Hellraid Re-Emerges With New Engine, Real Swordfighting

By Nathan Grayson on April 30th, 2014 at 4:00 pm.

Once not so long ago, I wrote a ’90s Saturday morning cartoon theme song for Techland’s Hellraid. Name aside, however, the first-person Diablo-esque RPG never struck me as particularly inspired, and apparently Techland agreed. The Dead Island developer has spent the past year rebuilding many elements of its demon-bopping opus, with melee combat and magic apparently gaining double the complexity. A transition into the “next-gen” Chrome Engine 6, meanwhile, is imminent, and that’ll bring better graphics, adaptive AI, and a slew of other upgrades. It’s all coming to Steam Early Access this fall, but for now I met up with producer Marcin Kruczkiewicz to discuss changes, delays, developing for PC first and foremost, the possibility of mod support, and why training with real swords is something every game developer should do.

RPS: Why the change to a new engine? Why do it this late in the development process, especially given that you were nearly ready to release a year ago?

Kruczkiewicz: The decision was based on our need to keep the quality we have now. We are developing our game mainly on PC. So every time we run our game on the previous gen consoles, it just feels outdated and not sufficient in quality compared to the PC version. So the main reasons we’re doing this is for graphical performance, and the second issue is a new arena mode that we need to be able to spawn huge amounts of enemies for. The enemies have adaptive AI, which also consumes some power.

The process of developing this game from the beginning was to have a very high quality version on PC. We then shrank the textures and simplified special effects on consoles. That resulted in poorer quality. But now we’re having a 1:1 connection between PC and the new generation of consoles – as opposed to reducing the experience on previous-gen consoles. Those versions are no longer in development.

Techland’s engine team’s main focus is now Chrome Engine 6, so we also get better animations, special effects, particle effects – all the things our engine team is working to implement in Chrome Engine 6.

RPS: You’re also putting the game on Steam Early Access, according to a very nice PDF you sent me before this interview. Why? What sorts of feedback are you hoping to get?

Kruczkiewicz: We’ve decided to include Steam Early Access in our production plan. In Autumn we are planning to invite players to participate. We want to put a piece of all three of our modes – story, mission, and arena – in the Early Access version.

Our two biggest questions for the community are balance because we have a lot of loot and items, and replayability. We need to know whether arena mode and mission mode are designed well enough to attract people for a long time. Will they want to go back and play the arena again? Will that challenge be enough of a motivation?

RPS: What happens if it’s not, or if a major feature swings and misses? Will you delay the game – now set for launch in 2015 – yet again? Are you in the Early Access game for the long haul, I guess, is what I’m asking. 

Kruczkiewicz: This is the toughest scenario, when people say, “Well guys, nice work, but the game isn’t as cool as you think it is.” We’ll need to treat that feedback seriously. When you decide to let people say what they think and then ignore it, what’s the point? If that feedback causes more delays, well, the most important thing to us is to provide a game that people love. If we’re forced to re-design something, we’ll definitely do it. Shipping a game people don’t like would be a big mistake.

RPS: What about Steam Workshop or some kind of dedicated mod support? Do you think you might pursue that?

Kruczkiewicz: Currently we have no plans for Workshop or any of that. We’re focused on the new engine and Early Access.

RPS: What else about the game has changed since you delayed it? What made you decide it wasn’t good enough in the first place? Did you not have enough skeletons? Can you ever really have enough skeletons?

Kruczkiewicz: Our combat system has evolved in the past year, but this is not strictly connected to the shift to a new engine. But last year, we decided to replace big important pieces of our game. We totally re-designed the melee system, and recently we totally re-designed the magic. A year ago we were basically ready to release the game, but then we did some serious playtesting. It appeared that the gameplay was decent, but it wasn’t fresh enough. That’s why we delayed it. So we decided to take another step and change engines too.

RPS: That’s a lot to rework. Was there ever a point where you thought Hellraid might be beyond salvaging? Or, like, it just wouldn’t hit the quality standard you were hoping for?

Kruczkiewicz: Nah. We just discovered that the player wasn’t engaged enough. For example, there were two few ways of striking in combat. The leg movement was too simple for it to be fun for the player to navigate. We also didn’t have enough power in changing distance, jumping closer to the enemy, avoiding attacks, etc. We also introduced better mechanics for shielding and parrying. It’s twice as complex as it used to be. Same goes for magic.

RPS: And you rewired the enemy AI quite a bit too, right?

Kruczkiewicz: Arena mode revealed to us that our AI wasn’t smart enough. We had to think of how our AI would behave in a group situation. Now, say, a group of skeletons doesn’t all approach at the same time. They can see that you’re dealing with their comrades, and they can get frightened and move back or seek a better position for attack. And then we realized, “Why should this AI only be in the arena? This is how warriors fight.” So we propagated it all throughout the whole game.

RPS: You took up practicing with real swords, didn’t you? I think I watched a developer diary about that.

Kruczkiewicz: Yeah, we even took up practicing with real swords. Of course that didn’t give us all the answers because we have a variety of weapons – two-handed swords, maces, clubs, etc – but we learned a lot about dynamics, speed, and trajectory.

Everything we thought we knew about swordfighting was from movies and games. It wasn’t even remotely the same as grabbing a sword. Personally, I always assumed a two-handed sword is much slower than a one-handed sword. Well, it’s not. Even simple things like that [change radically with real weapons]. At that point, we knew we didn’t need to stick to patterns everyone has in their heads.

When you grab a one-handed axe and strike a heavy hit, the trajectory is diagonal. But when you grab a two-handed axe and strike a heavy hit, it’s vertical. You only strike one enemy, not a group. So now you have more toys to play with.

It’s common and convenient to just base your combat on what everyone else is done, but I think moving from your desk and learning these things yourself creates far better fun than sticking to some rules everyone knows. I know the guys from our other team, working on Dying Light, studied and practiced parkour. That’s just kind of how Techland works.

RPS: Conceptually Hellraid reminds me a lot of Diablo, but obviously it’s quite different from a gameplay standpoint. Or at least, all the hacking and slashing and looting happens from a first-person perspective, making everything more up-close, personal, and heavy hitting. 

Kruczkiewicz: It’s not only Diablo. I remember all those early games. I’m in my 30s, so I was into a lot of games that were popular in the ’90s. So it’s not only Diablo. In fact, one of the biggest inspirations is the first game that scared me a lot when I was young. Games like Hexen and Heretic, and even the first Quake, when it was more industrially oriented. There was a darkness in it that I remember even today.

Influences are tough, though. For me it’s mostly about capturing how the player should feel in a moment – not paying exact homage to select games. The example I always give when we’re trying to design great parts of levels is from Quake. You had an empty hall and a button, and there was nothing else. Just silence and a little ambient noise. You knew you needed to press the button to make progress. You knew what you had to do, but you were scared to press the button. This feeling was priceless. It comes up once, twice a week when we’re discussing the emotional layer of our story mode or in arena mode.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

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41 Comments »

  1. Volcanu says:

    I don’t mean to be that guy, but why would a skeleton get frightened?

    • MuscleHorse says:

      Rock Paper Shotgun: I don’t mean to be that guy, but why would a skeleton get frightened?

      • Premium User Badge RedViv says:

        Buzzfeed: You’d Never Believe These 23 Ridiculously Undead-ist Comments Made In The Gaming Community

    • Premium User Badge Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      Maybe it saw itself in the mirror.

    • Keyrock says:

      Osteoporosis

    • Premium User Badge Bluerps says:

      Maybe it’s just a coward?

      • Volcanu says:

        More or less the only cowardly skeleton I can recall is the rather camp one from Super Ted…..perhaps there are others out there?

        COWARDLY SKELETONS OF THE WORLD UNITE! IT’S TIME TO COME OUT OF THE COFFIN, AND BE PROUD.

        “We’re here…we…um…FEAR, get used to it”

    • Chris D says:

      As a Necromancer I find it a little vexing that people often jump to conclusions about an art that is far more subtle and complex than might be thought at first glance. For instance, while it may appear that a skeleton is merely a brainless shambling monstrosity there are in fact a number of different ways to create them.

      It is indeed possible to simply animate them like a boney marionette but this takes concentration and is difficult to master. Frankly it would be easier to spend the time going down the gym and taking basic fencing lessons yourself.

      Some magicians have experimented with binding a sequence of command runes together into a rudimentary “artificial malevolence” but the results are generally disappointing. It’s hard to terrify superstitious peasants and unwary heroes with a dread creature of the night that has a tendency to get stuck finding a way to get past the furniture and walking into walls.

      A third way is to bind a minor spirit or demon into the skeleton but this method is dangerous and inefficient and usually only employed by brash young necromancers trying to prove a point. It can achieve good results in the short term but it will invariably come back to bite you in the end. Anyone aspiring to Lichdom has to have an eye on the long game. If you’re going to make as many enemies on the other side as we do then you need to put off going there for as long as possible.

      So the recommended method for animating skeletons is to press the souls of the damned back in the bones. Now, why would such a creature be afraid? Well, because frankly it’s the only way to get them to do anything. They have no need of food or sleep so it’s not like we can pay them ( and anyway if you’re going to do that you might as well just hire some burly lads from the local village.)

      No, fear is the only way to get an honest days work out of them. While a skeleton doesn’t tire or get hungry it should be noted that they have no natural healing abilites either. Should the creature be damaged the best case is spending eternity looking at the floor, the worst case is that we break the charm when they’re of no further use, sending them back to whatever hell they were drawn from in the first place. It’s understandable they’re afraid when you think about it.

      I’d love to chat more but I’m due at a meeting with the local Conservative party. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. I advise them on employment policy and in return…well it never hurts to know where to find a ready supply of souls of the damned in case of emergencies.

  2. derbefrier says:

    Good. It sounds like they realized they had a mediocre game and instead of just releasing it they decided to try and make it better.

    I have been looking forward to this and I am glad the decided to to rework a lot of stuff. If it has a halfway competent meleeand magic system this could prove to be a great coop game.

    • DanMan says:

      It seems they’re passionate about it. In terms of melee I expect nothing less than Chivalry. Anything less and they can have their cake and eat it, too.

  3. XhomeB says:

    “First person Diablo” ?
    I… was under the impression it’s a game in the vein of Heretic and Hexen (loved H2 especially).

  4. Lemming says:

    I get the distinct impression that RPS wants to hate this. I find the idea of a new Hexen rather exciting, personally.

    However, the ‘early access’ comment made me groan. Just make and release your fucking game, Techland.

    • Adam Smith says:

      I had a dream about a new Hexen a couple of nights ago. Best dream.

      • Nenjin says:

        I think every Hexen/Heretic player has that dream at some point.

        Personally, I’d rather see another Heretic than Hexen. Heretic was just a fresher idea than Hexen, had more interesting weapons and I dunno, just a cooler structure what with the monastery-as-a-game level design. Hexen may have played better though.

      • Lemming says:

        Were you playing it? Were you a character in it? Or even better, were you one of the weapons in it?

    • Blackcompany says:

      So its not just me. Any more, I look at Early Access and I get…sad. I wonder what effect the trend has on PC gaming as a whole. Do potential PC gamers look at this platform and say, ‘No thanks, I want a platform where games get finished’ for instance?

      Just once, I want someone to completely finish a game prior to releasing it. Someone other than the AAA publishers, that is. It would be so nice to see this cool, creative new indie/small dev project emerge completely finished and ready to play.

      • deadwanderer says:

        I’m torn about Early Access.

        On the one hand, it could easily become a “free QA” thing, or a “make money by half-assing something, and then retiring before finishing the damn thing” platform.

        On the other hand, I see potential for a Kickstarter 2.0, where you have to have not only a pitch and some concept art, but a playable beta, and then people pay to help finish development and have, well, early access to the game.

        I think it depends on the community. If we support games where the devs are actively working to develop and improve the game (Sir, You Are Being Hunted and Prison Architect come to mind), and avoid games where people are doing the lazy moneygrab for unfinished crap (no examples come to my mind, but I’ve already cited the only two Early Access games I’ve funded, so… ), then Early Access could become a powerful force for good in the indie community.

        • ucfalumknight says:

          I have backed only 2 as well. Project Zomboid (Which is moving along, but at a snails pace) and Space Engineers. Which is brilliant and has frequent updates.

    • derbefrier says:

      yeah I am he same way. the idea of playing an unfinished game, giving feedback , being a part of development is a novel idea, and very intriguing….a first. Then the novelty wears of and you just want a complete relatively bug free experience. I wont do early access anymore for most games, some like KSP for instance I think do well in early access but for most games I just bored of them before they even release. I have had to force myslf not to play Sir, you are being Hunted so I wont be bored with it by the time it releases(which is this week yay!) and I hate doing that so no more early access for me. I will pick this up when its finished though, for sure.

    • Keyrock says:

      It depends on the type of game. Some types of games are ill suited for Early Access. I won’t touch anything story-driven on Early Access, for example. A game like this, however, might benefit from Early Access quite a bit since so much of the game is built around mountains upon mountains of loot and balancing all that loot, as well as the skills that use said loot. Getting feedback from potentially thousands, or tens of thousands of people could be of great benefit to Techland, not to mention that it’s likely not a game particularly driven by story, so spoiling things for yourself shouldn’t be much of an issue.

      Plus, you can just, you know, not buy the game when it’s Early Access, and just wait until it’s fully released. Just ignore the Early Access, buy it when it releases, and it will be just like buying a finished game before. That’s what I’m doing with Wasteland 2 and Divinity: Original Sin, both games that I’m a backer of. I won’t touch them until they fully release.

    • Premium User Badge golem09 says:

      I don’t think it is that kind of early access though. No build where 20 of features present in the final build are missing, just the game without balancing and leftover bugs.

      Seriously, if you consider the Dead Island release day version, they might as well have called that “early access”

      I think this looks really good, and depending on how they handle their early access, I might even get it then.

  5. disorder says:

    With an interest in Diablo or generic zombie garbage in seemingly equal but opposite intensity to everyone else, I nearly didn’t make it to the last paragraph.

    Hexen however – now that’s different. I’d assert Quake (1) still has some of the best designed maps to play through ever designed. Because they’re just places. You don’t (I didn’t) have to ask why they’re there – they are built for the atmosphere (e3m5, or e4m4 say. And third party ones, to mention IKSPQ, Prodigy SE, Penumbra or Zerstorer series just for the first few that come to mind). As Quake 2 and Half Life came around this school of design was going away in favour of what, to me were just indistinct hubs (even Hexen 2 did, to a point – offering ‘the mayan hub’ or the ‘roman hub’ etc) and somehow that was in some ways less – they felt less grand.

    Despite aiming for more – none of them were Thief’s Cathedral. If they can pull anything off with half the atmosphere of that, they’re well above the minimum requirements for speaking my design language.

    Most intrigued, as tired as I am of the pg-13 bloodless undead.

    Incidentally – http://www.moddb.com/mods/quake-epsilon-build/

    • Lemming says:

      I agree, although the ‘distinct places’ vibe is alive and well in the third-person action genre.

  6. ResonanceCascade says:

    It’s looking more and more like Dark Messiah, which means it’s looking more and more like awesome.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      Actually, never thought about this before, but Dark Messiah WAS a pretty good “modern Hexen” in its own way.

  7. Lobotomist says:

    Question:
    Will the game have random generated maps ?

    Anyway.
    Make this + Diablo 1 generated maps , loot and mechanic = win

  8. Shooop says:

    This is beginning to take a form more interesting than just Skyrim: Dungeon Crawler.

  9. almostDead says:

    First person melee is terrible. It will be a long, long time before it is not terrible, and it will involve the Rift and motion sensors.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      Did you uh
      did you somehow miss Dark Messiah? First person melee can be BRILLIANT.
      Particularly realistic? No. But fun? Hells yes.

      • Press X to Gary Busey says:

        Dark Messiah is the bestest of times. So much fun kicking orcs down cliffs and zombies into conveniently placed spikes. I just wish the spiders were more kickable. Kicking should’ve been an entire class/skill tree.
        Please someone make more First Person Fantasy Kicking Simulators!! Who wouldn’t pledge for that kickstarter? Eyy.

    • neems says:

      Although I am well aware that I appear to be in the minority on this, I love the combat in the Dead Island games. It all comes down to using the analogue control scheme, where you use the right stick to swing your weapon around. It’s so meaty.

  10. Darth Gangrel says:

    I know there are some good melee games out there, but I still haven’t seen anything that resembles what Hellraid is trying to do and so I very much look forward to it. The combination of melee and magic makes me think of Dark Messiah. If this game is similar (except the annoying poisonous spiders, lol), then I’m really gonna enjoy playing it.

    “the guys from our other team, working on Dying Light, studied and practiced parkour” Yeah, parkour FTW! As a practitioner (or traceur as it’s called) for almost four years I can say that parkour isn’t very hard to start doing. You set your own level and work upwards from there. Dying Light sounds quite interesting and it’s actually only one of many games with parkour movement. A few years ago, only Mirror’s Edge had any kind of varied movement that involved more than running and jumping. “Ah, Mr Two Feet High Wall, my old nemesis, so we meet again!” I used to think of games.