Small indie studio Shedworks plays to its strengths by accurately scoping its own capabilities.
Shedworks: A Unity case study
How does a new studio leverage its small, fast moving team to convincingly create and populate an open world? Turning its limitations into strengths, Shedworks used a modular design approach to efficiently build a heartfelt adventure and fulfill a unique artistic vision.
Making the most of small-indie challenges
To create Sable, Shedworks faced typical small-indie challenges: limited headcount and budget, mixed skillsets, and market pressure to deliver a strong product quickly.
They let these constraints guide their development process. Rather than creating vast, highly detailed landscape settings, they chose small, colorful desert biomes. Instead of intricate costuming, they built interchangeable ensembles that doubled as player rewards. And they thoroughly leveraged Unity’s extensible, modular design and the Unity Asset Store’s community-powered resources.
- Implemented a modular narrative and workflows for character, costume, and hoverbike creation
- Created vast, open-world terrains in days using MapMagic from the Unity Asset Store
- Won PC Gamer’s 2021 Best Narrative, nominated for Best Debut Indie Game at The Game Awards 2021, as well as Best Audio and Best Indie Game at Golden Joystick Awards 2021
Deciding to build something different
Technical developer Daniel Fineberg and artist/designer Greg Kythreotis were family friends whose parents met at architecture school; Kythreotis himself studied architecture, while Fineberg was a comparative literature student. After graduation, though, they decided they wanted to make video games. Working out of Greg’s parents’ garden shed, they taught themselves Unity by prototyping their ideas while providing web design services and other contract work to support themselves financially.
Soon enough, Fineberg and Kythreotis had an early prototype of what would become their breakout success. When they shared the project at their local pub’s game jam, the enthusiastic response drove greater momentum.
As they continued to iterate on and define both gameplay and visuals, a few clips from the game went viral on Twitter. These caught the attention of Raw Fury, a Stockholm publisher noted for games that emphasize experiences and emotions rather than elaborate mechanics. Shedworks ended up signing with Raw Fury and got down to serious work on Sable.
Taking Sable from toolshed to Tribeca
Sable’s titular hero is a young woman venturing far from home for the first time. She’s on a quest across the desert to find a mask, a rite of passage for her nomadic clan. She rides a hoverbike and encounters diverse characters who recount her family’s and planet’s history while challenging her with puzzles and new destinations.
“From the start, we wanted no fighting,” explains Fineberg. Instead, Sable is a meditative journey through a beautiful but sparse landscape inspired by trips to Morocco and the works of Peter Giraud (Mœbius), Studio Ghibli, and the Star Wars universe.
For the rich narrative, Shedworks collaborated with several writers. Meg Jayanth, the U.K. Writers Guild Award winner known for working on games like 80 Days and Sunless Sea, provided early support on the project, with Kim Belair and David Bedard of Sweet Baby joining later in development. Their contributions helped earn Sable PC Gamer’s Best Narrative of 2021 award, and the game was even featured at the inaugural Tribeca Games festival.
Infusing a sparse, flat look with feeling
Intensely detailed, realistic environments can be technically impressive, but Shedworks deliberately designed a more primitive, handcrafted look using low-poly models to convey their story. Fineberg says, “We focused on using colors to create the moods.”
You won’t find straight lines, the character animations have a stop-motion quality, and Unity 3D tools generated a distinctly flat aesthetic. All of Sable’s textures and VFX elements were hand-drawn on iPads. To quickly populate their desert world, they automated certain aspects of terrain generation, like rocks, using a noise-based shader that turned out to be an important time-saver. And their intentionally free-flowing graphic imprecision consistently created coherent, captivating scenes that were relatively quick to implement.
Enabling modular development with Unity
“As an architecture graduate, applying a modular approach to development is very natural for me,” says Kythreotis. Traditionally, this means programmatic techniques such as organizing objects as instances within one class. An object then becomes unique by attaching different components that define particular behaviors.
A basic way Unity takes this approach is by using multiple scene files that include any number of GameObjects. Objects then have components, like clothing Prefabs, along with other characteristics such as position, orientation, and size. There’s also a strict hierarchy so that modifying an attribute extends the effect down rather than up. “This modular method means we have reusable game segments, the code is easier to debug, and the game is much more readable,” Kythreotis continues.
For Shedworks, modularity also meant using their architectural awareness to quickly build an interchangeable array of masks, clothing, NPCs, and hoverbikes. During the game, players can update their wardrobe and customize other game components. Shedworks used these same modules to build a reward system, hiding these customizations as collectibles for intrepid explorers. Many of the rewards are surprising: Finding the cave where the Llhor character hides rewards players with what one reviewer called, “one of the most emotionally wrenching and existential conversations in gaming.”
Sable’s writers provided modular content as well, creating a beginning and ending and then filling the non-linear middle with standalone narrative segments – Shedworks refers to this as “lemon-shaped storytelling.” These components could be easily mixed, matched, edited, or even tossed depending on production requirements, as long as they were careful maintaining interconnected story elements.
Creating faster with asset store tools
For Shedworks’ very small team, Sable was a substantial challenge even in terms of the diverse tools needed to get the unique results they wanted. “We could do all the pathfinding, behavior trees, inverse kinematics, and such but it would have taken us years,” says Fineberg. “The Unity Asset Store was definitely a key Resource.”
Designer Kythreotis’s programming skills were very basic, and he found the Gameflow visual scripting tool invaluable. Fineberg had written a custom trigger system, and Kythreotis could configure triggers and other scriptable objects with Gameflow seamlessly in the Unity Inspector.
Iterating with a unique terrain-generation technique
Shedworks chose MapMagic, with its procedural node-based approach, for its open-world terrain generation. According to Kythreotis, “We couldn’t have made Sable without MapMagic – it was a huge time-saver.” They used MapMagic to create environments ahead of time rather than at runtime. Working off an initial generation meant they could play around with different iterations, move things around on the map and reshape the world easily, all within a fixed context. “Working within constraints reduces your decision-making burden. You can iterate much faster and more often.”
ProBuilder was another tool that enabled more frequent iterations. In fact, Fineberg estimates that they built nearly 80% of Sable’s environments using it. To lower Sable memory overhead, they stripped the ProBuilder scripts from the final assets before building the game, keeping most of the original meshes.
Doing more with less
Shedworks’s success proves that small studios can overcome perceived limitations by accurately scoping their capabilities and designing their games accordingly. In Sable, Shedworks achieved a AAA feel by playing to their strengths and consciously avoiding a AAA look. They also knew when to save time and resources by efficiently using tools in the Unity Asset Store. As self-taught Unity creators influenced by architectural practices Fineberg and Kythreotis were trained to design within constraints. Sable shows how, as game developers, Shedworks skillfully used constraints as a key to unlock their creativity.
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