Frogwares embraces new tech to design open-world thriller The Sinking City
Taking place in the 1920s, investigator Charles Reed struggles with the realization that he’s slowly losing his mind. With no cure in-sight, he strides even further toward insanity in the half-submerged city of Oakmont, Massachusetts. Uncovering the truth behind the city’s troubles, he finds supernatural forces at work. Charles’ efforts to save the besieged city might just save his own frail psyche in the process.
Using skills they honed while developing the Sherlock series, the team at Frogwares improved upon their foundation while incorporating similar mechanics to a new setting. Chatting with Frogwares Marketing Manager Sergey Oganesyan, he talks about some of the challenges the team faced and elaborates on how Unreal helped alleviate some of the biggest headaches. He also explains how they got inspired to create subject material based on renowned horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Thanks for chatting! Can you provide us with some of the studio’s background?
Marketing Manager Sergey Oganesyan: Hey! We are Frogwares, a Ukraine-based studio with around 20 years of history behind us. We are the authors of the Sherlock Holmes games with Crimes and Punishments and Devil’s Daughter being the most recent ones.
We are huge fans of the investigation genre because it allows us to tell stories that explore the ups and downs of human nature and to look into what drives people to commit crimes. With our latest game, The Sinking City, we are trying to push the boundaries of detective games. We do this by first getting the player off the hand-holding hook and let them think about each step instead of following the waypoint to the next target.
Considering Sherlock Holmes has been a mainstay franchise for Frogwares, what made you choose to dive into Lovecraft with The Sinking City?
Oganesyan: That’s a philosophical question. With The Sinking City, we can investigate completely different ideas in a drastically different setting. We are drawn to Lovecraftian themes, such as cosmic horror and the insignificance of humankind within a larger scale of things. The very idea that your protagonist is a guy who is so uncertain of what he is doing, and is scared of what comes ahead - it’s all very human - yet strangely different from what we are used to, especially in video games.
Plus, Lovecraft novels are a perfect fit for a detective game. His characters are often obsessed with an idea that there’s something out there, and they have this urge to find it. Sounds like the perfect job for a private eye.
For people who haven’t heard of the game, can you describe what The Sinking City is about?
Oganesyan: The Sinking City is a third-person detective thriller that takes place in a fictional world inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft.
The player steps into the shoes of a 1920s private investigator, Charles Reed, who is slowly losing his mind over certain events that happened to him in the past. The search for a cure brings Reed to the city of Oakmont, Massachusetts, which is slowly rotting away from an infestation of monsters and a devastating flood of clearly supernatural origins.
It’s up to the embattled detective to investigate the forces that have grasped the city and its beleaguered citizens and save himself from going mad.
With The Sinking City being a detective game, comparisons to your Sherlock Holmes titles are inevitable. In what ways did your experience making games about the world's greatest detective help shape Charles Reed in The Sinking City?
Oganesyan: If we are talking gameplay mechanics, then yeah, there are certain similarities. We are, of course, building and improving on the Sherlock Holmes foundation. Charles Reed borrows certain skills from the consulting detective, like the Mind Palace in which we put clues together and make conclusions.
Personality-wise, I think they are the opposite of each other. Sherlock is overly confident, and truth be told, a bit too arrogant, which is often annoying to the people around him. He is the smartest guy in the room because he is able to notice all the little things that no one else can pinpoint.
Reed, on the other hand, is lost in a strange and hostile world. Like Sherlock, he also can see the least obvious clues, but he does it in his own way, using supernatural abilities.
I have to say, this question is really about the design philosophy we are implementing in The Sinking City. Sherlock is all about the rational stuff; each case must be explained, everything must be logical and coherent, and realistic, of course. In The Sinking City, the mystery itself is more important than the method behind it.
Did you learn any new development tricks while making the game?
Oganesyan: Well, there was a lot in The Sinking City we had never tried before: open world, combat, traversal, optimization of big maps, etc. We developed our own tool, the city generator, to create the open world in a shorter time frame with fewer resources. We created our own character editor and narration tool which, again, have helped save us a lot of time and manpower when developing the game. Frankly, we are still learning a lot.
With the game's official release in the rearview mirror, what lessons have you learned that you'll take forward into your next game?
Oganesyan: The Sinking City is a much bigger project than our Sherlock Holmes games were and as we are not a big studio, we had to learn better resource and time management.
This game was a transition for us. We went from a linear game design to a more branching one. We definitely want to focus on the detective genre in the future, and our goal is to continue to improve on our concept of open investigations.
What was the team's favorite tool in Unreal Engine?
Oganesyan: The answer is different depending on who you speak to in our team. In all honesty, people are pretty happy with the engine overall, and if we were to select a fan-favorite tool, then I’d say it’s the Skeletal Mesh Editor. It’s great how you can preview your animations inside the engine on the fly. It’s really flexible.
Whenever I hear how people who work with other engines have to first create a playable build, and only then they can see if the animation looks okay, I sigh in relief because if your animation is not okay, you’ll have to do it all over again.
How did your previous experience with Unreal Engine benefit the development of The Sinking City?
Oganesyan: Well, before The Sinking City, we worked with Unreal Engine 3, and yeah, it helped a lot, because half the code was similar to UE4. We knew what to look for, and we had an idea for the functionality. Of course, that saved us a lot of time.
What was the biggest challenge developing The Sinking City? How did Unreal Engine help alleviate those hurdles?
Oganesyan: The Sinking City is an open-world game and when we started development, we ran into certain issues, mostly related to streaming. We had to make sure the streaming of the city would prevent the player from falling through the ground if they ran too fast. I think that was a common issue for open-world games in Unreal Engine at that time.
But, I have to say, we are really happy with how quick and helpful UE’s support is. We received a lot of advice from Epic — advice that helped us mitigate not only this problem, but also a lot of different bumps that we encountered along the way. You can imagine how valuable that support was to a studio that has never created open-world games before.
And as the years passed by, Unreal Engine saw more and more updates that made our lives easier. The Unreal team has also been helping us on the Nintendo Switch.
Where are all the places people can go to learn more about Frogwares and The Sinking City?
Oganesyan: That’s easy! Go to Facebook or YouTube to stay in touch with the latest developments regarding the game and our studio!