Image courtesy of Stormind Games

The developers of the Remothered saga discuss the creation of brand new IP Batora: Lost Haven

80 Level
Stormind Games was founded in 2016 by Antonio Cannata and Federico Laudani, simultaneously with the announcement of the award-winning Remothered: Tormented Fathers, a realistic survival-horror game and the first title in the studio’s Remothered saga. Just two years later, on October 13, 2020, the team presented Remothered: Broken Porcelain, the second part of the saga released on multiple platforms.

Last year, the team officially announced that they were developing a brand new IP – Batora: Lost Haven, an action RPG that promises to combine the features of hack-and-slash and twin-stick shooter games and is coming October 20 to PC and all consoles, and later on Switch. Upon its announcement, the game received universal acclaim and even received an Epic MegaGrant, which helped the team by providing additional resources to improve the gaming experience.
To learn more about the production process behind the Batora: Lost Haven, we spoke with the developers from Stormind Games. The Catania, Italy-based studio, talked about how Unreal Engine helps them streamline the development process and simplify some of the tedious tasks game developers have to face on a daily basis.

Having worked on the Remothered saga, what made Stormind Games switch to developing Batora: Lost Haven?

Compared to Remothered, we have changed genres, but the company was born to focus on action RPGs and action adventures with intense stories. The elements in common between Batora: Lost Haven and the Remothered saga are those at the company’s core: atmosphere, intense story, a cinematic approach, and a strong visual style, with the necessary differences because we don't want to always play the same game.

Furthermore, when we set out to develop Batora: Lost Haven, we realized that choosing the action RPG genre would be perfect for communicating the sense of discovery and for narrating our protagonist Avril's journey. In the future, we will continue developing story-centric games and explore the horror genre, remaining consistent with our core values.

Were there any ways in which you've built upon the Remothered franchise for Batora: Lost Haven?

Batora: Lost Haven was born before Remothered was released. As a company, it is common for us to work on multiple projects in parallel, not in sequence. We have kept a common line in all the games we make, which is to transfer emotions to whoever is playing. Once the controller is put down, our stories must leave something in their memory. Our logo and us calling ourselves Stormind Games relate to this goal. So, Batora is not Remothered's son, but they are both children of a common idea and a unique vision.
6 Beautiful Retro Sci Fi Art Style Batora Lost Haven
Image courtesy of Stormind Games

What made Unreal Engine a good fit for the game?

Unreal Engine has been our first choice since the very beginning of our business. What distinguishes Unreal Engine, compared to other engines, is certainly the support of the UE community. For a studio like ours, it is the keystone in the success of our product because it allows us to focus more on the gaming experience than on the lower programming level aspects.

The flexibility of UE is one of the main reasons, it is a very robust engine that has many tools that work immediately out of the box. Unreal Engine is capable of managing very complex and well-detailed scenarios regardless of artistic style. While it is best known for the graphic quality it achieves at an absolute level, which has made it famous in the past, it is malleable enough to allow our creatives to express any style they want in the game while maintaining qualities such as the photorealism of the lights. Its intuitiveness makes it understandable even to artists and designers and allows us to better divide the work among all our staff. The Blueprints system allows us to quickly prototype and test functionality before writing optimized code, allowing us to respond quickly to any feedback. The repertoire of tools is vast and suited to our needs. Although we know that there are several viable alternatives on the market, we think that its advantages are overall greater than those of its competitors.
Image courtesy of Stormind Games
From a production perspective, were there any things you needed to learn to create Batora?

From a production perspective, we had to learn how to scale up quickly, maintaining the team focused and without loss of information so that the product could hold a coherent vision. Knowing how to move from a small team to a larger one is always a big challenge that can have strong repercussions on development if not addressed in the right way.

At Stormind Games, we used an Agile approach based on feature teams which allowed us to have a management team very focused on the general vision of the project and several multidisciplinary teams working on development. This has ensured that the game has maintained internal consistency, and at the same time, the productivity remained efficient.
Could you discuss the production of the game’s world and its diverse environments?

For the creation of the game planets, we started with the paper concepts and the game design document that allowed the designers to create all the level designs and the modelers to create all the assets needed for the environment design.

All planets were first prototyped in the correct scale directly within Unreal Engine, approved by the art director, lead game designer, and senior level designer, and tested by QA for playability and consistency with the whole game. Once this step was completed, the artists, following the art director and concept guides, would model all the props needed to go into dressing the prototyped environment.

Did you use some kind of modular system in Unreal Engine to assemble environments quicker?

One of the key approaches was to know how to use Unreal Engine's Landscape tool, which greatly speeds up the creation of the game's terrain, which, in addition to being optimized, is easy to paint and easy to make suitable for the level design and play style. After modeling the landscape, chunks of previously tested props are imported that go into completing the entire environment by paying close attention to all the points that the designers have placed as gameplay elements. With that done, all that is left to do is to insert the environmental VFX via the Niagara system and the diegetic and extradiegetic lights. Depending on the design, we choose whether to make them baked or dynamic.
2 Unique Polarity Switching Mechanic Batora Lost Haven
Image courtesy of Stormind Games

How did you mix combat mechanics, boss battles, and puzzles to keep players entertained?

To keep our design consistent and true to the game that was emerging in front of us in these last years, we focused our attention on the mechanics that truly define the experience and the message that we wanted to convey with our game as a whole.

We wanted to provide a gameplay experience that could feel satisfying while also giving time for players to enjoy Avril’s adventures. To do so, we put a special effort into creating a flow of different types of events and obstacles that could feel engaging and fun to play but also tight to the emotional story that the game is telling. A little example: it may happen that you have to face a fight in which you need to use a bit of strategy and quick reflexes; then, you have to go deeper into Avril’s mind, and you will find yourself in a puzzle that requires a pinch of lateral thinking; and then, when you are in the zone, and the story reaches its climax, you will have to face the boss of the planet!

Talking a little bit about combat, we considered mechanics like Nature Switch (the main pillar of all gameplay) and Combo Points (the mechanic that deepens the strategy of combat) as the main focus points. We also always wanted to have clear in mind the potential of concepts like balance, physical and mental natures, and combo attacks to make them cornerstones of Batora’s gameplay everywhere, from challenging fights in rooms full of enemies; high-octane duels against bosses, as well as challenging puzzles and even empowering Avril with new enhancements.

All of the above is also true when it comes to the balancing of the different mechanics of the game. We wanted to put the peculiarities of the game as pillars of the experience to create a layered experience that feels unique and consistent so that we can guide players across an adventure set in a universe that feels right and vibrant. That allowed us to create a core experience that is interesting for different types of players, and that also inspired a modular design that can offer more adventurous players the chance to try and discover additional layers of strategy just by playing around and trying different things with the core elements of gameplay like nature switch, combo boost, attack combo, skills, and runes.
Image courtesy of Stormind Games
What is your approach to designing puzzles?

The gameplay at the base of the combat is based on the double mental/physical nature of the protagonist, Avril. For this reason, this dualism had to be reflected in the puzzles as well, and therefore we designed elements that could induce the player to change nature to solve the puzzles: mental and physical activators, platforms that appear or disappear, or take different directions, depending on Avril’s nature, etc.

Once we identified the basic tools, we built levels that introduced the individual elements in isolation so that the player could internalize the mechanisms with increasing difficulty within the level (each level usually has a "final challenge" that tests the player's acquired knowledge).

Then we created more articulated levels, which mixed the various instruments together, thus increasing their complexity, always trying to maintain a curve of increasing difficulty. In general, having designed a few gameplay and level design tools for the puzzles was more of an advantage than a disadvantage. Having few tools leads to trying to exploit them in the most varied and creative way possible, and this gives us the opportunity to explore uses and combinations that had not been previously thought of.
Can you share your philosophy regarding the game's combat system and enemies?

As said before, the double mental/physical nature of Avril is our main focus. The goal is to entice, without forcing, the player to use the natural switch wisely. The enemies, in fact, have also been linked to one or more natures, and the player will have to try to face them by matching their natures with that of Avril in order to optimize the damage inflicted and suffered.

The design of the enemies is based on creating problems for the player that can be solved through Avril’s attacks and skills, both hack and slash (physical nature) and twin-stick shooter (mental nature), emphasizing both the action component (dodge and basic attacks) and the strategic component (skills and combo points).
1 Batora Lost Haven Action Packed Interplanetary Adventure
Image courtesy of Stormind Games

Could you tell us about your workflow behind Batora: Lost Haven’s VFX and stylized visuals?

We worked from day one on the search for a visually distinctive style that could be remembered over time without aging with the technological advancement of game consoles. To do this, we implemented a workflow that combines the classic PBR with the Albedo pipeline in order to have a style, which is fresh, sympathetic, and, at the same time, modern.

We started by establishing our visual goal, which was decided through art direction according to some references: the Warcraft franchise, the Ori franchise, and the DarkSiders franchise. Our game was to represent the set of these references with a more youthful and current look. We started with concepts, trying to find the right silhouettes and shapes. We chose to exaggerate the human figure, giving more strength in the upper and lower limbs to give greater anatomical and performance capabilities. We also tried to exaggerate the proportions of the angles of each object. The rocks, trees, houses, all the intersections were exaggerated to give an organic sense, even in the inorganic things.

Once we achieved the goal set in the research on shapes and silhouettes, we drew from Ori and The Blind Forest, the poetic mood, the fairy tale, and vibrant color palettes. Precisely because of this, the various planets in Batora's universe give a unique sense of depth and vividness through the use of high-contrast colors, complementaries, and a color harmony always related to the biomes of the planets. To do this, the VFX were also necessary for the process of cartoon/modern rendering of the project. We tried to create very cartoony, almost drawn VFX so that they could detach themselves completely from the screen, almost breaking the fourth wall and communicating directly with the player. Through the implementation of the Niagara system within UE all of this was possible.
4 Batora Lost Haven Fast Paced Multi Layered Combat
Image courtesy of Stormind Games

How do you approach optimization and make sure the game runs great on all platforms?

We worked from the start with specific human resources for each platform in order to have dedicated people to profile and implement platform-specific features. The basic architecture of our features has been submitted for approval by the people in charge of multi-platform compliance. This allowed us to implement our features in such a way that all critical issues are immediately highlighted and adequately resolved. These activities were also supported by in-depth testing and profiling on the individual platforms in order to quickly identify any bottleneck or drop in frame rate. Thanks to the tools that Unreal Engine provides, the work of profiling and analyzing the performance and scaling the graphical settings appropriately was certainly faster.

While we had to give more priority to performance over graphics quality on current-gen consoles, with the next-gen ones, we had the opportunity to allow players a choice between greater fluidity and lower graphic quality or less fluidity and higher graphic quality in order to satisfy every need. All these activities have allowed us to balance quality and performance well in order to offer the best gaming experience to the end user on every platform.
3 Branching Story With Multiple Endings Batora Lost Haven
Image courtesy of Stormind Games

In your opinion, what are the main challenges individual game developers have to face these days?

We believe that the main challenge to date in order to be able to express oneself at best in this work is to keep the quality of one's outputs high, being efficient with the time available. To do this, it is very important to be updated on new technologies to find increasingly “smart” production solutions. Today, the required level of productivity is very high, and competition is increasingly fierce, so it is essential not to lag behind in these aspects.

As developers, we try to give a framework that gives the team clear objectives and well-defined timeboxes in order to stay focused on the product, keep the desire to improve it constantly, and thus make people express themselves better.

How did receiving an Epic MegaGrant influence the game’s development?

In our opinion, the Epic MegaGrants program is a very useful resource that allows developers to have additional tools to improve the gaming experience that will then be published and delivered to players. By offering an unconstrained contribution, leaving full freedom to manage the IP, regardless of the amount received, it confirms itself as a tool of undoubted quality that, on a universal level, can greatly help developers grow their ideas.
Image courtesy of Stormind Games
What's your take on the future of game development?

We see the future of development as a leading trend, a transmedia intertwining that leads to an ever closer correlation between comics, TV series, films, and merchandise. More and more studies are trying to exploit the same IP on as many channels as possible, but we must remember that it is not the only route to follow because there is a risk of losing originality.

There remains the charm of the studio that decides to create a new IP, a completely new product: certainly, this happens with indies, which focus on pure creativity. With AA studios, you find the right mix between creative freedom, flexibility, cost control, and return on investment: this allows you to publish new IPs that can further fuel the virtuous cycle of transmedia.

You can follow the development of Batora: Lost Haven by visiting the studio’s official website, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, as well as the game’s Steam page.

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