Building an Indie Adventure with Houdini
Lune, the owner and the lead developer at Feline Arts, shared the details behind the development of Suki and the Shadow Klaw: pipeline, character and asset workflows VFX, camera work, and more.
First of all, thank you for having me! As an artist and game developer, I find 80 Level one of my preferred sites to keep track of the 3D art field and a source of inspiration thanks to all the great artists who have shared their knowledge here.
My name is Lune, I am an indie developer and the owner of Feline Arts. To keep the introduction short, I’ll just say that SNES and N64 were my favorite consoles, and since the moment I held an NES controller back at the 90’s I knew I wanted to make games when I grow up. When my university time arrived, game dev schools were not available around me and moving to another country was not possible. I have two incomplete degrees, one in Architecture (which is handy when it comes to level design) and in 3D film animation. There was one day when we had to write a script for a short film, and all of my ideas were quite good but they rather suited games, not a film. At that moment, I decided to stop university and start the dream of becoming an indie game developer. As a side note, I totally do not recommend anyone reading this to do what I did. If you, the person reading this, are still at school, finish it and only then start the game of your dreams.
Suki and the Shadow Klaw: Start of Development
At the start, Suki and the Shadow Klaw was just a “maze mobile game” and a test before jumping to big projects. I made around 50 levels in 8 months, then OUYA came out, I moved the game to that platform and that is where most of the adventure aspects of the game really took shape. When the development of the game was 70% through, OUYA went out of business and I decided to move the game to the big consoles. This was when I actually attended my first GDC. Sony was the first platform in accepting Suki & the Shadow Klaw, but there was one request from them – to update the graphics. As it was my first time at GDC and in a foreign country, I thought they were asking for something like, I don’t know, Spyro Remaster (which didn’t exist back then). Basically, that led me to study tools like ZBrush, Substance Painter and Designer, Houdini and other awesome tools.
As for the game direction, at the moment, the idea is to make Suki & the Shadow Klaw feel like a remastered Nintendo 64 game. I love that particular console generation: mechanics still felt a bit like SNES, graphics were simple and gave room for imagination, games had cute characters and colorful graphics but that did not mean they were easy. Things like that are some of the core development values in Suki & the Shadow Klaw. And of course, some inspiration came from other indie developers like Edmund McMillen, the creator of Super Meat Boy and Dean Dodrill, the developer of Dust: An Elysian Tail. Many awesome indie games like Shovel Knight, Cave Story, Monster Boy, Ori and the Blind Forest, Hollow Knight and others also inspire me!
The size of our team is in fact very small. There are 3 team members out of which I am the only developer – this means I’m responsible for the art, game and level design, code and pretty much every other development aspect of the game. Andrew Wrangell is a talented composer and SFX artist, he is responsible for everything you will hear in the game (he also runs Sheet Music Boss youtube channelwith 1 million subscribers). And J.F.R. Coates is an awesome writer with over 4 published books who is responsible for the dialogues and story for the game. Jay really helped to give shape to the story. When you are working on a project like this on your own, support from your family and close friends really helps a lot to maintain your motivation every day.
During the research and development stage for the last iteration of the game, a friend pushed me to play Heroes of the Storm which eventually became a game I love. When I saw the art of Heroes of the Storm I began to research it and found this awesome ArtStation portfolio by Michael Vicente – Orb. I studied his works for some time, and while you are never able to replicate an artist’s work fully, his style really guided me to achieve the look and feel for Suki.
The asset production pipeline might be a bit different depending on the asset, but it almost always follows the next steps. First, I draw a rough concept for an area, object or character, sometimes this also includes finding a reference track to set the mood and keep everyone on the same page. If the object is simple, I start with a UV mapped low poly mesh which is then sent to ZBrush to create the high poly version of the model. This will be used to extract the base maps for Substance Painter. For some non-important objects, I have a set of smart materials that does a big percentage of the base work, and I only need to do a few tweaks. If the model is important, for example, if it’s a character or an enemy, then I manually paint them in 3D Coat. Manual painting takes way to much time, but the result is worth it. I wish I was able to do this with every model but sometimes the time I have does not allow for such freedom. Then every model is tested in Unity to make sure it feels right before giving it the final treatment (this may vary depending on the function the asset will have). If the asset is a character or an object that requires rigging, I set it up in Akeytsu, and if the asset requires variations (like a bridge, a fence, a wood structure or a wood wall), I send it to Houdini to create an HDA (Houdini Digital Asset). HDA can be imported into Unity with Houdini Engine plugin while keeping all of its procedural properties and behavior – around 80% of the levels are done using Houdini Engine and HDAs. Houdini became a core tool used in the environments of the game and main VFX, you can check my workflow here.
Every main character is given the same treatment: first, concepts are drawn until they feel right to me. Unlike other models that went from the low poly versions to retopology to texturing in 3D Coat to rigging in Akeytsu, the characters started directly in ZBrush making sure the details look right. The time spent on the characters is considerably different: sometimes, I can make two environment assets from start to finish in one day, while a character may take an entire week excluding the concept. This might be a lot of work for one person but I really enjoy the process.
Shaders & Camera Work
For the shaders, I use an awesome set of shaders Toony Colors Pro 2 by Jean Moreno. There is no need in reinventing the wheel, Jean already did an awesome work and shared it. Sometimes, I just modify the shaders to match the exact look I am looking for but in this case, most or all of the credit for the shaders should be given to Jean.
A very important aspect of the game and one of the things developed first is that the scenes are being specially made to work from the game camera perspective. Sometimes, the scene makes no sense in Unity’s scene view, but it looks perfect in the game camera. For this purpose, I built a tool that allows previewing every part of a scene the way it will look in the game. At first, it was a bit frustrating because it felt like cheating, however, I took some notes from The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and accepted the fact that developers do cheat with the scene view sometimes for a better look in the game camera. The camera angle is fixed and always controlled by the game, and for every in-game area, I evaluate which camera angle is most functional and artistic. The whole game is transmitted to the player by the camera, and this is something that requires proper care (also, this is when my half-degree in 3D film animation became handy).
VFX has a different approach depending on the situation the effects are used in. Most of them are regular Unity particle systems, but when the VFX plays a central role in a cut-scene, then Houdini is used, specifically in destructions (even the real-time ones). The objects in the cut-scenes are using the same exact HDA used in the game levels with Houdini Engine. This allows to keep the same look and feel in the game and cut-scenes. I can also place an HDA in Unity, copy the settings and replicate that HDA in Houdini which will be used for a simulation. This approach not only saves an incredible amount of time but also keeps the art style standardized. After the simulation in Houdini is done, I transfer the motion coordinates of each piece to bones which is something FBX and Unity understand and can use along with Unity Cinemachine and Timeline. Being able to export and use baked Houdini simulations in real-time really helps to give the game that extra touch of believability. It makes the player feel like every object has its own physics properties.