May 18, 2018

Sky Noon - Reimagining The Wild West Into a First Person Action Brawler

By Nathan Minifie, Lead Artist at Lunar Rooster

Howdy

Hello and thank you for joining this blog from the team of Lunar Rooster. I’m Nathan Minifie, one of the lead artists (all of two, heh) at Lunar Rooster. We are a company made up of four New Zealand based game developers - two artists and two programmers - working to bring our first official release Sky Noon to Steam this year. Sky Noon is a wild western competitive multiplayer shooter where players have no health and guns don’t deal damage. Instead, all the weapons and abilities are tailored towards dealing knockback to your opponents as that’s the only way to eliminate them: to send them flying off the floating maps. It really gives a feeling that you’re playing a first person “Super Smash” style game than your typical shooter. The grappling hook is your main workhorse, it can be used to move about or save yourself from going over the edge. Gameplay is fast paced and reactive with many ways to save yourself from elimination or to send your opponents flying to their defeat. 

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We have been working on the project over the last two years, beginning as a final year university project and carrying over into a full-time commitment game product. With the help of an Unreal Dev Grant and our publisher partner, Reverb Triple XP, we hope to make Sky Noon a unique online experience that anybody can jump into to have a good time. In this blog we will talk about our journey, taking Sky Noon from a simple school assignment to retail release.
 

Humble beginnings 

Lunar Rooster came together as a group of friends who had worked together over the past few years of university, each with varied skills and experience. As part of the curriculum, we were tasked with rapidly producing three prototypes. This process allowed us to experiment with different ideas before any commitment was made. The short time frames and requirement to start over prevented a possible bad project from going too deep. After the initial three prototypes were done, we could evaluate our projects and think about which would go in the best direction. Sky Force was Sky Noon in its roughest form, not yet using the western theme or the air based arsenal. The core knock-back gameplay that exists today was there, barring much polish. 

We chose Sky Force to develop further into a vertical slice, which is a polished and fleshed out representation of the game, but more narrow in scope and content. It forced us to knuckle down on our game’s core mechanics and save the addition of less necessary maps and weapons until after the base experience and game loop was solid. We used this time to refine the knockback, ring-out style combat we were going for, along with our colourful art style. Over time, Sky Noon started to gain a bit of hype as the art came in and the push-pull mechanics were better communicated. 

Late into the year we began our Steam Greenlight campaign which saw fast success, mainly through the merits of the game and the small amount of exposure we had gained ourselves and through the school. We saw that the game had great potential as a retail release and so chose to continue development full-time post university. Since then we have been working hard to add additional content and further refine the gameplay, on top of adding extra online functionality.


Unreal Advantage

Sky Noon was originally called Sky Force in 2016. We were going through a rapid prototyping phase in which we produce a new and unique game prototype every three weeks from scratch. We chose to develop our prototypes using Unreal Engine because of how accessible Blueprints are for newer developers, making it easy to rapidly produce a functional game. 
  
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Notes from one of our first levels in Sky Force, later to be renamed Sky Noon.

For the art team, map prototyping remained fast and fluid by using gray box BSP’s, allowing us to make a playable environment rapidly. Adding in some gray box assets and using splines to create paths, we had a solid starting point for all of our prototypes to test our initial game mechanics. For Sky Force, it meant we could easily focus on our map design principles, which we were still trying to figure out through rapid iteration. Everything we needed was easily accessible and easy to use at a base level so even those in the group that were new to Unreal Engine found very little difficulty in using it.

Blueprints offered us a way to test out core mechanics early in a project by testing feasibility and appeal. We were able to quickly set up a multiplayer game in no time to test out the prototype, and when it came time to making the project a bit more stable and tidier, transitioning to C++ was straightforward and natural. In addition, having source code access was great for both learning and eventually adjusting the engine to fit our needs.

Sky Force to Sky Noon

In our original Sky Force prototype, players would not always have the grapple as their main left hand item. The Left hand would hold the players current movement ability, which in the prototype were a grappling hook and a jetpack. Players could pick up a crate to change their movement ability, but through our testing we found that the grappling hook was superior in most situations. In addition, the grappling pull mechanic contrasted with the opposing knockback push of our weapons in a fantastic balance, so we decided to make it a constant while the jetpack was put into the general ability pool. The grappling hook became a foundation mechanic for which we could design and balance other mechanics around. All abilities would now come from the same source, ability crates, being streamlined to each have some offensive and defensive function. 
  
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Early prototype of Sky Force.

The Sky Force prototype originally had health, which if reduced to zero would result in a stun. We thought this would create good opportunities to finish players off and get eliminations, but in reality caused a lot of frustration for the victims. Thus, the health mechanic was quickly abolished heading into Sky Noon, and by extension, stuns. We had discovered that taking control away from the player in a game this fast-paced was a bad idea, and the health mechanics simply did not fit the skill-based mold we were starting to create. By removing health from Sky Noon, we discovered it left room for a lot of heart stopping saves and invigorating eliminations for players to enjoy.
  
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Testing crate physics in Sky Force.

We also added the lasso in Sky Force as an ability mixed into the pool of other items where its function was originally intended purely for grabbing a new crate items (in hindsight, it was our fancy way to reroll for a new item by getting another crate). For Sky Noon, we reintroduced the lasso as a permanent ability that lets you pull crates and also players. We found that this was an excellent addition to the game loop, making the pickup of new weapons or abilities easy and additionally allowing for awesome gameplay such as lassoing an enemy with you after you get shot or yanking them out from a hiding place. It quickly became a staple of the game and opens up some new opportunities for players to experiment with.

Western World

When coming up with a theme we knew that the only necessity was that the game take place on floating islands of some sort, with plenty of space to grapple and to fall off. We wanted to pick something that was under-utilised and a bit different.

The western theme of Sky Noon didn’t come up until a re-evaluation of how we were moving forward post-prototype. Sky Force’s theme was intended to be modern post-apocalyptic, with crashed planes and signs of collapse. It was to be scrappy, with weapons crafted from available parts and random mechanical pieces, which extended to the environments and character design. The rapid fire development left little time to concept so most of our style came from mood boards and references that we had gathered on top of a few sketches. For a gray box prototype it worked to tell the rough direction of where we were going.  

Feedback from the prototype was that our modern scrappy theme didn’t feel unique, being done fairly often especially in first person action titles. An enjoyment of old Western movies (and the first season of Westworld which was still brand new) took us in the direction of the unique twist on the Wild West you see today. The new theme was readily embraced by the team and has been helping to guide us into interesting creative avenues, like incorporating the alternate steampunk theme. When introducing the western theme to the island like levels we created a Shanty Town aesthetic that gives a sense of history and utility. 
  
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The Closed Beta

In April 2018 we held our first Sky Noon Closed Beta. It was awesome to see so many people playing the game together online and providing more feedback than we have ever received through any other means. We saw some absolutely amazing things from skilled players as they learned the mechanics and were surprised to see what they were able to figure right from the get-go. For instance, people quickly caught on to the ability to grapple to anything and were flying across the map while attached to people and crates that they had shot. 

More impressively was how many times the ‘Fish in a Barrel’ medal was earned. You can only earn this medal by eliminating 6 enemies in quick succession. We went into this Closed Beta thinking it was near impossible to pull off but were sorely mistaken. What we gathered from this particularly was that the revolver was in need of some rebalancing, as every time that we saw the ‘Fish in a Barrel’ come up it was thanks to the power of the revolver. In addition, we got invaluable feedback regarding the maps, weapons, abilities and general balance, which we are using moving forward towards the next closed beta.

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The End

Thanks for joining us for some insight into how Sky Noon came to be. It has been a crazy and challenging journey that we hope ends with many people seamlessly enjoying the game with their friends. We will be using Steam early access to get feedback on balance and maps while adding extra features that we have planned for Sky Noon, followed by a full release later in the year. We hope that you will join us for our next upcoming beta test, in which we will be testing our new dedicated servers and balance changes.