July 31, 2018

Platforming, puzzles and stealth take center stage in PLANET ALPHA

By Shawn Petraschuk

The Unreal Dev Grant program, a $5,000,000 dollar development fund created by Epic back in 2015, provides a no-strings-attached monetary boost given out to select developers and creators every year. Among the winners of the inaugural offering was Adrian Lazar and his ambitious project, PLANET ALPHA. Crediting the honor with being the catalyst he needed to turn his part-time passion project into a full-time development studio, Adrian is on the precipice of releasing PLANET ALPHA for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch on September 4, 2018.

Employing a unique mechanic of controlling the cycle of day to night and back again, PLANET ALPHA is a mixed bag of quick platforming, puzzle solving and stealth mechanics. Colorful environments brought to life by Unreal Engine 4 will see players tackle everything from lush forests alive with organisms of all sizes, mysterious caverns rife with danger, and magical skyborne lands complete with massive flying creatures of myth and legend. It’s a visual feast that’s full of life at every turn.

As the title prepares for launch, we caught up with Adrian Lazar to learn more about PLANET ALPHA’s growth from being a personal project to becoming a highly-anticipated initial offering for a newly-found studio. With a ton of experience on his resume, Adrian imparts his advice on what burgeoning developers should learn and tells us about the tools in Unreal Engine 4 that served the studio best over the past four years. 
You've put together a small, talented team for PLANET ALPHA. Tell us a little bit about your inspiration for jumping into indie development.
At 32, when I started my game development studio, I had worked for other people for about 14 years in eight different companies of all sizes and I really, really wanted to try something new.
After two years I managed to finance the project and at the beginning of 2016, I hired two people onto the core team with whom I had worked with before in other companies. In total, seven people worked on developing PLANET ALPHA.
Together we took the game to a level I never thought possible and I’m looking forward to making more games with them in the future!
For anyone unfamiliar with PLANET ALPHA, please tell us about the game's premise.
PLANET ALPHA is an adventure that takes place in a living alien world where you have the unique ability of being able to control the day and night cycle. It combines fast platforming, puzzles and stealth elements with a unique art-style to create an unforgettable experience.
So that’s the elevator pitch, but what I hope is for the game to be received as a fresh take on a genre that is almost as old as the industry itself, an experience that will carry the player to a place that fascinates and intrigues at the same time. Screenshot_02.png
One of the first things that struck me while watching the PLANET ALPHA trailer was how alive the world felt. How difficult was it for you to bring your environments together into something very much moving and breathing?
We did countless iterations on the game, including a complete change of direction, but the feeling of being stranded on a living alien planet was one of the few things that stayed true from start to finish. From the beginning, we built the team and the workflow with this target in mind and every asset that we created had to contribute to this feeling.
Being a small team means that each of us needs to wear different hats most of the time, which worked great for the type of experience we’re building — a diverse game both in looks and gameplay.
It looks like PLANET ALPHA has a broad mix of platforming crossed with some unique puzzle play as well. What can you tell us about the gameplay mechanics in PLANET ALPHA?

Because the game started as a personal project, we skipped a few steps. For example, we never had a proper game design document. Instead, we relied on the game to develop itself in an organic way and we let ideas generate other ideas. This is true for the story, the environments, and the gameplay — each one feeding the other.
We never planned to have platforming, puzzles, stealth, and exploration from the beginning but different situations require different approaches so that is how the mix of gameplay mechanics came to be.
For example, the player was originally equipped with a gun and able to fight but we removed this about halfway into production. Of course, that now left us needing to find another way for the player to overcome the enemies — that’s when stealth and the ability to use the environment to your advantage came to be.
At the same time, it was important for us to keep the different mechanics as natural as possible, to avoid having them feeling forced. To give you an example of this, in the dark alien jungle you should be more worried about what could eat you, rather than falling to your death. On the other hand, while on the unstable floating islands, it’s more important to watch your steps because it’s a long way down.
How much did it mean to the team being the recipients of the Unreal Dev Grant? How has that extra help aided you in development of PLANET ALPHA?
The Unreal Dev Grant was what made our studio possible in the first place and I can’t overstate how beneficial it was.
I started working on PLANET ALPHA in 2013 and for almost two years I kept trying to finance the production of the game without success. But at the beginning of 2015, I received the Unreal Dev Grant and things snowballed from there.
It allowed me to submit a prototype to the Indie Prize Singapore where it won three awards for Best In Show, Most Promising Game in Development, and Best Game Art. The awards helped me to find an investor that financed the production of PLANET ALPHA and made it possible for me to establish the game development studio.
After two years of trying, the Unreal Dev Grant made it possible to go from working on the game part-time to starting a development studio, all in a matter of months.
Now that you've had some serious time with Unreal Engine 4, what would you say your favorite tool has been and why?
With its node-based approach, Unreal Engine workflow fitted me perfectly and by far my favorite tool is the Blueprint system.
The funny thing is that the game was started in Unity but after a while, my low C# skills started to take their toll on the production quality, so I abandoned the project. However, after a few months, Unreal Engine came out of private beta and I was able to try the Blueprints Visual Scripting.
Many were reluctant that visual scripting could be a viable way of building a game, myself included, but I kept pushing forward waiting for that time when it wouldn’t work anymore. Now, four years later, we have a game that is made 90% of Blueprints, with the main exception being the hero locomotion system which was built in C++ by our talented freelance programmer, Fernando Castillo.
The low learning curve for the visual scripting system means that each of us can build and prototype different systems quickly and on our own which is another great benefit for a team of our size. 
One of the mechanics I've seen mentioned for PLANET ALPHA is the ability to control the switch from day to night. How does the affect gameplay for the player?
The planet rotation mechanic came early on when I was looking for a feature to tie all the other mechanics together but also to help the game stand out.
Moving to Scandinavia a few years earlier, I was fascinated by the long and colorful twilights when the sun lowers below the horizon and the sky is scattered with vivid shades. It’s a huge and often dramatic transformation that as an artist I wanted to replicate in the game, so I implemented a day and night cycle.
On the gameplay side, the day and night cycle affect every gameplay mechanic: platforming, puzzle, stealth, and exploration. The player will need to take advantage of the changes to advance in their quest - it can be anything from mushrooms raising to catch the sunlight in the dark forests, which can be used as platforms, to plants that spit acid bombs when they feel under threat which can be used to distract or even destroy enemies.
If you had a chance to offer advice to someone picking up development on Unreal Engine 4 for the first time, what would it be?
By the time I started using Unreal Engine 4, I already had experience with countless other software so I found it very easy to learn the engine. But I can understand that a newcomer to game development might feel intimidated by Unreal Engine and my advice is that while it might look too complex at the start, that same complexity will allow you to later create games better and faster, so think of it as an advantage.
Where are all the places people can go to keep up on PLANET ALPHA?
We’re pretty much everywhere! You can learn more about the game and subscribe to our newsletter via our official website. Of course, you can follow up on social media as well via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. You can also catch up on our latest videos via our YouTube channel.