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Creating an Adorable Relaxing Simulator Game in Unreal Engine

Slava Korolev told us more about Monterona, a simulator game where you build cute Italian neighborhoods, sharing details about the inspiration behind it, the reasons why UE was chosen for the project, delving into gameplay mechanics, and discussing future plans.

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Hey, I'm Slava! For over a year, I've been working on a cozy, relaxing game, Monterona. In Monterona, you listen to grandma's stories and build little adorable Italian neighborhoods.

Creating my own game has been my dream since I was a child, but I barely did anything about it except a small racing game I created using Dark BASIC when I was around 12. Last year, though, I decided that I could try again, and here I am, giving an interview about my game. Pretty cool, right?

Being a Solo Developer

While working on Monterona, I'm still holding a full-time job as a Software Engineer (which I also like a lot). It puts me in a pretty comfortable position, where I don't feel pressured to do things in a certain way in my game or finish it before some artificial deadline. At the same time, having a full-time job and a family that I want to spend time with makes it difficult to find enough time to work on a game. It forces me to choose priorities carefully, which is hard, especially when working on my first game.

As a Solo Developer, you are responsible for all the parts yourself — coding, art, marketing, sound design, etc. It's tricky but fun at the same time. As a Software Engineer, the coding part is the smallest problem for me — making the game look decent and letting people know about it are definitely more challenging. I'm lucky to have the opportunity to buy some assets or pay a contractor to write music, but it's still up to me to keep everything coherent, consistent, and generally aligned with what I have in mind.

The Game Idea & Inspirations

I've always liked strategy and economical games, such as The Settlers or Civilization series. So initially, I wanted to do something like The Settlers but with an interesting, challenging grid system and vibe of an evolving European city. However, when I started prototyping, it felt so good just to place buildings in various ways, so I decided to keep it as a central mechanic and make the game more relaxing and cozy. 

To give myself more freedom, I decided that the player would build towns in someone's imagination. It still lacked some main idea, though — why would you make cozy towns in your imagination? After some days of thinking, I finally came up with the final (a.k.a current) concept of the game — a child who's going to visit his grandma in her small town in Italy asks her to tell him about this town, and while she's telling stories, he imagines it in his head! This way, I can give a player some reason for what they're building but at the same time keep it very chill, with no pressure or daunting goals. Plus, I've been to Italy many times, and I love it!

After these changes, my inspirations shifted from complex economic strategies to more casual, relaxing games like Townscaper and Islanders. I used a "Townscaper-like" grid system in my prototype and decided to keep it because it gave me the exact vibe of a small Italian town I needed. Don't worry, the creator of Townscaper is absolutely fine with it.

With the latest features I introduced, such as decorating houses and streets, you can feel some inspiration from the Sims series too. I also follow the development of other incredible indie games like Tiny Glade and Islands & Trains. It's really nice to see this type of game getting attention from both developers and gamers.

Why Unreal Engine 5 & Stylized Graphics

Because my experience in game development was almost zero when I started, I faced a choice that most new game developers face: which game engine to choose? At that moment, I knew only about Unity and Unreal Engine (sorry, Godot and others). I started prototyping in Unity but quickly faced some decisions I had to make that I didn't have enough knowledge to actually make. The biggest one was choosing the render pipeline. Not understanding the difference and fearing that some assets from the store wouldn't work with whatever I chose forced me to try Unreal Engine, and I've been happy with it since. I was not afraid of C++, and everything went smoothly.

Don't get me wrong, I think both engines are great tools, and after a year of development, I definitely can understand the difference in Unity pipelines better, but starting with Unreal Engine was easier for me (which is unusual, I think).

Unreal Engine is famous for its hyper-realistic graphics, but from the very beginning, I decided that my art skills weren't enough to handle it. Plus, I always liked the stylized look more. Making a stylized game in Unreal Engine is quite interesting. Sometimes, you fight with it to make visuals "less good", but on the other side, you can easily mix in some nice things like lighting that is available out of the box.

Monterona's Gameplay Mechanics

The central part of the game is building and decorating. You can make cute little houses, add narrow streets and piazzas, put grass and trees, and add rivers and lakes. You can also place objects and decorations to make places unique and individual. The interesting part about objects is that they behave differently depending on their place and surroundings — the same "greenery" object will be a tree if you place it on the grass or a flower in the pot if you place it on the balcony. There are a lot of things that can change objects, such as their size, place, time of the day, proximity to other objects, etc. That makes it exciting to just move things around and explore new possibilities. And you can walk on the streets you build!

To keep the game interesting, each grandma's story features some unique buildings. For example, in one story, you can learn about the kind owner of the local bakery, and in another, you will hear a funny story of how grandma became a friend with an actor from a local theater. Each story will give you unique objects that you can use. There is no way to lose. It's up to you to decide how you "see" the story Grandma tells. In the end, you can see how others "imagined" the same story and share your masterpiece with the world. I also plan to add a possibility to create your own stories and play stories created by other players.

Marketing & Plans

I only have time to do a little marketing. However, I think sharing what you are working on with others is very important — this way you can get much-needed feedback and understand in which direction you should move. I mostly post updates on Twitter and, occasionally, on TikTok, but I plan to post there more. The audience is different between these two platforms. On Twitter, it's easier to find other developers and artists, and on TikTok, you'll get more feedback from actual players. At least, that's how it works for me.

My current goal is to finish a playable demo that I can share with more people and get more feedback. At first, it will include the basic mechanics and stories, but I plan to constantly improve and extend it until I'm happy with all parts of the game. So, if you like what I'm doing, follow me on Twitter or TikTok and wishlist the game! Thank you!

Slava Korolev, Indie Game Developer

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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