In our interview, the British studio discusses how they approach telling compelling stories within games, share development tips, and elaborates on how they’re delivering the game’s vibrant, yet grounded art style.
Conway: Disappearance at Dahlia View is being positioned as a gripping observational thriller. What can you tell us about the game’s mechanics and narrative?
Design Director Pete Bottomley: The disappearance at Dahlia View is the kidnapping of an eight-year-old girl and within the game are three core loops: observations, searching, and evidence review, which are used to help solve the case.
From an observational and cinematic perspective, we’re inspired by films such as Rear Window. Being able to spy on your neighbours and watch them as they go about their daily activities to gain motives is a really interesting mechanic we think players will enjoy.
Through searching, you’re able to break into people’s homes or places of work to solve puzzles and find evidence that could connect the suspects to the crime.
In evidence review, you have to connect the dots to find your true suspect. This summarization of evidence is player-driven, which makes strong use of Unreal Motion Graphics (UMG), and if you imagine the investigation boards you see in crime thrillers, you can pick up and place pins in different pieces of evidence to make connections and solve the case.
The main character, retired detective Robert Conway, is very compelling and rather non-traditional. What led to his creation as the protagonist of this narrative-focused title?
Story Director NJ Apostol: We think it’s interesting to tackle a character who doesn’t fit in with the normal play style of other games. In most games, the main character can chase someone on foot or climb a ladder and shimmy along a rooftop ledge.
Robert Conway is first and foremost a retired private investigator, so it just made sense that his primary tools would be his ability to think his way into a situation and perhaps talk his way out of one.
There was something very intriguing about the idea of digging into the other abilities that people have, which seem more innate to their personality than to their physicality.
Conway is a living, breathing, thinking person. There is less focus on being able to get to a ledge and more focus on how looking for an eight-year-old girl impacts his life and who he is as a person. For a narrative game, it seemed like the correct path to take, and everything started to fall in place from there.
Image courtesy of White Paper Games
The game has a somewhat similar yet noticeably different art style than your previous titles. Can you describe how it came about?
Art Director Oliver Farrell: White Paper Games’ visual style is defined by our use of hand-painted textures and stylized environments. This approach comes from a place of wanting to create games that have high-quality visuals that can be produced by a small art team. This scarcity of resources forced us to create an art pipeline that we could produce quickly and one that is versatile enough that each game can have its own identity. We want people to recognize a White Paper game and our house style has given us a connective tissue that ties them together.
Our first game, Ether One, has a vibrant color palette with a strong use of linework that accentuates shape and structure. This then evolved with The Occupation as the textures were painted with more fidelity and the world had a greater level of detail. The story we were trying to tell dictated these choices visually. In order to sell the world of The Occupation, the place had to feel real, grounded, and believable.
Conway’s art style takes the stylized quality of Ether One and combines it with the grounded realism of The Occupation. It also has outside influences that help it feel unique within the parameters of our house style.
Our first outside influence was Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear Window. The film takes place in a small residential courtyard overlooked by a big city. We drew many parallels with this when creating the setting to tell our story. Rear Window takes place over a couple of days in one environment, having the film set in one location meant that lighting plays a huge role in defining how the set looks throughout the film. The lighting in each scene of the film is used to convey the narrative tension as it builds to its climax. This inspired us to pay close attention to each scene in Conway and made sure the lighting compliments the narrative intent of each moment.
The animated film The Illusionist by Sylvian Chomet was a massive inspiration to Conway’s art direction. This 2D animation with linework and color paints a beautiful picture of the United Kingdom in the 1950s. Each scene in The Illusionist is hand illustrated with an attention to detail that grounds the film while still allowing it to feel unique and charming. We took this philosophy and weaved it into how we approached texturing and building Conway’s environments.
Who would you consider the intended audience for Conway: Disappearance at Dahlia View?
Bottomley: I’d say people who love murder mystery or detective thrillers and anyone who has played Ether One or The Occupation would resonate with Conway. We’ve taken what we believe to be the strongest elements from our previous games and refined our approach to storytelling and puzzle solving.
Image courtesy of White Paper Games
One of the goals of White Paper Games is to deliver compelling narratives that leave players with lingering thoughts after they’ve left your worlds. How does this goal shape the development of your projects?
Bottomley: It starts with a compelling theme. We have to resonate strongly with what we’re saying in the story as our games can be between two-and-a-half to four years in development so it has to be a story we believe in sharing.
We also love the sense of world you get from exploration in games such as Half Life, Dishonored, or Bioshock. We’ve been hugely inspired by approaches to game design by those titles so with the combination of establishing a strong theme and building a world to support it. Our hope is that players will lose themselves in our games and enjoy pulling at the story threads.
White Paper Games has firmly established itself as a narrative-focused game developer. What obstacles and opportunities do you feel face story-driven games today?
Bottomley: Time is a big opportunity in my mind. With a lot of our audience having less time to pick up and play games, crafting four-to-eight-hour experiences is perfect for a lot of people so that they’re able to get the full story without investing too much time in a busy schedule.
Conversely, replayability is an obstacle as the industry is dominated by games that require mastery of a skill along with building a community around those games. I think there’s a lot of room for both linear and systemic games as the industry has a lot further to go in terms of opening up to new audiences that wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves game players.
Unreal technology is also a great mechanism for this as we’re getting more cinematic and character-driven tool sets that are accessible by a large part of our development team, which will help us continue to focus on new opportunities in storytelling across many platforms and audiences.
Image courtesy of White Paper Games
Whether creative, logistical, or technical, what important lessons has your team learned from developing and shipping your previous titles?
Bottomley: A technical lesson that comes to mind is the refinement of our visual scripting approach moving from UE3 and toward UE5 when shipping our games.
With Ether One, we first shipped on UDK (we later moved to UE4 on PS4), and the visual scripting language gave us a lot of freedom as designers and artists to hook up custom interactions. You soon find that giving non-coding developers too much freedom can cause bugs. We found this moving to The Occupation, where a lot of the game was Blueprint-driven and designers have a habit of getting hold of variables the coders didn’t intend to be used in a certain way.
Although our gameplay is still very much visually-driven with the support of Blueprints, our programmers keep a lot of the tools under the hood until we have specific requests, which they can then easily expose the functionality for since we have a shared language we’ve developed over the past eight-to-nine years as a team. This process has worked great as it means you can rapidly prototype, but as you refine, create more robust interactions for the player, which takes some of the bug-fixing pressure away from programmers.
White Paper Games has utilized Unreal Engine on all three of its shipped titles. What makes UE a solid foundation for your studio to build on?
Bottomley: As I alluded to before, we’re a very visual-driven studio. Our programmers contribute as much to game design as coding so we want a shared use of the tools across the team. When the animation, art, code, and design team can all speak a similar language through the language of Blueprints, it makes communication both inside and outside the game engine very quick to iterate on whether we’re looking at scripted cinematic interactions, animation Blueprints, or triggering specific SFX or VFX.
Since a lot of our focus is on narrative-driven projects, these games tend to rise and fall on the subtleties of timing. Adding a small .2 second delay here and there, being able to insert a camera cut at a specific time, or trigger an animation or SFX, knowing everyone on the team has the knowledge to realize the vision in each of the areas speeds up our production flow massively. I really don’t think we’d be able to achieve the types of games we design with between six-to-twelve people across our titles without the communication between each department within the engine.
Unreal Engine 5 is currently in Early Access. What excites you and the team most about the next-generation of game development?
Bottomley: There are some huge new features that I deeply believe will change how we, as an industry, will change our approach to game design.
The change to how we stream levels and collaborate will be huge. Even now, sometimes it’s hard to figure out which actors should go on what level and how to organize the content for it to stream in the best way. Having multiple people being able to work on the same collection of assets and scenes will be huge. When it comes to packaging and completing lighting builds that you have to run overnight, processes that can sometimes fail can be negated with Nanite, which will provide so much more time to the development team to focus on the creative side of things.
As we move into the types of games and stories we’re interested in exploring, the audio 2.0 engine to create more of a dynamic soundscape will be huge. We tend to plug in a lot of random cues and music triggers manually where the player won’t notice the triggering of the event. We’ve never used third-party audio plugins for our development inside of Unreal but with MetaSounds being integrated into the editor, that will be a big step up for our quality.
For myself, I’m excited to see the cinematic tools are constantly evolving and shifting as UE gains a foothold in the TV and film industry. I’m really interested in what real-time interactivity can look like in those spaces and I think there are a lot more genres of interactive experiences that will be uncovered over the coming decade.
Image courtesy of White Paper Games
White Paper Games recently announced that it received an Epic MegaGrant. How has this impacted the team and specifically the development of Conway?
Bottomley: It’s not an over exaggeration to say the reason I’m in games is because of Unreal Engine. As soon as I found the UT 2004 editor, I was off. UE has been a core part of being able to start a games studio with being able to release a game in UDK back in 2014 and generate revenue from the projects we created without a large team. Knowing that Epic put their trust in us to provide us with a MegaGrant for our third title was huge.
A MegaGrant can be the difference between a project receiving additional funding or not. Sometimes it’s that 10% belief you need in the project to bridge the gap to gain traction either in the market or with publishers. Knowing that Epic believed in our project enough to back it with their own money was an incredible feeling. The process is thorough but doesn’t require unnecessary paperwork, which allows us to continue focusing on the project.
White Paper Games turned 10 years old in June. Congrats! Reaching that milestone and having shipped three titles certainly qualifies the studio as being industry veterans at this point. Any advice for new or up-and-coming developers?
Bottomley: It’s incredible to think and we’ve grown as developers over the years. I guess the classic caveat applies here as the industry has changed so much at this point it’s hard to provide tactical advice since the pipelines and channels have evolved. With that said…
I believe you need to do something you deeply believe in. If you’re creating a project, it should be because you have to share it and you can’t imagine doing anything else. You shouldn’t aim small just to try and get something out there because games are hard. You’ll learn a lot along the way. When you aim too small, people generally won’t pay attention to your game and with the energy you expended trying to ship the thing and it not resonating with people or making money, that can be a deflating factor.
That being said, you should know your constraints. When I say don’t aim small, you can have a short, tight experience, but that should be refined and have really strong game design. These types of experiences gain a lot of traction in the industry, so work to your strengths and create something that you feel brings value to people’s time.
You should also build around a team that shares your core values, not just friends. We didn’t articulate our core values for quite a few years, but in your gut, you know what you want to create and how you want to create it. I see a lot of studios partner up because they’re friends at the time but the issue being there can be a lot of overlap in the core skill sets. You need people on the team who, firstly, know all aspects of game development so they can contribute, but more importantly, can go deep in their area of expertise. You should have people that are independently driven to learn new skills. Too much overlap in skillsets will result in communication frustrations and having too much fat on the team. You need to keep things as lean as possible in years one-to-three and bootstrap to find your voice. Then, with the first thing under your belt, you’re already a step ahead of a lot of teams and you’ll find it easier to get noticed on the second outing.
There’s an adverse effect going on here. On the one hand, creating your first title will be the hardest thing you’ve done in your life, hands down. And strangely it gets easier after that. The development side, however, is the easier part, and as you ship more, refine your process, and grow your team; they’re the parts that get harder each day you develop. You need to be aware of the rising complexity and understand the more communication threads that open means more complexity compounds.
If you’re already on that journey and it feels like things are going wrong, take a step back and reflect. Do you think this is worth pursuing? If the answer is “yes” (everyone should hopefully say yes), there will be another route to get you to your goals. It’s unlikely that the first few things you create may be exactly what’s in the final outcome within your game. You need to give yourselves time to find your voice, but there’s always another route to get there and you’ll never quite feel as though you’re moving in the right direction; you just have to keep moving forward to drive momentum.
Thanks so much for your time! Where can people go to learn more about Conway: Disappearance at Dahlia View?