Dystopolis: Cyberpunk Run-n’-gun Shooter with the Ability to Bend Bullets

Made with Unreal Engine 4 for the UC Davis ModLab 2016 GameCamp game jam

DYSTOPOLIS is a run n’ gun shooter set in a minimalistic cyberpunk metropolis, where you have the ability to redirect bullets using an ability called the “Gravity Well.” The game picked up the Technical Award and is available on itch.io for free here, so try it out and let me know what you think!

Coming up with the Idea

At the time of the UC Davis ModLab GameCamp game jam, my brother and I were obsessing over the latest co-op indie game we picked up—Broforce. We were a fan of the different ways you could play the game, whether by going rambo and lighting up the landscape with machine gun fire, or by using stealth to hit the enemies from below. No matter how you wanted to play, this game was a difficult arcade shooter, where a single mistake would cost you your life. So while we were thinking of ideas for the game jam theme “rigging,” we thought we could give a shooter a try for this game jam and implement a unique, bullet-rigging mechanic called the gravity well.

Game Engine

First off, we needed to decide on an engine. For every game jam, our goal is always to learn something new, something that we have little practice in doing in our core projects. This time for Chris and I, we wanted to focus on minimalistic art and progressive, linear level design. We maximized our efficiency by cutting the time needed for other tasks like programming.

We decided on Unreal Engine due to the utility of its built-in projectile system, the availability of free shooter character animations, free props, and a BSP volume system, which makes rapid-prototyping level layouts very useful. With these in mind, we were able to spend as much time designing the level and as little time modeling, animating, and programming.

Creative Direction

The creative style of a game is always difficult to settle on. We started a Pinterest board and scoured the ends of the earth for art styles that we found particularly fitting for a minimalistic, cyberpunk shooter.

After grabbing a bunch of art, from cityscapes to characters to objects, we came across the art piece below (real source unknown) and everything fell into place.

Source: Unknown

As you can see, the final art direction of the game was inspired by this one GIF alone. The simplicity of the photo, utilizing only emissive light in a dark dystopian city, truly captured an ambiance that would fit this game perfectly.

Characters

How would the characters fit in and look in this world?Character design has always been a weak point of ours, so this was a solid time to practice. With how the game plays, I quickly noticed that I had one design constraint: the small characters needed to be visible in the dark setting.

Most arcade shooters have poor character-versus-background contrast, resulting in a disorienting player experience during the midst of a firefight, like in Broforce. To fix this, we looked at how Super Hot solves the problem with colors. In Super Hot, weapons are black, enemies are red, and the rest of the environment is white. This makes key visual targets—weapons versus enemies—in a fast-paced setting immediately distinguishable. With this logic in mind, we settled on “red” for the the dystopian world and its dangerous inhabitants and “blue” for the heroin and her checkpoints. With two colors on opposite ends of the color wheel, it doesn’t get any more distinct than that.

Another design factor I had to keep in mind was that details get lost with characters so small. So to fix this, I looked towards games like Journey and Necropolis, whose characters had efficient but tasteful design choices, such as removing the hands and feet. When the mindset was applied to our own character model, it was surprisingly difficult to do so without it feeling like a cop out.

As you can see, the minute details have very few polygons—the legs and arms have only four faces!—while the key visual qualities like the hair and clothing are highlighted using emissive lighting.

Level Design

Mind the Trap is a game in which the flow of level progression is extremely important, so we wanted to practice some key level design principles—variation and progression—to prevent gameplay fatigue.

Players like to be led on a journey, where they start off learning what it takes to win and eventually applying that knowledge in different ways to reach the end goal. In order to do this, we visualized the level as a step-by-step tutorial, where each section of the map teaches a key mechanic, such as shooting the gun to eliminate simple enemies or utilizing the gravity well for puzzles. The end game ultimately leads up to a boss fight that requires the player to combine all the learned mechanics to win.

Conclusion

DYSTOPOLIS was a fun and valuable experience for us. We had one week to deliver a fully playable build, and by utilizing Unreal Engine 4’s resources and cutting down time spent on programming, modeling, and animating, we were able to spend as much time possible conceiving the art style and designing the levels. If you get a chance after reading this long drivel of a blog post, try the game free on itch.io here and let me know what you think!

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