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Making family matter in Children of Morta

August 5, 2019 | By Bryant Francis

A few years ago, developer Dead Mage made waves with the Kickstarter for Children of Morta, a pixel art action RPG that gives players control of a monster-hunting family who fight through randomly generated dungeons. 

Since then, the game's been picked up for publishing by 11 Bit Studios, who also published Moonlighter alongside in-house creations like This War of Mine and Frostpunk. The game's due out this September, but this summer Dead Mage released a pre-launch beta to get early feedback on the game's systems and begin spooling up their launch marketing campaign. 

During that beta, Amir Fassihi dropped by the GDC Twitch channel to discuss the game's thematic design and sometimes challenging development. In case other developers are working on pixel-heavy thematic action games, we've grabbed a few particularly useful insights from Fassihi's chat that might help you out. 

Making family matter thematically in game design

A family will overcome challenges by staying together, by loving each other. That’s a theme throughout Children of Morta So in order for the game to support this, we were always thinking that "well what happens if a gamer only selects one of these characters and never selects another?"

So there are some incentives in the game. For example, some things might happen after some event, some characters are going to have additional boosts. So that’s one incentive of using that character. So you can kind of mix different characters in the game.

At some point in the game when you have new characters they will enter a location which is corrupted, there is dark corruption. Dark corruption is going to give them fatigue. So if you only use one character throughout the game that character is going to get fatigued and after awhile you cannot use the character.

Or if you use it the character will have low health. So that’s another factor that would require the gamers to balance and use a few characters and not stick to only one character. And there are family traits.

So there are certain things— when you play as one character the character is not necessarily going to upgrade himself or herself. Family traits or things that are linked between family members, so one character can unlock a feature or other members, so they— so it’s not like if you don’t use a character they’re going to remain very weak, and you don’t have any motivation to use it anymore.

The family traits are sort of interlinking all characters together as a family. 

Local co-op multiplayer was something that we planned for since Kickstarter. But online multiplayer was something that we added after while. You sometimes will see characters during dungeons...and they will help you for some time.

So there’s AI character helping you also, whether you play co-op or single-player. Because the idea is that when you go to the dungeon, other family members will go to the dungeon also. You might meet them in-between. They might have quests for you, they might need help from you.  

Or there might be some areas that you have to clear together, helping one another. Those are the events where you will see the family members inside the game. And it was very important for us because two things are important in the narrative of the game.

One is the main arc of the game, the corruption that has come to their lands and the main goal that they have. But then more important is that is the story that happens with the family members. Its a story about the family. 

So in order for us to strengthen the family aspect of the story, we have a lot of things happening in the house but then we have a lot of things happening in the dungeons also. Maybe you spend 25 minutes in the dungeons and 2 minutes in the house.

We didn’t want the family narrative to fade away while you were in the dungeon, so that’s when you see other family members inside the dungeons and decide on things and maybe continue on. 

There are people who are interested— we have different characters and every character has its own play style. You can play with John, the father, he’s a melee character with a shield and a big sword. And then we have other characters that you will unlock. What’s interesting for us is that different people believe that there is a favorite and overpowered character.

So there are a lot of people that say Linda is overpowered for sure. She’s the easiest to play with. And then there are a lot of others that say John, the father, is the overpowered of course, and he’s the easiest to play with. 

There’s a balance between everyone and when we got the data from the analytics we saw that the distribution of using the characters is exactly the same. At that time I think we had 3 characters and it was like 33%, 33, 33…this is interesting and it’s definitely something subjective.

It depends on people’s preferences and playstyles. And it's interesting— it’s still interesting for us. It’s a challenge for balancing because a lot of times we think that ‘oh, maybe this character is not balanced, maybe we have to change the balance on this character, maybe we have to change something.’

But then we get more results from playtesting and say ‘oh maybe it’s OK after all. Maybe it was just someone’s taste or the way they are used to playing.’ 

The challenges of a beautiful pixel aesthetic

[This] was our assumption when we started Children of Morta. We thought ‘OK the team is small, pixel art is going to be much easier let’s do pixel art.’ But it has been proven to need a lot of work.

Maybe because in our case—there are many pixel art games that have limited animations. But in our case, our artists like to add a lot of details to the animations—this is combat, but we have a lot of…we have more than an hour of cutscenes in the game if you add everything together. 

So there are a lot of specific animations for these characters all hand-drawn, all drawn frame by frame, pixel by pixel…with only two artists. So it has been a big task for us and when you’re doing 2D and pixel art customizing characters becomes a big challenge.

In 3D games you can easily attach objects, but in 2D you have to redraw everything, repaint everything. Adding new characters is a challenge because as you can see, the character— even just characters walking, you have to animate all directions. 

Technically, how this is possible, well a lot of technical things are happening. Specifically, we have to do a lot of optimization, we’re using a lot of sprite sheets atlases for all the textures and everything. 

We’ve had a lot of memory issues and a lot happened when we wanted to port the game to the Nintendo Switch, because it’s a weaker platform compared to PS4, most PCs and Xbox. So over there we had to do a lot of optimization make sure everything is packed, make sure all these assets that are required in a specific region are loaded together and unloaded when not necessary. 

In procedural it’s not very easy to know WHAT is going to be loaded because once your levels are pre-designed everything is there. You know what’s going to be loaded. But in procedural dungeons, depending on what the algorithm decides to put in there, you have to [call] those assets and kind of load them in there.

So these have been challenges for this. A lot of frames are used for the animations, so those are all going to be a lot of sprites. Those are all going to require a lot of memory. A lot of management. We even had a lot of challenges using Unity itself because Unity was—if your project is small and you have some assets in there, everything is good.

But once you have a lot of assets, working with Unity becomes a challenge also, and in [an article on the Unity Blog], Jakobsen Locke has written about all the tools he had to write on top of Unity to manage the assets while the artist and game designers are actually trying to make the game. 

That was another challenge we fell into. We didn’t know what was going to be ahead of us when we started the project but at some point in the project, our game designers wanted to just save a level but found that Unity needed at least half an hour to unpack and repack and prepare everything. 

We had to do a lot of engineering there. So that’s engineering that doesn’t go into the game it’s used for the game development process. I’m sure all game developers know that those are like the hidden things of game development. The hidden challenges or energy you have to make all the tools you need and streamline your process.

They don’t necessarily show up in the final product, but they are very very important and some of them have been very important because iteration time is big for game development, right? The shorter you can have your iteration time for changing and seeing the result, the better.

There were points in the project where we literally had to wait for 30 minutes or more sometimes in order to see the changes…that was really a challenge. But luckily we had put a lot of solutions are OK right now. 

Grappling with crunch while making a game remotely

Work-life balance…that’s a big topic and something that we haven’t been good at, unfortunately. Our lives are very dedicated to this game, a lot of times you know we have had a few launch dates already, we thought the game would be finished at this date, and then we had plans for early access on steam, and then we had a deal with 11 Bit, they said ‘ok let’s not do early access let’s do a full access, a full release.’

And then we added new platforms, multiplayer…so our deadlines for actual game launch got extended quite a few times and this can be a challenge for the team because you want to plan your life and then you say ‘OK, I’m gonna spend a lot of energy for the next 3 months, and then the game will be released. Maybe I’m gonna have time for whatever I want to do. The books I want to read, or the vacation that I want, or whatever.’

But then 3 months come, and then for some reason, we have extended the plan and we’re adding the new platform, so we have to work for another 4 months. This has happened quite a few times and it has been tough. I have to admit, it has been tough on the development team.

Luckily the only thing that we have is that everyone on the team, which we have a small team of around 12 core people working on the team, everyone is really passionate about the project. About the game. They are doing their best to make sure everything is delivered as best as possible. 

Doing design the game, working on tech…short answer, it has been very tough to balance work-life but that’s a topic we think about a lot, I try to talk to our guys a lot. It’s important because games are long projects and specifically after launch…maybe 15, 20 years ago you would launch a game and say ‘OK I’m going to vacation’, right?

But these days you launch the game, it’s almost day one you have to think about updates, DLC, free DLC, adding features, getting community feedback…we know that we have to be fresh. That’s what we’ve been trying to do.

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