.

    Get Unreal Engine today!

    Get the world’s most open and advanced creation tool.
    With every feature and full source code access included, Unreal Engine comes fully loaded out of the box.
    Join us online or in person at GDC 2024
    Event
    February 13

    Join us online or in person at GDC 2024

    Tune in to the State of Unreal for the latest announcements from Epic and our partners, dive deep with our tech talks, and get inspired and informed with our sessions and learning theater.
    Join us online or in person at GDC 2024
    Event

    Join us online or in person at GDC 2024

    Tune in to the State of Unreal for the latest announcements from Epic and our partners, dive deep with our tech talks, and get inspired and informed with our sessions and learning theater.
    February Marketplace sale: get 50% off over 2,000 products
    News
    February 15

    February Marketplace sale: get 50% off over 2,000 products

    Retro cafes, rustic interiors, low-poly towns, customizable NPC characters…February’s Marketplace sale has something for everyone. Act now to get this month’s selection of goodies at half price.
    February Marketplace sale: get 50% off over 2,000 products
    News

    February Marketplace sale: get 50% off over 2,000 products

    Retro cafes, rustic interiors, low-poly towns, customizable NPC characters…February’s Marketplace sale has something for everyone. Act now to get this month’s selection of goodies at half price.
    Featured free Unreal Marketplace content—February 2024
    News
    February 6

    Featured free Unreal Marketplace content—February 2024

    Fantasy interiors, stylized crystal mines, a trip back to the 90s, and more—February’s free 3D assets from the Unreal Engine Marketplace have landed!
    Featured free Unreal Marketplace content—February 2024
    News

    Featured free Unreal Marketplace content—February 2024

    Fantasy interiors, stylized crystal mines, a trip back to the 90s, and more—February’s free 3D assets from the Unreal Engine Marketplace have landed!