Interview with Whale Hammer Games

28 Apr 2014 7:00 AM - Will Flynn & Steff Webb

Whale Hammer Games is an Australian Independent Developer based in the ACT.  Founded in mid-2013, Peter Castle (Writer), Tom Cox (Programmer) and Peter Simpson (Lead Artist) shared a desire to create honest and narrative driven games.  We met up with two of the team to discuss the vast 2D world of their first title, Tahira: Echoes of an Astral Empire, and the development behind it.

Tell us the basics of your game world? Where are we?

Peter Castle (Writer):  The game is set in a far-flung future, roughly a thousand years after the collapse of the Astral Empire.  The Empire spanned a large part of the universe and represented the peak of humanity’s technological innovations.

On the planet that our story takes place, civilisation is still reeling from the Empire's disintegration, and most of the population lives in isolated medieval kingdoms. A huge amount of knowledge has been lost, including the ability to use Empire technology.  Its use required a particular genetic trait that was added artificially. Very few people still have this trait, rendering what remains of the Empire’s technology largely useless and the people who can use it valuable.

Who is Tahira? What is her influence on the story?

Peter Castle (Writer):  Tahira is the very reluctant princess of a small and fairly unimportant kingdom called Avestan, which she runs away from before we pick up her story in the game. She returns home to find Avestan besieged by a mysterious army who are claiming to be descendants of the Astral Empire.  Left without a choice the situation pushes her into a leadership role she doesn’t want, as she attempts to lead and protect what is left of her people.

A key story point for Tahira is her ability to use Empire Technology.  The fact that she can utilise the artifacts they come across in the world make her valuable to both her friends and enemies.

However I didn’t want that ability to define her as a character. To me, the most interesting thing about Tahira is that she dislikes being a princess. The game really is her story. It’s about Tahira learning who she is, which is epitomised by her struggle to become the leader that everyone needs and wants her to be.  

Is there a reason behind the 2D approach, what made you choose it over 3D?

Peter Caste:  Once we got Pete (Simpson) on board, it was a no brainer; he is a very accomplished 2D artist.  With 3D there is a lot of messing around before you get close to the result you’re looking for and it can be a real struggle to get a specific result when you factor in texturing, lighting and effects.  When you work in 2D it is much easier to get the exact look you were aiming for.  I think there is something very special about 2D art and animation, it feels more personal to me than 3D and makes the feeling of journeying through the world a more personal experience.

Peter Simpson (Lead Artist): I’ve been drawing for a very long time, whereas my experience with 3D is only very recent.  If you’re an experienced 3D artist you will be able to get the result you want because you’ve got all those years of knowledge and experience to draw from.  With the 2D approach, having done it for years, I know what I’m heading towards from the beginning.  Without the skills and experience in 3D – even if you feel you are getting there – you might model something and then texture it, but until it’s in the game engine and has been properly lit you don’t really know how it’s going to look.  There are so many steps where you can make mistakes and you won’t know you’ve made them until you get to the final product, which adds a lot of doubt to process.

What was the animating process like for a single 2D model?

Peter Simpson (Lead Artist): To begin with, we create a concept, then, after dressing an actor up in a costume that matches the concept, we shoot our reference footage.  We have to film the footage from the same camera angle our in game perspective is going to be at, in our case, 35°. That footage is then taken into Photoshop where I trace the actor’s body. Once we’ve shot the footage that movement doesn’t really change.

Using a 3D program I track in what I call self-contained objects like alternate heads or helmets, and we use the same process for adding weapons.  Sword or axe rotation in three dimensions is just impossible to figure out realistically in 2D, so using 3D has been great; we can actually get items rotating realistically.  So then I basically combine all these elements and chuck it into Photoshop.

Peter Castle: Typically all of the line work for a character’s animations will end up being 450 to 500 drawn frames. Pete has to sit there drawing each character over and over for every frame. At the colouring stage, Tom and I take over and run through the line work in Photoshop, colouring in each element.   Once we are happy with the colours we export out an image sequence of all the animations and import them into Premier to re-time them. 

One of the things you find when you film people doing real actions and then translate it into drawings is that what looked really dynamic, will, as soon as it is translated into pictures, start to look slow and boring.  So when we re-time actions in Premier we really exaggerate everything, slowing down the character before an attack and then speeding up with the blow.  Once we’re finished with the re-timing, the final step is to export another image sequence and import that sequence into Unity.   That is what everyone will eventually see in the game.

Peter Simpson (Lead Artist): With one of us working on it full time, it can take around 320 hours (two months) to complete one character’s complete animation, colouring and design.

What influenced you guys into creating a turn-based tactical RPG?

Peter Castle: Tom and I grew up playing games like Fire Emblem, Advanced Wars, Golden Sun etc.  We always really wanted to make a game like that.  What always caught my imagination in those games was how they depicted the idea of a grand adventure or quest.  Their structure works really well for presenting story and game play together because it is normally something like this: you battle, then some narrative, then another battle, and so on.  It works really well because you’re not relegated to watching the action orientated parts of the game, you actually get to play almost all of those.

On the flip side, you have the more narrative heavy sections, which break up the battles and give them context.  With Tahira we want to see how far we can push those parts, you can walk around a lot of the levels and have conversations with the characters you’re travelling with.  Over the course of the game you will get to know them and some of their history. We’re putting a lot of work into fleshing them out.

A lot of the games I mentioned that were on the Gameboy had different character sprites to their portraits and matching the two required a bit of a mental leap.  That is one of the reasons we decided to go for the detailed illustrated style of character animations.  Our hope is that when you’re playing the game there won’t be a disconnect when you switch from the character sprites to their facial portraits during conversations.  It should feel like a more cohesive experience.

What is it like to create the lore for your own world from the ground up?

Peter Castle:  It’s really challenging to start with.  There’s an insane amount of work you have to do, especially for a science-fiction fantasy game where you can do whatever you want.   You need to come up with the culture and the social norms in these cultures, the world’s setting and environment, and what the technology is like.  You really have to think about this sort of stuff if you want it to come together and feel like a real world. 

Before we started we didn’t know how that process was going to play out.  We had some ideas and ran with them until we ended up with something we liked.  The great thing about having Pete (Simpson) is that he really takes care of it on the art side.  I do the writing and come up with ideas and I throw them at him. He visualises it and pulls from a whole bunch of different places to ground it.  Something we do a lot is look at other cultures and older civilisations and take little pieces that we like from them. 

For instance, with the environment, the other day we were looking at the plant life in Yemen – you would not believe how alien it can look – it’s amazing.  That kind of process grounds the game in our reality but at the same time has more fantastical elements to make it feel fresh.  At the end you have this really interesting and different world.

The other challenge is finding an organic way to convey all that information to the player.  You don’t want to hit them with waves of exposition. Our approach is to try and integrate that backstory into the environment art, the game play and the conversations you have with the characters you’re travelling with.

One of our most effective methods has been putting Tahira in the same situation as the player.  She is coming in reasonably fresh to a lot of the history, so it makes sense that she will ask a lot of the questions that the player wants answered as they play through the game.

Your score is being written by Brendan Holyland.  What type of music can we expect?

Peter Castle: We are still playing around with ideas, but we’re looking at a mix of string instruments with ambient soundscapes at the moment.  One of the limitations of 2D environments is that they can end up being very static. It takes a lot of time to animate all the individual elements of the world, so you have to cherry pick the things you want to animate and bring to life.  This makes sound an even more important part of selling the world as a real place.

One of the earliest soundscapes Brendan worked on for us used some sound samples of Tibetan Monks meditating, and he layered that on top of a soundscape he developed for a mountain look-out.  It has a very organic feel that I love and it really connects you with the setting.  Capturing the essence of these places is really important to us. 

Do you feel the Australian Indie market is expanding enough to accommodate for Independent Studios like yours?

Peter Castle: I don’t think there has ever been a better time to be an indie developer in Australia. We have a great community in this country. In Canberra it is still quite small, but it has grown exponentially in the last five years, with a lot of support coming from the AIE and its Incubator Program.  There is little bit more government funding floating around as well. We have ScreenACT in Canberra and Screen Australia has a development fund with a fairly sizable pool for people to apply to.

In terms of the market, there is a lot of demand for games in Australia, but that is a fraction of who you’re selling to; digital distribution means you have a global market to tap into.  Another fantastic development has been the reduction in price for game engines.  Anyone can subscribe to Unreal or Unity for a small monthly fee, instead of purchasing a licence outright for $2000-$10,000.  Of course the flip side of all this is the huge competition.  You have to make something that really stands out, so it is hard – but it is also great, because you get so many more awesome games.


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