Defiant Development's card battle-meets-action RPG brings its cards to life on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, Mac, and Linux
“We have an avid bunch of board gamers here at the office, and we especially like card games,” says Defiant developer Liam Hill. “Lots of them are played during our lunch breaks.” The studio’s upcoming Hand of Fate began with the idea that they could take the architecture and randomness of roguelike games, and afford the player more control over the challenges they would face, along with the rewards they would receive. “The card games that we play in the office are filled with ‘Random Event’ decks and ‘Treasure’ piles, and out of these two concepts sprung Hand of Fate,” says Hill.
There are currently ten full-timers at Defiant, along with between one to three contractors at any given time. Most of the team members have worked together on previous projects, and have even worked at different studios together prior to Defiant.
The team has used Unity since starting Defiant four years ago, having shipped a number of different projects on it for various platforms (including mobile hits Ski Safari and Heroes Call). “When we initially decided to use Unity for development, we were coming from our previous experience with custom engines that required a lot of work to get the best out of,” says Defiant’s Dan Treble. “Unity lets us punch above our weight, and allows us to ship Hand of Fate on multiple SKU's – including both next gen consoles – with relative ease, and with a much smaller team than we used to have in the AAA days.”
The studio’s Morgan Jaffit tells us that the team is big believers in building and testing, and as such had a demo up very early on. In fact, he says, it was much easier to get a prototype up than it's been to finish the game. “We first showed the game to the public at GDC after a couple of months of prototype development, and even then it was clear we were on to something,” he says. Since then, he says various features have become invaluable, including blend shape support added in Unity 4.3, “without which we couldn't have brought the dealer to life.” He also notes that Marmoset Skyshop has added huge amount to the look of the game.
According to Jaffit, much of the game is very similar to that original demo. “You can go back to some of our earliest videos – like our Kickstarter trailer from last year – and see the same concepts and core ideas in place,” he says. Different elements of the game have evolved as time has passed, certainly, and deck-building has become significantly more important to the experience. “Ultimately, though, we had a clear vision at the start, and around that vision the game has grown into its own thing as we went. A lot of the details were missing, and we've gone through and filled those out along the way.”
Treble says that generally speaking, the team goes to great lengths to keep everything as simple as humanly possible. “We keep all of our assets’ text, and try and split them up to avoid multiple people editing the same files,” he says. “Static batching is currently saving our frame rate.” They’ve also built a handful of tools within the editor, to help the designers create encounters, sequence animations in time to voice over, and to profile the scenes for memory and performance. “We’re producing builds monthly at the moment; we branch them a week before they’re due, and switch into bug fixing mode.”
Jaffit remembers a moment at PAX Australia 2013, where Jerry Holkins from Penny Arcade played the game and pegged it as a “deck-building roguelike”. “This was a key moment, as we’d been struggling to get a succinct summation ourselves for weeks,” he says.
Indeed, the years have taught the developers at Defiant a great deal about process. “We’ve learned to work in smaller, iterative cycles – approximately two weeks apiece – to keep track of progress,” says Kim Allom. “Short cycles work for small teams because it allows for more efficient resource use, due to frequent and regular checks on current project progress.” Allom says that when the team can spot an oversight or tweak a feature early in its development, it saves valuable time on backtracking. “It helps us [avoid] time spent on devising plans on how the tweak may effect other systems that the feature may link to, because it was further along in development.”
With a haul of $54,000, Kickstarter certainly played a role in getting Hand of Fate off the ground – but it didn’t get them all the way. “The game has gone much longer than we anticipated, so we've definitely ended up spending more than the Kickstarter funds,” says Jaffit. “That said, the Kickstarter was really about finding our audience early.” He points out that Hand of Fate is a niche game, in that it appeals to fans of card games and deck-building who also enjoy an action component. “We wanted to make the best game possible for that niche, and Kickstarter helped us to find people who were enthusiastic and make them part of the development process. That's been worth much more than the funding.”
“I'm incredibly proud that we've delivered something unique,” says Jaffit of the game that Hand of Fate has become. “There are no other games that do what Hand of Fate does, and we've given a sense of atmosphere and place that's incredibly strong. Everyone on the team has helped make that happen, and I think it comes across when you play.”
Defiant announced that Hand of Fate will be coming to Xbox One, which means that the team has covered most of the available home platforms, including PC, Mac, Linux and PlayStation 4. “The team is currently going through technical requirements, and we’re excited by the idea of the public playing our game on console,” says Allom.
Tools of the trade
Self-avowed “big fans” of the Unity Asset Store, the team at Defiant Development has been able to work smarter and faster because of it. Here’s a list of the many tools they’ve employed in creating Hand of Fate: • Amplify Color • BIG Environment Pack • cInput Pro • Hand Painted Texture Pack - Natural Surfaces • Hand Painted Textures - Ground Pack 1 • InControl • Medieval Environment Pack • NGUI: Next-Gen UI • Pre-Integrated Skin Shader • ProFlares • Sage: Anim Graph Editor • Skyshop: Image-Based Lighting Tools & Shaders • Texture Pack 02 • Top-Down Assets Mobile
Hand of Fate visual style comes from the mind of Shawn Eustace, art director at Defiant Development. “He’s steered the games vision from the beginning,” says Morgan Jaffit, pointing to the difficulty of driving both a realistic high fantasy in-game style, alongside the illustrative, wood-cut style for the game’s cards. “Working back and forth between these two disparate parts of the experience and making them feel like they belong to the same world was extremely important, and Shawn's managed to harness the skills of our seven person art team incredibly well,” says Jaffit.