Tomas Sala: A Unity Asset Store case study
“I have good problem-solving skills, but I make my games for artistic expression, not technical wizardry,” says Tomas Sala, creator of The Falconeer, an ocean-world RPG. His textureless art helped get his game nominated for a BAFTA 2021 award, but when it comes to what he calls “foundational” coding challenges such as combining meshes, applying advanced pathfinding, and integrating localizations, he doesn’t have the time or interest.
Building a complex game and bring it to market as primarily an artist rather than a coder
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Getting help just where it’s needed
Like many artist/developers, Tomas wants complete control over his creations, and for him, this means working mostly alone. However, he acknowledges that, “I’m standing on the shoulders of maybe a thousand Unity developers.”
For 15 years, he’s relied on the Unity platform to help him create rich, complex games without having to hire additional staff. He also harnesses the Unity Asset Store to fill in the gaps in his skill set.
- Applied a new level of pathfinding in environments
- Perfected the realism and smoothness of falcon flights
- Localized in 13 languages
- Optimized an open world with fast-paced collision mesh creation and matching performance across platforms
“For the stuff you know you can’t make, finding good assets really helps your game. Otherwise you get stuck trying to learn things that are actually very specialized.”
Adding the skills of top developers and artists
The Unity Asset Store is a marketplace for free and commercial assets created by a highly skilled global community of developers and artists. The tens of thousands of available assets include everything from textures, models, and animations to sound effects and rigged art assets to developer tools and complete project tutorials. Coders can find sophisticated art assets, while artists can find tools to simplify highly technical game features.
“For the stuff you know you can’t make, finding good assets really helps your game,” says Tomas. “Otherwise you get stuck trying to learn things that are actually very specialized.”
Taking the grind out of combining meshes
Reducing draw calls by combining meshes is a common technique for improving game performance. At a basic level, it’s not difficult, and, along with draw call and static batching, most developers are fine using built-in Unity capabilities. However, applying these capabilities for sophisticated culling can get complicated and is often beyond the skillset of a casual coder.
That’s why Tomas went to the Unity Asset Store and chose Mesh Combine Studio (MCS) to optimize content such as kitbashed buildings and other structures. MCS is an automatic grid cell-based mesh combiner that replaces manual processes, saving significant development time and dramatically improving performance.
Reaching more players with I2 Localization
Game publishers know that reaching international audiences is essential to attaining commercial success. Localization requires a highly detailed, top-quality approach. Following a recommendation from one of the industry’s biggest publishers, Tomas downloaded I2 Localization from the Unity Asset Store.
The Falconeer has been localized in 13 languages, helping the game expand into more Markets and find local publishers in Asia.
He says, “Nobody thinks about it, but localization is definitely a big deal, and it has to be done right.” Besides text, I2 manages content for images, text, sounds, fonts, and more. It can automatically localize labels using Google Translate and links to external spreadsheets for real-time changes and updates.
Opening the doors for external talent
“I read forums where some developers don’t like buying assets. They think they have to do everything in-house to be original,” says Tomas. “I see just the opposite. If I focus on what I do best, and I’m not stuck doing things I’m not that good at, I’ll end up with a much more original and creative game.”
A large studio can hire top talent for a variety of tasks, but solo and small teams often do their best work when they plug skill set gaps through the Unity Asset Store. For that matter, developers often publish portions of their best work and tools as assets and are proud to see their work repurposed.
Animating a falcon’s flight
A falcon in flight, with undulating wings and tail, makes up a huge percentage of the onscreen content in The Falconeer. The movement conveys significant emotion, and getting it just right was vitally important to Tomas.
He used Tail Animator 2, a package of animated behaviors that simulate elastic tail movement, to lessen the amount of work needed to perfect the realism and smoothness of falcon flight.
“What I love about this particular asset is how well it’s documented, the scripts are commented in detail and they give you the full source code,” says Tomas. He was able to seamlessly blend his own keyframed animations with the asset, saving considerable development time.
Pathfinding in changing worlds
Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles is Tomas’s current project, where players enhance The Falconeer’s ocean world with fortresses and settlements. Pathfinding in The Falconeer was fairly straightforward since the ocean and island environments were fixed. However in Bulwark, the environments are always changing (and growing), adding quite a bit of complexity.
Fortunately, the Unity Asset Store has nearly 100 various pathfinding assets, and Tomas is making use of CorvoPathfinding for buildings and their interiors. He also studied RT-RRT Pathfinding by Stellar Remnants, who based it on adding a real-time sampling approach to the rapidly exploring random tree (RRT) algorithm widely used in robotics.
Keeping it simple
Implementing colliders, particularly for skinned meshes, is another task that Tomas prefers to get help with, and he often uses the Unity Asset Store’s Technie Collider Creator 2.
“There is so much in the Unity Asset Store, sometimes you have to step back,” he counsels. “Integrating too many third-party assets can complicate things. I think it’s better to keep it simple and choose foundational assets like Technie Collider that will really make a difference.”
That said, he spends a lot of time in the store simply studying how other developers built their tools. He particularly appreciates well-documented assets where he can download a PDF along with annotated source code.
Going with what you don’t know
According to one reviewer, “The Falconeer is a resounding success in every major area. It’s a gorgeous game that plays like a dream.”
Tomas is living proof that a solo developer, even one who is more an artist than a coder, can succeed internationally by leveraging tools that help him make up for what he doesn’t know.
“Sometimes using the Unity Asset Store is like using quaternion functions,” he says. “I don’t know how they work, I just know they do, and I get fantastic results.”
“Get clear on what you need instead of filling up projects with unnecessary assets. Be minimalist in what you need to make it more manageable, otherwise you’re going to get spaghetti code. Build up from simple and only add when you need to.”