It’s a good time to be an independent game developer. Game engines, tools, and technology have made substantial leaps in quality, and hardware continues to accelerate into new generations. Robert Taylor, the software engineer behind Afterburner Studios, which has sold almost 100,000 copies of their debut title Dreamscaper, says he greatly appreciates the state of the industry today.
“With the right authoring, with the right discipline, and with solid communication between the technical and the creative talent, you can make games that run at 60 frames per second, on just about any piece of hardware,” Taylor says.
Still, it helps to get assistance from willing experts. Dreamscaper is the story of an indie development team that benefitted from Intel’s entire breadth of expertise: expanded marketing reach, leading-edge software innovation, and timely hardware assistance. Their success is a shining example of what partnering with Intel can make possible.
Figure 1. Dreamscaper features the heroic journey of Cassidy, who battles her personal demons in procedurally generated nightmare scenarios.
Small Studio, Big Dreams
The Afterburner Studios team consists of three founders: Taylor, who handles the engineering; Ian Cofino, who tackles design, animation, virtual effects, and the user interface; and Paul Svoboda, who produces the art for environments and characters. In 2018, the trio left the comfort of traditional game development at a large studio and struck out on their own to build an indie title they could be proud of.
The result is a rogue-lite, action role-playing game (ARPG) that follows Cassidy, a young girl who battles her inner demons in her dreams. The biggest draws for many players are the procedurally generated nightmares the character finds herself in—wondrous, dreamy worlds of beauty and danger.
Since the early access launch in mid-2020, Dreamscaper has enjoyed a 91 percent positive rating on Steam*, with almost 1,600 reviews, and a growing, active community. Dreamscaper 1.0 debuted in mid-2021, and an expansion in October 2021 fleshed out the title even more for the PC on Steam and for Nintendo Switch*.
Figure 2. This dungeon scene in Dreamscaper is something the original Rogue game could only dream of.
Modern Game, Modern Tools
To create such a vibrant and intricate game with only three people, the tools and technology are crucial. For starters, Dreamscaper uses Unreal Engine* 4 from Epic Games*, with Taylor’s code written entirely in C++. At the game’s heart are randomly generated scenarios with unpredictable loops and procedural modifiers. “The idea is to lean into procedural play to create hundreds of hours of replayability,” Taylor says.
Fortunately, Cofino and Svoboda are “incredibly talented artists,” as Taylor acknowledges, who come from art and design backgrounds. They produced the assets and images with the freedom to take the art in the direction they wanted. Games with high-quality artwork usually require expensive post-processing effects and rendering techniques, such as screen space reflection. The team worked together to make conscious design decisions that would allow for more scalable rendering solutions. For example, they chose a fixed camera angle because it opened the door for multiple optimizations that could be used for less powerful hardware.
Once the art direction was settled, Taylor identified which effects consumed too much processing time, especially on less robust hardware. “We never introduced anything expensive without having some solution that we knew could be performant for lower-end hardware,” he says.
Early Optimization Is Key
Taylor says his philosophy has always been that good engineering will never make a game good, but bad engineering will always make a good game horrible. If the team didn’t work on optimizing from the beginning, the launch date would approach with bottlenecks still unresolved, and the title would suffer from what he calls “death by a thousand performance paper cuts.” So, his strategy was to be methodical, to engineer the code carefully, and to make sure that the team didn’t have to revisit the game in late-stage performance passes. At any time when he knew that something would be run in a game loop, and every instance where something could scale to thousands of objects, such as projectiles on the screen, he would optimize carefully.
Figure 3. Combat scenarios in Dreamscaper include defeating bosses who represent aspects of Cassidy’s mental anguish.
They specifically avoided what gamers call “bullet hell,” slang for situations where the screen is drenched with moving objects. At one point, Cofino introduced a boss that could spawn hundreds of projectiles, and the code wasn’t prepared for that situation. “That’s a lot of collision sweeps that are occurring,” Taylor recalled. With tiny spheres covering the screen, the frame rate dropped to about two frames per second.
Taylor used a partitioning work-around, dividing the world into sectors that he could sweep individually, thus managing smaller workloads. If he knew that a projectile was nowhere close to a collision object for several milliseconds, he would put it to sleep, and wake it before a collision effect was needed. “Instead of having maybe 500 collision sweeps going on at a time, we got it down to only four or five, or in the worst case, maybe 20 sweeps max, and the gameplay itself wasn’t impacted at all,” he said.
Taylor didn't have to devote much effort to managing core affinities, threading algorithms, and workload management between the CPU and GPU. “Epic Games Unreal Engine does it all for us,” he said, adding, “Thank you, Intel, for helping Epic [Games] optimize Unreal Engine.”
Intel® Hardware Saves a Launch
Sometimes assistance from Intel can pay off in unexpected ways. Taylor says that early in the partnership, an Intel representative sent over an Intel® NUC—the small form factor PC with a desktop attitude in a tiny footprint. Short for Next Unit of Computing, the Intel NUC (rhymes with truck) didn’t have an apparent use, and sat off to one side, like a player on the bench waiting to get into the big game. Taylor used an eight-year-old MacBook Pro* for his builds, but, as the game matured and grew more complex, builds could stretch to 48 hours on the aging device. Still, the machine soldiered on. When launch day finally arrived, with publisher Freedom Games* looking on, Taylor took a deep breath and pressed the Enter key to go live.
His partners started testing the launch immediately, and the worst possible thing soon became apparent—his MacBook had died. “Our publisher and my team thought I was joking because I went offline, and they're, like, ‘Is he messing with us?’”
Horrified, Taylor quickly texted that he had lost his computer. “Then I remembered the [Intel] NUC was there, so I booted it up, and, on the fly, in-between fielding calls from customer support, the community, and the influencers, I installed everything I needed and got things back in action,” he said.
Eventually, the Intel NUC took over build duties, iterations, and bug fixes. During the first month of the launch, all the key work took place on the Intel NUC. “It was pretty mighty for such a tiny little thing,” Taylor marveled. And it was portable, so he could take it to shows to run demos.
Intel® Game Dev Boost Program Drives Sales
Taylor is quick to credit the Intel® Game Dev Boost program, which added muscle to the Afterburner Studios modest marketing budget. After the first public reveal, the buzz was slow to build, with social media as the primary channel for communication. Then the world began to notice. “One of our tweets went semi-viral, and Intel contacted us,” he recalled. Things happened quickly after that.
Intel’s marketers wanted to see how well Dreamscaper was optimized for Intel® hardware, and engineers completed a series of benchmarks with good results. “It was already good enough to use the Runs Great on Intel® technology certification label,” Taylor says, because he had engineered everything to be tight and efficient.
After certification, Intel’s marketing reach really kicked in. Multiple social media posts, duplicated on Instagram* and Facebook*, promoted the team’s Kickstarter* program, advertised an in-depth interview, described the Intel Game Dev Boost program involvement, and retweeted the Epic Games Megagrant award. Articles on VentureBeat, The Mix, and Intel.com stirred up even more interest, while emails promoting the playable demo, and another Intel Game Dev Boost mention, went out to Intel’s subscribers.
Figure 4. The artwork in Dreamscaper portrays a subtly dream-like world.
Looking back, Taylor remembers that support from Intel early on helped to give them a push. “Before Steam marketing kicked in, a decent portion of our traffic came from Intel,” Taylor says. “It is really valuable to get in with Intel before you manage to reach those critical levels where the algorithms and the kingmakers decide, ‘Now you're worthy to be shown to people.’ "
Looking Forward with Big Plans
The team continues to support and augment Dreamscaper, releasing a free major content update in time for Halloween 2021. Thanks to how the game has performed, they’ve solidified their future as a studio and have ambitions to build something even bigger.
Meanwhile, they are quick to acknowledge the fans they already have. Their Discord* following provided early, actionable feedback that continually challenged what the game could be. They took the advice, listened to their fans, and, Taylor says, “the game is better for it.”
Life as an indie is hard, Taylor admits. The hours, the grind, and the hurdles can be daunting. Having a partner like Intel made a few things easier, but so did hard work and a continual commitment to quality.
“You couldn’t do what we did five, or ten, years ago, because now the tooling is so good,” he says. “A three-person team making a 3D game like ours was unheard of back then,” he continues. But now, with superior tools, technology, and assistance from Intel technologists, a title with incredible artwork and a procedurally generated dream world can come to life. Your team could be next.
Join the Intel GameDev Boost program and get access to technical support, performance tools, and a marketing boost. We’ll help you optimize your game to get Runs Great on Intel® technology certified. Spread the word about your title in various Intel marketing promotions, such as social amplification, partner promotions, email campaigns, event demos, game bundles, and more. Join the Intel GameDev Program today.
Product and Performance Information
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