Acid Nerve’s latest project, Death’s Door, launched last year to critical acclaim. Reviewers have continuously praised the game for its smooth combat, tongue-in-cheek writing style, and unique art direction blending cuteness and darkness – all of which help it stand out.
David Fenn (composer and sound designer, codesigner, producer, and level designer) alongside Mark Foster (lead programmer, codesigner, animator, and writer) recently joined Unity’s Hasan Al Salman on Twitch to share insights on building the world of Death’s Door. Read on for key takeaways from the stream, or scroll to the end to watch the whole event.
Acid Nerve began with a chance encounter, when Fenn and Foster were waiting in line to attend a talk by Fez creator, Phil Fish. They started going to game jams together in Manchester, and soon launched two pixel art games: a Metroidvania flash game called Leaf Me Alone, followed by Titan Souls, a boss-battler for PC and console. Death’s Door is Acid Nerve’s biggest project to date. It blends exploration and challenging combat, and wraps it all up in a brand new visual style.
“Our vision was to make a more full-fledged adventure compared to our past works,” says Fenn. “We had been brewing up ideas for the world of Death’s Door for years – so long that it’s hard to know what the direct source of inspiration was, but Howl’s Moving Castle comes to mind, as does Hyper Light Drifter.”
Death’s Door’s level design is inspired by games like FromSoftware’s Dark Souls, with interconnected areas that players can explore to find hidden shortcuts. “One of the things about Dark Souls that blew us away when we first played it was the three-dimensional space they use for levels,” explains Foster. “Everything’s stacked on top of each other, so it’s really cool when you find a shortcut.”
Like many Soulslike games, Death’s Door’s labyrinthine world intentionally excludes a map. To help players better orient themselves, Acid Nerve spent more time making sure that every section of the world looks and feels handcrafted and memorable. “We don’t want you to be walking through corridors that all look the same and using your minimap to see where to go,” says Fenn. “We want you to really feel like you’re exploring and getting to know the level.”
Acid Nerve used ProBuilder as both a planning and design tool for creating Death’s Door’s environments. They began with a rough blockout in ProBuilder, or as Fenn describes, “The kind of thing you could do using pen and paper. The benefit of doing it with a 3D tool is that you know everything you’re making is spatially consistent.”
After creating the blockout, they examined each level, screen by screen, to ensure that everything was aesthetically pleasing and worked well mechanically with what was to happen in that area. “We’ll often make something playable as fast as possible, and then make it as polished as we can shortly afterward,” notes Fenn. “There are some things you just don’t know until you play. Maybe this walkway is a bit too narrow for the number of enemies that are there – I need to widen it a little bit. Having ProBuilder in the engine meant we could really easily tweak that on the fly.”
Grey-boxing in ProBuilder enabled Acid Nerve to get a feel for each level before they needed to create and add in assets, saving both time and costs. Foster and Fenn did all of Death’s Door’s programming, game design, and writing themselves, but outsourced concept art, UI art, and 3D asset creation.
“The 3D stage is when you need to start paying people for your concepts and models,” explains Fenn. “For us, it was the most time-consuming part of constructing levels and making them really detailed. You don’t want to be doing that until you’re sure your level is exactly how you want it to be.”
The finalized ProBuilder blockout served as a foundation for the concept artist they were working with. Fenn unpacks this collaborative process further: “We’d take a screen of the game that had good examples of the kind of assets we’d need – architectural elements, rocks, detail, and some things just for the aesthetic… We’d draw all over our ProBuilder and figure out exactly what modules to get modeled, and then start adding them to each scene.”
Once the world design was finalized, they could start working on assets. The team’s 3D artist used Maya for models, 3D Coat for textures, and Blender for rigging. “We were able to import all of these assets into Unity without any hassle,” says Foster.
Working with agility was essential for Acid Nerve’s small team. Smart workflows and effective prototyping helped Fenn and Foster launch Death’s Door on time while wearing their many hats. “The tools available have enabled us to create an ambitious game with a very small team of just two core developers and two external artists,” concludes Foster.
“If there’s one thing that I’m really pleased with, it’s that we’ve used the scope that we had to efficiently make something we’re proud of,” adds Fenn. “I think we did a really good job with the speed and momentum of productivity when working on the game, which in turn, helped keep everyone’s morale high.”
Death’s Door is available now on PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch™, PlayStation®4, and PlayStation®5. Follow @AcidNerve on Twitter for updates on their next project. Visit our Indie Innovation hub for more stories featuring Unity creators making waves in the games industry.
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