Image courtesy of Nodding Head Games

Raji: An Ancient Epic represents one of this year's biggest underdog stories

By Jimmy Thang |
October 15, 2020

Nodding Heads Games

We are a team of thirteen passionate developers across India, Greece, Australia, Brazil, and the UK, all working towards the game we’ve wanted to create for a very long time. Raji: An Ancient Epic represents tales of grandeur, myths, and lore from our motherland and beyond. It takes influences from Hindu legends and Balinese mythology.
Back in 2016, Nodding Head Games set out to develop Raji: An Ancient Epic, an action-adventure game set within a fantastical recreation of medieval India. The studio, headquartered in Pune, India, set out to boldly represent the country on the world stage of game development. 
 
Despite passion-fueled intentions, the developer encountered steep hurdles. The company’s Kickstarter campaign failed to gain enough traction to fund the title, which caused severe financial hardships. The founding members had to make big personal sacrifices to continue pursuing their vision. These sacrifices paid off, however, with the team garnering an Unreal Dev Grant, which would pave the way for the company to find a publisher and release their game. 
 
Nodding Head Games initially launched Raji: An Ancient Epic on Nintendo Switch in August with Switchplayer.net calling the title “a beautiful adventure, unlike anything we’ve likely seen in video games.” The title was recently released on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, and we interviewed the studios’ co-founders to see how the team turned their hard-fought dream into reality.

 

There aren't many prominent game developers headquartered in India. Can you tell us a bit about Nodding Head Games?
 
Co-Founder and Art Director Ian Maude:
Nodding Heads Games was founded by Shruti Ghosh, Avichal Singh, and myself. The studio itself is based in Pune, India.
 
We’re a small indie Indian studio with huge aspirations, not too dissimilar to any other indie developer. One of our many goals, other than making a heartfelt and immersive game, was to put India on the international game-development map. Because, by and large, India is underrepresented at the best of times, especially when creating original content for video games.
 
We started out on our journey back in the latter half of 2016. It wasn’t until soon after we had released our teaser did we collectively decide that this was now or never. In order to pursue a shared dream, this meant leaving comfortable/safe jobs with guaranteed incomes. Dare we say, naivety played a role in all of this too. As a result, this journey would test us on many fronts.
 
We started out as six, where we literally devoted all of our waking hours to working on our Kickstarter demo for 10 months. Ultimately, the campaign failed to reach its goal, mainly due to the fact that we only had enough funds to keep the respective roofs over our heads and food on the table. Sadly, at that time, we couldn't afford to employ the services of a marketing company; otherwise, we feel that our Kickstarter would have been a huge success. However, you live and learn, sometimes the hard way! And so, out of our collective savings, we were able to pay our team while we founders only had enough to pay for food and rent. This taught us cost-effective budgeting.
 
Coming into the development of Raji: An Ancient Epic, a game that takes place in a fantastical recreation of medieval India, were there any particular goals you set out to achieve?
 
Maude:
First and foremost, we aimed to be unapologetic when telling our story. Another objective was to put India on the international development map because we knew as a team that the overall industry standards are extremely high. And we would not have been satisfied launching our game onto the international stage for all to judge if these criteria were not met. 
 
With all of this in mind, we feel we’ve achieved this and much more. For a team of thirteen, we started developing Raji back in October 2018. We reduced the scope of the project from 24 months to 14 so that our project would be appealing to publishers. We also ported our game to Switch, PS4, and Xbox, which is no trivial feat. Dare we say, we’ve achieved what many would consider impossible. Because, simply put, as an indie Indian studio, the odds were stacked against us from the outset. We had to break many of the stereotypes, and we also had to make the most of this opportunity to create a lasting impression. 
Image courtesy of Nodding Head Games
With beautiful backdrops combined with platforming and a robust combat system, were there any games that played an influence on Raji?
 
Co-founder, Game Designer, and Project Manager Avichal Singh:
To be honest, there are really way too many to mention. A personal favorite is Journey, with the gorgeous color schemes, the endless beauty, and the grateful movement of the play character. We could go on and on [in terms of influences], but we wanted to create our own style and gameplay experience. 
 
The game features beautiful Indian and Balinese-inspired environments full of hand-painted artwork that's not often seen in games. How much research did the team do to get the architecture right, and how much embellishment did you decide to do on top of that?
 
Maude:
The research went as far as taking a ten-day excursion with some of the team to visit four cities in Rajasthan. The Rajasthan trip is well summed up in this blog of ours. Needless to say, we have drawn many architectural and cultural influences from Rajasthan, and it was great to experience these first hand. 
 
Fusing both Indian and Balinese influences was pure joy for the art team since both share similar architectural nuances. What caught our eye were the fabulous Balinese masks depicting demons of sorts. They are terrifyingly beautiful, along with the shadow puppetry. Again, both cultures used to tell tales of myth and lore, which, again, are insanely detailed, and we wanted to pay homage here along with the architecture because, and as unfortunate as it is, these art forms, by and large, are dying out generationally.
 
So when it came to creating a level, Shruti and I would work on the mood boards, which can only be best described as a shopping list of what we’d like to have and where. It’s like a visual narrative that ought to make sense within your given universe. Our concept artist, Anirudh Singh, would take the pure ref board, along with the basic level layout, and would create quick thumbnails. Some elements were colorized to give the tonal language and so on. 
 
Once the concept sketches were completed, we would study the architecture, deconstruct the concept art, and discuss how best to utilize each combination or element, essentially creating modular assets or a kit that is specific to a particular location. The fun part was seeing how many combinations we could employ using the same assets without others noticing. This is commonly practiced within the industry, but you have to be mindful of overheads such as texture and polygon budgets due to the target hardware’s limitations. 
 
This ultimately turns into a balancing act among aesthetics, technical needs, and hardware constraints.
Image courtesy of Nodding Head Games
The game has been praised for its tactical, fluid combat system, which allows players to perform free-form combos bouncing off of walls and swinging around pillars. Can you touch upon how you designed it?
 
Co-founder, Game Designer, and Project Manager Avichal Singh:
The game's design went through a reboot, post our Kickstarter cancellation. Soon after we signed with a publisher, we started experimenting with mechanics.
 
One question that had struck a chord with us was, "Who is Raji, and what can she do?" Yet, that answer was staring us in the face, simply put, it was her backstory. She’s an acrobat, a street performer no less. She performs acts like walking the tightrope and much more.
 
This led to a design theme that "movement leads to combat," and when we started thinking about it, it made more and more sense to apply this to game mechanics along with the parkour system that we developed.
 
We had noticed that variety was missing, and so this led us down a path where we would ultimately overhaul the combat system in order to create fresh and interesting ways to navigate the environment as well as executing sensational “finishers.” Hence, interactions with walls, pillars, and certain environmental objects were now part of, not just parkour, but combat. This worked well when we began testing it in a sandbox environment. This opened up new possibilities for combat, which helped keep the player experience fresh. 
 
Raji features a variety of enemies, minibosses, and challenging behemoth-sized boss battles. Can you share how you created them?
 
Maude and Co-founder/Art Director Shruti Ghosh:
From the get-go, we wanted to establish distinct silhouettes. From a game design perspective, we would create a high-level brief highlighting all the attributes we required from a particular character, essentially treating it like it had a personality of its own. We would go as far as attempting to act how it would walk, talk, and breathe. This would allow us to create a deeper backstory. We also wanted to incorporate feedback for the player. For instance, we made it so the belly of a creature might change color, indicating that it’s about to attack. 
 
We applied the five Ws, which include what, when, where, why, and who for every asset you see in the game. This is done whether it's for a character, an inanimate prop, the lighting, or something of architectural significance because we needed to have a level of authenticity and believability within our universe. Hence, when creating “characteristics'' for a particular foe, we asked ourselves, “Is the character a ‘tank,’?” If so, we asked ourselves questions like, “What’s its name? How many limbs does it have? What’s its purpose within the realm of Raji’s universe? How does it move? How does it sound?”

Essentially, we employed the following approach:
 
Concept Artist Anirudh Singh would take all of this information into account after hours of discussion and would provide several sheets of character silhouettes. Similar to cooking, we would choose which bits we liked, resulting in which silhouettes would be created. We would repeat this process until we were happy. 
 
For the creative process, Anirudh would create several versions of the facial features, and we would then arrange them accordingly until we found a combination that collectively spoke to us. If any of you remember Mr. Potato Head, where you’re able to swap out and change elements at will, we used this same process. It worked out so well that we were able to create many variants.
Image courtesy of Nodding Head Games
Raji features great lighting and particle effects. Can you share how you incorporated these visual elements into the game?
 
Maude
: From a lighting perspective, I personally found this extremely interesting yet challenging due to all of its complexities. 
 
In the initial days of our playable Kickstarter demo, I remember researching lighting and its application for at least a week before jumping neck-deep into the idiosyncrasies of “lighting” and its many functions. There are a lot of functions to play with here. I emphasize “play,” at least in my case, as I often experimented without any real knowledge of how real-world lighting actually works or is measured.
 
Both Shruti and I had a particular theme in mind for each level with regards to how it ought to be lit. We approached the lighting similarly to how the characters or environments were created. We asked questions, applying the five Ws. From there, we would research, ultimately creating a lighting mood board for each level. Once armed with the visual target, then and only then, would I be let loose. My advice to those who are starting out as lighting artists would be to use baby steps. Don’t run before you can walk. Biting off more than you can chew will only hamper your creativity because you’ve placed yourself in a stressful position. And be aware that there are many variables, many solutions, most of which you may not initially understand. So, be prepared to reverse engineer what you’ve done, delete your work, and start fresh if need be. 
 
Being mindful of the above, we wanted the player to experience the notion of time passing and what better way of doing this by using time itself as the commodity. So, you’ve probably noticed that we start off with a blustery damp, cool morning where Raji awakes. By the time you reach the fort, the sun can be seen setting, casting long warm shadows. 
 
Exterior lighting, I’d like to think, was fairly straightforward, but it also had its challenges. Most notably, adding the color grading via the post process volume. That said, we focused our efforts on areas of interest, guiding the player to a certain extent. Also, asymmetrical level design combined with good and effective lighting solutions will [bolster] the player experience. Another aspect to the lighting process was to effectively utilize light and shadows, essentially two characters in one. Treat them as two personalities if you will, and this creates interesting results; if nothing more than to emphasize a route or an area of interest. 
 
In regards to lighting the interiors, our approach was to treat them like stage sets: dare I say, theater-production lighting. For example, for the Durga Cave, most of our materials consisted mainly of “rough” qualities. Essentially, light would be absorbed rather than reflected. This allowed the use of numerous lights, highlight edges, poles with three-point lighting, mimicking volumetrics, and adding necessary colors that would add warmth to an otherwise cold and damp environment or vice versa. Lighting a scene helps create a story to evoke mood. 
 
For particles, we had our VFX artist follow concept art sketches made by Anirudh. We would then go through a few iterations to find the balance between eye candy and optimization and ask ourselves whether it serves a gameplay purpose. Once all these factors are met, we add little nuances to boost either the visuals or the gameplay.
Image courtesy of Nodding Head Games
The game features an elegant camera that pans across the action and showcases the environments in a smooth, cinematic way. Can you elaborate on the work that went into executing this?
 
Singh
: When the project was in its infancy back towards the end of 2016, our game was supposed to be isometric and made with 2D assets coupled with a static camera. However, this would mean a lot of work for Shruti, who would have had to hand paint all of these assets. This was pretty much impossible, knowing the scale of the game. We then jumped onto 3D, which was the strength of our art team. Our Lead Programmer Paras Chaudhary and Tech Artist Jalay Bhatti were well versed in Unreal Engine 4 as well.

However, post Kickstarter, we were able to experiment with parkour mechanics, and it was a natural progression to have a dynamic camera that would adapt to the level design. Paras made dynamic camera boxes, which helped us interpolate the camera's transform, field of view, and spring arm length as Raji moved through them. These were then placed and tweaked in the levels by Avichal to get the best-desired results. It goes without saying that this required constant iteration and tweaking. Our shortest level has 38 camera boxes, and our largest has 173. 

The versatility of this helped us optimize the draw distance when porting to Nintendo Switch, simply by changing the orientation of the camera a little. 

We also used this system to aid the player, for instance, placing an emphasis on environments or even hinting towards secret locations. 
 
The game features a minimal UI that provides a clean, uncluttered look. Was there a lot of iteration involved here?
 
Singh:
Creating a minimal UI was our primary goal. We didn’t want the player to be overburdened with unnecessary information. There can be something said for an uncluttered UI. So, when we removed all of the UI within and around the 2D real estate, we found this to be a better experience and hoped it would not interfere with the player’s immersion.

With this in mind, many games inspired the current UI; in particular, Bastion, where the HP of the AI is shown below the feet. We tested this in Raji, and it worked wonders for our Kickstarter demo. Raji’s health UI and its design went through numerous iterations before settling on what you see in-game. 
 
We faced many technical challenges whilst implementing the UI for Raji. We battled with anti-aliasing, where we would see jitters. This was eventually resolved by iterating on the shape, the thickness of the line itself coupled with good old-fashioned trial and error. 
Image courtesy of Nodding Head Games
Why was Unreal Engine a good fit for the game?
 
Maude:
Admittedly, Unreal wasn’t our first choice. We started an early prototype using 2D assets in Unity. We soon realized that we were biting off more than we could chew in regards to how many assets we needed, the time which it would take to create each asset, and so on.
 
It made sense to pool our resources and experiences and swap over to an engine that was more akin to handling 3D assets. And so, UE4 was our natural choice.
 
Previous to this, our lead programmer and tech artist had both worked together on a UE4 project. With this in mind, it was a done deal, so to speak. For the rest of the team, it didn’t take long for them to get up to speed.
 
What did it mean for the studio to receive an Unreal Dev Grant?
 
Maude:
After the cancellation of our Kickstarter in December 2017, there was little development until October 2018 when we signed up with Super.com. Throughout this period, we were constantly chasing potential leads. As you can gather, this was a very stressful time for all three of us. To a point, we had to sit down and ask ourselves if we’re going to call it quits. 
 
We spoke with the other members and told them to start looking for work. Unfortunately, these are the realities when you’ve thrown all your eggs into one basket. But this shouldn’t stop others from turning down offers, which we did because it didn’t align with our long-term goals. 
 
At the end of the day, you have to be prepared to walk away or dig deep. In our case, we dug in. We were not prepared to give up on our dream. Around this time, Shruti sold her apartment so we could survive a little longer. 
 
The Unreal Dev Grant came in the nick of time. And we hinted to this earlier, but the grant helped us survive until we secured a deal with a publisher. The team [headcount] increased to 13, and we haven’t looked back. We are, however, very grateful to have been recipients of an Unreal grant. Without it, we can safely say that we would not be here telling our tale. 
 
Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Raji: An Ancient Epic?

Singh:
People can learn more about Raji on our YouTube Channel, Indie DB blog, and our website. If you’re looking for weekly updates, you can follow us on our social media channels on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

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