Zen Studios explains how they’re modernizing old-school turn-based RPGs with Operencia: The Stolen Sun
Developed by a small core team that fluctuated between six and ten people, the first-person dungeon crawler will make its way to the Epic Games Store on March 29. We got a chance to interview several members from the studio, and they explain how they’re aiming to revamp the old-school genre with modern graphics, streamlined gameplay, coupled with an engrossing story and cast of characters. Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. Zen Studios has stated that it aims to modernize old-school turn-based RPGs with Operencia: The Stolen Sun. How specifically are you aiming to do that?
Creative Director and Lead Writer Chris Baker: It’s great to be here! From the start, the team at Zen behind Operencia set out one simple goal: to create a game we want to play ourselves. A lot of us grew up with dungeon-crawler RPGs, and there just aren’t that many of them out there these days – so we figured it’s a good idea not only to make a game we want to play, but also to fill a void that we’re sure perhaps even millions of other gamers are missing as well.
But at the same time, there’s also kind of a reason we don’t see many games of this subgenre these days. As much as we love them, by 2019 standards, they can be a little heavy on the menus, very light on story and characterization, and, well…let’s just say most of them weren’t using an engine like Unreal back then.
With Operencia, we’re creating a streamlined experience that any modern gamer should be able to pick up and play with relative ease, whether they’ve been playing these kinds of games since Wizardry or perhaps they didn’t even know that first-person party-based dungeon crawlers were a thing. At the same time, the team has done an excellent job of not making things feel “dumbed down” – I’d even go so far as to say they’ve been “smartened up.” We’re also taking great influence from RPGs like modern Final Fantasy games when it comes to story, with a grand tale involving a ragtag bunch of memorable and likeable characters who speak amongst themselves with great regularity. And for the graphics…well, let’s just say we’re leveraging the power of Unreal Engine.
Operencia is inspired by Central European mythology. What drew the studio to that specific setting?
Baker: Even those who know of Zen Studios – and that’s most likely from our Pinball FX series of digital pinball or perhaps games like CastleStorm or Infinite Mini Golf – probably don’t know that we’re actually headquartered in Hungary. So choosing to base the game in Central European mythology was largely influenced simply by wanting to re-tell stories many of our team members were told growing up, but in videogame form. What makes it even more appealing is that, other than maybe something like The Witcher, there really isn’t that much in the realm of games that speaks to this sort of mythology. I mean, you’ve probably played plenty of games with gods like Zeus, Odin, and Ares…but have you ever met Hadur? You will in Operencia.
Zen Studios is perhaps best known known for making highly-polished pinball games such as Pinball FX and others that carry licenses from Star Wars, Marvel, and more. What inspired the company to take such a divergent path with Operencia?
Baker: Yes, our Pinball FX series has created an excellent foundation for what I like to refer to as “the biggest little gaming studio in Hungary,” and its continued success is very much to thank for Operencia’s existence in the first place. At the same time, though, Pinball FX was already popular enough in its own right before we started doing tables for the mammoth franchises you mentioned. So, in that sense, we’re kind of getting back to our roots by putting so much behind a new IP. Or, you could say that – since we’re basing ourselves in Central European mythology as much as Star Wars Pinball bases itself in a galaxy far, far away, for example – we’re actually dealing with an IP that predates all the other ones by hundreds of years!
However you want to look at it, I do think it all comes back to a running theme that Zen really excels at making the old feel new again. We did that with pinball, which was really pretty dead in the mid-2000s, and now we’re doing it again with the classic dungeon crawler.
Considering the studio has mentioned that it has a deep love for old-school RPGs. Can you mention some of Operencia's influences?
Baker: My personal focus was mostly narrative, so I’ll let the other guys speak to other aspects of the game. I was mostly an NES gamer growing up, and some of the games I spent more time on than any others were Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, and even Wizardry, which, of course, is known much better as the PC granddaddy of them all. But it wasn’t until the 16-bit era that I really started to see the potential of engaging stories and, even more so, characters in RPGs. So I’d especially say Finally Fantasy III (also known as Final Fantasy VI in Japan) was a huge influence at the narrative level. It’s a longshot, but my dream is that players find the likes of Jóska, Sebastian, and Kela every bit as memorable as characters like Locke, Cloud, and Squall. If anything close to that happens, then it will be an absolute career highlight.
Lead Designer Ferenc Nagy-Szakáll: For me, the main influence was the general atmosphere of old-school RPG-style exploration and puzzle solving. From the many great classic dungeon crawlers, I’d say two had the biggest influence on our overall design: Eye of the Beholder and the Lands of Lore series. Meanwhile, our combat is based on the traditional JRPG system.
Most modern turn-based RPGs aren't in first-person. What made the studio choose this perspective for Operencia?
Nagy-Szakáll: First, we decided that we wanted to do a classic tile-based, first-person dungeon crawler -- the actual battle system design was only finalized months later. The original plan was to go with a real-time system, best known from similar games from the ‘80s and ‘90s. The problem with this was that we didn’t feel it could be complex enough for what we had in mind. In a turn-based combat situation -- especially when it takes place in a separate arena -- we could tailor-make every encounter. Also, the turn-based combat is a traditional part of these types of games, like the Etrian Odyssey series or the latest incarnation of The Bard’s Tale.
Operencia features a colorful, fantastical world. How did you go about creating the visuals for the game? Were there any UE4 tools that you found particularly helpful?
Art Director Tamás Szabó: Our main goal was to create an art style that looks modern and uses next-gen technologies, but keeps the charming “fairytale” aesthetic without pushing the whole thing to look too cartoony.
Also, with 12 completely different scenes and only one 2D and three 3D artists on the team, we had to keep in mind that the style must be doable given our limited time and resources. We had many different art-style prototypes before we started to work on the actual levels.
We built levels the classic way: first, we created the concept art for the particular level and tried to visualize the “mood” we want to see in the game. Every level had one designer -- we called them level hosts -- and a 3D artist who worked together with them.
In terms of features and tools, the artists like UE4. There are tons of very great features in the engine, like the foliage tool, material instances, particle editor, sequence editor, volumetric lights, and deferred decals. We also used the landscape tool extensively. Those are just a few that come to mind right away.
Scalability features and the robust profiling tools helped a lot in the porting process, too.
Considering there are over 50 different types of enemies, how are you approaching creature design?
Nagy-Szakáll: Even though the lore of the Central European tales and legends is full of mythical and unique beings, we knew that we would need to use some more traditional fantasy creatures as well to have enough variety throughout the game. So we decided to pick the most important enemies and bosses from folklore -- for example, the multiheaded dragon, the Busos, and the copper soldiers -- and use the more traditional ones as common enemies.
Considering Operencia will feature turn-based battles, can you elaborate on what Operncia’s combat system entails?
Nagy-Szakáll: In turn-based combat, the clever use of the proper skills of different characters plays a major role. The different classes, characters, and skills can be combined in a thousand ways, and it’s up to players to find them all. The mana management is quite strict, and we did this on purpose -- to avoid beating the game by only using the base skills and attacks.
The combat arena is divided into three separate lanes, and every spell has a different impact in each. You have to continuously watch the enemy and assess their position and attack pattern to be able to effectively deal with them. If you ignore their placement and the different attack lanes on the battlefield, even the most powerful skills won’t save you in battle.
The combat system is a perfect example of how the game demands players to think and act with caution, and it forces them to think and dig deeper. Operencia will present the player with some serious challenges, and it’s not an easy game, but by digging deeper and getting to know the systems, it can become very beatable.
In addition to the combat, Operencia also features puzzles. Can you speak to how you're designing them?
Nagy-Szakáll: By designing the puzzles, the main point of view was always to make something that would completely fit into the environment and have an interesting solution at the same time -- something that would satisfy the player while not making them impossibly hard to solve. To achieve this, we needed to figure out how to reveal hints to the player while also not making each puzzle way too easy. Sometimes working on this balance took more time than making the actual puzzle. Most of the time, the solution is somewhere in the environment, or one of our party members will notice something and chime in.
Inventing puzzles was easier than it sounds. Most of the time we already had the setting -- and it gave us a tons of ideas -- so we just had to pick one. One of these was [inspired by the fact that] we don’t have the sun above us. It was logical to play with the light/darkness duality as much as possible.
Most of the puzzles are unique, with only a couple popping up more than once, such as the way you’ll craft potions throughout the game. There is a complete puzzle system to acquire all potions.
Operencia features original music and full voice acting. Can you elaborate on the audio aspects of the game?
Baker: To keep with the true spirit of the game, the team hired a Hungarian composer named Arthur Grósz to compose the orchestral soundtrack. To be honest, I was dubious when I first heard the tracks outside of the context of gameplay – I wasn’t sure it would work. But all I had to do was play the next build of the game once they included it – it’s an amazing match. I couldn’t be happier with the music.
As for voice acting, we consider it part of the modernization process for the genre. It’s rare to have developed characters in first-person dungeon crawlers, much less to have them fully voiced. Zen constructed its own voiceover booth for the occasion, and several of Budapest’s best actors have lent their talents to the game. I know of at least three who will be in the new Witcher TV show that’s filming there.
How large is the development team behind the game?
Nagy-Szakáll: The core team during the development was between 6 and 10 people, but never more than 14. Also, we had an additional team of 5-10 people helping out with extra tasks.
Are there any ways in which you feel like Unreal Engine 4 allowed the team to punch above its head count?
Nagy-Szakáll: Absolutely! This is the first one-coder project I ever saw working! But on the design side, the Blueprints system and the polished engine were a massive help.
What has been the biggest challenge developing the game thus far?
Producer Akos Szabo: Maybe the biggest one was that none of us have ever worked on an RPG of this size -- this is the single biggest game Zen has ever made -- so in the planning phase, it was really difficult to estimate the resource requirements.
What made UE4 a good fit for Operencia?
Nagy-Szakáll: The most important thing about working with an engine like UE4 is that you know what you get and what to expect: a really good, all-around engine with tons of customization options and a great editor. This means that even a compact team like ours is able to deliver a game of this size in a reasonable time.
Does the studio have any favorite UE4 tools or features?
Lead Coder Ferdinánd Török: For me, I would say Blueprints. It allowed the designers to create the level-related logic, which thankfully allowed me to focus more on the core features.
Did Zen Studios leverage the Unreal Marketplace at all?
Szabó: Yes, the Marketplace is a really handy service, and it’s definitely saved us some time. Though most of these assets have been altered accordingly to our needs.
Has it been helpful to have access to UE4’s source code?
Török: Yes, it has been helpful to see what is actually happening under the hood. Sometimes we’ll make some slight adjustments to better suit our needs.
Considering the game is coming to PC, Xbox One, and is enhanced for the Xbox One X, are you finding UE4 helpful with the porting process?
Török: Most definitely. For example, the platform features -- save, user management, achievements, etc. -- were working out of the box or required only minimal changes.
Thanks again for your time. Where can people learn more about Operencia: The Stolen Sun?
Baker: Thanks for having us! Please check out OperenciaRPG.com for more, and we’re constantly updating @OperenciaRPG on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, as well.