SMOKE AND SACRIFICE, a beautifully hand-painted game from new indie studio Solar Sail Games, doesn't pull its punches. In the opening minutes the player, in the guise of Sachi, a young mother, is forced to sacrifice her newborn baby to preserve the Sun Tree, without which her home would be overrun by the titular smoke, an ever-present threat.
Playing the game, it's astonishing that it's the work of just four people. Though the main quest directs the player in certain ways, you're free to wander in any direction and talk to a large number of characters, most of whom have something fresh to say.
And the monsters really do breed with one another. We witnessed the union of two slimes. It was…. you had to be there.
The INQUIRER caught up with co-founder and coder Neil Millstone.
INQ: What aspect of the game are you most proud of?
Millstone: What I'm most proud of is that we've managed to pull off a huge RPG, backed up with systems-based gameplay and a functioning ecosystem with a core team of just four people - one artist, one programmer, and two designers - in a little over 18 months.
INQ: What sets Smoke and Sacrifice apart from other, similar games?
Millstone: The ecosystem gameplay is (we think) an original concept, and we hope players will have great fun discovering all the different interactions we've hidden in there. Each species of creature in the world interacts with several others and in many cases the player can interfere with that, feeding food to some creatures, breeding others, taming them, and a lot more besides. The feeling we're trying to evoke is of a world which has creepy, sometimes icky things to see if you're in the right place at the right time, and most of the time there will be a way to exploit what you've seen to your advantage, if you can just figure out how.
INQ: What was the trickiest aspect of development?
Millstone: As always with game development, the design was probably the hardest part. As a small team, we've all contributed heavily to the design, and some of the discussions can get quite heated! The ecosystem aspects of the games were designed without much reference to other titles, and we liberally mixed them with ideas from RPG and survival games that we love. Making that all work together and form a cohesive, understandable whole was very tricky.
When it comes to the code, the streaming and open world aspects of the title proved tough to implement. The game consists of a huge area of terrain that the player can walk from one end to the other without any loading screens. This means that many assets are loaded in and out as you move, simulation of plants and creatures must be processed whether the player is present or not, population densities must be affected by the player's actions and then gradually recover. All these aspects proved to be tough to get working and performant on all the platforms we're targeting.
INQ: If you could go back and do it all over again, what would you do differently?
Millstone: From a code point of view, it's hard to work with a game design which is constantly evolving. Some parts of the code proved to be much more flexible than needed, with parts that were never used. Other systems could have been more useful if they were more general-purpose. With limited time, there wasn't always the time to go back and refactor when it was needed. Although it's manageable, there are dark corners that I would hate to show anyone the source code!
I'm not sure how I would have avoided these problems, but I would certainly be able to make a much cleaner implementation if we were to make a similar title again!
INQ: How easy was it to hire the right people to help?
Millstone: I feel that like many industries, the games industry likes to hire people they know. On this project, we hired partly from our pool of known talent, but we did advertise for one design role.
It's always very hard to interview game designers. At least with programming, there is a core base of knowledge you can quiz people on, but video games design is a discipline where I feel the fundamentals are still being formed. We ended up making great choices though!
INQ: Does the UK have the right set up for indie studios?
Millstone: I feel the UK is a good place to be an indie developer. There are many local indie dev groups and plenty of events on the calendar who are welcoming to smaller games like EGX Rezzed and PC Gamer Weekender. The community is really friendly and there is a real spirit of co-operation. There's also funds like UK GamesFund and also the government's Video Game Tax Relief scheme. I feel the current indie boom is the successor to the world of the bedroom coders of the 80s and 90s, but with trendier clothes, and am pleased to be a part of it!
INQ: How easy was Unity to work with, and did you consider any other game dev platforms?
Millstone: There's no doubt that without a development environment such as Unity we wouldn't have been able to pull off a game of this scope with such a small team. Compared to writing directly to OpenGL or to hardware as games used to be created, there are huge savings to be had and that allows us to iterate on our gameplay ideas much quicker than we would have been able to otherwise. The tools Unity provide for level creation and data editing are also very flexible and easy to use.
One of the aspects I ended up using more than I thought I would was customising the Unity Editor itself. Adding dialogs and windows to show and modify the state of our quest system, for example, was invaluable and many of these editor features could be implemented in an afternoon. When it comes to putting together a quick piece of UI in the editor, I don't think anything will beat Unity by some distance.
As a C++ programmer for many years, however, I have often missed the ability to do low-level optimisation or to manage memory in a more visible fashion. Unity was the clear choice of platform this time, but in the future, who knows?
Smoke and Sacrifice will be out in 2018, published by Curve Digital. It will be available on Nintendo Switch, PC, and other platforms later in the year. µ
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