Nikita Sozidar told us about his solo game development journey, work with Unreal Engine, VOIN's Albert Bierstadt-inspired world, and fast-paced combat system.
Hi, my name is Nikita. My gamedev journey started with Heroes of Might & Magic IV when I noticed a file inside the game’s folder with an intriguing name “map editor”. My then eight-year-old brain only figured out how to place buildings on a flat level, but it was enough to blow me away since I realized that you can create games and not only play them.
Sometime later my older brother got a Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne CD, and it also had an editor where I spent the next 12 years creating custom scenarios, with the majority of them being single-player RPGs.
Eventually, Skyrim was released and it instantly became my all-time favorite because of its roleplaying freedom, so I dipped my toes into its modding as well, but I was mostly just enjoying assembling my dream mod lists instead of creating my own mods, although I still ended up releasing a few.
This whole modding adventure was well and running up until the end of 2017 when I was suddenly struck with the idea of creating games professionally. So I started making my own thing.
It may seem that years and years of mod-making and doing everything myself gave me enough skill and knowledge to develop a game on my own. However, as I quickly found out, it was not entirely true, probably due to the fact that I treated mod-making as a hobby and had no real intent of acquiring specific skills. So, I became a jack of all trades who knew a little programming and a bit of 2D and 3D art, with game design relying on personal preference and intuition.
Therefore, I started by learning Game Maker Studio 2 because it seemed like a good idea to begin with something small and simple to gain an understanding of the entire game development cycle from start to finish. After two years of developing countless, underwhelming prototypes, I abandoned the hope of creating a small project because I couldn't force myself into a reasonable approach. I went all in with Unreal Engine with the goal of creating my own big game.
A project I ended up abandoning
When it comes to skills, aside from hard skills that are essential in solo game development, such as programming and art, there's one incredibly powerful blessing in disguise called creative constraints. When you handle every aspect of game development on your own and you refuse to compromise on the final quality and polish of your game, you often find yourself needing to cut corners in various areas, including graphics, visual fidelity, the number of features, and the amount of content. However, this necessity forces innovation. You're constantly searching for simpler solutions to complex tasks.
For example, in VOIN, I set the goal of creating vast, open environments. But creating a world the size of Skyrim's would take an eternity. Instead, I opted for a smaller world and gradually transformed it throughout the story by adding new elements, unveiling previously locked areas, and giving new meaning to existing ones. This approach makes the world feel alive while still preserving the sense of exploration and discovery. The final square kilometer count may not top the charts of game world sizes, but this way, I can focus on making the game world more detailed, engaging, and memorable.
Before settling on Unreal Engine, I conducted some research and discovered that the engine is primarily designed for single-character open-world games, with numerous tools to support this, such as the player movement controller that handles all movement types (walking, jumping, AI navigation, and avoidance, etc.), as well as World Partition (formerly World Composition) that manages distance-based level streaming, among many other features. So, the choice of engine was clear to me.
Although the engine initially felt a bit intimidating, as is often the case with powerful tools, that feeling quickly dissipated, thanks to the engine’s user experience (UX) design. I never encountered anything I didn’t need, and when I was looking for something, it was just a few clicks away. So, gradually but steadily, I started learning about fundamental features like blueprints, the material editor, landscaping, lighting, and more.
One specific course that greatly aided me in this journey was a course from Unreal Engine Evangelist Christopher Murphy titled "How to Develop Your First Two Games." It helped me become familiar with the engine’s essential concepts. After that, I relied on specific YouTube tutorials and documentation. While the course may be somewhat outdated now, given that it was three years ago, I still recommend starting with a similar comprehensive course, even if you have experience with other complex tools. Starting prototyping early is also a key piece of advice. This way, your newly acquired knowledge will truly solidify. In essence, learn, and then apply what you've learned.
I'd say there isn't a specific source of inspiration, as I've always enjoyed playing all single-player RPGs I could find and pondering about what could have been improved or done differently. Initially, VOIN was merely a melee combat prototype. I aimed to blend first-person melee combat with the dodge mechanic from Hyper Light Drifter, where players can evade enemy attacks without any limiting factors like stamina. This results in combat relying mainly on the player's reaction time rather than the character's power.
Since then, VOIN has remained primarily a playground for my genre experiments, drawing inspiration from various games like Diablo, Borderlands, Witchfire, Doom, Prodeus, and Elden Ring. It's quite a diverse mix, but the ultimate objective is to create a captivating first-person action RPG with a sense of exploration and engaging character progression.
When it comes to VOIN's world, I'd like to share a particular source of inspiration that stands out: Albert Bierstadt's paintings. Even though visually, VOIN doesn't closely resemble any of these paintings, I admire the extraordinary sense of scale and the expansiveness and monumentality of their landscapes. It's as if we're offered a glimpse into the heavens. This is the feeling I aim to convey to the player who will explore the game's world.
From a technical perspective, I exclusively used tools native to Unreal Engine. I did experiment with QuadSpinner Gaea for landscape heightmap generation, but I found it had a somewhat steep learning curve if you wanted to create natural landscapes. Additionally, it was challenging to artistically control the final result. Consequently, I adopted a slightly different approach. I began by blocking out the landscape and its prominent features, such as mountains and bodies of water, using a few simple meshes that I specifically modeled for this purpose. I then proceeded to work on smaller details like cliffs, lakes, rivers, and so on.
To add finer environmental details, I turned to Unreal Engine's marketplace and my own skills to make purchased asset packs more unique by modifying textures and using modular meshes when constructing larger structures. This workflow is reminiscent of my experiences in mod-making, where you are constrained to working with existing assets, which naturally sparks creativity. It avoids the initial process of blocking out meshes with gray boxes and then investing an exorbitant amount of time in modeling them. The obvious drawback is that some players may recognize the assets, but as a solo developer with ambitious goals and limited resources, it's essentially the only viable approach.
The art style is a compromise between a visually appealing game and one that runs smoothly. Knowing from the outset that I wanted to create expansive open environments, I was very aware that optimizing it might be a significant challenge. Therefore, I aimed to provide myself with a buffer and explore the concept of 'retro modern graphics.' In this style, you use low-resolution textures and low-poly meshes but incorporate some modern elements like dynamic lighting, volumetric fog and clouds, high-fidelity animations, etc. This approach was chosen to avoid ending up with a game that simply looks like 'just another boomer-shooter.'
The pixelization is a continuation of this idea, and it also greatly enhances rendering performance since the game is essentially rendered at a significantly lower resolution. Additionally, I utilize a post-process posterization shader, which limits the final number of colors rendered.
The game is a fusion of action RPG and hack-and-slash genres, featuring randomized loot, open-world-like levels, and a hint of roguelite elements.
My objective for the combat system was to craft a visceral, fast-paced melee combat experience in which players primarily rely on their reactions rather than their character's power while still incorporating RPG elements, attributes, and abilities, akin to games like Diablo or Torchlight. Additionally, I aimed to ensure that active abilities wouldn't wrest control away from the player's character when cast. As a result, every ability can be used while moving, aiming, or dodging, contributing to the combat's responsiveness and fluidity.
With the sword sheathed, players gain access to multiple traversal mechanics such as jumping, double jumping, mid-air dashing, and the Super Dash, a long forward dash. These mechanics provide complete freedom of exploration, enabling players to reach virtually any location or height with mastery through practice and experimentation.
You begin in a hub area, from which you can select which part of the world you wish to explore. Upon making your choice, you will enter a large 'open world'-like level. Each time you enter it, your experience will vary depending on the quests you undertake and the enemies you encounter. Additionally, certain parts of the level may not be accessible from the outset, necessitating further progression in the game to unlock them.
Once you achieve your objective, you can return to the hub. There, you will have the opportunity to utilize the resources acquired from monsters and chests to level up and acquire new abilities. You will also be able to cleanse any tainted loot you've discovered, making it usable. However, there's one catch: if you perish while exploring the world, you will drop your equipment and the experience resources accumulated during the run. I might consider adding a way to recover them in the future.
When it comes to promotion, I believe nothing can be more effective and authentic than the game itself. Therefore, I rely on social media platforms that allow the sharing of videos and GIFs. There's certainly a spectacular aspect involved when I consider certain features, such as monsters exploding with loot upon defeat or players summoning a lightning strike upon landing from great heights, instead of simply taking fall damage. These elements not only enhance the gameplay experience but also have the potential to generate excitement when showcased to others.
At present, I'm not heavily engaged with the community because I'm aiming to release a playable demo. If this leads to an influx of new players, I'll establish a Discord server and increase my interaction with the community. For now, I primarily focus on sharing video content on platforms like Twitter and Reddit. This approach effectively attracts attention without excessively consuming development time.
I'm still deliberating on whether the game should be launched in early access. There's a concern that it might convey an impression of an incomplete or buggy game, potentially deterring prospective players, which is less than ideal for a brand-new title. The final decision will be made based on the game's status closer to its release.
My next step involves planning to release a playable demo next year, and to achieve that, I need to incorporate a considerable amount of content: items, abilities, enemy types, bosses, and a few story quests. However, I'll exercise caution when discussing the content and features that will follow to avoid making overblown promises. The game remains in active development, and I'm certain that many things will evolve before its release. Nonetheless, I'm wholeheartedly dedicated to delivering a unique and enjoyable experience for players.
For updates on the development process, you can follow me on Twitter, where I regularly share content similar to what you've seen above. I'm also planning to commence work on devlogs soon, sharing the story of my six-year journey in game development with fellow developers.
I want to express my gratitude for recognizing my creations and for sharing your valuable time with me!