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KickStarter Mandragora - story-driven side-scroller action RPG with Brian Mitsoda as narrative lead

cyborgboy95

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cyborgboy95

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A chat with Brian Mitsoda, Mandragora Narrative Lead
Hi everyone!

To celebrate World Storytelling Day, we sat down with Brian Mitsoda, our Narrative Lead, and talked a bit about his career, advice for aspiring narrative designers and game devs, and Mandragora itself.

All our Kickstarter backers can read a longer version of the interview over on our Kickstarter page!

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Hi, Brian! Thanks for sitting down to chat with us.

When did you discover your passion for storytelling?

Creative writing assignments for English class going back to grade school. I got “published” after placing in the local paper’s scary story contest and got to read it in front of the class. I was lucky and had a lot of supportive teachers over the years that encouraged me to develop my writing skills. To be honest, I can’t really imagine being happy doing anything else.

Writing skills are of course just part of your role, but many people might not know that. Could you help explain what exactly a Narrative Designer or Narrative Lead does?

I was recently sitting around with a bunch of veteran narrative designers talking about how even within our own industry, many people have no idea what we do. It’s 2023 and the game industry doesn’t know what narrative designers do!

A lot of people will tag us as writers, but that’s a very tiny amount of what we actually spend our time doing! I write for about 10-30% of the time for most of my narrative positions. And it varies between projects and titles, but a narrative designer generally has to do most of the following:

Adaptation

The ability to take the needs of the IP or design/management vision and turn it into something coherent for a video game audience. The average movie is two hours, the average season of TV about 10 hours, and games (especially RPGs) can be more than twice that length and also have reactivity and branching storylines. Keeping the story interesting and the player actually engaged for that length of time is a lot harder than it seems. It takes a ton of planning and ultimately needs to support and enhance the design of the game while also minding the scope constraints.

Tool Design

This isn’t something that is necessarily a requirement for all narrative designers, but for almost every project I’ve done, there has been a need to create tools that reduce the amount of time that it takes to implement anything connected to the narrative. Does a character have branching dialogue with quest states? Do background characters bark reactive lines? Do enemies say anything related to their attack/flee state in combat? Does an item have descriptive text? Is there a player journal that updates as you progress a quest? Every single one of those items needs some framework for entering the text, expressing it as data, and displaying it to the player. Creation and iteration of tools and content pipelines allow you to quickly implement all forms of narrative within the game.

Scripting

The difference between a writer and a narrative designer is that most narrative designers have to do some level of basic or advanced scripting - essentially light coding - to make things happen in the game. Want a character to use an animation, walk, advance a quest flag, comment on your appearance, or do any number of things based on the player’s input or choices? That all has to be accounted for and executed for in the scripting - again, nothing to do with scripts in the Hollywood sense, but more in the language that the engine uses to make things happen within the game. And almost every project has its own unique scripting that needs to be developed and learned. It’s a much more technical job than people understand.

Budgeting/Planning

There’s a misconception that the writers of a project just produce a script and everyone just makes it. No. Never. Well, maybe not “never”, but never on anything I’ve ever made. I don’t have unlimited budgets and generally have to do the best with the resources I’ve been given. It’s the job of narrative to figure out what assets we have for any given task, plan around it, and make the best thing we can with the time/resources we have. That means that we don’t write that big cutscene until we’ve talked it through with the artists, animators, implementers, and anyone with a creative stake - this is not about doing the most imaginative scene anyone has ever seen, it’s about doing the best thing we can do with the projected time/assets given for that one cutscene of many that need to get done over the course of a packed schedule.

Writing

The fun part! However, we have to be aware of actor cost, line count, localization time, production milestones, and the needs of other departments. Nothing is free, every line costs something. Every new thing you add is just adding testing time to quality assurance. Add iteration time, implementation, revision, focus testing - by the time the game is at Beta, people [working on the game] are so sick of those lines they loved the first few times that everyone questions whether they ever loved anything and if they should have just become an accountant.

Design

This is primarily what we do. Narrative isn’t just about writing - some games don’t even have narrative expressed in words. Ultimately, you are crafting the narrative to enhance the gameplay or reinforce the mood of the game - you have to see things from the player’s point of view and craft your narrative to help the team sell the player on the experience they are trying to create. Narrative can be expressed in the sounds you hear, the mood of the music/lighting/environment, elements of the level design, the gameplay and interface - many things that you don’t even think about as a player are being used to get you to buy into the narrative intent of the game. Even something as simple as the choices players make in dialogue must have results designed to feel satisfying no matter what route they take through the game.

Narrative Leadership

Narrative Lead responsibilities involve lots of meetings, hiring for the department, asset negotiation with other departments, running writer’s rooms, reviewing the team’s work, keeping tone consistent between all narrative designers, keeping mood or story points consistent in art and other departments, revising main story based on last minute cuts, addressing publisher concerns, making sure you’re on target for VO lockdown dates, estimating schedules, setting the writing/tone style for the project, providing additional direction for actors, and any number of jobs that will have to be done given the state of the project and the needs of the other departments. Depending on the scope of the narrative, the lead can be busy or never see their family again busy.

In summary, narrative designers aren’t just sitting around having ideas and doing writing that is turned into a game - it’s a technical position requiring constant iteration and testing, frequent collaboration with other team members, and a great amount of asset management and planning. Yes, we often are writers as well, but it’s often not our primary task.


Any advice for aspiring narrative designers looking to break into the gaming industry?

Make games, preferably while collaborating with others. There are multiple engines and quest editors for other games - start using them, make something from start to finish, then do it again. It will be frustrating at first, but you’ll get better. Improve your writing skills by trying to write in different styles. Play a lot of games, figure out why you like the ones you do. Study the rhythm and performances of media that interests you. Develop your style. Identify what genres you’re drawn to. But most of all, go out in the real world and do something interesting, travel, make mistakes, live a little so you have something to write about.

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Any tips for game devs on how to introduce a new world in a way that feels organic to the player?

Don’t wholesale copy something else, but feel free to mash up a bunch of influences. Figure out what you can do to make it different from other games in its genre while also appealing to fans of that genre. Focus on the characters - you can have a cliche plot, but the characters will keep people interested and keep the story relatable. Don’t “magic” or “technobabble” for a solution - try to make sure everything in the game follows rules that are established and the player understands.

Why did you decide to join the Mandragora team? What drew you to this game?

I immediately saw that there was an intense passion to make this game coming from the folks on the team. Elements of the project reminded me of the Castlevania series, which is one of my favorite game franchises. The dark fantasy aspect was more grounded in history, myth, and fairy tales than high fantasy, which also lends itself to the kinds of characters I like to write. The art was absolutely gorgeous and a lot of the work on the levels was there - the challenge of taking the strong gameplay and ideas and turning them into a thrilling horror fantasy tale was intriguing.

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Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.
 

cyborgboy95

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Winter Development Update
Hi everyone!

We can hardly believe it’s been over 5 months since the end of the Kickstarter campaign. The whole team is busier than ever!

We’re really excited to be able to bring you more news about things that have been going on behind the scenes since our last update.

Kickstarter backers can check out even more info over in the latest Kickstarter update, but here’s a little sneak peek that everyone can enjoy!

Development Update

We’ve been working hard to build up and flesh out further levels in the game, as there will be plenty more areas for you to explore than just the castle corridors and library that you’ve seen before!

In an early portion of the game, as you make your way to Braer Castle (home to the nefarious vampire lord and his minions), you may find yourself stumbling upon a group of bandits who are intent on destroying a camp. They’re not going to go down without a fight, so it’ll be up to you to stop them from plundering and burning down any more tents!

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In the above screenshot, you can not only see some combat against those pesky bandits, but you can also get a glimpse of the look of one of the new environments we’re working on. We hope you’re looking forward to seeing more spooky, atmospheric places like this!

We’re also working on even more enemies!

You may have seen quite a bit of the castle so far, but there are still more areas within it that are still being worked on. An example of this is the creepy dungeon lurking below the stone walls of the castle, home to a necromancing boss who prefers their minions to be of the living dead variety. Here’s some spooky concept art of one of those minions – a skeletal bowman:

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We hope you enjoy facing off against this fearsome foe!

Future Interviews

It was also great to see how so many of you liked our interview with our Narrative Lead, Brian Mitsoda.

We, of course, want to keep content coming that genuinely interests you, so if you have any suggestions for future interviews, like specific topics and aspects of game development that you’d like to read more about, please let us know in the comments and we’ll do our best to make it happen!

And that’s a wrap for today’s post!

If you have any questions or suggestions for things you’d like to see in the next update, please let us know in the comments or over on our Discord[discord.com].

You can also further support us by telling a friend about Mandragora and following us on our social media pages if you haven’t already!

Thank you, and see you next time!
 

cyborgboy95

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A Q&A with Christos Antoniou, Mandragora composer
Hi everyone!

It's interview time again! That's right - we recently sat down with our amazing composer, Christos Antoniou, and asked him questions about everything from his career to his approach to Mandragora’s soundtrack.

And because we loved your positive response to the interview we conducted with our Narrative Lead, Brian Mitsoda, we wanted to turn things up a notch this time round.

That’s why this time, these interview questions came straight from our awesome Discord community! We wanted to make sure that you, our incredible supporters, got to have your say and get answers to some of your most burning musical questions!

So without further ado, let’s jump right into it!

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Hi, Christos! Thanks again for agreeing to this interview.

To kick us off, Discord community member “dropko” had plenty of great questions for you:

What led you to become a music composer?
Christos: Actually, I was a latecomer in music; just imagine, I started to learn the notes when I was 17. When I was 13, I bought a guitar and started to play some songs. In parallel with that I started to have an interest in heavy rock and classical music. I always admired how Bach, Mozart and Beethoven created such unique music. But the work that made me become a composer was “The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky. I was shocked like everybody else listening to this masterpiece - a revolution in music from every aspect.

How much do you take from game designers, sketches, art work, game mockups, to influence the music?
Christos: I try to get as much info as I can in order to research form, atmosphere and style. My research will cover various genres of music in order to collect the necessary material that will help me to create the appropriate atmosphere of the piece.

How easy is it to create a cohesive soundtrack when games go all over the place in locations and settings?
Christos: So far it has helped me a lot because I have freedom and I don’t have to follow a scene (like in films for example) but due to the large number of bosses I might face some difficulties later on. But that’s the challenge in music - always searching for the right path to follow. The journey is tough, and sometimes your inspiration does not lead you to anything, but a composer always needs to reboot their brain because you have to meet strict deadlines.

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“_zso2” wanted to know:
Are there any non-musical elements you like to use in your music? For example industrial samples, animal sounds or any other sounds.
Christos: Yes, for sure. I use many “sound design” materials that will be effective. I have 2 Cane Corso dogs and I have already recorded their growls, and one of my assistants, a percussion player, under my guidance has recorded woods from his furniture in order to emphasize the wooden appearance of a boss. I am always searching for elements that can suit my needs.

“distractiondance3.0” asked:
What is your favorite genre of music to compose?
Christos: Many genres can intrigue me and are pleasant for me. Rock, Concert Music, Soundtracks, Video Games. Of course I can’t say that I am a fan of Pop music but if I have to compose a pop song, I will try to conquer it.

“J-dudd” had this to ask:
Who is your favorite composer? Both in regards to gaming as well as outside that scope.
Christos: My favorite composer is Igor Stravinsky but I have many others like Hans Zimmer, Eliot Goldenthal and bands like Celtic Frost, Metallica, Death, and Morbid Angel that have defined my choices and vocabulary in music.

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“Sand Wraith” was curious to know more about your process:
How do you come up with a core melody?
Christos: Inspiration can come from everywhere. While I am outside, or playing the piano, or studying. You have to let your inspiration flow and then filter the ideas that you can develop with no limitations. The development also is challenging because the majority of times I will go back again and again to transform the melody into the personally ideal shape.

“Screwdriver” had a question about how Mandragora compares:
How is it different to work as composer for a game versus musician/singer for a band like in Septicflesh?
Christos: Very different. Septicflesh is teamwork, while for Mandragora although I have assistants, I have to compose a full OST from zero. It is more demanding and more difficult for sure. Also, I have “freedom” to move as I want and that sometimes is on hold on a Septicflesh song. For example I can develop a melody, expand or compress the form on Mandragora whereas on a song from SF I have to be less “flexible”.

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Finally, we had one last request for Christos, as we wanted to share something especially exciting with you: a sneak peek of the Mandragora soundtrack!

We really hope you enjoy this short snippet of the the Mandragora menu track demo:
https://christosantoniou.bandcamp.com/track/mandragora-ost-main-menu-midi-mockup-preview

…And that’s a wrap!

Thank you so much for checking out this latest interview, we hope you enjoyed it!


Special thanks to everyone who submitted a question on our Discord! It was awesome to see all your creative and curious questions.

And we’re delighted to now announce: our next written interview will be with the inimitable Aysha Selim!

So if you have any questions for this incredible voice talent (who will be voicing a major character in Mandragora!) please submit them over on our Discord server by July 17! You can join the Discord, by clicking here[discord.com]!
 

cyborgboy95

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Summer Development Update
Hi friends!

Time for another development update!

We know it’s been a while since we last gave you a more in-depth look at how development is going on Mandragora, so we really hope you enjoy today’s post highlighting some of the cool stuff we’ve been working on!

As we know you’ve loved getting peeks at some of the various areas you’ll be able to explore in Mandragora, so here’s a special look at one we’ve been working on recently and are particularly proud of - the Cog Room!

The huge fiery furnace found here is continually fed with coal by a large pack of zombie servants, all of whom are controlled by a huge humanoid monstrosity. Not exactly a great vacation destination!

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What begins as a rough draft…

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…is turned into a fully realized 3D area to explore and battle in!

And obviously, when you enter a spooky area like that full of vicious enemies, you’ll need to make sure you’re prepared for a fight.

Things like sturdy armor and heavy swords can all come in really handy - just as your skills do! Active Skills will be easily managed on this screen:

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Here you can modify your 2 active skill sets, each of which contains 3 skills. In the bottom left, you get extra info on exactly what that particular skill offers you (like being able to engulf your sword in flames, for example!) while the bottom right shows the upgrades for that skill.

We really hope you’ll enjoy picking and choosing from the many available active skills to create your ideal build!

But of course, game mechanics are only made cooler when they’re accompanied by an interesting narrative, and that’s another thing we’re very hard at work on!

Together with our Narrative Lead Brian Mitsoda, we are also putting together a pretty intense intro cinematic that will kick off your adventures in Faelduum.

Here’s a special work-in-progress sneak peek of the cinematic that we hope sparks your imagination and gets you guessing as to what will be going on here!

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We hope you enjoyed this update!
 

cyborgboy95

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Interview with Aysha Selim, voice of a major character in Mandragora!
Hi everyone!

Time for another exciting interview!

This time, we sat down with the incredible Aysha Selim and asked her questions submitted by you over on our Discord server[discord.gg]. Thank you to everyone who sent in their questions! We really love hearing from you.

We also hope you enjoyed our previous interviews with our Narrative Lead Brian Mitsoda and our Composer Christos Antoniou. Be sure to check those out too if you haven’t already!

Without any further do, onto the interview we go!

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: Tarek Aziz

Hi, Aysha! Thank you for taking the time to sit down and chat with us.

Discord community member “dropko” had quite a few great questions about your career:
How did you break into doing voiceover for video games? Was it intentional or by chance?


Aysha: Actually, it was by chance. I’ve been working in the sound/dubbing business since 1997. First, as Disney Character Voices International’s Creative and Operation Manager for the Arabic dubs until 2006, then as co-partner in the localization Company Masreya Media from 2007-2017 as Head of the Dubbing Department. In 2016, in my job capacity we had been requested by a client to cast the role of Ana. It had to be a mature voice with good English (no British or American accent) and whose mother tongue is Egyptian Arabic. We did send the client voice samples, which they didn’t like that much, so a colleague at the office suggested I tryout. So I did it from the couch of my home on the phone :) Surprise… surprise, I was approved the following day. From there, I ventured into the voice acting world. By 2017, as planned prior to voice acting, I limited my work at Masreya Media to Dubbing consultancy.

How important is collaboration with the game directors, developers and designers in creating the right voice?

Aysha: Extremely important. During recordings, there is the director and the writer and also a sound director for all the screams and other sounds. Together they guide the performer. It’s not like working on a movie or series script, where there is a dramatic line that you can read beforehand. The lines might seem just random, so a performer would need context and to stay consistent with the voice.

Do you believe your acting should affect in any way the characters' design or do you prefer something fully laid out?

Aysha: When it comes to Art, there is no “fully laid out”. There is always room to bring something of you to the character, as long as it is in line with the initial character’s design.

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“truthell” asked:
Do you have access to images or videos of your character before and during your voiceover?

Aysha: Mainly images. Anything available at the time of the recording is being shared with me.

And “J-dudd” wanted to know:
Are there any specific voice performances you are taking inspiration from?


Aysha: One should be able to take inspiration from everything. It could be the performance or the actual recording experience.

“dropko” wanted to get your thoughts on a hot topic:
Many "movie stars" very often voice over for animated movies and some even do for video games as well. As a voice actor, how do you feel about this?


Aysha: It’s always great for animated movies from a business perspective, but sometimes it poses a lot of difficulties due to movie stars’ schedules, especially with sequels. However, for video games, I feel it’s more of a mystery to have the characters voiced by non-movie stars in order not to have the image of the movie star in mind when hearing the voice. Voices are very powerful in themselves when you don’t have an image.

And “Sand Wraith” had another topical question:
How do you think AI based speech synthesis will affect the career of upcoming voice actors in the next 5 years?


Aysha: It will definitely have an effect, but not for major roles or deep performances. No matter how advanced AI is, it cannot replace the soul of a human being performing.

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“dropko” wanted to know:
You started big with hugely popular games like Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm. Did it change your opinion on the role and importance of voicing a video game character?


Aysha: Absolutely not. All big names started somewhere and working with a new company has the advantage of being part of the team. I saw Mandragora growing from scratch and it feels like watching a baby grow and it’s thrilling to be part of that journey.
Before Overwatch, I had no idea about how huge video games are. Now, I can see how it is a world of its own and how the characters do inspire people.

“Screwdriver” was curious about the following:
What, in the Mandragora Universe, prompted you to participate in its dubbing? What were the differences with your previous works for Overwatch?


Aysha: Overwatch was an already established game, so of course Blizzard. I jumped aboard. With Mandragora there was something fresh. The team that contacted me was very genuine and so passionate about what they do. Passion is contagious and I was hooked. It helped of course that the prelim images and music were perfect! and in my mind I thought “this is going to be BIG” and I want to be part of it.

Finally, to close this interview off, “dropko” also had a question about your work on Mandragora:
Can you tell us a bit about your character in Mandragora and what challenges you are finding in voicing her?


Aysha: I just had my first recording session. The first challenge was finding the right voice. The voice had to be non-Ana, yet it had to be MY voice. The second challenge was understanding the character. It’s a very mysterious character, which will allow me a lot of exploration. I fell in love with her immediately and had loads of fun voicing her.

And that’s a wrap!

We really hope you enjoyed this interview with incredible voice talent Aysha Selim.
Special thanks again to everyone who submitted a question!

We look forward to hearing your thoughts right here in the comments or over on our Discord[discord.gg]!

If you’d like to further support us and our game, please tell a friend about Mandragora and give us a follow on social media!

Until next time!

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Attending Gamescom? Don’t forget to check out Mandragora!

If you’ll be attending Gamescom (August 23-27), be sure to drop by our booth and check out Mandragora! You’ll be able to find our game and even try out a public hands-on demo at Koelnmesse’s Hall 8.1, booth C-020!
 

cyborgboy95

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This week we are at gamescom!
Hi friends!

We are at gamescom this week with a short show floor demo for Mandragora so if you're missing out on the event, you can watch a playthrough of an extended version of the demo here for this week!

Or you can see our latest trailer which we debuted at Opening Night Live:

 

cyborgboy95

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October 2023 Development Update
Hi, friends!

Time for a new development update!

These past few months have been especially eventful for Mandragora. Especially back in August, when we had a booth at Gamescom, had our latest trailer featured during the ONL 2023 Pre-Show, and shared a first-try demo with Kickstarter backers and media!

If you didn’t get the chance to play that latest exclusive demo, we’ve now also uploaded a lengthy gameplay video of the demo over on our YouTube channel, so be sure to check that out by clicking on the image below!



Reaching the stage where we’re able to share this with you is a great milestone for us and our game. It’s been a key focus for us over the last few months, and we’re really looking forward to sharing even more Mandragora with you in the future!

So it only makes sense that this latest development update is also focused on the big bad boss you meet at the end of the Tutorial portion of that demo: the Warg!

So… how does a Warg become a Warg?

With the Warg, as with most of the characters and beasts featured in Mandragora, their existence began as an initial idea translated to concept art.

Once we have the base concept for the character - in this case, the Warg - established, then we can work on the next steps that help bring them to life.

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For our studio, there is a lot of collaboration between the various teams involved so we can ensure that the end result is the best one possible.
  • Gameplay and character ability design: This is where we ask ourselves the big questions about their behavior, especially during combat. If they’re a boss, does their fight have multiple phases? What attacks do they have? Can the player parry or dodge them?
  • 3D modeling: We also work on the 3D model for the character at the same time. This step is crucial as it brings the character to life, taking it from a 2D drawing to a 3D model. Because while Mandragora is a 2.5D game, all of our characters are fully 3D!
Once those steps are done, we have a kickoff meeting to discuss the next steps and how to best turn the design vision into reality. We then get to work on those next steps!
  • Rigging, block animations, and temporary VFX: Our awesome animators brainstorm together on how they could best bring this creature to life. What do their movements look like? Is it purely a vicious beast, or does it think more tactically? How can the animations and VFX reflect that?
  • Gameplay implementation: This is worked on in parallel to the above - it’s when we essentially add the logic behind the character model, to make sure it’s not just a pretty face. By implementing the relevant code in the Unreal Engine, we can set behavior for the given character, like what attacks they can use and when.
  • Textures and fur simulation: These are added to the model to further help bring them to life. While not all of our characters have fur on them, it was really important to us that we make our furry Warg look exactly that: furry!
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  • Final animations and VFX: Now that the foundation has been laid, we work on final animations, making sure that they feel smooth and lifelike. We also add VFX here - which is particularly important for any of our characters with glowing magical parts!
  • Final polish: This is when we make all of our final polish efforts that help all those other steps that we worked so hard on come together nice and neatly. This includes ensuring that gameplay works well and feels balanced, as well as polishing up all the visual aspects like textures, animations, VFX, etc.
  • Audio and sound effects: Because a Warg without a menacing growl is no real Warg at all, right? Making sure each character sounds the way they should is another crucial step in helping said character really come to life.
Then, once all these steps are put together, we achieve the creation of the character that you’ll meet - and battle! - when you play Mandragora.

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And the fight against the Warg consists of 2 phases:
  • In Phase 1, it has various attacks it'll use to try to get the best of your character: Bite, Turn Bite, Dash, and Entropic Fissure Howl.
  • Then, in Phase 2, it turns things up a notch by becoming much more agile - as well as utilizing its vicious Leap Attack!
We hope you enjoyed getting a deeper look into development, and more specifically, what the process looks like for the creation of each character in the game.

We also really hope you’ll enjoy facing off against the fearsome Warg!

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And that’s a wrap for this update!

Thank you so much for all your support. We really appreciate it!

Please let us know what you thought of this development update in the comments below.

And if you have any requests for future updates, please don’t hesitate to suggest them! We love hearing from you.

Until next time!
 

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