A couple of months after Belgrade got the first co-working space in the region dedicated entirely to game development, we’ve kicked off the first Booster program at the Nordeus Hub. Over the next six months, ten indie teams will use this space for a series of specialized workshops and mentoring from some of our industry veterans to improve or finalize their game projects.
One of them is a duo of trained painters turned game developers, called Munzesky Studios. They have been working on their point and click adventure, Sol Invictus, for a couple of years. Their goal is to wrap up the first of the planned three episodes by the end of the six-month program. We had a chat with Aleksandar and Ivan about their journey so far.
Ivan: Our team is called Munzesky Studios – named after the part of Belgrade we come from. We’ve been making games for about five years.
Aleksandar: We’ve known each other for more than twenty years. We studied together at the Faculty of Fine Arts. We always had this idea that we’d like to try to build a game, a point and click adventure. It was floating around for years.
Then one of our mutual friends asked us to help with building a card-based game similar to Magic: The Gathering. We were supposed to help him with gameplay and do all the illustrations. That’s how we started.
Ivan: We wanted to connect everything through a narrative, to create a connection between the characters and the cards: who they are, what they mean, how they fight… So we came up with all of that to help immerse ourselves into the story. And then we just couldn’t stop.
Aleksandar: Our friend did. (laughs). He quit and we decided—since we came up with this entire world and back story—to keep developing it, but this time as a point and click adventure. And that’s the game we’re working on today.
Aleksandar: Sol Invictus is a point and click adventure in two-and-a-half dimensions set in the Solar System. We’re building it for PC, for now. You start at the very beginning of the main story. The spaceship is under attack, you’ve been violently woken up from stasis and you have to figure out what’s going on and get the power back on. The main story has elements of mystery throughout and there’s a myriad of interconnected side plots that will help you progress through the main story.
Ivan: We didn’t want the player to lose time pixel hunting, trying to combine absolutely every object with all other objects in fear of missing something. It’s common for point and click games to take their time and make you wait until about fifth location to finally kick off the story.
Aleksandar: Or they put you in some mundane situation, the character wakes up and you have to click somewhere.
Ivan: Yeah. Why would I want to play something that I live every day? We wanted to avoid that. One of the best pieces of screenwriting wisdom is “get in late, leave early”. Our character is in danger from the get-go. The player always has a specific problem to solve. We try to empathize with the player as much as we can. If you click on an object and then wait for the character to walk up to it, pick it up… why would someone want to see this? The player has already seen it.
Aleksandar: In the beginning, this was supposed to be a small game, sort of a locked room for mobile, where the main character would be represented with a silhouette and we’d use a green screen to avoid animation and speed things up. Then the artists in us took over and the backgrounds started getting beautiful. Too beautiful to have only a black silhouette in the front. Everyone kept telling us “wow, this looks great, this isn’t the final version of the character though, right?”. And we’d say “of course not”.
Ivan: So we improvised a studio in a part of my grandparents’ house. A friend helped us buy a treadmill, we added green screen, lighting and decided to replace the silhouette with a live model—ourselves.
Aleksandar: As you can see in the making-of video. There’s nothing typical about our project, not the way we use the tools, not the pipeline…
Ivan: Yeah, the two of us have zero experience with programming. We built the first prototype using Visionaire Studios. Since Aleksandar’s PC at the time was unable to run After Effects, he sat down and learned how to use the program. It uses programming logic but doesn’t require any coding. That’s how we created the first demo which was 2D. But we wanted everything to look and feel much more impressive.
Aleksandar: We decided to move to Unity so we can use proper lighting, create that cinematic feel and bring the game to life. It looks promising so far.
Aleksandar: In the beginning, we relied on our friends for help. If we needed a camera, we’d call someone who has one, we’d borrow a green screen, we’d ask friends to be extras… We had to improvise.
Ivan: Working in a small team you don’t have the luxury of saying “that’s not my job”. And of course, we bring on external help from time to time. For 3D tasks, or cleaning the topography. The most important thing for us is to be able to onboard these people as good as possible and take care of project management.
Aleksandar: We get by. We used to lose a lot of time by asking someone for help and that drags along for weeks because it’s all voluntary and people have their own things going on. It’s much easier here at the Hub.
Aleksandar: Well, for example, the most recent roadblock we had was the struggle with normal map generation. We explained to Miloš who runs Booster what the problem is and he immediately knew who can help us. Nikola, Lead Game Artist at Nordeus, showed up and we solved everything in 20 minutes. He showed us the best way to do it, which software to use. We didn’t have to google or ask around. To be honest, for stuff like that, we wouldn’t even know where to start. That’s one of the great things about the program.
Ivan: It would have taken us two weeks to figure it out on our own. And the space itself is great. We used to work in Aleksandar’s room for years. I mean it’s not like there’s anything wrong with that, but it was hard for me to camp at his place for the entire day, you know? We would also take much longer breaks. We are way more productive here. And then there are the talks and workshops where we get to learn from people who are experts in particular fields. Basically, any issue you have, someone will be there to help.
Ivan: Of course. We usually come in around 9, the others usually come in a bit later. Some of them are working, some are students, but we’ve met most of the people.
Aleksandar: Adrijan and the guys who are making Fishing Maniacs, the team behind Heister, we met them in Bucharest during DevPlay. There’s always someone here and we all use the same software, so we can all help each other.
Aleksandar: I’d love if we stop being a place to get a cheap workforce. I heard publishers speak about how great the Balkans are because everything’s cheaper and people will come to invest. And that’s great, but I hope that’s just a phase until we build something here. We’re lucky to have Nordeus, MadHead Games and the likes, but I hope we’re going to build a proper ecosystem.
Ivan: More established companies, easier access to funding…
Aleksandar: There are so many great projects. We just met a team from Niš who’s working on the best VR game I’ve seen so far. The first that made me want to buy a VR set. It’s called Magic Realm Online and is sort of a tower defense with enemies coming at you in waves. I was pretty surprised that an indie team from Niš can pull off such a project.
Ivan: It looks like they’ve been doing it for ages. It’s all super polished and works perfectly. It’s always nice to see games like that.
Ivan: The short term plan is to have a version of the first episode done by the end of Booster. And we’ll take it from there. We plan to have three episodes in total. We want to wrap up the first episode which takes place in a spaceship. There will be about two to three hours of gameplay, and it will serve as a pilot episode.