What does a 40 year old Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG and a modern day AR adventure game have in common? Well, a rather surprising amount as we discovered during our interview with Shrouded Citadel’s creator, Robert Pifer.
The first-person dungeon augmented reality game, which launched worldwide for iOS and Android today, offers players the chance to immerse themselves in a epic sized 3D dungeon world with a simple goal: to escape in one piece!
It’s one of the most intriguing AR titles we’ve seen released for mobile so we caught up with the creative mind behind the game to learn how it came to be.
What do you think Shrouded Citadel offers that you can’t get from any other title on mobile?
I think it offers a new experience that people haven't really seen from games yet. You get similar movement features in VR games like leaning and crouching, but you're confined to a space. With AR games like Pokemon GO, it does have you go to specific locations in the real world but you're looking at a map, not moving through the tall grass yourself finding encounters. That's kind of what I wanted from this game. It's an immersive experience that allows you to be 100% in control of the characters movement by physically moving through an area. This game also gives you everything from the start. There aren't any micro-transactions, you can't get a head start by buying it. It's you in this dungeon trying to make it to the end.
What were your inspirations for making the game?
My Dad and I love video games and I grew up playing games so we had many inspirations. The Shrouded Citadel basic premise originated during a discussion I was having with my Dad about some of the early games he found most enjoyable. We were talking about an early graphics based game called Wizardry. We found an Apple II emulator and loaded up the original Wizardry game. It's graphics are vector based so all it is is a black screen with white lines giving basic shape to a hall or a room. You'd move through halls to find rooms that had encounters in them. Sometimes it was the way to the next floor and sometimes it was some kind of enemy you fought via a text based system. We wanted to take that idea and modernized it. So we started with an “L” shaped room just to see what was possible with AR motion tracking. From there we expanded and ended up with the game we have today.
Other inspirations come from games like Myst, Doom, Elder Scrolls, and Dark Souls. You can definitely see that in the different puzzles, levels, traps, and the boss fights. We also looked at way to encourage exploration and what kept us wanting to keep progressing through these games.
What challenges did you face during development, and how did you overcome them?
There were a lot of challenges. Most of them were because these were things I was doing for the first time, but others were challenges because of the way AR functions. The first major one was preventing players moving through walls. In an AR environment a player can typically move through all game objects in the game space. In a non AR/VR game if the player walks into a wall the player stops moving and shouldn't be able to go through. So how do I discourage players from going through walls? The first thought was “maybe the walls cause damage?”, but that mechanic took some fun out of the game. So I took some time and came up with a system that makes the level move with you if you try to push through a wall. This solution, while it achieved what we were wanting, did cause some other issues.
Because the game environment was no longer a static environment we couldn't use basic game design techniques like occlusion culling or hidden-surface determination. That basically means whatever is not in the view of the player isn't being rendered. So this saves whatever gaming device you're playing on a lot of graphical load that can cause serious frame drops and overheating. So I implemented a way to manually achieve this by only rendering the area the player is in and what they would see from that area if they looked down a hall. Taking that graphical load off allowed me to add way more into the game with things like more traps, puzzles, better textures, models, and animations.
Another challenge was the size of the game itself. You're moving on a 1:1 scale through this large dungeon. So you need a big space to play, right? What happens if you're in a hall and you can't move forward because there's a fence in the real world blocking your way? The original solution was to push on a wall and move the whole game around. That added a lot of unnecessary work on the part of the player that wasn't good for the player's quality of life. So I designed a “freeze camera” button that pauses everything and allows the player to move and rotate the game environment. This allowed me to do some testing in my backyard instead of going to a park everytime.
Which aspects of the game do you feel players will be most excited about?
The way you play the game. Even when I'm out testing the game I'm having fun working my way through, peeking around corners, and finally getting past those traps without taking damage or dying. Every tester and people who have played the game feel the physical aspect is a whole new experience and it immediately immerses them. It's also fun seeing the reaction of people at a park watching me play the game and wondering what I'm doing.
Which parts of Shrouded Citadel are you personally the most proud of and why?
This is a tough one to answer. Honestly, I'm proud of the entire game. My Dad consulted and we bounced ideas back and forth but for the most part, this was a solo project. This game was a challenge full of learning experiences. I had never done anything on this scale before. I had to learn a new way of coding, 3d modelling, rigging, texturing, boss mechanics, puzzle mechanics, and almost everything that went into this game was a first for me. It's hard to believe this project is coming to a close.
Shrouded Citadel is currently available to download from the App Store and Google Play for $1.99. You can also try the first two levels of the game with Shrouded Citadel’s lite version for iOS and Android.