Original recorded July, 2014 by Dirk Schembri
Our guests are Falco Girgis and Tyler Rogers, the creatives behind Elysian Shadows. They form part of the team that launched the Elysian Shadows Kickstarter campaign.
Elysian Shadows is a next-generation 2D role-playing game. It’s roots began as a Sega Dreamcast exclusive. Today, the game is running on many platforms, including Windows, OS X, Linux, Android, iOS and Ouya.
Elysian Shadows aims to redefine the old-school 16-bit RPG. Fusing pixel art with 3D environments, dynamic lighting, shadows, physics and positional audio. We discuss the origins of Elysian Shadows, trials & tribulations, including the vision ahead.
Hi, welcome to Indie Meetup. Our guests are working on a very ambitious game, Elysian Shadows. How about you introduce yourself.
Hi, my name is Falco Girgis, lead engine and tool developer. I’m also the co-host of Adventures in Game Development, the YouTube series.
I’m Tyler Rogers, lead game-play engineer. Also co-host of the YouTube series, Adventures in Game Development.
How did you get started in the video game industry?
It goes back to the Sega Dreamcast. I’m sure everyone knows Elysian Shadows started off as a Dreamcast exclusive. I was about 14 years old and got a hold of the Dreamcast and for me it was eye opening.
Compared to Playstation 2, the Dreamcast games looked better. It was more effective at textures, anti-aliasing, and image quality. They also felt better. It even has a modem in it. It had a memory card with a screen. It felt next gen. I loved this console!
I went online and found a community of modders and developers hacking the Dreamcast. They where creating their own software. Their own games. Their own emulators. I remember being so inspired by these people. I started developing for the Sega Dreamcast myself because I wanted to be a developer too.
That’s why to this day we target the Sega Dreamcast. Its been my life-long quest to release a game for the Dreamcast. It was the console that started it all for me.
It’s our responsible to give back to that community.
Growing up I met Falco between the 5th and 6th grade at school. He was the only other person I knew who had a Dreamcast. I remember hearing Falco talking to somebody on the bus one day. I said “excuse me, did you just say Dreamcast?!“. We’ve been good friends ever since.
Have you been working on Elysian Shadows for that long?
If you count the day I was in my mummy’s attic. I was 14 years old with a dream to make this game called Elysian Shadows. All the way to where we are now, yes it’s been 7 years.
It’s been a long journey developing our knowledge. I decided that day when I was 14 “I’m going to make games“. I was a kid, I didn’t know how to code. I started working on Elysian Shadows in high school. Both Elysian Shadows and ourselves have evolved and matured. Now, I’m working on my Masters in Computer Engineering.
You have to factor in a few things. The fact that there was a huge learning curve for us. The fact that we built our own multi-platform engine software architecture tool. All these before we ever started creating a game.
Back when we started there was no Unity. Even today, Unity won’t give us the performance we want. Not supporting the Dreamcast is a major drawback for us. It was imperative for our project that we wrote the engine from the ground up. That’s was took so long for us.
The engine is done now. The reason we’ve been able to make such good progress is because the framework is complete.
With the framework and engine done, you can now focus on creating the game itself.
Yes, that’s correct. In 1 week we went from never considering the game to run on the Ouya, to an optimized Ouya build.
This is possible as we invested in a platform independent framework and architectures. With the Kickstarter looming, it’s simple to port Elysian Shadows to the Playstation 4, Xbox One, Wii U, 3DS. Those are all stretch goals.
What sort of complexity goes into porting the tool to other platforms?
With the Dreamcast, we can setup the online options and it plays.
Will you release the engine for the public community?
We want to! We want to get people excited. It’s a Kickstarter stretch goal that could be bigger than the game. Image levels built on Ouya that can transition cross-platform.
Sounds like how Unity got started. They wanted to democratize game development.
I used to develop in Unity 3D for a living right around the time our engine was picking up. So for me I was able to see a lot of the strengths and weaknesses in Unity.
Unity’s components and game objects influenced for our engine’s fundamental architecture design. Prior Unity 4.3 release, there where no specific 2D development tools. My personal goal was to create a custom optimized 2D engine that could run on the Dreamcast. Today, Elysian Shadows is running in 2.5D.
If you had to start over and Unity 2D developer tools are available. Would you have used Unity?
I don’t still think we wouldn’t be happy with it. The toolkit engine is complete. Yet, there are many new features we wish to create in the future. With Unity we would need to hack new features into the engine. With our own custom engine we don’t have to try work around anyone’s code base.
With full control over our own tools, we have total creative freedom.
How many people are you on the team?
Seven. Me on engine toolkit, Tyler on gameplay. Patryk Kowalik is the artist. Connor, who resigned back in January 2015, was our musician. Daniel is level designer and website. Eddie is Android, Ouya and other platforms. Eddie started porting the engine to other platforms. I took over when it became more GPU low-level programming.
Are you developing the game full time?
Yes we are!
During Adventures in Game Development, you spoke about a publishing deal. Can you elaborate more on that? Also you spoke about quitting your day job?
Are you familiar with Watermelon games and Pier Solar?
WaterMelon started by pioneered what we’re trying to do with the Dreamcast. They created a 2D RPG for the Sega Genesis in 2010! After the Genesis was dead, they managed to resurrected it. They created physical copies of the game cartridge for the Sega Genesis. We’re huge fans!
WaterMelon are mutual fans of Adventures in Game Development. They approve our creative direction so they reached out and offered us a publishing deal. They’ve been a real lot of help.
Tulio Adriano, from WaterMelon came down here to visit. He brought physical copies of both the game and soundtracks. It was unreal.
What was his reaction to Elysian Shadows progress?
We assume it was positive. We didn’t get a chance to show off too much of Elysian Shadows. We spoke about Kickstarter goals and publishing deals.
Tulio went over their experience with Pier Solar Kickstarter campaign. He went over producing his own soundtrack.
There is so much that goes into publishing a game. You have to pay thousands of dollars to get your game rated overseas. The ESRB is only applicable in American. Each country has it’s own rating system. We went over the entire dimension of marketing. He said he wished he someone to explain the process back when they started. He had to figure out his own way. We very much appreciate that.
As developers and designers, how focused are you on marketing?
We do our own marketing. Adventures in Game Development itself is marketing. We’ve been doing a lot of podcasts, like Indie Meetup podcast. Compared to other indie devs, we do a lot of marketing as a team. We’ve realized how important that is but the truth is we are engineers.
We’re not business people. So having people with marketing experience, like WaterMelon Games, is very helpful. For the Kickstarter campaign we need to get both pricing and goals spot on.
Compared to other indie devs, you are much more open. During Adventures in Game Development, you’re not afraid to show the game crash. You’re honest with the game’s progress.
We’ve been assessing our creative vision. We want to create a game that evokes feeling of why people love these video games. We’re paying tribute to games like, Legend of Zelda and the older games. We want our game to have an emotional connection with our fan-base. By showing them the development process behind the game, we are intimate with them.
The next chapter of Adventures in Game Development is going to be a little bit darker. I’m not gonna lie, we haven’t left the house in like a week. And we look like crap. We’re working our butts off but its real. We want people to feel like our stress, our anxiety. We want them to feel like they are part of the Kickstarter with us. That’s the reason I’m confident being open with our audience.
How did you keep motivated for so long? How did you keep the team motivated for so long?
Because the game itself means so much more than a video game or a career path. There’s so much content in the story-line and these characters that are part of ourselves. You can see further along in the game. There will be darker chapters in the game. Life isn’t all rainbow and sunshine.
During dark times in our lives, the single consistent thing was Elysian Shadows. We always pushed forward on Elysian Shadows even though the rest of our lives could be complete crap.
There is so much of us Elysian Shadows. If you look back Adventures in Game Development, Chapter 1, and look back to where we are today. Every time developers get ADHD, they get bored of the current project. They look to do something new. For us, every time we had a new idea we tried integrating it into Elysian Shadows. Back in the day we never dreamed of dynamic lights.
We never dreamed of dynamic shadows and all the next generation features. As I matured as a developer, I wanted to do more. Instead of starting a new game with new features, I introduced them into Elysian Shadows. I always found a way to keep it clean and new when I wanted to branch out or learn as an engineer.
Every time I had a school project, I found a way to integrate it with Elysian Shadows. For my graduate school project, I’m writing a GPGPU Acceleration for Video Game Physics Engines.
Before I leave this world, I want to gift this game upon humanity for them to play.
What’s the elevator pitch behind Elysian Shadows story?
Elysian Shadows takes place in a world that’s caught between magic and technology. “The Creator” follow the gift of magic. While, the non-religious parts of society rely upon technology.
The Main character, Julien, is in the middle of this altercation. Early in the game you come across a mysterious artifact. With events going down, you question this bounce between technology and magic.
Where does technology and magic fit in the world?
Throughout the whole world there are these mysterious ruins as the backdrop of the world. In the outskirts of villages, dangerous creatures and monsters dwell upon these ruins. The mystery you’re trying to solve is the relationship between these ancient civilizations. What caused their destruction?
If you think about it, these are very much themes that are relevant to reality, such as Stem Cell research. People are questioning at what point are we doing something that reserved only for god? At what point is science starting to cross that line.
Cloning and biological research raised concern that humans should not interfere with. We’ve adopted deep philosophical questions for the players.
Was this the original story-line thought from the beginning? Or was it an evolution that come together?
One might think we started writing a game without direction. But it actually started off as a story-line concept before we wrote a line of code. This is the story we wanted to tell. I still think story-line and dialogue are central to our vision for Elysian Shadows.
You need a high level of mathematical and technical skills to develop the way you do. These are very complex systems.
People hate on us because it’s taken more than 7 years. One has to understand that after those 7 years we are now very talented programmers. Not trying to hoot my own horn but we can do things that other programmers can’t do with the game. I would not trade that experience for anything.
People can work with Unity for 7 years. But with new versions released, significant code reviews are essential. Updating Unity from older version could break the code structure.
Creating our own tools is very powerful. We can make drastic changes with relative ease.
Falco, what inspired you to go and get your Masters Degree at the same time?
It sounds nerdy but I love the engineering aspect of creating a game. I always wished I was an artistic and creative person but I’m not.
My mathematical engineering background blends well with game development. I can use my skills to merge art and music to bring them to life. In the complicated industry of gaming, its important to remain a student. Always try to read and learn more.
When I implemented the lighting and physics engine, I spent the whole week in my underwear. Working out equations and learning how to do this stuff. Using Unity takes away the low-level management. You don’t have to worry about how the GPU works. You don’t have to know the physics or lighting equations. You use whatever they provide for you.
It’s not only Tyler and myself. Connor is a student for studying music. Our artists are going to art academy. Every one of us is passionate about our own field. We take that skill we have as engineers, musicians and artists. We all bring something to the table for Elysian Shadows.
I can assume when the rest of the team comes over, there’s going to be very little sleep.
Ow my gosh! We’re going to hibernate for 2 days before they come to get ready. We have an entire whiteboard wall with a to-do list of all the things that have to happen.
I’ve seen pictures. It’s like something from the exorcist.
When people come over they get scared. Beer cans and energy drinks everywhere. Then there is this wall with equations and level design.
Caffeine and energy consumption must be at all time high.
Yes! To make up we eat healthy food like salads and workout. We’ve realized that we’re not going to make it long term stuck inside stressed out. You have to try and balance your life as a game developer or else you’re going to burn out before 30.
How old are you? Falco, you where complaining you’re not even in your mid 20’s and you haven’t achieved much.
Yeah, I’m 24. That’s the comment I made when I quit my job. I woke and realized I’m almost 25. My 20’s are almost over and I’m not where I wanted to be in my life. I was working a job all day, everyday for someone. It’s not my dream.
We would work all weekend from the minute we finished work on Friday until Monday morning. We had not slept on a Friday for months. Pouring our heart and sole into this game and doing the Adventures of Game Development.
On the weekends I felt so good and so alive. I felt I was doing something worth while with my life. But then you go back to work all week and its terrible. We’re these indie game dev rock stars trying to live the dream. Than you go back to work and you’re nobody. It got to me. I decided to quit and I’m going to do this full time. I have to admit it’s been rough. More work than I ever had to do for my job but I wake up every morning excited.
“When you work for someone else, you make their dreams come true.”
In the beginning of the year we decided we wanted to get serious with Elysian Shadows. This was going to be it. We wanted to get the game working. We already had decided we wanted to make a Kickstarter campaign.
That’s inspiring. Granted you had the courage execute on your dreams. Unfortunately the era of indie success is long dead. The majority of developers have to fund their own project. Investment or publishing deals are hard to come by.
That’s correct. We got some initial investment which helped. Now it comes down to the Kickstarter. If it doesn’t happen for us we will either have to live under a bridge and keep working on ES or we’ll have to get real jobs. We’ll see.
That’s why we’re so stressed. We’re working so hard because we want to show people what an exciting project it is.
You state Elysian Shadows as a “next-gen 2D role playing games”. Can you explain what these next-gen features are?
Elysian Shadows started as a standard Dreamcast old-school 2D RPG. Throughout the years we’ve added more features to push the genre. Features like rigid body physics engine. Now we can create realistic physics based puzzled in-game.
We wanted to take the graphics to the next level. We’ve integrated a full dynamic lighting engine. We have day and night casting realistic shadows by using global objects like that the sun. We have the same environment lighting techniques as the PS4. Characters can hold torches and flash lights that light environments.
We’re pushing the envelop of what 2D pixel art can do as a medium. I’m not familiar with games pushing graphics like Elysian Shadows. The same goes for our audio. We’re audio sampling old school effects from Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis games. The audio uses melodies and old school instruments. We’re also using modern choirs, and modern orchestra. We want to create elements of nostalgia and familiarity.
Was the audio engine developed by yourselves?
Yes its part of the engine.
I’m very interested on the game is casting dynamic lighting and shadows. Is the game running only 2D sprite orientation, or are 3D elements implemented?
That’s the question of the century for us. Games have been tile-based for 2D games. We’re still using sprites. What we opted to do with Elysian Shadows is cube maps instead of tile based. In cube based, each face of a cube render as individuals.
When you’re looking in 2D perspective, the other sides of the cube aren’t rendered. This looks the same as tile based rendering. Yet, when you switch to 3D, Elysian Shadows renders objects as a cube.
This is evident when switching between orthographic and perspective camera view.
That is exactly right. At first the dynamic lighting was per vertex, where we rendered the cube itself. But once reviewing, the lighting and dynamic shadows didn’t feel right. We wanted something mind blowing for the Kickstarter campaign.
Today we have pixel perfect dynamic shadows. We posted a picture of Facebook finally getting it to work.
That makes things look so much better than our old shadows. It’s pixel perfect casting shadows on the sprites and textures themselves.
Are you using bump mapping throughout the game?
The engine supports bump mapping. We’ve posted pictures with the whole level bump mapped.
But people’s reaction was that the game looks weird. We explained this was alpha stage and doesn’t determine how the final game will look.
It was easier for us to specular bump map the entire sheet at once. We hadn’t developed a way to bump map per tile yet. Today, our toolkit support flagging specific tiles. This generates bump maps and specular maps to key elements in a level. The entire environment doesn’t need to look shiny. You can add that level of detail to metallic and other object that need it.
What are the limitation when developing for Dreamcast? Does it allow features like dynamic lighting?
We are pushing the Dreamcast to its physical limit. We have checks in the code that will remove textures before the system crashes. With regards dynamic lighting, it does not have direct influence on gameplay. You can turn off all the lights and dynamic audio, you’re still going to have a good looking top-down pixel RPG. Did you know the Dreamcast was the first console to support normal mapping hardware? Combine the fact that a fixed function platform can do per vertex lighting. We’re confident we can make one of the best looking Dreamcast games.
The game is currently developed for PC, Mac, Linux, iOS, Ouya, Android. Do you think the Dreamcast is worth investing in?
When Tulio from WaterMelon Games came here, he gave us inside info on Pier Solar Kickstarter campaign. We where able to see the real potential in the Dreamcast. It convinced us there is serious income potential.
Dreamcast collectors are willing to pay between $50 to $100 for a physical copy of a new games. PC gamers are expecting digital downloads through Steam. The Dreamcast collectors are willing to pay much more.
So the Dreamcast sounds like a legitimate marketing financial medium.
We’re not only trying to make money but there’s a level of research you have to do. I want our fans to play our game, but it is going to cost to make special edition version of a disc.
I’m sure fans understand you have to make money to sustain development. The aim is not to live the lavish life. The dream and passion is to make games.
That’s exactly right.
Are there plans to develop for PS4 and Xbox One?
For sure. Our tools are very vague, allowing us to adapt on many platforms. One of our Kickstarter stretch goal includes Xbox One, Wii U and Playstation 4. The very next tear is mobile, including 3DS and PS Vita.
What was the most challenging technological hurdle in the last 7 years?
The physics engine for me as its written from the ground up.
Why didn’t you use Box2D?
It was like Box2D. It had oriented bounding boxes, complete rotational physics and moment of inertia. The change came when we decided to move the game into 3D. Today, our physics engine is till not full 3D. It derives between 2D and 3D, doing collision detection in 2.5D. The aim was to have the efficiency of a 2D physics engine, while the ability to run 3D objects.
Take for example, stacking barrels on top of one another. When you push the bottom barrel, you have to be able to push all the top barrels in a realistic manner. The challenge was to able to handle these scenarios in 3D space with a 2D physics engine. It almost destroyed me!
Is the physics engine complete?
Most of it.
Switching to Quality Assurance. Do you perform QA both internal and external?
Falco’s little brother is currently the only external tester we have.
For Kickstarter, it’s popular to have beta access to the game. While that’s not our style, we’re willing to do that if that’s what the gaming market and our audience want. This would allow a significant part of our fan-base to test early builds of the game.
Any inside information you could to anyone wanting to start a Kickstarter campaign?
We don’t recommend having a platform specific stretch goal. This approach would place priority on that development platform. This would instantiate that later stage platforms are worth more. That’s why we are combining Xbox One, PS4 and Wii U into a single stretch goal.
Beyond the platforms stretch goals, we try and get very ambitious.
A cloud based saving system. This would save to a network that uploads/downloads to any device you’re currently playing on.
It will be easy to move data. Taking a step back, the cloud-based system will also work with user created content. This would allow content created on one platform transferred to another. Imagine content created on the Ouya played on the Dreamcast. All this will be possible by hosted user created content.
To start off, user-generated content involves releasing our development tools and scripting API. Users can create their own content.
The stretch goal above user-generated Content is cloud hosting that content. So together with your saved files, you would include your levels. User-based content forms part of the cloud infrastructure. This is very ambitious and a statement to the gaming industry on our vision of next generation. You will able to share them with your friends and the open community.
We also would like to include Dreamcast peripherals for specific mini games. These include Maracas and the Fishing Controller.
How many stretch goals do you plan on having?
We don’t have a fixed amount of stretch goal, rather an incremental approach.
Another tier is the Motion Based Extras. These include the Kinect on Xbox 360, Wii remotes and accelerometer on the iPhone.
Our final stretch goal is a tier we don’t expect to hit, and it involves turning Elysian Shadows into an Massively multiplayer online game.
You would have a party of people you can go on an adventure with. You will able to do challenge modes and explore dungeons. This would include all the different platform to play together.
With the amount of stretch goals we have, we’re pushing the boundaries. Websites like Kotaku might question on what we promise.
How long would it take to develop the Elysian Shadows MMO?
I would say 6 to 12 months of development after we launch the single-player campaign.
Is there a release date set for Elysian Shadows?
How things stand today, December 2015.
Will the final game be available as a one-time purchase, or will you include in-app purchases?
No in-app purchases. The standard digital version approach.
What’s your take on developers focusing on the mobile free to play sector? Would you recommend developing for alternative platforms like Steam?
One might forget, but 10 years ago there was no indie game development. Steam and Xbox Live Arcade introduced the mainstream rise of indie games. Now is the best time in history to get into indie game development.
“Sony in particular has been indie game dev friendly”
It’s hard to compete with the big companies. You have to give your game something extra and unique. You have to show the passion that is missing in large companies.
Look at all the Call of Duty series. It’s feels like the same game with different textures. There’s very little innovation going on. You have to bring something new to the table. You have to have a deep interaction with the audience and fan base.
Microsoft also seem to be increasing momentum with independent development. They’ve recently released a trailer for Ori and the Bling Forest. This is the game I’m looking forward the most! Moon Studio has been working on the game for 4 years, and I’m sure something that started as a passion project. Like Elysian Shadows. Did you approach any large publishing companies?
No. They actually came to us.
When we spoke with Tulio from Watermelon Games, we knew who they where and their vision. So it felt like a great fit.
If a Kickstarter campaign generates huge interest, large companies take notice. They will either approach you or be willing to let you publish on their platform. The key point is to establish that people want your product.
What would you say generated the most interest on Elysian Shadows? YouTube and Adventures in Game Development?
Falco – We never started the series to generate following or even plan a long lasting series of episodes. In the very early days of Elysian Shadows, there was little following as the game was not as flashy as it is now. The Adventures in Game Development brought to light Elysian Shadows.
The YouTube series pushed us into the mainstream.
What would your recommendations for anyone wanting to start indie game development?
Tyler & Falco – Don’t give up!
Tyler – For veterans, don’t be afraid having to re-work fundamental parts of your project. Don’t be afraid of change to progress and evolve.
Falco – There are so many talented developers out there with many unfinished projects. Taking 7 years to finish a game is better than never finishing a game.
From the frequency of Kickstarter updates , one might think Elysian Shadows is dead. Even their Twitter account is rarely active.
Yet, lets be positive. Elysian Shadows Facebook page does include live stream updates showing the game’s progress. It does appear the best to stay up to date with the game is to subscribe to Adventures in Game Development. They also have an official website.