Ghost World

Ghost of a Tale by Lionel Gallat

Published: May 10. 2013


One-man army Lionel Gallat takes on his upcoming action-adventure, Ghost of a Tale

Determining whether Ghost of a Tale is a “small game” or a “big game” depends very much on your perspective. On its Indiegogo crowd-funding page, developer Lionel “Seith” Gallat describes it as “a small game where you play a little mouse on a quest in a medieval world populated by animals.” Watch the video showing alpha footage of the game, however, and what you’ll see looks a great deal more like World of Warcraft than it does Super Meat Boy. The game’s massive 3D environments brim with life, gentle waves lapping up against a rocky beach as skeletal monsters emerge from both land and water. The heroic mouse’s animation feels like something you’d see in a game built by a large team, not a single person.


Gallat, who has served as a supervising animator in the movie industry for more than 15 years, spent time at Dreamworks working on The Prince Of Egypt, The Road to Eldorado, Sinbad and SharkTale. More recently, he was the animation director for Universal Studios' Despicable Me and The Lorax, before deciding to go out on his own as a game developer. “We’re a grand total of one, including myself,” says Gallat. “Working on my own allows me to develop my skills in several different domains—it's very stimulating. The nice side-effect is that if I temporarily get bored of working on one aspect of the game I can put on another hat and do something completely different, while still effectively working towards the same goal.” While he says he misses the creative interaction with team members he had working on films, he’s often checking in with friends and former colleagues to get creative feedback on his endeavor.


Getting the project on its feet was, in Gallat’s words, “extremely easy.” “As a hobby I had worked previously with another engine where I, as an artist, felt trapped: I didn't know how to program in C++, and things looked extremely daunting from a technical point of view. But when I switched to Unity it was nothing short of a revelation.” As a Maya user, Gallat says, “the Unity methodology felt very comfortable right away—the two applications are complementary with minimum fussing. I was able to bring my assets within the engine really quickly and painlessly —it can't get any simpler than exporting an FBX file, can it? So Unity literally opened new horizons for me at a time when I was stuck.” He says that the only significant hurdle was the fact that Unity doesn’t support vertex coloring by default. “You have to program the feature into the existing shaders,” he says. “Thankfully, that's a fairly simple task to accomplish, but it didn't feel as smooth as the rest of the experience in terms of user-friendliness. So let's say I'm eagerly waiting for the upcoming shader editor that will hopefully simplify the process!”


Having no teammates to lean on has proven challenging, but Gallat is far from daunted by the proposition. “Since I work alone I can only rely on myself—that's the most difficult part of course,” he says. “That, and learning the C# programming language in order to put what I had in mind within Unity.” Still, he says it took just a couple of weeks before he felt like he knew what he was doing inside the editor. “And I have to say, I was rescued more than once by the vast and knowledgeable Unity community, which is awesome.” The path to game development wasn’t entirely clear for Gallat. “As I mentioned, I worked for a long time with another engine, and I had come to the frustrating conclusion that making a game to the level of quality that I wanted was maybe not possible for me,” he says. “That's when someone told me, ‘You should check out Unity.’ So I did, and right away I appreciated the fact that everything in the editor seemed to be geared towards making the user's life easier; it was simple, clear and elegant. Coincidentally, it was at that time that Unity started supporting DirectX11 and visual features I needed for the game, such as depth of field and color curves. So if I hadn't found Unity, I just would have had to give up my dream of developing Ghost of a Tale. That must count for something!”


Thus far, Gallat says the most important weapon in his arsenal has been Unity’s animation tool, Mecanim. “The control it gives me is absolutely fantastic,” he says. “It manages to simplify what can potentially be an enormously complicated aspect of the game—character animation—but at the same time it gives me a very fine level of control—a bit like with editing software—over the transitions. Coupled with some simple scripting to manage custom parameters based on player input, it's an ideal workflow.” He says the recent addition of the 2D blend feature has helped even more with visualizing the process: “Overall Unity's system of writing short behavior scripts and simply dragging and dropping them onto game objects to create new functionality seems like a dream.”


While at first he didn't expect to be making use of the Unity Asset Store, Gallat eventually discovered that his particular workflow (in term of level design) wasn't entirely supported by Unity right out of the box. “So I found two packages that helped me tremendously,” he says. The first was Decal System, developed by Edelweiss Interactive. “It makes creating decals a breeze, and it's very fast in terms of draw calls,” he says. “The support is top-notch, and this system allows me to slap beautiful decals anywhere I want at almost no cost. Oh, and it's free—although I donated money because it's so good. In fact, it's so good that in my opinion it should be included in Unity by default!” The second package Gallat discovered was Advanced Foliage Shader by Larsbertram1. “By default, Unity forces you to use a standard terrain asset in order to place vegetation that's affected by the wind,” he says. “But sometimes the ‘deformed plane’ paradigm just won’t do; for an overhang edge, for example, or a steep cliff. I'm used to modeling my terrain meshes in Maya; that way I can get localized complexity and I'm not limited to a plane. And this package allows me to put vegetation objects anywhere I want, while still benefiting from procedural bending in the wind. It's a shader system that works in conjunction with the meshes' vertex coloring to define how the vegetation assets are going to flutter in the wind.”


Ghost of a Tale is slightly more than halfway to its modest goal of 45,000€. Gallat says that it’s unlikely he’ll be able to finish the game without this investment, so head over to the game’s Indiegogo page to secure your DRM-free copy of the game (along with a host of cool perks should you be so inclined). The campaign ends on May 20th, so don’t dawdle.


Under the Influence

Ghost of a Tale is inspired mostly by the old Disney movies Gallat saw as a kid…and, perhaps not coincidentally, right around the time he learned how to animate. He cites other formative influences such as Watership Down, The Secret of Nimh, The Dark Crystal and Redwall. When it comes to games, Gallat points to both the Gothic and Risen series—which he says have had “certainly more than a passing influence on the gameplay”—along with modern classics such as Ico and Dark Souls.

Ghost of a Tale

Mouse in Spaaaace

“When I realized the usefulness of prefabs in Unity, that was a nice epiphany,” recalls Lionel Gallat of his early days with the software. “But the first time I put an item in the hand of the player character—a mouse—I forgot to remove the collider from the item.” This meant that when he started the game, the character steadily rocketed into the sky as his and the item's collider where fighting to get over each other during the evaluation of each frame. “I can claim to be the first person ever to have inadvertently put a mouse with a lute into orbit,” he says. “A dubious accomplishment at best, I know.”

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