Image courtesy of Cold Symmetry

Mortal Shell embodies how a small studio can punch above its weight class

By Jimmy Thang |
September 25, 2020

Cold Symmetry, founded in 2017 by a core team of four, is best known for its debut title Mortal Shell. The studio is composed of AAA veterans with a strong passion for making games. Their distributed development model allows them to work with the brightest and most talented people in the industry around the world.
New studio Cold Symmetry recently made a big splash in the game-development scene with its debut title Mortal Shell, which Trusted Reviews called, “one of the year’s biggest gaming surprises, offering a deep, fascinating journey into a melancholic world that’s well worth taking.” Though the team that worked on the game was relatively small, averaging about 15 members across the title’s roughly two-year development, they’re full of seasoned vets with developers who worked on movies like Alita: Battle Angel and games like Ghost of Tsushima and the Call of Duty franchise. To see how such a relatively small studio was able to pack such a tremendous punch, we interviewed Cold Symmetry co-creative directors Andrew Murray, Anton Gonzales, and Vitaly Bulgarov.

The trio discuss how they approached designing Mortal Shell’s offensive-minded combat while incorporating an innovative blocking mechanic that provides players new tactical maneuvers within the Souls-inspired genre. They also share how they walked the fine line between making combat challenging, but never unfair. The creative directors go on to explain why using keyframe animations was a better fit for the title than using motion capture and elaborate on how they developed the game’s imposing enemies, unsettling non-linear world, and excellent visuals. 
Image courtesy of Cold Symmetry
Congratulations on the launch and success of Mortal Shell! Considering the game started out as another project, Dungeonhaven, several years ago, can you tell us about the evolution of that project and how it morphed into Mortal Shell
 
Sure, and thank you! In the earliest days of the project, before it was called Dungeonhaven, Anton and Andrew were experimenting with procedural generation. We’d spent quite a bit of time testing the Marketplace plugin Dungeon Architect. At the same time, we were iterating on what eventually became the harden mechanic. We eventually abandoned the procedural approach: the limitations on environment art, lighting, level design, and gameplay made us decide to return to a more traditional handcrafted approach. Once we did that, we were able to pretty quickly lock in our vertical slice, which we called Dungeonhaven
 
Another big feature we cut was the ability for the player to throw any item in the game. There was at one point a miniaturization potion that you could either drink to shrink yourself or throw at an enemy to do the same [to them]. In the end, even though we cut and changed a lot of things throughout development, the core identity of a hardcore third-person action RPG always remained. 
 
When we merged studios with Black Sky Symmetry, it was another game changer. We really gelled with Vitaly and [Cold Symmetry Co-founder] Dmitry Parkin, and at that point, things started to feel a bit like being in a band. This is where the game really started to shape its unique flavor and identity, grew vastly in scope and eventually became Mortal Shell. Once we developed the core concept of possessing the bodies of fallen warriors, we also created a twisted lore around it and built the world to support it. The atmosphere, overall, got a lot darker than it was initially in Dungeonhaven, taking inspiration from horror themes. Our ambition and appetite also grew throughout the process and, together, we set out to construct a game with an immersive world and characters in it for players to explore.
 
Image courtesy of Cold Symmetry
Mortal Shell has been praised for its methodical, yet offensive-minded combat system. Can you elaborate on how the team designed it? 
 
Rewarding aggressive combat and player skill were two important pillars for us right from the start. We knew right away that we wanted to exclude shields from the player’s arsenal since they, as Bloodborne so eloquently put it, “engender passivity.” At one point, we’d considered having the player find a shield, only to have their character throw it away in disgust. The second most important mechanic in regard to rewarding skill and aggression is the parry/riposte system. The intent was to make parrying the primary way to heal. This mechanic is more divisive than others, and ends up splitting players: some give up and use consumable items to heal, others may learn to parry against specific enemies they are having a hard time with, and then we have speed and challenge runners who don’t need any healing and tend to exclusively use the offensive ripostes. 
 
The game features a very unique premise that allows players to inhabit different "shells" in order to take up different classes and to provide extra health. Can you elaborate on what inspired the team to move forward with this design?
 
The shells were the intersection of our desire to have a class-based system, the player character’s lore, and leaning into our strengths as a team. It took a lot of iteration and brainstorming with everyone involved to arrive at the concept of the shells. Once we did, lots of other things started to fall into place. The term shell had been around since the earliest days, we used to refer to the statues which dropped upon the player’s death as shells, and before long, everyone on the team was using this language. That was a clue we were onto something, as the term became infectious and useful as a description that communicated something about lore and gameplay at the same time. 
 
With players being able to harden their bodies to block, it opens up strategic options mid-combat. Can you elaborate on how you came to this design?
 
The harden mechanic was there since the earliest days and continued to evolve throughout development. Thematically, we found the concept of a knight turning to stone to be inspiring in a classic way, and wanted to explore this as a central mechanic. Mechanically, we were fascinated by the idea of giving the player a brief reusable invincibility, and it allowed us to crank up the speed and damage of enemies to compensate. With some fine tuning, it created a pretty fun experience. Another reason we decided to go for it was due to the fact that it kind of forces the player to use a really offensive play style and feels really rewarding if you can pull it off. That way, we were defining our own combat language for the game.
Image courtesy of Cold Symmetry
Mortal Shell features many different ominous enemies and bosses. How did you approach designing them? 
 
From the very beginning, we knew that the characters would be a critical part of Mortal Shell’s appeal. Before merging the studios, Vitaly and Dmitry were working on their own dark fantasy game with some of the characters already complete. Characters such as Hadern, Tarsus, Imrod, Gragu, the Old Prisoner as well as various props made it into Mortal Shell from that project and became the standard of design and modeling quality. 
 
With our previous experience in AAA games and films, the bar was set high so we knew that with our indie budget, we couldn’t afford to hire anyone from outside of the studio to make more characters like that. So, we ended up designing and modeling/texturing all the characters ourselves and only hired outside contractors for retopology of high-poly models into low-poly models. This proved to be highly efficient as we shortened the character development cycle and we could experiment with ideas more quickly while evaluating character designs in 3D. We are big fans of horror and medieval design so we tried to blend the two to make our own flavor of a dark fantasy aesthetic that feels both grounded but also otherworldly, both fresh yet familiar. For example, instead of just adding two-inch thick shoulder pads with spikes and skulls everywhere to make enemies look “scary,” we tried a more functional approach to armor design, where at first, we’d establish a more realistically proportioned armor set inspired by historical examples and only then go crazy and push things further enhancing the visual story-telling of that given character. This approach also allowed us to make sure things weren't over-the-top and didn’t come across as trying too hard while still being rich in subtle details that the players can discover as they play the game.
 
Considering Mortal Shell doesn't feature any motion capture, character animations look quite realistic. Can you share how you pulled them off?
 
For animations, we did try using some motion capture at first, but it didn’t really work in our case. We wanted the player to really feel the weight of the weapon, to feel the impact, and, in general, feel good. That made us quickly realize that we need to use a semi-stylized approach. Instead of working with motion-capture animations and trying to edit them so they fit the vision, we decided to do keyframe animations that gave us more flexibility from an artistic standpoint. We were able to do a quick early animation pass that allowed us to quickly iterate, tweak timings instantly, spend time judging where we want to put accents, and more. And after that was done, we just had to do last frame-by-frame tweaks to make sure it fits within the compact phasing. It was quite a tedious process, but animations are one of the most important aspects of a melee combat game like ours, so we had to make sure they worked as intended. 
 
Before players perish, they get knocked out of their shell and get one last chance to run back to their body, where they can receive full health. How did you come up with this concept? 
 
Other titles in the genre had introduced similar comeback mechanics that we thought worked really well, and when we viewed this from the perspective of the lore and shell mechanics, our development here fell neatly into place. 
Image courtesy of Cold Symmetry
Despite featuring challenging gameplay, Mortal Shell has been praised as never feeling unfair. How did you strike this balance? 
 

One of the most important things to us was never giving the player the feeling that an enemy “out-leveled” them, that an invisible hand was stopping them from defeating an enemy within a reasonable amount of time. To accomplish this, we give players plenty of tools (invulnerability frames) with some limitations (resolve, stamina) while at the same time making sure the enemy max HP was always at a reasonable value, no matter where the player would wander in the game. This was especially challenging as you are able to go anywhere in the game right from the start, but we’d always planned to keep player (and enemy) progression relatively flat for exactly this reason. Dialing it in to feel right was tricky of course, and it’s borderline impossible to please everyone as player skill levels are very disparate in this genre, but making a baseline that’s quite challenging while giving the player a variety of effective tools they can mix and match to suit their playstyle was the approach we decided on.
 
How many people worked on the game and how long did Mortal Shell take to develop?
 
The team size scaled between four and 50 depending on when you looked at our production. A good average would be 15. From the start of production, it took around two years to develop, but we spent around six months before that experimenting and developing the vertical slice.
Image courtesy of Cold Symmetry
Mortal Shell features fantastic dark and moody graphics. Can you delve into how a relatively small team was able to make such a good-looking game? 
 
Most of our team comes from the background of AAA games and films, so from the very beginning, delivering striking visuals and moody graphics with a deep sense of atmosphere was one of the key targets for Mortal Shell. We were (and will be) always striving to deliver awesome looking visuals as it is something we really value internally. It’s an important part of what we think it takes to deliver an immersive experience in general. A veteran art team is clearly one of the advantages of our small studio, so it made sense for us to double down on it and play to our strengths. Also, considering the types of games we like to play and aspire to create, we strived to do the best we could within our scope to set the right tone of the game for players to be absorbed by our world. 
 
Something that is worth mentioning in that regard is the way we approached the design, trying to make sure it all fits together. This includes characters, environments, lighting, setting, and mood. It all had to feel like one cohesive world where everything fits together. Enemies need to make an impression like they are from the area they belong to, and environments have to support and explain that from a narrative point of view as well. It is a big part of what we believe makes the world look alive, interesting, and intriguing, which is something that extends beyond just creating high-quality visuals.
 
Mortal Shell's non-linear world oozes with mystery and features multiple paths to explore. Can you talk about how you designed the game's environments?

Our main goal was to make the players feel like they’re on a dangerous adventure, scared and cautious but so intrigued and curious they can’t stop exploring every corner of Mortal Shell. In the earlier parts of the game, we wanted the players to feel a bit lost, uneasy, and overall oppressed by the world at first before they learned how to overcome its struggles. 

We also wanted to provide the players with a choice to progress through the game the way they want to without limiting them to one single route of progression. Originally, we took inspiration from some of our favorite older Souls games when it comes to exploration and level design. The game's first area, Fallgrim, was deliberately created as a location where the players can get lost in to promote a sense of wonder combined with a satisfying feeling of discovery every time they find an entrance to a new level, a hidden shell, or another secret. 

Creating a sense of mystery where the players get to learn more and puzzle the pieces together as they progress through the world was another important objective for us. For example, as you go deeper into the Crypt of Martyrs, you transition into the frozen area and only when you reach the deeper end of the crypt, you learn the origin of that permafrost.

The boss levels were designed with an additional set of goals in mind. On one hand, they are more linear than the hub area with more handcrafted encounters and with enemies that are also more difficult, so you can focus more on combat itself. On the other hand, we also tried to create an exciting contrast from the green swampy forest of Fallgrim by introducing unexpected level transitions varying from the blue frozen depths of the Crypt to areas like the golden light-filled obsidian temples of the Seat of Infinity.
Image courtesy of Cold Symmetry
Why was Unreal Engine a good fit for the game?
 
Unreal Engine was critical in realizing our vision into the final product. The way the engine is developed, all the tools we had at our disposal, and the way it all works together gave us a big boost in productivity, which we would never have if we’d try to make our own engine from scratch. As soon as we started playing with Unreal Engine, we quickly realized the potential of what we can do with it in terms of our game without even spending extra resources on expanding the engine functionality. We still were not able to do everything we wanted for different reasons, and there were quite a few limitations taking our studio size and resources that didn’t allow it to push it further, but we hope with the next title we can deliver more on that end. Unreal Engine 5 looks very promising in that regard.
 
Considering Mortal Shell is Cold Symmetry's first title, what did you learn about yourselves as a new studio throughout the process of developing the game? 

The surprising and pleasant discovery was how true the adage that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is. Every time someone on the team would do/add something to the game, it was then enhanced by another team member’s addition. The game kept evolving as a living thing and every new piece of content, whether it’s a line of code or an art asset, worked like extra fuel that propelled the inspiration flowing within the team. That contagious energy like some kind of magic force kept its peak for the entirety of production and we managed to over-deliver pretty much on every milestone. We learned that we are capable of doing a lot more than we think if we work cohesively as one unit with a single objective – make the game better.

We realized that if we plan out the work ahead of us carefully and prioritize getting the most important stuff done first, we still have time and energy do the extra things that aren’t necessarily part of the core gameplay loop, but add charm and soul to the game, such as petting a cat or playing a medieval lute.
Image courtesy of Cold Symmetry
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Mortal Shell is that the game serves as a prime example of a small team appropriately scoping and executing a streamlined vision for a game. Are there any tips you can share with other developers here? 

Depending on the size of the game you’re trying to build, perhaps one of the biggest pieces of advice we could give is to make an effort to build the right core team. At first, put your ego aside and look for partners, not employees. Making games is an incredibly difficult task, so to get things done and move at an appropriate speed, you need people who “know something about everything and everything about something.” Once you find the right partners, have a crystal clear vision of the end product and make sure that the core team is in complete alignment on that vision. This can be a major determining factor on whether you will ever ship the title and whether the game will feel like an authentic experience. 

Know your team strengths and figure out what will help you to use those strengths to the maximum. Define your core game pillars that you can’t compromise on, and things that can be cut if there’s a need to do so. Focus on the core gameplay/experience. It’s always fun to polish things, but if the core is weak, no amount of polish is going to make it feel good. It’s still going to feel weak, but slightly better.

Never lose the big picture. When it comes to planning, set realistic but challenging goals with strict deadlines, and make sure those deadlines are met before you jump into polishing fun details. 

Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Mortal Shell?

Thanks for having us. Mortal Shell is now available on PS4, Xbox One, and the Epic Games Store. Make sure to check out the game’s official website, Twitter, Facebook, and Discord

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