Hardcore action for all
M.U.S.E. by Lab Rats Studio
Published: August 3. 2011
Lab Rats Studio takes aim at console-style action with its upcoming iOS shooter, M.U.S.E.
Like many of their generational peers, the founders of Lab Rats Studio started working on games together in school: Specifically, Wake Technical Community College, where Alan Rueda (president), Rion Holland (CEO), Shadie El-Haddad (vice president), and Adrian Schmettau (vice president of engineering) all collaborated on a game for a final project class in their Simulation and Game Design program.
Before school, however, important lessons were learned in the real world: Specifically, the food services industry. “Our dedication to programming and development began relatively unconventionally -- waiting tables at Italian restaurants,” says Rueda. “That line of work grounded [us] in reality.” Two of the founders were in fact brought together by working in the same restaurant, and when Lab Rats Studio eventually came together, discovered it was shared experience among all the founders. “Waiting tables is a grind, and that experience certainly developed a willingness to work in us,” says Rueda.
As the team’s schooling eventually came to a close, a light bulb moment occurred. “At our final presentation at school, we learned of the opportunity to receive funding from Joystick Labs,” says Rueda. With backing from Joystick Labs’ accelerator program, they expanded their team to twelve, and started working full time on M.U.S.E, their first commercial game for mobile devices. “We instantly knew it was the best opportunity to design games, and we jumped at the chance. From there we were chosen to receive funding, which in turn allowed us to invest in Unity, which was an easy choice for us.”
Indeed, Rueda believes the choice of middleware has already paid off. “Unity has a wide range of tools that have been incredibly useful for us,” he says. “The asset server is great for quickly sharing our project and allowing the entire team to work out of one project folder. Occlusion culling has been important in allowing us to push the amount of geometry beyond the mobile standard, while the static and dynamic batching tools help us keep the draw calls low enough so that we aren’t killing our frame rate. PlayMaker for Unity is awesome because it lets us quickly set up in-game events and cinematics using its visual scripting tool, which has taken a large burden off of our programmers’ back. And of course, the Unity Profiler, with the hardware metrics, is key for tweaking and improving aspects of our game in real-time.”
With M.U.S.E., we wanted to bring the same kind of intensity and graphics from console gaming to the mobile platform.
Long before college, or even the Italian restaurant circuit, however, the group shared a love for the same sorts of games. “Ever since we first got into gaming, we’ve always been addicted to high-octane and visually impressive shooters like Duke Nukem and Max Payne,” says Rueda. “With M.U.S.E., we wanted to bring the same kind of intensity and graphics from console gaming to the mobile platform.” For the game’s storyline, they combined elements from the dark psychological thrillers and action movies they loved into a narrative full of twists and turns. While the story builds over the course of several episodes, the first M.U.S.E. title introduces players to the team’s 3D world and characters, the core of which centers around Sid Tripp’s fight against The Brain. “We like to describe M.U.S.E. as a world of comic book and psychological storytelling, combined with high octane arcade action,” says Rueda.
Rueda is particularly proud of this narrative presentation. “We feel the way the story unfolds [is unique]—the comic book style and psychological twists layered within the arcade action offers a unique experience,” he says, noting borrowed themes from classic stories such as Jekyll and Hyde and more contemporary psychological thrillers like Shutter Island. “Combine that story with pushing Unity’s visual capabilities for mobile platforms, and we feel M.U.S.E. offers an awesome experience.”
Ultimately, the team believes one of the most important foundational components for building its game has been its thorough iteration process. “We’ve built and rebuilt four or five different versions of our levels, and constantly perfected M.U.S.E.’s game mechanics,” says Rueda. “The reason it looks the way it does now is because of the effort we make to refine each version.” If anything, the team’s main struggle has been with optimizing the game for the hardware. “We can’t really find fault in Unity’s engine, since it’s allowed us to do an amazing job with M.U.S.E,” says Rueda. “So our main task is to make sure our game runs as well as it can on the iOS platform. Luckily, Unity has a bunch of great optimization tools which have made the development process much easier.” He also cites input from a network of industry veterans with AAA game development experience, which has helped the team refine its projects and complete its goals.
Looking forward, the team at Lab Rats sees a bright future for its scale of project. “Bringing AAA caliber titles to mobile platforms is still in its early stages, but the hardware is catching up to the next-gen engines,” says Rueda, when asked about the state of the indie games industry. “Hardcore gamers are now using mobile technology and looking for games that satisfy their tastes, and we’re looking to capitalize on this movement with M.U.S.E. and future titles. Strong visuals are a must for these titles, and we aim to deliver that to our consumers. Unity has allowed us to compensate for any hardware limitations, but as newer hardware continues to emerge, we will be able to top M.U.S.E. with more cutting edge titles.”
Advice from the front lines
“As a new studio, we’ve encountered the problems that any independent studio faces, but operating on a shoestring budget for our first title has been a big challenge,” says Rueda. That obstacle, however, has presented some learning opportunities as well: Most significantly, the importance of planning the appropriate scope for a given title. “You can’t implement every idea you have for your game, but we’ve learned where to focus, so we can deliver the best game possible considering our time and budget constraints.” Rueda says that clearly defining goals during pre-production is essential. “Strong planning will translate into a realistic project that will deliver an experience to your audience that clearly separates itself from everything else,” says Rueda. “In turn, that work will remove a lot of headaches and concerns during actual development; there are great ideas that do come from the development process, so you just have to find a balance between implementation of new features, [so] as to not prolong the dev cycle.” It’s perhaps no surprise that Lab Rats has the motto, “You get out what you put in.”
Unite and Conquer
“Unity has a bunch of great aspects that made it a natural choice for us,” says Rueda of the team’s choice. “There’s a proven track record in terms of producing high-quality games, and we get a lot of support from the documentation and community forums.” Lab Rats’ team of artists found the interface particularly intuitive for managing assets and handling tweaks.