Naval Action by Game-Labs
Published: April 3. 2014
Game-Labs’ impressive Naval Action is anything but watered down
Developed by Ukrainian startup Game-Labs, Naval Action finds itself virtually alone in a genre, far away from the vast majority of modern-day action titles. As its remarkably straightforward title implies, it’s a naval combat game set aboard the very sailboats that dominated the high seas for centuries.
“Since I was a kid I wanted to recreate real battles of the glorious Age of Sail, and there are a lot of people like me,” says Game-Labs creative director Maxim Zasov, referring to the period in which international trade and naval warfare were dominated by sailing ships, stretching from the 16th through the mid-19th century. He and his team have steadily followed the genre, from titles like Pirates of the Burning Sea to Pirates of the Caribbean and Sid Meier’s Pirates, to the 1996 PC title Age of Sail and more recent Assassin’s Creed games. “Standing on the shoulders of giants makes our job easier; we’re extremely passionate about our game, and I think it shows in the quality of the product.”
Zasov says the game is very much made for Age of Sail enthusiasts: aspiring privateers, naval officers, pirates and traders. Game-Labs is adhering to the Star Citizen model, shipping the game to users in parts, and actively involving community in the development process well before those features are even designed. (The game is already in combat focus testing with players.) “The current market is a dream-come-true for game developers,” he says. “You can approach the customer directly, and distribution is instant and global. Atomization of demand has created new niches that you can serve profitably. Servers and storage becoming cheaper, and tools are almost free. It is truly a renaissance for videogames.”
“Unity is partly responsible for this landscape change,” Zasov continues. “Competition is high, but that’s a good thing because it washes out bad and uninspiring creators. Unity as a whole is a great tool, which gave us the opportunity to prototype any kind of gameplay we wanted, in a very user-friendly form.” The team has been using several custom replacements to existing Unity solutions, which Zasov says were implemented rather easily thanks to Unity’s architecture. “Unity’s prefab system is one of the best solutions for keeping structured data, and of course we should thank Unity for Mecanim, with its retargeting system and nice implementation of animation trees. Asset and build pipelines were big for us. We love to customize assets and build internal data by C# code during import, and alter build steps with our own scripts.”
The Game-Labs team is comprised of four full-time developers and several additional part-time artists, some of whom have previously worked together in various capacities—and played together, as well. “We come from various hardcore PvP gaming communities and have played games all our lives,” says Zasov. “In software and entertainment industries it’s always very hard to find the right, motivated people, and we spent some good time building the team. We’ve invested a lot of time into visual style research and prototyping—even at a cost of potential future rework—but it’s all paying off. We’re already throwing away or rewriting a lot of code that we have created during prototyping, but it’s still cheaper than going [ahead with] full-scale production on a product no one likes or wants.”
Zasov believes that while it’s impossible to create large quantities of content with a small team such as his own, the market has proven that players care about gameplay most of all. “To be able to achieve spectacular results, you need to have laser focus on what one customer wants, and deliver the highest production value possible,” he says. “The hardest thing is finding that, keeping focus and not getting distracted by things players don’t really need. The industry landscape is filled with the remains of the developers who tried to put everything in their games, and you can only overcome this by cutting features, scope, and designs—and if you think you’ve taken everything out, you need to cut more. By creating a critical mass at a narrow point, you can win against any AAA studio that will never be able to react because they need 10 committees to make a decision and you don’t.”
With Game-Labs’ approach to development, momentary flashes of inspiration regularly spur new features. “Every day we’re finding new ways to implement our ideas, and Unity supports it,” he says. “One of the biggest finding for us and a ‘lightbulb’ moment was the simplicity of making our own solution for the ocean, lighting and physics. When we started, we were preparing for hours and days of research, but in reality it took a lot less time and effort to make it work and look great.”
Ultimately, the choice to develop with Unity was an easy one for Zasov and his team. “[It was] a ‘natural selection’ kind of product for us—there are no alternatives for it at the moment,” says Zasov. “There are engines with better rendering/lighting pipelines, but most of them don’t allow you to work efficiently. Unity chose the best set of technologies, improving efficiency on every aspect of the game: programming, art, gameplay tweaks. We believe that Unity is a disruptive technology, and it will eventually surpass all development environments, ‘rendering’ them obsolete.”
Pun, he says, only slightly intended.
Sailing for Real
“Realism is important, but fun, deep and interesting gameplay is our foremost priority,” says creative director Maxim Zasov of Game-Labs’ upcoming Naval Action. “We have to keep the balance to not make it tedious for the player. That said, our game has the most realistic portrayal of the combat age of sailing vessels in a multiplayer game.” They’re being particular in their attention to the smallest of details: the game’s recreation of the USS Constitution features its 1812 hull and stern—the one that actually saw combat during the War of 1812 against England. The wind, your sail plan, yard angles, ship hull and mass all affect ship speed and maneuverability.
Every cannon ball fired in the game is tracked: it can hit a broadside, cut through the carriage tackle, disable the gun, injure the crew, ignite some black powder or hit another side of the ship. Your ship’s heel affects your firing distance, and can block firing completely, creating tactical decision mechanics. Guns have realistic range, dispersion and damage. “Overall, our goal is to make you will feel exactly like the 18th century commodore commandeering the ship into battle,” says Zasov. “Based on the focus tests, we were able to make it very fun.”
Unity Asset Store
“We were using the Unity Asset Store a lot during prototyping,” says Game-Labs creative director Maxim Zasov, of his team’s approach to development. “The most useful thing for us has been ManufacturaK4 assets—we love these guys, and the quality of their work. The team has also made use of Unity assets (from examples and tutorials), Mixamo animations and models, NGUI and some other UI systems, which we used to learn how to make our own UI system.” He says the Ultimate FPS plug-in even allowed the team to create a great little FPS prototype, some ideas from which it’s using for its other games in development.