Defying gravity

Rochard by Recoil Games

Published: October 20. 2011

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Recoil Games knocks it out of the galaxy with PSN hit Rochard.

Rochard protagonist and over-worked asteroid miner John Rochard may be voiced by Jon St. John—the same actor behind the infamous Duke Nukem—but that doesn’t mean he’s derivative. In fact, this blue-collar worker-turned-hero has something that sets him far apart: a powerful gravity gun. The result is a side-scrolling action-platformer with a very different feel from anything before it, and its combination of smart puzzles and engaging mechanics have made it one of the most critically-acclaimed PSN titles to date.

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Rochard came together as a result of numerous ideas and prototypes the Recoil team conceived during the pre-production phase, which involved nearly all of the game’s 18 team members contributing and evolving the concept. Once pre-production was over, things came together remarkably quickly. “We had the first working prototypes of gravity-based platforming gameplay working within a week, largely thanks to Unity providing such a solid and versatile starting point,” says founder and CEO Samuli Syvähuoko. “It was not trivial, but with Unity and an experienced team of developers we managed to prove all the key features rapidly and without too much hardship.”

Rochard

The team at Recoil was well aware that their game would be the first PlayStation 3 title to be built with Unity, but was quick to choose it anyway. “After evaluating Unity briefly, we were totally blown away by the rapid iterations it allowed for in prototyping,” says Syvähuoko. “Being able to play the game instantly after making changes to the content, and the ability to tweak the game even in runtime was also a big plus. We were convinced from the start that Unity would be our choice for the engine, despite the scope of Rochard [being on] the larger side.” Indeed, there are no regrets. “It proved to be a very wise decision; a straightforward content pipeline is a key factor in game development, and Unity has it beautifully implemented,” says Syvähuoko. He says the fact that Unity is not tailored to a specific genre was a big bonus for the team, which needed to integrate the ability to control gravity into every aspect of gameplay, from platforming to combat to puzzles. “We were able to create our own game systems with simplicity and elegance we aimed for. There was no need to force the engine to do something it was not supposed to do.” Syvähuoko also says that Unity’s expandability was essential: “For Rochard, we didn't use any pre-made tools, but instead created quite a few ourselves,” he says. This included tools for everything from localization to A.I. (see sidebar for a full list), and Recoil is now considering offering some of those tools in the Asset Store in the near future.

> Every discipline has benefited from us using Unity

Of course, producing AAA quality games is no easy task, but Recoil found ways around this. In total the team was 18 strong, including management, four designers, four programmers, six artists and an animator, as well as some freelance and outsourced work, most notably in music, sound effects and QA. “Naturally, you have certain restrictions when working on a top quality game with a relatively small team and a tight schedule, but there are various ways to reduce the impact of that,” says Syvähuoko. The first, he says, is choosing a readily available, widely used and proven game engine: “Luckily for us, Unity was all that and more.” Having a team of multitalented people was a huge benefit for Rochard as well, in order to keep things running smoothly. “Level designers or effect artists that can also write Unity scripts are worth more than their weight in turbinium,” says Syvähuoko, referring to the elusive element that space miner John Rochard spends his days and nights searching for. “That way, the delays caused by dependencies between people can be minimized.” This extended to all parts of the team, but designers most of all. “Every discipline has benefited from us using Unity, but the biggest impact was in the work of the level designers,” says Syvähuoko. “With adequate coding skills they were able to prototype stuff on their own, freeing up our coder resources to other areas. The ease of importing assets was also something everybody loved, because it made experimenting with stuff a breeze.”

As an action-oriented puzzle platformer where the players get to manipulate the gravity to their advantage, Rochard sounds far-reaching. But in fact it’s a very targeted, tight experience, and Syvähuoko insists that keeping “feature creep” down was an essential part of what let the development process run according to plan. “Decide early on what are your key features and stick to those,” he says. “If mid development you get a marvelous idea that would improve the game immensely, but would cause trouble schedule wise, save it for the sequel. Concentrate on what is important, unique and special about your game, and make that work really well.”

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With the success Rochard has been having on PSN, Recoil now plans to bring the game to an even wider audience. “Unity makes it very easy for us to bring Rochard to several other platforms, which is another killer benefit of the engine,” says Syvähuoko. Some platforms are more straightforward than others, however; for instance, the game currently utilizes all except one button on the PS3 controller. “While we can change the control scheme in many ways, there is a limit to how far we can go, which basically rules some platforms out. Regardless of platform, the controls always need to be intuitive and fun.” Recoil will be making some announcements regarding next platforms in the near future.

For Syvähuoko, having the finished project be so well received has made all the blood, sweat and tears worthwhile. “The absolute highpoint of the project was when we invited press people to play the final game at the office before launch,” he recalls. “Seeing their reactions confirmed our thoughts—that we had created a very fun game! Most of them played the game for the whole day, only taking a couple of hasty bathroom breaks and a quick bite.” And if that’s not the sure sign of success, we’re not sure what is.

Tools of the Trade

Here’s a list of the major tools Recoil created with Unity in order to bring Rochard to life. The team is currently considering releasing several of them on the Unity Asset Store in the near future.

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Studio City

“Running a game studio is very challenging, and developing a game is a creative process that includes a lot of uncertainties and high risks,” says Recoil founder and CEO Samuli Syvähuoko. His tips? “Keep the costs down, stay small, create a prototype of your game and keep working on it until the gameplay shines. Only after this [should you] start ramping up for full production. Most importantly, ship something quickly and then create a sequel or add downloadable content. And remember to have fun while doing it!”

State of the Game

The games industry is changing, with old retail business models losing ground to digital distribution, and this is something Recoil founder and CEO Samuli Syvähuoko expects will continue. “Digital download has allowed the rise of the indie, and we will see more hugely successful games coming from small independent developers,” he says. “There are very interesting times ahead. We are heading into the last couple of years of this generation of consoles. The PC market is doing very good at the moment and will keep rising. Free-to-play is getting big, especially [with] digital distribution.”

Read more about Rochard and Recoil Games

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