Why We’re Making Our Next Visual Novel in Unreal Engine 4

We’ve been quiet over at Woodsy Studio for the last month or so, but with good reason: we’ve been busy! Shortly after releasing Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail on Steam, we decided to switch our development platform from Gamemaker Studio to Unreal Engine 4. This is no simple task. For Gamemaker, we had a very helpful base to build off of with ThinkBoxly’s EdgeVN system. With UE4, we don’t have such luck. There is a module for sale, but it seems unequipped to handle large multi-scene VNs, so we are building from the ground up using the UE4 blueprint visual scripting. On top of that, we’re converting to 3d backgrounds, which means re-making a lot of our general world assets to 3d models.

Most people are totally confused when we tell them we’ve decided to switch to UE4, and that’s without the troubles mentioned above. UE is best known for big-budget 3d games. It isn’t known for indie development or user friendliness. Unreal is total overkill for a visual novel, especially when the most GPU-intensive thing we’ve pushed out in previous games is a high resolution character sprite. So, why are we going to all this trouble to switch to an engine that is (on its face) worse for indie 2d development than our previous platforms?

To start, I need to go over the problems we had with Gamemaker. I don’t want to make this post a big list of complaints about GM–which I think is fantastic for certain kinds of projects–but addressing a couple of these is unavoidable. First off, audio files.  The way GM handles audio files was frustrating from start to finish. Importing them was clunky. We couldn’t make batch changes to groups of sounds. And a couple times, references to entire groups of sounds just disappeared.

These would be annoyances for any game, but because of the nature of our (partially) voiced visual novels, we had over 2,500 sound files in our game. Any task related to the sound was a huge ordeal for us and, in the end I think the sheer number of sounds ended up creating our other problem with GM: porting.

Our first (still work in progress) screenshot from Episode Zero

Our first (still work in progress) screenshot from Episode Zero

Before we switched to GM, Woodsy Studio was releasing its games on Windows, Linux, Mac, and Android phones. However, so far we’ve been unable to bring The Fox’s Trail to any platform other than Windows. The problem is different on each platform, but without going into too much detail, our suspicion is that our sounds (or more specifically, the size of our sound files–2.8 gigabytes before compression) have something to do with it.

Finally, drawing backgrounds has been one of our biggest hurdles. Every room requires a background and these are Jenny’s least favorite thing to draw. They are also large, contiguous sprites that are difficult to break up into 1024 x 1024 pieces to keep our texture page size down (which is needed for performance reasons, especially on mobile). Moving to 3d environments is theoretically possible in GM, but would require rebuilding a huge amount of what we’ve already  And it’s not what the engine is designed for.

I really do want to stress that Gamemaker Studio is a very good option for all sorts of games, we just decided it wasn’t right for us. Because going forward, these problems were only going to get worse. For episode 2, we’ll have the same–if not more–quantity of voice acting clips. We’ll want more backgrounds. And we might want to go to native a native 1080p resolution, at least for the PC version–further exacerbating file size and background creation issues.

All this added up to need to change. But again, the question comes up: why UE4? Why not Unity, which seems to be the favorite choice of indie devs everywhere? A couple reasons. No matter what engine we switched to, we were going to have to re-learn everything. Ren’py uses python and GM uses gml, its own language, so there was no real chance of transferring our knowledge perfectly over to either of our options.

A UE4 material we made for our visualization of a fey rift.

A UE4 material we made for our visualization of a fey rift.

Also, out of the (metaphorical) box, UE4 is fantastic at making your game look good. I don’t entirely know how the guts of either engine work, but it seems very easy to use the UE4 cameras and lights (as they are implemented without plugins) to make our art pop compared to what I’ve seen of Unity. And the material system lets (relatively) inexperienced programmers do some amazing things with shaders in a visual scripting interface.

Finally, I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian and everyone using Unity because the common knowledge is that Unity is more user friendly just makes me want to go down the road less traveled. And we’ve discovered that this common knowledge might be wrong.

It has been just over a month and a half since starting the conversion and we already have a full dialog system set up (developed by us from the ground up), with working choice menus and overworld exploration like in The Fox’s Trail. We’ve built out our first environment and imported the first handful of scenes for Episode Zero. Converting to 3d environments has allowed me–a person who couldn’t draw if my life depended on it–to take over a portion of the art process, building 3d models based on our original drawings. This required learning Blender along with Unreal Engine 4, but for a long time the art burden has fallen entirely on one member of the team and I’m more than happy to finally help out.

An Episode 1 asset re-made in 3d (again, work in progress).

An Episode 1 asset re-made in 3d (again, work in progress).

At first, I likened trying to make a visual novel in UE4 to using a rifle to kill a fly. Yes, it can get the job done but it will be harder and a ton of overkill. Now, I’d use a different tortured metaphor: it’s like putting together Ikea furniture with powertools. It’s still overkill, but the power tools have a lot more uses than just putting together Ikea Furniture.

So, when is Episode Zero coming out? Right now, we’re tentatively saying “TBD: Winter”. And yes, we mean this upcoming winter. I don’t think we can commit to anything more than that, but since we have so much of the framework already done and Episode Zero is a smaller project, we hope that you’ll be able to enjoy the first visual novel developed in UE4* fairly soon.

*I don’t know if we’re really going to be the first UE4 VN. I couldn’t find any. Correct me if I’m wrong!

 

Echoes of the Fey Greenlight Campaign and Update

I’m happy to announce that yesterday we officially launched the Steam Greenlight campaign for Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail. If you want to check that out (and vote yes!) the page is here. We’re hoping to be able to release later this summer simultaneously on all PC platforms, but Greenlight is a mysterious black box so fingers crossed!

EOFPosterFull1280

We touched on our progress in the Greenlight page, but I thought I’d give a bit of a wider picture the current state of development. Our engine (the framework we use to put in scenes, GUI elements, items, and choices) was completed–except for some minor polish–several months ago. We’re using GameMaker Studio for the first time, so this was a fairly significant step. GameMaker can work for pretty much anything 2d, but it’s not hardwired for a lot of text input/drawing. Once that was done, we were basically just been working on content–writing, art, music, and the such–for a while. Of course, that’s what people come to visual novels for.

As of today, the script is basically done. And almost all of it is in the game. You can play through from beginning to end and pretty much the only thing you’ll miss out on is the end of one side quest and the optional epilogue scene with a character of your choice. The soundtrack is finished except for some polish on a few older songs and a vocal song that will play over the credits. We’ve received but haven’t processed/put in all of the voice acting (that’s actually a very late step in development because when we do that we have to fork off a new branch of development for the mobile version, which will have significantly less voice work).

All the character portraits are complete and in-game. The only thing left to do on them is optional dyes for Sofya’s outfit, which will be rewards for getting gold pieces from side quests. Backgrounds and the overworld are mostly complete. One building that’s part of a side quest isn’t fully interactive yet, but that’s about it. Several CGs are complete and in the game, but there are more to do. And of course there’s testing! With over 100 choices in the game, testing will be something of an ordeal but (of course) we’re going to do it to make sure we launch as bug-free as possible.

I also promised a short story prequel and that’s started but I definitely need to get to work when I have the time (thanks, Overwatch). We’re hoping to be ready in the next month, then take a couple weeks to focus on marketing and release in the very near future! Of course I’m being completely vague about release dates because (especially with a two person team) things happen and I really don’t want to set a date then miss it.

In the meantime, follow development over at the new official twitter for Woodsy Studio, and just in case you missed it before, vote for us on Greenlight!

Why Art and Business Must Intersect

The last few months have been exciting for me as a creative individual and a burgeoning game developer, because I am learning to think of my studio and my artwork as a real business.

Before you groan at the word business (sometimes it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth, too), allow me to explain why this shift in my perception has been so beneficial to both my emotional state and my artistic creations. I am going to use the term “business” in a very general sense, in that it represents any endeavor that can support its creator financially. I’ll also use the term “artist” generally to represent the creative individuals in the field of entertainment and gaming, be they visual artists, writers, designers, or even programmers.

1) Being a business lets you take your work seriously

If you’re a creative type like myself, then I’m sure you’ve encountered plenty of people in your life who sneer down at the time you spend making art. They tell you it’s fine to practice art or writing in your free time (i.e., such pastimes are just personal hobbies)–but if you want to survive in the real world, then you need to get a real job. I understand the practicality of this mantra. I’ve had to conform to it many times, myself. There’s nothing wrong with keeping your art and work separate if that balance works well for you, or if it’s simply necessary for you to get by. Surviving in the physical world means that all of us must feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves, as well as do our part to keep society as a whole functioning peacefully. To accomplish this, most of us have to perform a lot of tasks we’d rather not, and that’s okay. Such is life.

But while completing practical tasks is a significant part of living in the real world, I’m here to argue that creating art is equally important. Just as we must all support our physical bodies, so must we nourish our minds. Art allows us to do this, whether we create it ourselves, or we take time to absorb/reflect upon someone else’s work.

When you think of your artistic work as nothing more than a hobby, you’re accepting the belief system that your work is not significant beyond personal gratification. Inevitably, you let your artwork itself become trapped by that definition. If you consider it of little real importance, then you will likely not give your craft the attention and dedication it deserves.

The first step towards becoming business-minded is realizing that your artwork is valuable in the real world. Then you can state that you’re an artist with pride, rather than giggling nervously and saying, “Oh, I fiddle around with making games in my free time.” You can start to take your own work more seriously, and thus expect others to do the same.

2) Being a business forces you to work in constraints

You might look at that heading and wonder, “Is that supposed to be a good thing?” The answer is yes, working within constraints is a good thing. If you don’t understand why, I’ll do my best to explain.

A common misconception is that greater artistic freedom results in greater artwork. I’m not saying that freedom is bad; obviously, artistic freedom is incredibly important in that it allows an individual to express herself in her work. Those aren’t the sort of constraints I’m talking about. When I talk about constraints, I mean practical restrictions within your production process. For instance: a time limit, a budget, a certain number of available resources, etc. Instinctively, most of us would choose to work with fewer constraints rather than more.  However, what many people fail to realize is that working within constraints can lead to better artwork.

But why? I could probably write an entire essay on the many ways restrictions lead to better artwork. But I think that the answer boils down to this: when you work within constraints, you are forced to trim the fat from the globby mess of your artistic vision and find the true core of your creation. When you comprehend the true heart of what you’re producing, then you can focus all your energy on making it sing. And in the end, you will probably communicate your vision more clearly when you trim out all the fat that results from unlimited time and resources.

Game Jams are a great example of how working within constraints can result in great artwork. In a Game Jam, developers must try to complete a game in 48 hours, and on top of that, their game must adhere to a specific theme. You don’t get much more restrictive than that. And yet developers who have spent months trying to complete a project without success often find themselves cranking out a fantastic new game in 48 hours. I believe this is largely because they’re forced to focus on the heart of their vision and yank it out into the open.

3) Being a business brings you closer to your audience

If you’re stuck in perceiving your artistic creations as “hobbies,” you will rarely pause to ask yourself, “What can this project offer to my audience? If I’m sending a message, how do I ensure that I send it in a form my audience will understand? Which parts of my project will my audience appreciate the most, and which parts might they least enjoy?”

When you begin to function as a business, you recognize that your work has true financial worth. And at the same time, you acknowledge the importance of your audience, because in order to succeed, you must provide work that your audience values. This means being open to feedback, even if it comes in the form of scathing criticism. You must listen to your audience, taking note of what they love and what they abhor.

This doesn’t mean that you have to bend everything you create to appease the raging masses. Besides, it’s impossible to please everyone. What it means is that just like you expect your audience to value your work, you acknowledge the value of their opinions, and you use it to constantly improve your own work.

So then… is it all about making $$$?

I’m not here to say that every artist should be scrambling to make a fortune, nor even that they should prioritize making money over genuine creative expression. But I believe that art and money exist in the same world, and because we all need money to go about our daily lives, we need to find ways to harmonize artistic creation with financial sustenance. As an artist, the first step is acknowledging that your work is valuable. It is significant. And if sustaining a comfortable, physical life means slapping a dollar value on your artistic creations, then so be it.