Project Haven: Developing a Sci-Fi Turn-Based RPG

Code Three Fifty One, the developers of Project Haven, have discussed the development process behind the game, talked about implementing game mechanics, and shared some advice regarding the marketing of the game.

Introduction Please introduce yourself. Where did you study? What companies have you worked for? What projects have you contributed to?

Hey! We are Sérgio Gil and Joana Dimas, a couple from Portugal with different but complementary work backgrounds.

Sérgio: I left college to pursue my dreams of working in the games industry back in 1999, on a game called Tactical Ops that launched way back in 2001. I then went on to work on several other titles throughout the 2000s, eventually joining the VFX company Video Copilot in 2009 as their Technical Director, where I had the chance to work on all sorts of titles.

Joana: I received my Ph.D. in Computer Science with a specialization in artificial agents, after finishing my Master's degree in Psychology. I’ve always wanted to expand my knowledge in this field, especially when it comes to improving how computer characters enhance a player’s experience. So, in this instance, that’s through a combination of cognitive science and game design; both of which are big passions of mine. 

Project Haven How and when did you start developing Project Haven? What inspired you to create the post-apocalyptic-style game?

Sérgio: Project Haven’s development began in 2015. The biggest inspirations for the game are genre classics such as Jagged Alliance 2, Silent Storm, and the original XCom series. Its development came about after a frustrating and failed attempt at playing JA2 using a co-op mod.  With us being a huge fan of the tactical genre and as we both like to play cooperatively, we decided Project Haven would become something we’d both enjoy making.

Joana: As for the setting, we’ve drawn pretty heavily from classic films such Johnny Mnemonic, Blade Runner, and other sci-fi staples. We really wanted to bring a gritty dystopian feel to the turn-based strategy genre. We’ve always loved movies and storytelling, and both of us have a huge appreciation of good cinematography. We always had a very strong vision of how we wanted to present our game’s story and setting. 

Art Style Please tell us about the game’s art style? How did you form it? How did you approach character design and create the game’s city?

Joana: Thanks! The art style really draws from movies that inspired us, as we wanted the game to be fairly grounded, not only in terms of its gameplay but also in its aesthetic. That said, we also wanted to have a little bit of sci-fi/cyberpunk flair throughout the game to allow us to tell our particular story. As for the city, it was important to us that players felt part of an oppressive, dystopian world, where characters are forced to deal with or accept challenging situations. With Project Haven and its city surrounded by a plasma shield, and with no means of escape for the player; this fits the sense of entrapment, and needing to face the impact this has.  Like many things in the game, the character and the city design process have been highly iterative. In terms of process, we build something, evaluate it, and eventually refine it until it reaches a level of quality we’re happy with. In Project Haven, we wanted our characters to be unique, not only with their personalities but also with how they look. Fundamentally, players should feel a connection to the characters they’re interacting with. 

Tech and Mechanics What tech do you use to develop the game? What tools help you bring your ideas to life?

Sérgio: We’re using Unreal Engine 4 for the game’s development, and it's been invaluable in bringing our ideas to life. As a tiny indie studio with big ambitions, it would be hard to justify spending huge amounts of resources on creating an engine from the ground up when we could spend that time actually building the game itself. For the art side, we use Blender as our DCC (Digital Content Creation) tool of choice. Blender has reached the point where its usability and feature set is great for game development. Lastly, we also use Substance 3D Painter, Designer, and Photoshop for the 2D art. Could you discuss gameplay mechanics? Why did you decide to choose RPG style?

Sérgio: With Project Haven, we wanted to return to what made classic titles so popular, but also include modern elements that players have come to expect. The game uses an AP system with highly controllable characters, something that hasn’t really been done since those aforementioned classics, but we’ve also included unique features like third-person aiming and a gridless design. The RPG elements in the game are also a great fit because as the player progresses through the storyline, the characters improve with new skills and abilities. It gives the player another tool to play the game in their own way, with the freedom to adjust their strategies as the game progresses.

Animation Please also discuss animating characters and the world. How did you work on different animations and make the world come to life?

Sérgio: Animation is an interesting subject for us because we’re not animators, but we knew we wanted to make the game feel fluid, with strong cinematics. This led us to motion capture, and while that’s notoriously expensive and time-consuming, we actually improvised pretty heavily here. We ended up using an HTC Vive tracker-based mocap setup in our studio, and while it requires a fair amount of cleanup compared to a typical optical system, it was great for us. Please describe how did you work and what tools did you use to create bright explosions in your game?

Sérgio: Working with a VFX company like Video Copilot actually gave us a bit of a leg up on this one. Knowing what makes a great explosion is something VC is definitely known for!

With all the marketplaces available now, developers are fortunate enough to have access to great-looking explosion and fire elements. From there, it’s simply a matter of bringing it together in the in-engine particle system (Cascade and Niagara in our case), with a sprinkling of some proper camera settings to really add those finishing touches.

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Business Side of Things It’d be also great if you could share some details on the business side of things. How did you promote the game? How do you work with the community? What are the biggest challenges?

Joana: Marketing a game is probably 50% of making an indie game, and it’s definitely the biggest challenge we face and any indie studio faces. We try to attend as many events as we can, and we have a fairly active social media presence. Discord is our main platform for engaging with our community, where we can consistently communicate with our player base. We also have fairly regular playtests as we want to gauge their feedback and gain input on how the game is progressing. A lot of good ideas for the game came from discussions we’ve had with our community. It’s an invaluable tool. As for challenges, with hundreds of games being released every month, it’s very important to try and get the game out there in front of people. That’s our biggest challenge for sure. It takes a lot of time to keep up the constant marketing, being a small team with limited resources it takes quite some time away from development, but it’s something that’s paramount to the success of the game.

Conclusion As a small studio of just two, how have you found the development process? Has it been all-consuming, or is there something particularly enjoyable about working together in such a personal environment?

Sérgio: It’s definitely been a long process and a lot of learning. We both enjoy making games though, so it’s definitely been enjoyable most of the time, particularly when receiving feedback from players, it’s very rewarding.

Joana: It's been a challenge, that's for sure, but being such a small team also forces us to do a little bit of everything and deepen our knowledge and learn new areas that are needed for the game. I always enjoyed a great variety of areas and being able to work on several different things throughout the game's development makes everything more motivating and exciting. Has it taken you by surprise at how popular Project Haven is, and how much demand there has been?

Joana: Project Haven started as a small project that we would both like to play. So when we put it on Steam Greenlight to gather people's interest in the game, I was really surprised to see that it was accepted so quickly and successfully. Since then, we’ve been steadily growing our community, but it was only after 2020's Gamescom that we saw people talking about it across social media or producing videos and streams. I think that’s when it finally sunk in: we were doing something more than just a game that we both liked to play.

Sérgio: When we started developing the game, we only knew of a small subset of gamers that could be interested in this particular type of game – the classic TBS (Turn-Based Strategy) fans. So reaching such a large audience has been a humbling experience. For anyone thinking of starting out in game development or the industry, and knowing what you know now, what would be your best advice?

Sérgio: I’d say to someone trying to get into game development, to keep things small. Game Jams are a great way to not only hone your skills, but to also meet new people, and most importantly, it forces you to finish an idea. It’s very common for people to keep starting new projects because they thought of something better or they’ve learned enough that they feel like it’s better to just start over. However, if you never finish an idea, you’re never learning how to finish a game, just how to start one, and I can tell you from experience that finishing a game is definitely the hardest part!

Joana: Especially if you are starting out as an indie dev, I would also like to add that you must be willing to learn a lot, and for that, you’ll need to leave your comfort zone and you’ll make mistakes. So try not to let these things be a frustration to you, and instead see them as a process that is part of the learning and development process.

You can wishlist the game on Steam. Also, you may follow the team on Twitter, Youtube, Reddit, Facebook, and Instagram.

Sérgio Gil and Joana Dimas, the Founders of Code Three Fifty One

Interview conducted by Kseniya Serebrennikova

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