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Harold Halibut

by Slow Bros.
The studio
From unlikely beginnings

In the realm of video game developers, collaboration generally includes specialists in fields like animation, modeling, texture and effects. Freshman game developer Slow Bros. has taken that a step further by including physical set design, carpentry and fashion design in the mix.

In fact, only one of the four founders, Onat Hekimoglu, has a traditional game creator background. His co-founders at the German studio are Fabian Preuschoff (originally a photography student and a carpentry hobbyist), Daniel Beckmann (originally a biology student), and Ole Tillmann (a freelance illustrator).

Team Harold!

Team Harold!

Nearly six years ago the four friends began brainstorming about Harold Halibut while working other jobs. Their first game prototype was also the subject of Onat’s master’s thesis in game design at Cologne Game Lab. After securing government funding two-and-a-half years ago, Slow Bros. was officially born and Harold Halibut truly began to take shape. They focused on physical modeling, carving, painting, and sewing, plus acquiring the technical knowledge needed to bring these real objects into the digital world.

The project

Exploration carries Harold from one section to another of the crashed ship-city, navigating relationships with other underwater denizens through conversation. Each unique situation can be approached in multiple ways to create the feeling of choice and consequence, even though the studio has decided to stick with a single ending.

“What was very interesting for us was exploring this crashed spaceship, stuck without external influence, so it has evolved in its own crazy way. Even though it’s a pretty strange situation, everyone still has to go about their everyday life. While Harold may be a janitor, just one member of this huge community, he also happens to be part of these strange events. It’s this offbeat dynamic that really propels the charm of everything that happens.”

The janitor did it

As befits the handcrafted art, Harold Halibut is a quirky and humorous adventure focused heavily on telling a story of friendship. Taking place in a community stranded for 50 years on an alien planet (following a 250-year voyage from Earth), Harold is just one of many characters in this watery world, stuck underwater his entire life without any means of escape.

While you might think Harold Halibut is a point-and-click game, Slow Bros. has intentionally steered away from that mechanism. “We all had point-and-click adventures that we love, but everything just seemed slow. Given that the game relies on conversation and story, and not on ‘find and combine’ puzzles, it made a lot more sense for us to go with a modern control scheme.”

The reveal
Handcrafted, tech infused

Harold Halibut isn’t the first game to use real objects to create in-game assets. Paper and clay craft games have both seen several releases. The unusual nature of Harold Halibut is how extensive that art is. Every asset in the scene, whether furniture or clothing, has been handcrafted by the team and then captured via a photogrammetry tool called Capturing Reality.

Interestingly, and quite conveniently, no de-lighting tools are necessary for any of the assets because a turntable was used to capture each one, permitting consistently perfect lighting of every angle of a model. For flat surfaces and textures, the team used a material scanner from APEC Visual. Once the images were captured, they used Substance Painter and Designer to create the game’s textures.

Onat demonstrates motion capture with Harold

You’d be forgiven for believing every movement of these beautifully built characters was hand animated using traditional stop-motion techniques, but in a surprising revelation, Slow Bros. has relied heavily on motion capture to bring the puppets to life. “As long as we set everything up correctly so it works with the original models, motion capture looks almost exactly like stop motion,” states Hekimoglu. “Sometimes we don’t clean the motion capture files so that there’s a random jitter that only assists in adding to that feeling.”

A tiny team of millions

Slow Bros. handcrafts much of what goes into Harold Halibut, but they still employ a relatively small team of artisans and developers. To get what is clearly a very large job done, they’ve turned to the Unity community and the Asset Store to find some extra magic. This not only makes their jobs easier and allows them to focus on the business of telling a story (such as they found with the Adventure Creator package), but it also ensures the art they’ve painstakingly created really pops on screen like it should.

Given that Harold Halibut’s unique visual style is such a large point of interest, Slow Bros. looks at every tool as a new paintbrush. The Next-Gen Soft-Shadows asset, for example, has been a big help to the team. “Their soft shadows look amazing and don’t cost much more than standard Unity shadows,” says Heimoglu. “It’s very important that we really nail the look of realistic puppets in scene and these NGSS shadows help it come very close to how it would look in reality.”

Adventure Creator was just one of many helpful add-ons from the Asset Store

Adventure Creator was just one of many helpful add-ons from the Asset Store

Retaining the incredible detail from the enormous scanned textures generated from the handcrafted physical assets was, understandably, a high priority. The team at Amplify Creations provided Amplify Texture as a solution. “Most of the assets we scanned are a massive 8k! Amplify Texture allowed us to use those assets through the use of virtual texturing without any memory limitations. It’s unlikely we could have achieved what we did without it.”

Story tools for much more than just telling stories

Hekimoglu and his partners began their development journey in Unity 4 over five years ago, when Harold Halibut was first being prototyped. In that time, Unity has added a wealth of features, but none as important to the Slow Bros. team as the storytelling tools introduced with Unity 2017.1.

“The combination of Timeline and Cinemachine is a natural approach for a filmmaker,” explains Hekimoglu. “Non-linear editing just makes sense in the context of grand cinematic moments, but it’s useful for so much more than that. We’re even using Timeline for really simple things like how an elevator works.”

Cinemachine cameras are used extensively

Cinemachine cameras are used extensively

The team replaced all cameras in the game with Cinemachine but nowhere are they as important and efficient as in the game’s frequent dialog sections where they’ve added state-based cameras in every interaction. “Before we had to manually switch the cameras and now we can just bind them to animation phases so that when one is idle the camera switches to the other character,” continues Hekimoglu. “We use special shots if we need them but these two main shots are switched automatically and this change – which might seem minimal on the outside – has saved us an incredible amount of time.”

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