Image courtesy of The Astronauts

Witchfire is a first-person roguelite designed for those who don't like roguelites

80 Level
Born in 1971 in Poland, Adrian Chmielarz has been a part of the game industry since 1992 when he and Grzegorz Miechowski co-founded video game developing and publishing company Metropolis Software, where he mainly worked on adventure games. Over the next ten years, Adrian co-developed and published such games as Teenagent, Katharsis, and Gorky 17, a.k.a. Odium. In 2002, after leaving Metropolis, the developer founded video game development studio People Can Fly, known for the Painkiller series and Bulletstorm.

Ten years after that, in 2012, Adrian left People Can Fly and formed a new independent studio–The Astronauts, the third studio of which he is one of the Founders and the Creative Director. Over at The Astronauts in 2014, Adrian developed and published the studio’s debut game, the first-person adventure The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Right now, the team is working on Witchfire, an Unreal Engine-powered dark fantasy roguelite first-person shooter that promises to offer a challenging but satisfying gameplay experience with multiple roads to victory.
Witchfire is being designed as a roguelite for people who hate roguelites. To learn more about the development of the upcoming first-person shooter, we reached out to The Astronauts Creative Director and Co-Founder Adrian Chmielarz and asked him about Witchfire’s development process, how the game utilizes photogrammetry to achieve stunning visuals, how the studio leveraged UE’s audio engine, and more.

How did you get started with Witchfire, and what was the initial plan?

Adrian Chmielarz, creative director and co-founder of The Astronauts:
Witchfire is a dark fantasy first-person shooter that started as a sci-fi survival game. For the life of me, I cannot recall how and why we ultimately decided to change direction, but it’s not because we had any issues with the original idea. Actually, the work on the prototype was quite fun. But somehow, we naturally drifted toward dark fantasy.

Maybe it’s because of our Painkiller roots, which was a game full of hellish demons and monsters. Maybe, it’s because Dark Souls heavily influenced the way we think about gameplay, story, and visuals. Maybe The Witcher awakened some desire for good Slavic mythos. Maybe, it’s all three or more, but long story short, when we switched from sci-fi survival to dark fantasy shooter with guns and magic, we immediately felt at home.

Could you tell us about the game’s universe and its story?

Chmielarz: It’s a grim alternate world, one in which witches are very much real and evil, but so might be the church fighting them.

Our hero is a Preyer, which is what the church calls a certain type of witch hunter. Magically altered in the dungeons of the Vatican, the hero is a great warrior but needs a constant supply of Witchfire–a corrupt form of ether, the fifth element that witches use to create magic–to live. It’s a pretty good motivation to go out there and hunt witches, getting all of their Witchfire to keep yourself alive.
Image courtesy of The Astronauts
What made Unreal Engine a good fit for Witchfire?

Chmielarz: That was one of the easiest decisions ever for two reasons. One, we believe that it’s pointless for an indie studio not to use an [existing] game engine. And Unreal Engine is mature and proven, and overall just fantastic. Two, we’ve been working with Unreal Engine since we made Gears of War PC–that was People Can Fly’s first project with Epic–and then, of course, Bulletstorm. So, we’ve already been using the engine for fifteen years.

You describe your game as a roguelite for people who hate roguelites, can you elaborate on that?

Chmielarz: It’s a good question because roguelites already are roguelikes for people who hate roguelikes. Basically, many people didn’t enjoy losing all progress after death with having learned more of the mechanics as the only reward. That is how roguelites were born. They offer a persistence layer, you get to keep some of the stuff you earned during a run, and you don’t lose everything.

We want to take it one step further. For example, in most roguelites, you cannot master an encounter because they are usually all random. So you cannot memorize it like a car track in a racing game. We’re experimenting with that aspect while still trying to keep the randomization and freshness of each run. It sounds like a paradox, it sounds impossible, but the solution we have is very much real.

More importantly, though, I think people think of roguelites as games that require a lot of manual skill. We want to change that. Sure, you will be handsomely rewarded for your great control over your character and the ability to accurately click on heads, but we want to offer alternatives, too. That does not mean we’re offering a reduced challenge, though. Just a different kind of challenge.
Image courtesy of The Astronauts
What are the main gameplay mechanics?

Chmielarz: My philosophy is that a great shooter game is a great puzzle game in disguise. Even when you go back to the roots, to Doom 2 or Quake, they were full of questions the player had to find answers to. How to deal with a room full of major enemies? How to juggle multiple enemies? How to strategically use power-ups?

The best shooters are never just duck/shooting exercises. Your mind needs to be even more engaged than your fingers. That, I believe, is the secret sauce.

One of the main challenges in roguelites is balancing speed and setting up the right flow of movements. How did you tackle this challenge?

Chmielarz: It’s thousands of details, decades of experience, and play-testing your game 24/7. Not kidding; it’s exactly this. There aren’t just one or two things you’ll do, and then BAM.

To give one example, action buffering is important. Let’s say you’re in the middle of combat, you see the enemy, but you’re out of ammo. You reload the gun, aim down the sights, and fire. A basic action, right? But if you’re in a rush, you might press the ADS trigger too fast, before the reload animation ends. What will happen, then, is that after the reload, the gun will not go into the aiming animation, and you’ll lose a second wondering what happened. Did I press the button too early? Did I push it too lightly, so it didn’t register? Is this a game bug?

The buffering of actions is the solution. The game remembers that you pressed the ADS trigger, waits for the reload animation to end, then automatically puts the gun into ADS. And sure, buffering is nothing new; it’s something extremely popular in fighting games, for example. But, as I said, it’s one of the thousand things you need to take care of to minimize friction and, thus, help achieve the flow.
Image courtesy of The Astronauts
How did you approach level design in Witchfire?

Chmielarz: It’s the standard fare of going from top-level shapes to detailed, textured places. What I think might be unique to our approach, though, is that we make sure that every area in the game is easily identifiable. It’s not about the so-called hero pieces, the beautiful high-quality elements of the world. It’s more about simply being unique. Like, the way we explain it to anyone new in the studio, “Imagine it’s a PVP map and you’re wounded and need to tell your friend to come to heal you. What do you tell them, so they understand quickly where you are?”

This may sound simple, but it is surprisingly not. “Beautiful” and “easily identifiable” are not the same thing. You can have a great-looking, next-gen forest, and so what? How do you let your friend know where you are? “Hey, I’m near some trees?” That won’t work. But if you add a hunting hut to the forest or a meadow with a few deer skeletons, suddenly, it’s easy to locate you.

The reason we do it this way is to help players navigate the 3D space. If you ask people for directions, some of them will explain that you need to go 100 meters this way, then turn left and go 200 more meters. Others will say go straight ahead, turn left at the gas station, and stop right after the post office. Having easily identifiable elements of the world helps the latter type of players understand the 3D layout of our levels.

Could you tell us about your photogrammetry workflow?

Chmielarz: It’s the same process as with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter–make dozens of photos of an object, all from different angles, then put them all into special software, let it process for a while, and wait until it spits out high-quality, fully-textured 3D models.

Well, that’s the idea. But in reality, there’s something that needs to be helped every step of the way. The software gets better, the cameras get better–but you still need an experienced graphic artist to work on the 3D scans, from correcting the photos to fixing the final model and making a low-poly version of it.

But you know what the biggest issue is? Graffiti. It’s very hard to find an abandoned old building, a ruined castle, or a forgotten factory that is not full of graffiti. So half of our work on improving the textures of the scans is removing the graffiti.
Image courtesy of The Astronauts
How did the Audio Engine system in Unreal Engine help you bolster the game’s atmosphere?

Chmielarz: For that, I asked our Sound Engineer Jaz, who said, “We are using the Audio Modulation plug-in to handle the mixing process, and it's fantastic! We also have a hierarchy of sound classes that serves as an organizational structure to which we route the output of all the sound cues. Another tool we are experimenting with is Quartz. Our principal use for this tool is the appropriate synchronization between different music assets, but we've also tried benefitting from its applications to build the sound of automatic weapons.”

Could you share some details on how you worked on the game’s soundtrack?

Chmielarz: There are many different philosophies to choose from when designing the soundtrack. Purely illustrative or story-telling? Dynamic or static? We went for the latter in both cases. Meaning the tracks are as important and full of personality as the visuals or gameplay. And in order to achieve that, we decided to go for the traditional, non-dynamic solution.

To be precise, there is a certain level of dynamics, as the tracks played differ depending on whether it’s low or high-intensity combat or maybe a moment in between the battles. But the compositions are static, just looped.
Image courtesy of The Astronauts
Were there any tricks you leveraged to boost the game’s level of immersion?

Chmielarz: We spend an inordinate amount of time on the embedded story-telling. What’s the story of this particular area? What happened here, and how do we sell it to the player? We spend time thinking about how to make sure abandoned places look lived in, And how to make sure the proportions of everything look right in first person so the player does not feel like a mouse.

Other than this, it’s all the small tricks and solutions we picked up throughout the years. Like making sure the wind is stronger than it should be because when it’s done just right, trees look like they’re static inanimate objects when the player moves.

Could you also share details regarding your character production workflow?

Chmielarz: It’s a strange process in our case because we don’t have a character artist. To be precise, we do have a fantastic artist, Michał Kosieradzki, who can do characters–and actually made a few for the game–but he’s also our principal FX artist, and you can imagine the amount of FX that a fantasy shooter full of guns and magic requires. He’s also doing all the vegetation for the game, so yeah, quite a busy man.

So, our solution was to go to some of the best Polish Character Artists and ask them to make a monster or two for the game. Because Witchfire resonates well with a lot of people, we have managed to work with some exceptional guys from studios like CD Projekt or Flying Wild Hog. They all kept the general style needed for consistency, but they all had their own unique take on the design. Which, I think, resulted in enemies that are from the same cloth, so to speak, but are also quite varied in vibe.
Image courtesy of The Astronauts
How did you approach the designs and effects of guns?

Chmielarz: Gunplay is incredibly important to us. You’re never without your gun, so both the movement and the weapon behavior need to be perfect. That means the focus is on four areas: animations, sounds, effects, and feedback.

Let’s take a close look at sounds, for example. Contrary to popular belief, it’s relatively easy to make guns sound powerful and juicy. There are so many weapon libraries that offer that. What’s hard is to make a gun sound great but also not tire your ears when you fire it for the fifty thousandth time. The way we solve it is to reserve more powerful sounds for bigger weapons with less available ammo, like sniper rifles, and less powerful, bordering on weak sounds for the guns you often fire.

But there’s one more reason for the base weapon sounds to be less powerful, and that is to still have a space to escalate the power of the sounds when you manage to wind up a gun. Imagine a very simple gun that gets increased damage with each headshot. You have to start with a weak–interesting, but weak–base sound just so each next bullet can sound more powerful. If your first bullet is already powerful and super-charged, then the next one would have to sound like the sun exploding, and that’s not quite right.
Image courtesy of The Astronauts
How did receiving an Epic MegaGrant affect the game’s development process?

Chmielarz: For us, getting the financial help that comes with an Epic MegaGrant was great, but there was one more thing that was just as important: the confidence boost we got after Epic took a look at our game and considered it worthy. We're wearing the MegaGrant badge as a badge of honor.

What are your current plans?

Chmielarz: The current plan is to finally release the game, initially as an Early Access title. We’ve never done that before, but a roguelite is a perfect genre to do that because player feedback is paramount to the final experience.

However, to us, having an Early Access game is no excuse to release something buggy or half-baked. Missing content or features is expected from Early Access, I mean, that’s in the name, but I think players no longer tolerate bugs or short playtimes. So, until we’re happy with what we have, we won’t release–it’s as simple as that. But we’re hoping to reach the Early Access stage in a few months; we’re reasonably close.

We have something we call Witchfire Wednesday, where we tweet something cool every Wednesday. I think, for now, our Twitter is the best place to get Witchfire info until we open our Discord.

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