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“Over my career, I’ve learned that ‘fair’ has nothing to do with it.”
Mitch Gitelman is no stranger to the capricious, sometimes brutal whims of the video game industry. With almost two decades of experience, he’s shepherded projects to wild success and devastating failure, and learned how to roll with some of the industry’s hardest punches.
So when his studio Harebrained Schemes, co-founded with another gaming luminary, Jordan Weisman, launched their latest project, the multiplayer roguelike Necropolis, to an underwhelming critical response, he wasn’t caught completely off-guard.
“Nobody cares how hard you worked or how much passion you put into your game," he says. "They don’t care that it’s a departure from anything your studio has done before. All they see is the delta between what they expected and what you delivered. So it doesn’t matter what we think or how we feel about the reception. All that matters is listening and then taking action to deliver the very best game you can and entertain people.”
Any creative endeavor is fraught with risk, but few represent a gamble with stakes as high as an indie studio launching a brand new, unlicensed IP. For a studio like Harebrained, the failure of a new IP could mean not only months or years of effort wasted and crushing personal and artistic rejection, but the real potential for financial ruin.
But those risks are mitigated somewhat by another unique dimension of the video game business. Unlike the creative output of authors or filmmakers or musicians, the modern game developer is uniquely positioned to respond on-the-fly to critical and consumer input, to go back into their creations and tinker with the guts of them, even completely reshape them. Sometimes that process begins as soon as you kick a game out the door.
“Usually after you ship a game, the team gets some well-deserved rest, but not this time,” says Necropolis producer Chris Klimecky. “The next day we were hard at work on our improvement plan while simultaneously pushing to get the game certified for console release. Our first update, including our roadmap for improving the game, went up on Steam the following week, and we’ve been pushing hard since then.”
But supporting a game after release is also an expensive, resource-intensive process. With all these disincentives, launching a brand new franchise starts to look like a daunting task, but the allure of a fully owned property is strong.
“We were working on the Shadowrun series and the BATTLETECH license, but we wanted to expand and develop our own IP to add to Golem Arcana and the others we’d developed for mobile,” says Gitelman. “Jordan and I asked our studio leadership to pitch us some new game ideas.”
Jordan Weisman, one of the minds behind legendary game properties like Shadowrun and MechWarrior, says he wanted something distinctive that Harebrained could stamp with their unique brand of design. “The prompt was very straightforward -- the game had to be in an original setting we could own and it had to stand out in the marketplace. The pitches were all great, but Necropolis’ mashup of two great game genres and the focus on 3D action added up to an experience wholly different than anything we’d attempted before.”
That core concept also immediately appealed to Gitelman’s aesthetic sensibilities. “The challenge, combined with the departure from the “safety” of our licensed games, appealed to our sense of ‘Harebrained.’ We greenlit it for prototype right then and there.”
It was quickly apparent that the central mechanic would be combat, with a heavy focus on animation priority and interrupts. The team focused on dissecting every frame of every animation to perfect the feel and timing of each attack across a broad range of weapons. Lead animator Doug Magruder readily points to one of Necropolis’ most obvious influences.
“Combat was straight-up inspired by Dark Souls, and I would say that it was one of the most iterative things I’ve worked on in my career," he says. "The timing of each swing of the player’s weapons were scrutinized to an intense degree, and the timing was what we focused on getting in the game as fast as possible.
"Once we had what we felt was good timing for a particular weapon set, we would focus on an enemy combatant and it would go through the same level of scrutiny. It was a constant process of moving frames and exit events and adjusting timing to get something that felt right and worked well.”
Because attack animations would be shared between both the player and the enemies and because of the breadth of weapons available, it was important to to create an Animation Controller (a state machine in Unity that triggers and links animations) that was generic and flexible.
“Since there are a lot of different weapons that have their own suite of animations, we needed to dynamically load movesets at runtime rather than being able to bake everything into a single controller,” says Gordon Lee, Necropolis’ chief gameplay engineer. “One of the problems to solve was figuring out what animations connected to other animations but we used a combination of programmatic interruptions that happen through gameplay and natural animation blends.
"A lot of work was also done to animation events to fire at certain frames of animation, like when a weapon hitbox is active/inactive, or when special game effects trigger. Also callbacks that ran when certain types of animations began and ended were important to keeping control, especially when animations were interrupted. In order to know how much damage or stamina a particular animation might do, we had to separate that data into our own type of action data and connect that with the animation. In this way, we can also create many different types of combos of animation strings and provide information to AI about what actions they can do and in what ranges to their target.”
All of this painstakingly designed animation tech would be for naught without a carefully considered, sympathetic art style. Co-art director Chris Rogers tells us that style changed and evolved as the project developed.
“When we first started to explore visual development for Necropolis, we weren’t envisioning such a heavily stylized game,” Rogers says. “The conceptual approach at that time was much more based on trying to find certain fantasy tropes and riff on them in an interesting way. So there was a lot more texture, a lot more fidelity in some of the early concept art.”
Because Harebrained is a small team with constrained resources, however, it quickly became clear that a high fidelity, elaborate art style wouldn’t be possible in a game that would require so much character and environmental art and diversity. “So we went back to the drawing board, and instead of asking, ‘What can we add to make this interesting?’ we started asking, “What can we take away to make this interesting?’”
In response Rogers’ partner, co-art director Mike McCain, started plumbing some unconventional sources for inspiration. “We started looking at not only some of the more dramatically stylized games that have come before - Journey and Wind Waker, among others - but also at the world of graphic design. That kind of subtractive thought-process is much more prevalent there. There’s a trend in graphic design over the last few years towards very simple, stylized low-poly pieces, where simple shapes meet rich lighting and rendering. We saw that approach being used mostly for very cheery, cutesy stuff, but soon realized that a dark and inverted version of that could be really effective for the tone of Necropolis.”
With this new direction, the art team focused on carefully selecting what elements were added and highlighted. “Chris and I refer to what we arrived at as a ‘minimalist art style,’” McCain says. “It’s not necessarily ‘low poly’ or angular per-se. Rather, the polygons and angles we do include are carefully chosen to try to include ‘just enough’ information to communicate the idea or tone of a given character or environment.”
After months of head-down design, implementation, and hard work, initial impressions seemed positive. Designer Connor Monahan talks about the team’s optimism after some early showings.
“We were encouraged by the feedback we were getting before the game launched. We’d shown the game to very enthusiastic crowds at multiple PAX conventions. A few dozen members of the press had also played it and gave us generally positive feedback. Just before launch, we held a 12 hour live co-op event for a large group of well-known streamers and they came away with only positive things to say. So heading into release, we were feeling pretty good about it. Cautious as always, but good.”
It came as a bracing surprise then when the game launched to generally lukewarm reviews. Necropolis is currently hovering around 61 on Metacritic with 32 reviews, with a number of critics pointing to a lack of variety and repetitive environments and gameplay bogging down a game with real potential. For Monahan, it was both surprising and deflating.
“When the reviews came out saying the opposite of what we’d been hearing for months, it was kinda like whiplash mixed with a gut-punch," Monahan says. "The immediate human reaction is to say, ‘Well that’s not fair,’ or ‘That isn’t right.’”
But instead of wallowing, Harebrained immediately mobilized to right the ship. “After the initial shock ended, Mitch got the studio together, acknowledged the feedback, itemized specific changes that were needed, and focused us on a roadmap for immediately improving the game.”
Massive changes were called for, and the work of addressing them started right away. “The plan we developed had to cover everything spanning all aspects of the product, including game balance, loot economy, environment variety, and even AI behaviors," says Monahan. "From everything we were reading, it was clear that the criticism wasn’t coming from a place of spite, but rather a genuine hope of a better game. So we put our heads down and started making the changes to deliver on that.”
While the team isn’t interested in glossing over a bumpy launch, they’re focusing on the future, including a full slate of content updates and console editions. Necropolis: The Brutal Edition, released on the 6th, takes all the content expansions and game improvements we’ve made to-date, adds even more, and then tosses in a new player character (The Brute) plus an all new outdoor winter environment called the Black Forest. That’s the version we’ll release on Playstation 4 and Xbox One later this summer.”