Professional Services
Order outsourcing

Creating a Story-Driven RPG With Mature Stories in Unreal Engine

Fool's Theory told us more about their upcoming game, The Thaumaturge, delving into the technical side of the project, sharing how the game was created in Unreal Engine, and detailing the team's approach to designing environments and building characters.


Jakub Rokosz, CEO:

Fool's Theory, founded in 2015, is based in the southern Polish town of Bielsko-Biała. While the core team continues to live and work in Bielsko, the onset of the pandemic has led us to shift predominantly to remote work, with most employees now working from home. Currently, Fool's Theory has just over 80 employees. Right now, we have two projects in the works – we're finishing The Thaumaturge and working on the Witcher 1 Remake with CD Projekt Red. At the moment, we are in the process of expanding, aiming to reach a workforce of 120 within the next 2-3 years. The primary mission of Fool's Theory is to develop narrative-rich games that convey mature stories. Our focus is on creating games with ambiguous choices that provoke thoughtful reflection on human nature.

The Thaumaturge

Karolina Kuzia, Design Director:

Imagine being able to uncover people's most secret thoughts, emotions, and desires simply by touching everyday objects that belong to them. Would you be loved? Wanted in the company? Or perhaps, would you be lonely and feared? Adding to this extraordinary ability, you'd also have the power to see and tame mystical creatures, invisible to most. Again, what would others think of you? What would your life look like? This is the fantasy we present, set against the backdrop of a saucy period in 1905, full of intrigue and unrest in the heart of Europe.

At its core, thaumaturgy is the mysterious power of extracting others' secrets and subtly manipulating them to do your bidding. The Thaumaturge is a story about what you desire in a world where every secret can be yours. To translate this fantasy into gameplay mechanics, we've developed snappy combat with Salutors (mythical creatures of various origins) as your aid. Additionally, there's a system of "investigation," where you uncover others' secrets hidden in everyday objects and later use this knowledge to progress.

Moreover, there is the concept of a Flaw. Flaws are inherent imperfections in character carried by people. Every Thaumaturge also possesses a Flaw, as it serves as an allurement for salutors. A skillful thaumaturge can uncover someone's Flaw and eventually extract it, taking it over. Sometimes, if such a Flaw is followed by a salutor, the salutor will now serve the thaumaturge who took control of the Flaw.

In this project, we delve into the everyday life of a miracle worker who could have existed during that time. We dare to tell the story of what we truly desire and what we would do to achieve it.

The Technical Side of the Game

Jakub Rokosz, CEO:

We are a company that has been utilizing Unreal Engine since the inception of Fool's Theory, and our familiarity with it made it an easy choice, especially considering its versatility and suitability for AA+/AAA development. From the beginning, we recognized that a significant challenge for this game would be the development of a large volume of high-quality cinematic content.

To address this multifaceted challenge, we implemented various custom solutions. These ranged from the modularity of characters, as Jakub Wajda details below, to investing in an in-house magnetic motion capture solution (Xsense) and developing complex in-house cinematic tools. One such tool is our Dialogue Creation Tool, which enabled us to produce over 400 dialogues for The Thaumaturge, comprising more than 40,000 sequencers, with just four cinematic designers. We understood that to achieve the quality we envisioned for this game, we needed to focus on accelerating mundane processes and ensuring modularity in the content created by our tools so that only parts of it could be tweaked without the need to redo whole scenes.

The Dialogue Creation Tool has been developed with a focus on modularity, from its core features to the finer details. This includes its design as a plug-and-play plugin, now licensed to other studios, and extends to the minute aspects of how our cinematic scenes are assembled and the modular nature of these components. Moreover, we have placed a strong emphasis on generative features. It's important to note that this tool was created in the pre-AI era, meaning all of its generation algorithms are relatively simple. However, even these straightforward algorithms have enabled us to achieve impressive results in accelerating the work of our cinematic designers, freeing them from the time-consuming tasks of routine setups.

The Dialogue Creation Tool, developed by a few of our programmers and designers over the last couple of years, quickly showed its potential in production. It enabled the rapid generation of cinematic cameras (multiple predefined camera cuts) and animation content (idles, gestures, emotions, lookats, vo, lipsync) in the early stages. The modularity of our dialogues meant we could modify specific parts as needed, and creating generative content early in production helped avoid numerous re-dos, saving both time and money. By prototyping and recording almost all our animation content in-house on Xsense, our cinematic designers could quickly implement changes requested by the story department, reducing scene revision times from days to hours.

In summary, the significant time and effort invested by our engineers and designers in developing this tool have multiplied the speed of the entire creation process. This efficiency not only saved time but also allowed us to allocate funds to other production areas.

Regarding the trade-offs, it requires considerable time, energy, and financial resources to develop tools like these. In the early stages of development, they often don't function as intended, which can lead to frequent regenerations and re-implementations of cinematic content. However, if you start this journey with a clear understanding that there will be a need for redoing content in the early stages to prevent reiterations later on, I believe it is entirely worthwhile.

Our Approach to Environment Design

Maciej Zakowicz, Lead Enviro Artist:

The approach to the design of the game environment was quite a complex issue and changed significantly during development. In the initial phase of creating turn-of-the-century Warsaw, our approach was, if I may put it that way, quite "casual". We did not attach too much importance to historical accuracy. We tried to create interesting locations that were not necessarily reflected in the real architecture of the period. Our approach to the game environment evolved along with the development of the whole project. The development of the storyline forced the Environment Art team to create more and more diverse locations. The increased number of them meant that we had to face the problem of the visual identification of the different parts of the city.

In The Thaumaturge, Wiktor wanders through both the rich, rapidly developing districts, such as Śródmieście, and those less representative and urbanized, and even the dirty, but still very interesting, full-of-life areas of Port Praski, Powiśle or Grzybowska Street. We must remember that turn-of-the-century Warsaw was a cultural melting pot inhabited by people professing different religions, coming from different backgrounds, and representing different interests. It was this diversity that became a challenge for us on the one hand, and on the other hand that proved to be the answer to the problem of visual differentiation of the levels in the game.

Although the described Warsaw belongs to a parallel dimension, where we will encounter magic and Salutors, to maintain credibility while recreating the real locations, we reached for many historical sources. Plans of the city from the period in which the game's action takes place were very helpful. We have to remember that Warsaw was almost entirely destroyed during the Second World War (especially during the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944). Most of the locations exist only in black and white photographs from over 100 years ago. A great help for us was the collection of documents and photographs, which are freely available on websites dealing with the preservation of Poland's cultural heritage.

In a way, The Thaumaturge takes us on a journey back in time to places that no longer exist, to the country's capital, which was once called the 'Paris of the East'. Thanks to the game, we will visit places and buildings that no longer exist and that once adorned the city: the Vienna Railway Station, the "Gościnny Dwór" (an oval city market with beautiful arcades and a colonnade), the Green Square, but also those that have survived or have been rebuilt, such as the Cathedral of Saint Mary Magdalene, the Church of the Holy Trinity, or the Nożyk Synagogue. To present the diversity mentioned earlier in the game, we could not limit ourselves only to the cobbled streets of the center of Warsaw. While learning the secrets of the Szulski family, we will also visit more than once the more obscure districts of lesser fame.

From a technical point of view, it proved to be a challenge to present the different districts of the city in an interesting yet "compressed" way. The isometric camera has its own rules. We view the world from above for the majority of the game. Tall objects have become problematic. The early prototypes already showed that when designing locations, we would have to significantly reduce the heights of architectural objects and introduce a gradual gradation of their heights. Although all large buildings were reduced by an average of 50% in the game, they lost nothing of their character. Wide, cobbled alleys, for example, have also become an additional problem from an isometric perspective. A screen filled with huge stretches of an undifferentiated surface is not something we want to see in the game.

For this reason, The Thaumaturge found it useful to adopt the approach often used in the creation of dioramas. We reduced the monotonous areas as much as possible to fill the locations with details. The resulting dioramas are about the size of one or two city quarters. Since recognizability and uniqueness were equally important to us when designing the levels, the locations of some buildings were changed. As ease of recognition and uniqueness of designed spaces were equally important to us, the locations of some buildings had to be changed. This also helped make it easier for players to orient themselves on different levels.

An additional flavor that is unique to our alternative Warsaw is certain architectural details that appear here and there and relate directly to specific Salutors. Where are they located? That is left for the players to discover.

Building Characters

Jakub Wajda, Lead Character Artist:

The workflow that allows us to build characters so efficiently is based on modularity and reuse. We strive to use each character element in multiple ways. A change of color, material, or even a small alteration in shape allows us to create a completely new asset. This approach has greatly sped up our work in diversifying our community in The Thaumaturge.

The goal was to design a modular character system and create assets adapted to it, that we could mix and match. This process resembles character creator systems found in many RPG games. It enabled us to interchange elements such as hats, gloves, pants, boots, and smaller items like glasses. We also incorporated numerous sets of hairstyles and facial hair assets into that system.

Furthermore, all of our characters have been divided into three archetypes – male, female, and child – and these, in turn, are split into different body types. Throughout the production process, we tried to create a sufficiently rich asset base for each archetype and each body type. Each of our body types was based on its unique skeleton asset, but thanks to the built-in tools in UE, we could use the same animations for different characters in such a way that they worked correctly despite different proportions.

We developed a diverse system that formed the basis of our workflow; however, not every asset could be approached in the same way. Some required individual solutions, such as Salutors. In those cases, we prioritized their uniqueness, often necessitating a highly individualized approach, especially when it came to shaders.

Final Words and Pieces of Advice

Jakub Rokosz, CEO:

Creating a non-linear game of this scale with a team of around 60 people over 2-3 years while also transitioning from AA to AA+ (or "Triple I," as it's sometimes called) quality is a significant undertaking. At Fool's Theory, we're committed to continuous improvement and aspire to create games that are better and of higher quality. The move towards more cinematic-heavy content was a strategic step to prepare us for AAA game development. The entire process of developing The Thaumaturge has been an immense learning experience for us. We've grown and learned a great deal, and we hope that The Thaumaturge will demonstrate that creating quality cinematic narrative content doesn't require a massive studio. With the right tools and a smart approach to resource and time management, a smaller team can achieve impressive results.

Fool's Theory

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

Join discussion

Comments 0

    You might also like

    We need your consent

    We use cookies on this website to make your browsing experience better. By using the site you agree to our use of cookies.Learn more