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How Darksiders Genesis successfully reinvented itself as a co-op isometric action game

Airship Syndicate took bold development steps with Darksiders Genesis. Not only is it the first game in the venerated series to include co-op, but the title eschewed the third-person perspective in favor of a top-down isometric view. This new, fresh direction garnered the game great reviews with GamingTrend stating, “Darksiders Genesis is by far the best game in the series.”

Released on PC late last year, Darksiders Genesis recently launched on consoles. While the game is technically Airship Syndicate’s first foray into the series, the company hosts Darksiders DNA with roughly 10 developers who worked on the original game, including CEO and Co-founder Joe Mad. We caught up with several members of the team to see how they accomplished their goal of making the Darksiders formula flourish from a new perspective. 

With the original Darksiders games employing a third-person perspective, why did it make sense to use an isometric view for Darksiders Genesis

THQ Nordic Development Director Reinhard Pollice: When we at THQ Nordic acquired the franchise back in 2013, one of our initial thoughts was that it would be a cool way to advance the franchise and to also give it a new spin. We felt the core elements of a Darksiders game would translate very well to a top-down perspective and we were eyeing a soft multiplayer introduction this way. Fortunately, Airship Syndicate had very similar thoughts and the project gained traction.

Was it challenging reinventing the Darksiders franchise to use this new perspective? What were some of the stand-out issues to overcome?

Pollice: It was a big challenge and we were constantly worried if it was going to be perceived as a core Darksiders experience. Finding the right pacing for combat and designing the traversal scenes in a way that the camera wouldn’t be in the way were two of the biggest challenges during development.

Besides the original Darksiders games, what other titles might have influenced Darksiders Genesis?

Pollice: We really enjoyed the top-down Lara Croft games. The weight of elements was different, but they also had combat, traversal, and puzzles.

How early on in the project did Airship Syndicate know that local co-op would be a major component of the game?

Pollice: From the very get-go, we wanted to do multiplayer and that meant online as well as local. In fact, one of our first prototypes involved split-screen multiplayer as it was a big unknown for us. It was something we wanted to figure out early on. 
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With Strife being a new playable character in the Darksiders universe, how did you approach designing him?

CEO Joe Mad: Funnily enough, the initial design for Strife was done around the same time as War, Death, and Fury, which was way before we even signed the original Darksiders. Each of the Horsemen got a minor update before they went into the game but Strife remained very close to his original concept. The important thing about Strife is that he [needed to] look quick and dangerous, and that he stood apart from his hulking brother War. 

The game has a wide variety of enemies. Did the team have to think about designing them differently given the new camera angle?

Mad: There are always constraints when designing characters for any game, and having a fixed camera doesn’t really add any further complexity. You just want to keep the detail and interest areas where people will see them, so in this case, it meant keeping the detail across creatures’ heads and upper torso. 

If there was any challenge, it was due to the camera being zoomed out so far. Everything had to read great at a very small size. We tend to make big chunky characters with defined silhouettes, so that helped! 
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The game features beautiful environments. How did you design them?

Lead Environment Artist Jesse Carpenter: Designing the environments involves a collaboration between the designers, asset makers, world builders, and many others. Our designers are the ones who do the very first take on an area that we’ve decided to make. They focus on the flow and gameplay that needs to be there. They will block in the core paths and ideas. Throughout this stage, the world builder, who will be working on the area, will work with the designer to help think of ideas for how it can look in the end and what we can do with it to make the environment feel unique and special. 

Once the design is approved, the world builder takes over and begins to set dress the designed map. It is very likely during this process that the map can change a decent amount, requiring a designer to update their ideas afterwards. The world builder’s job is to make the level feel like a real place while facilitating the gameplay needs and design goals. They will do multiple passes to polish and finish a level including: building and placing assets, lighting, VFX placement, performance optimizations, and post-process settings. Asset makers will build custom assets needed to finish the level and VFX Artists provide the VFX needed for the level. Tech artists and engineers help support artists with custom tools as needed or help make levels performant on lower-end consoles.

A lot goes into making environments become really beautiful and play well. In the end, every level is the result of a lot of people working in collaboration.
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Considering Darksiders Genesis features polished graphics and awesome particle effects, can you elaborate on how you executed on the look of the game?

Carpenter: Arriving at a final look for games is a very iterative process and it’s usually being polished up until the last day we are allowed. We had a lot of ideas for how we wanted to translate our art style into the Darksiders universe after working on Battle Chasers. There were a lot of things we learned while making art for a top-down game on Battle Chasers that we were able to integrate into Genesis.

That being said, the Darksiders franchise has a much more gritty overall theme and we had to lean into that a bit more than we did on Battle Chasers. The Darksiders games have always walked a line between being really stylized and realistic. To account for this, we knew that we needed to use more fully realized PBR materials and quite a bit more detail than we did on Battle Chasers.

It did take many iterations and changes to the process to arrive at a place that felt like the right mix of Airship and Darksiders. Once we had some art and a level that was feeling right, it became much faster and easier to populate those ideas and changes across the other levels and art. We had a lot of art at this point that had to be updated to fit the approved look, so we were working backwards and forwards at the same time.

Sometimes you find the right look early on and sometimes it takes a while to really nail the feel and look of a world you’re trying to make. Working with the Darksiders franchise provided a lot of amazing source material to work with, which was great, but it did take quite a bit of work to interpret that into our own take. Luckily, we have an amazing team of artists, FX artists, and engineers that made it happen.
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Darksiders Genesis has awesome over-the-top animations. Can you delve into how those were created?

Lead Animator Jeremy Pantoja: We drew inspiration for the animation style from games like League of Legends, the former Darksiders games, and our own Battle Chasers. I wanted the animations to be snappy and exciting, but still feel heavy and brutal. We always had to keep the characters’ personalities in mind when making them, and from there, we would record reference videos of ourselves performing the actions, or at least as close as we could get. We used the reference for rough posing and timing, but from there, we’d exaggerate the poses, adjust the timing, and add embellishments.

I think the thing we did to really sell the faster, snappy action, was utilize a lot of smear frames. If you were to freeze some of the animations during a very fast action, you’d see the characters were usually very stretched out and distorted. On a single frame this looks strange, but in motion, it fools the eye into thinking there are more frames than there actually are. So, we were able to do very fast motions without the animation looking like it was “popping.”

Why was Unreal Engine a good fit for Darksiders Genesis

Game Director Ryan Stefanelli: Based on the success other games of similar scope have had with Unreal, it felt like a very natural fit, especially for a multiplayer project. There’s also a massive resource base for group-thinking through problems that proved very valuable in the end. And it’s a very proven technology.

Technical Director Chris Brooks: Having access to the full source code is a huge benefit Unreal offers.
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Considering this is the studio’s first Unreal Engine title, how was the switch to UE?

Stefanelli: Unreal is such a common development tool now that many people on the team had used it on previous projects. And those that hadn’t touched it before were quickly trained up by those who had. 

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Author: Jimmy Thang

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