Transitioning from free download to paid release is a tough task. But one which Barcelona-based indie team Lince Works intend to conquer with their game, Twin Souls: The Path of Shadows. Starting life as a student project at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Path of Shadows, as it was then titled, gathered a strong following with its blend of solid stealth and eye-catching visuals.
“I started making small games for Android when I got my first smartphone, just 2-D games, then when I learnt 3-D modelling as part of my degree, I started taking more of an interest in doing this as a career,” says David Léon, designer and co-founder of Lince Works. “People tell you that you can’t earn money making games, at least in Spain, because there’s not much of an industry here,” he continues. “But after programing stuff for banks and things like that, I understood that wasn’t my dream job, so I did a Masters degree in computer science with two of my partners.
“Right now, we have three programmers and five artists. The programmers started off doing a computer science degree here in Barcelona,” he says. “That’s when we made Path of Shadows. It was our Masters degree project. We had to create a game in less than eight months.”
On a student budget, David and the rest of the team didn’t have funds for photorealism and hyper-polished shooting, so they came up with ways around their limitations, while still making a game worth playing. “For the art style, we had to find something that was easy to do and didn’t take up too many resources,” says Léon. “We didn’t want to have to find a lot of high quality textures, so we went for the cel-shaded look. It was a lot easier for the artists to design and paint the concepts, and that was the same for the game itself.
“We had to find a smaller scope and a stealth game is really good for that, because you usually have just one character, with one set of mechanics and a small amount of enemies in each level. Then the effort can be spent of good level design, good game mechanics and artificial intelligence. It just started as this idea, ‘let’s do a game about something catchy, like what if you’re an assassin that can control the shadows?’ It just all came together.”
Pleased with their progress and eager to share it with others, David shared Path of Shadows online, and got a big response. “When we finished the project, it was just a game of three levels, maybe 20 minutes of gameplay, and I posted it on Reddit,” Léon says. “It literally exploded. I put something like, ‘students in Barcelona made a stealth game’ and people loved it. People started doing Let’s Plays on YouTube and that sort of stuff, people really dug it.”
Encouraged by their success and by feedback from newfound fans, the team of students formed Lince Works, taking inspiration from Catalonian wildlife and their fellow Spanish developers. “So we’d found that there was a demand for this kind of stealth that’s a bit lost today,” says Léon. “Games like Assassin’s Creed or Splinter Cell, have turned it more toward action than stealth. You can just go, up front, to an enemy, stab him and kill him, so it doesn’t really feel tense. You don’t really get the sensation that ‘I’m infiltrating an enemy camp, and if I’m seen, I’m screwed’. We wanted to make a stealth game where you really want to be stealthy, where combat is not an option.
“It’s really difficult to find a title for a company, everything is taken already. I don’t know how we narrowed it down to cats, but the cat is one of the symbols of Catalonia, where we are and it’s a stealthy animal. In the end it was lynx, because it one of the most famous animals in Hispanic fauna is the Spanish Lynx, and also we found that it’s the Latin word for something that emits light, so it just came together. ‘Lince’, the Spanish word for lynx, to have some sort of connection to Spain, and to the stealthy animal, and ‘works’ is a homage to Tequila Works, one of the biggest studios here in Spain.”
Like many other indie projects, Lince Works took Twin Souls to KickStarter. “We had very early footage, just the characters moving around.” Léon says. “The textures were pretty rough, they lacked some polish. That’s what we used because we didn’t have much money, and we didn’t want to depend on bank loans. We had to rush it. It didn’t really work out, because we launched it at the same time as a steam store sale, which we didn’t know was the same week. That, and because KickStarter doesn’t have the same strength that it had just one or two years ago. After that, the only choice was bank loans, and personal loans, so that’s where we are now. We’re surviving, but we have to repay it, so we’re trying to find a publisher to help us along the way. Being in Spain, it’s more difficult. In other places, it’s far easier to go to events like PAX and GDC and get to know people and publishers that can help you.”
Lince Works always had doubts about KickStarter as a platform for funding, as the crowdfunding site moves further and further away from its original intentions. “I think, like everything, people have abused it,” Léon says. “The same thing is happening right now with Steam Early Access. It’s a great idea, KickStarter. Fans from the public can help you to create your game, but people can take advantage of that to scam people. Most projects that’re being developed don’t end up releasing, because they run into issues or whatever, so people see that only one in five projects actually come out, and say, ‘I don’t want to take that risk of investing in a game when I don’t know when it’s coming out’. Or worse, they could come out at the same price, or cheaper than what you invested. ‘I put $20 into a game and when it came out, it’s $15 on Steam Early Access and it’s the same stuff’. What’s the point?”
He continues: “People have come to see KickStarter as a pre-purchase, when that’s not the idea. It was meant to be a way to help out projects that couldn’t be done without people’s help. But companies and start-ups started using it as presale for their games that would come out anyway, or using it as a marketing tool. That’s really devalued KickStarter, and the same is happening to Steam Early Access. It’s still useful, but you just have to be a lot more honest than before.”
Despite their unsuccessful campaign, Lince Works are proud of the quality their work shows and the quality of Spanish game development generally. “Right now, there’s an indie scene in Spain,” says Léon. “You have all these groups at colleges and universities with a lot of potential, but it’s really hard to make a start-up from that, because when you’re doing your degree you’re taught about free-to-play games and mobile games, because that’s the only way you can enter the industry right now. There’s no incentives in Catalonia or Spain to start an indie team like you see in places like Canada. There are initiatives, we’re at a gaming incubator, called Game BCM, which I think is the first gaming start-up incubator in Spain. It’s these kind of initiatives that will create a great indie scene, but there’s not enough.
“I think that there’s a lot of quality developers here, a lot of good people,” he adds. “I know people that’re working on Crytek, but they don’t usually stay in Spain to create their company and that’s a shame. I hope that changes soon, because I’ve seen a lot of good games coming out like Rime, Nihilumbra from Beautifun Games, Pixel Piracy, they’re Spanish also. A lot of quality.”
Swapping the relatively soft environment of the classroom for the mindshare battlegrounds of the Steam Store, Xbox Live and PSN is a fresh challenge for Lince Works, and they’re keen to rise to it. But to face this new challenge, they needed new tools. “We had to throw everything out,” says Léon. “We had used a custom engine, not Unity 3. Whereas in production, you have to be realistic, if I want to export my game to PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One, I can’t do my own engine and expect to compete. You have to make your life easier. We switched it to Unity 3, because I already had experience with it. Stuff like physics, munitions systems, rendering, that kind of stuff is mostly done for you, you still have to teak it, so it doesn’t look like just another Unity 3-D game.
“You have to change how your mind works, and plan a lot. Because every month, every week, that you’re behind schedule is money lost, or a promise broken, or a person down. The people on the art team, we’re paying their wages, and that money can run out. Maybe if you’re a developer on your own, you can have the motivation to work for no money a lot of the time, but when there’s eight people and a building to pay for, you have to be careful.”
In Twin Souls, the player is “the perfect assassin”. Summoned from the grave and tasked with rescuing a noble prisoner, gamers use shadow powers to slide past obstacles and silently dispose of enemies. “You are Aragami, which means vengeful or violent god in Japanese,” Léon says. “You are presented with Yamiko, a girl from the city. She tells you the tale of the city that has been invaded by an army that they call The Alliance. It’s been a while since the war, that The Alliance won, and she wants your help to bring her out of the city. That’s just the premise, there’s so much more stuff. At the start of the game, you just know that. You’re back from the dead, you don’t know who you are, you see this girl that you seem to remember from your past life, and throughout the game, you’ll be guided by her and recover different artefacts that bind her to the temple she’s locked in.
“The idea’s that there’s a connection between Aragami and Yamiko, but you, as a player, have to discover it yourself, by looking around the world in the places you visit, through the conversations of enemy guards and step by step, you start to uncover the links that bind these two stories, or these two souls. I usually say that the game doesn’t have one protagonist, but two.
“The first three levels are set in the graveyard where you rise from the dead, and later you travel to the city through forests and mountains, there’s also a lake, as well as all of the city and the temple where Yamiko is. Throughout the journey, you’ll be visiting these places, and discovering the missing links.”
The adventure will last longer than the original student project, but it’s not going to be Dragon Age: Inquisition either, lasting about five hours. “Four or five hours of normal play, not a speed run or whatever,” says Léon. “We have to be realistic, we’re a small studio. A 3-D game with this kind of quality, we’re trying to put a lot of effort into the details of the world, the animations, the script, the characters, that sort of thing. We know that we can’t compete with other games in length, that’s why we’re trying to give it a bit of soul.”
You won’t see everything that Twin Souls has to offer in those five hours however. Lince Works are doing their best to make it replayable, not only by building branching paths into the levels, but also challenge modes and a level editor. “Each level has different paths to your objectives, different ways to beat each place,” Léon says. “There’s challenges for each level, for example, ‘beat the level without being seen’, ‘beat the level killing everyone’, or ‘beat the level without killing anyone’. This will unlock different character skins, like if you beat three levels with the ‘ghost’ medal, you’ll get the ghost robes. We have five or six skins already prepared.
“We’re working on a mission creator that works with Steam Workshop. The idea will be that each player can create their own levels, using the assets from the game, like trees, grass, walls, that kind of stuff. They can place enemies, plot patrols and when you’ve created a level you can save it, upload it to Steam Workshop, and share it with other people so they can rate it. I think that gives a lot of replayability to a game, a lot of content, and I can’t wait to see what people create. The idea will be to create good enough tools, so that player can create whatever they want. Also, it allows us, after the game has released, to keep launching different free map packs or challenges for the community, so we can continue supporting the game.”
Twin Souls is the product of a passion for stealth games, taking inspiration from genre benchmarks new and old. “When I was young, I had the PS1, and one of the first games I had was Tenchu,” says Léon. “I was pretty young and naïve, so I exchanged it for Dragon Ball GT, and it was horrible, I couldn’t forgive myself. I found another copy, and I replayed it a lot and became a fan of the genre. Then I played Tenchu 2, and later Thief on the PC, and Splinter Cell. It was one of the first genres that I played and one of the only genres, I think, to give the player a feeling of power, the sensation of being a predator. You’re in a place where you don’t belong, and you’re no more powerful than the others, but you’re smarter.”
These influences informed many aspects of Twin Souls, from the game mechanics to the aesthetic. “We looked at Mark of the Ninja for inspiration on how to show that the character’s stealth status,” Léon explains. “Like with Aragami, he turns totally black when he’s in the shadows, and becomes colourful again when he’s visible. That’s similar to the binary system in Mark of the Ninja. In other stealth games there’s usually a more analogic value, 0-100, to show you your stealth, maybe there’s a gauge or a measure of how hidden you are. But I think the simpler the better, Mark of the Ninja did stealth really well, the player doesn’t have to be looking all of the time, ‘oh, I’m at 51, maybe if I go to 53, they’ll see me’, that kind of stuff. You see very clearly when you are hidden and when you are not.
“From Tenchu, we got verticality. The first thing that you can do in Tenchu is climb a house. When you see a roof, you want to get up there because you feel safe. You can see all your enemies, all the danger, and you have the time to plan a course of action and execute it at your own pace.
“We also looked at Dead Space and Journey a lot for the HUD, because we didn’t want a lot of stuff there, because it just screams, ‘this is a game’ and takes you out of the action. If you can put all of that information in the world, one way or another, it’s always better, for example, your energy is on your cape.”
Aragami creates and manipulates shadow. He can teleport between shaded corners and guarded nooks, as well as painting shadows ahead of him to gain a strategic vantage point. “You’ll be able to unlock up to six shadow powers,” Léon says. “Some we haven’t shown. There are different powers created for different players, the kind of stuff to create distractions, to better survey your surroundings. But there’s also powers for more aggressive players, like a long range attack, a C4 mechanic, like a trap, a rune, that you can place on an enemy’s back.
“There’s no combat in the game, if an enemy sees you and you try to kill him from the front, he’ll just repel you with a light spell. But if they’re chasing you and you can dodge in behind, you can still kill them. There’s no combat, because that’s not what makes stealth fun. And also resources. Being a small studio, we don’t have the time to do a better combat system than Assassin’s Creed, or Batman, or Shadow of Mordor. We’ll try to focus on what will make the game more fun and try to circumvent the combat.
“But if you get caught, it shouldn’t be the end of your game. Usually when you play a stealth game, getting caught is the failure state, you have to restart from the last checkpoint. If you aren’t trying to beat an area without being seen, you should be able to get round your enemies, or if you’re smart enough, place traps and lure them into them. We’re trying to remove what’s boring about stealth and turn it into something fun.”
The player has some choice in how Twin Soul’s story resolves itself, but it won’t be tied to performance. “We still have to decide on that, because when I played Dishonoured the story changes based on whether you kill people or not, and I really didn’t like it, because if you kill people, the game was saying ‘you are bad’, and I was trying to play the game stealthily because I wanted the good ending,” says Léon. “This meant that I missed out on a lot of the powers that were really fun and cool. That’s one of the only things I didn’t like about Dishonoured, that it judged me, and because of that judgement, I couldn’t have fun. I don’t want your playstyle to affect you morally throughout the game. There will be some choices later in the game, but the way that you play won’t make those choices for you.
“You can play the game aggressively and kill everybody, or beat all the game without killing anyone. There’s one or two bosses, maybe you’re naturally inclined to kill them, but not in the rest of the game.”
In YouTube developer diaries, Lince Works have shown off their motion capture process. Once reserved for big budget releases, motion capture is becoming more cost-effective for indie studios. “If you’re making a 3-D game where animations are really important, it helps a lot, not only because of quality, but because of time,” Léon explains. “Using motion capture to create a stealth kill, the animator can finish it in less than a week, when if they had to create it by hand, it would take two or three weeks and even then it wouldn’t end up looking as fluid, as realistic. We just use two Kinects from an Xbox 360, and a PlayStation Move controller for the sword and for a head. It’s not like we spend a lot of money on motion capture, the Kinects belong to two of the team and it’s my PlayStation Move from home. You don’t have to hire a big studio or a company to do it, we do the motion capture in a small room here and we get good quality animations. It’s really affordable way to get animations that you maybe couldn’t do five years ago.”
Twin Souls: The Path of Shadows will be available on PC, Mac, Xbox and PlayStation. A multiplatform release, like motion capture, is becoming easier for indie teams to do, with both Microsoft and Sony hungry for more titles to add to their next-gen libraries. “We want it to be playable for as many people as possible,” says Léon. “A few years ago, it was more difficult to submit your game to Microsoft or Sony, but with [email protected] and the PlayStation Indie Program it’s a lot easier. We submitted our game to Microsoft in August and in less than a month, we were a licenced developer.”
No release date has been announced for Twin Souls, but Lince Works are optimistic about delivering the game in a reasonable timeframe. “It depends on investment,” Léon says. “Right now, we’re trying to find a partner to aid us, with setting the best course of action for the game. One way to launch the game would be Steam Early Access, or another KickStarter, or just when it’s finished on Steam. I think the game will be finished by the end of this year. But if everything goes really well and we can expand the game, maybe it’ll be the start of 2016.”