The creators of Eternal Darkness are on a mission to bring single-player storytelling to the multiplayer genre with their upcoming ARPG, embracing a future in the cloud.
Veteran game developer Denis Dyack is known for founding Silicon Knights, the studio behind dark, story-driven single-player titles like Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, The Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, and Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes. In 2018, Dyack founded and became CEO of Apocalypse Studios alongside COO Paul Rogozinski (formerly Silicon Knights, Digital Extremes), and CPO Ryan Pacheco (formerly Big Viking Games).
These AAA-veterans-turned-indies describe Apocalypse as “a studio in the cloud.” Work is primarily remote, and they take a cloud-first approach to everything – from their internal development tools and processes, to the narrative and gameplay experiences they create.
Today, the studio is ready to announce that they’ve chosen Unity to power their upcoming debut, with plans to leverage the High Definition Render Pipeline (HDRP) to ensure a pristine player experience. Their first project, Deadhaus Sonata, is a free-to-play, team-based ARPG where players take up the mantle of undead creatures. We’re talking vampires, banshees, liches, and ghouls, prepared to wage bloody combat against the living.
With Deadhaus Sonata, Apocalypse wants to bring single-player storytelling to the live-service multiplayer genre. Drawing inspiration from Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series and works of horror by writer Thomas Ligotti, the game’s grimdark fantasy lore will be largely player-driven, which aligns with Apocalypse’s vision for Deadhaus Sonata as a “cloud-based metagame.”
“Over time, games have shifted from single-player experiences to multiplayer, and there’s less focus on narrative,” says Dyack. “When you’re designing games now, you have to think not only about the content directly within your game, but what’s outside of it; things like social media and streaming.”
Community-driven content from these channels is motivating Apocalypse to further flesh out Deadhaus Sonata’s bones. Early-access players are already writing vampiric lore and adapting it into YouTube radio plays. Apocalypse has even bigger ambitions for players who want to leave their mark on Deadhaus Sonata, with plans to support a player-driven economy where maps, skins, and quests can be distributed and monetized.
“In this industry, there’s a tendency to get overexcited and stumble over new terms like ‘metaverse,’ which can be frustrating for gamers,” explains Dyack. “It’s important to always come back to the player. Deadhaus Sonata’s vision encompasses everything in-game, but also anything outside of it that we can use to engage players and immerse them into the world.”
Through their partnership with Genvid, a company specializing in Massively Interactive Live Events (MILEs), Apocalypse hopes to organize cloud-powered, live broadcast events to better engage audiences and let them interact directly with streamed content. Using Genvid’s MILE SDK, Deadhaus Sonata will feature deep social media integrations that allow viewers to manipulate in-game storylines and events for the streamer, ultimately shaping their shared experience. This serves to deepen immersion and grow the community.
“You can be watching the stream on your phone and click a link to insert code into that stream,” specifies Dyack. “You’ll then be able to play and interact with the game in real-time without needing to have it installed.”
Deadhaus Sonata is still early in development, with a public alpha they’re calling “the First Age” coming later in 2022. Knowing that it’s easiest to find the right tools before kicking off work, Apocalypse chose to experiment sooner than later, testing a wide variety of engines and development software to create their game. The team tried both Lumberyard and Open3D but essentially decided that Unity offered the most established toolset to help them scale rapidly.
The Apocalypse team is particularly impressed with what they’ve been able to achieve using HDRP in such a short period. “The first thing we did was dive into the HDRP demo, just to see what we’d be working with. We played around with it and the results were already amazing after an hour,” says Dyack.
Visual effects that react to gameplay are crucial for immersing players in Deadhaus Sonata’s moody, gothic world. “Volumetric fog with real-time lights and multiple density volumes have enabled us to establish ambience and tone with incredible ease,” reveals Yuriy Toporovskyy, technical director at Apocalypse. “The Volumes framework for customization of appearance based on game triggers means we can present complex gameplay interaction scenarios very quickly.”
Using advanced material features like Subsurface Scattering, Distortion, Refraction, Multilayer Materials, Occlusion Mapping, Translucency, and Backlighting – all built into HDRP – accelerated the creation of AAA-quality materials for an entire scene in just a few days. “I’m confident we’ll be able to deliver AAA visual fidelity with Deadhaus Sonata,” asserts Rogozinski. “We’re all really excited to show off what HDRP can do.”
Apocalypse applauds the supportive nature of Unity creators and the wealth of resources made available to help fellow developers get started: “I love how many amazing creators are out there creating content, how-to videos, and guides to support the indie scene,” says Pacheco. “It’s refreshing, and it meant that our team could pick up productivity really quickly.”
Apocalypse has also been making good use of the Unity Asset Store to get up to speed. “It’s like YouTube university!” says Dyack. “Our team will be like, we need this thing, and the first thing I do is look on the Asset Store. It’s very cost effective, and invaluable for fast prototyping.”
For instance, Pacheco was taken with the Volumetric Blood Fluids package, which allowed Apocalypse to achieve results similar to the gory special effects Mortal Kombat created with Houdini, all while saving substantial costs: “To contract that out would have cost us thousands of dollars and six months of time. With the Asset Store, we paid $30 and had it in the game within an hour.”
To manage their production and develop at speed, Apocalypse sought out a version control system (VCS) that could handle the large binary files they’d be working with. They started out with Git-based version control, which worked well enough for early-stage project files, but it caused problems for non-technical team members, who found it challenging to use. They then switched over to Perforce, a VCS that Rogozinski had used extensively at Digital Extremes, before finally trying Unity Plastic SCM upon a colleague’s recommendation.
“Perforce is a great tool, but it was a significant expenditure for us as a small studio,” explains Rogozinski. “Plastic is about a tenth of the cost and already integrated into Unity. Switching over to it was a no-brainer.”
“It’s easy to use and way faster than Perforce, by significant margins,” adds Dyack. “Pulling a build down takes two to three minutes, at most – before, it was taking much longer.”
Migrating their game data from Perforce to Plastic took Apocalypse less than a day, and they were supported throughout the process by the Plastic team. Once they were up and running, Rogozinski, who had implemented Perforce previously, was shocked to see how much more efficient work became with Plastic – and not just because of how smoothly it handles large binaries: “I was very resistant to task branching at first. I didn’t want people working off-branch for a week or two, because you never know what’s going to happen when you merge it all back.”
“I was totally wrong!” admits Rogozinski. “It's working super well and the integrations are super easy, super fast. Plastic’s merge tools rival Perforce’s, easily.”
Plastic SCM encourages a flexible “task-based branching” workflow that allows teams to work separately in sub-branches and conveniently merge changes without worrying about data loss or wasted work. With everything off of main, developers can pick and choose what they want to work with in the sub-branches, and stay off of the main branch for days at a time if necessary.
“You never have to be afraid of breaking something,” reveals Pacheco. “You can bring the main branch into yours before you push it live, so you never have to worry about pushing content that breaks the build at five o’clock on a Friday.”
“It's a totally different methodology, and we really like it,” affirms Rogozinski.
Apocalypse Studios has a bold vision for Deadhaus Sonata. To achieve it, they’ve been careful to curate the right set of tools so they can scale as a team, while working hard to build their community since day one.
As enterprise-turned-indie developers, the team offers some advice on how to scale without losing the spirit of creativity and innovation: “My advice would be to find great people to work with and foster those relationships,” shares Pacheco. “Do what you have to to maintain those connections and keep working with them. Communication should be number one.”
Building on Pacheco’s comments, Rogozinski adds, “Apocalypse is really focused on community curation. We want to build a healthy playerbase by interacting with them often, and really listening to what they have to say. Having players helping with content and giving input design decisions is invaluable.”
Closing out the conversation, Dyack reflects on his experiences at Silicon Knights: “At enterprise studios, you’re often so heads-down and focused on the work that you’re missing out on opportunities, whether it’s trends, tools, or different ways of working… Take a look around and see what’s new. We did, and we couldn’t be happier.”
Deadhaus Sonata is currently available to wishlist on Steam. Want to learn more about Unity Plastic SCM? Check out this interview with Michela Rimensberger, who explains how Sycoforge uses Unity version control to enable the unique development process behind their upcoming RPG, Return to Nangrim.