Refreshing the tactical RPG genre with Spy DNA

Spy DNA: Be a Super-spy for a day

Shy Snake LLC (shysnake.com) is a husband-and-wife indie game studio, currently working on their first game, Spy DNA (spydna.com). Alex Maier and Jason Sams both quit their corporate jobs to start this company. Alex left Google in May 2015 to start Shy Snake game studio, and Jason joined in full-time in February after leaving his job at Google as well.

According to Alex, “We wanted to build a unique game that would take both of our talents to complete.” Jason is an expert developer who is using his experience and talents to write the game AI and such features as correct anatomical damage and a character-POV “body-cam” which is unusual in 3rd person games. Alex likes the storytelling aspect of game design, and has a knack for making visually interesting levels.

Spy DNA is a tactical squad RPG that combines turn-based game mechanics with realistic combat simulation. The game puts you in command of a small team of super-spies. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, will be to fight to preserve our way of life and stop those that want destroy it.

Using advanced genetic modification technology, you create and enhance your super-spy character to match your play-style. You’ll lead a squad of spies with unique talents on missions around the globe.

The World and the Story…

The game is set in 2075, in an optimistic version of the future. It’s not a dystopian world, and humanity is not only surviving, but making progress. The future is not too distant, so you will recognize a lot of tech, and today’s cutting-edge gadgets will “just work.”

The story begins with your character joining a secret project run by the Crolimax Laboratory. The founders of the project, Drs. Britta Crotalus and Andreas Limax have invented a way to genetically enhance living humans to turn them into super-spies.

SpyDNAscreenshotSand
But what fun would it be without some baddies? When the genetic enhancement research is stolen from the lab, it is your character’s task to recover it and to prevent a rogue nation from creating an army of super-soldiers. A video screen capture of the gameplay is here.

Alex and Jason were greatly inspired by the RPGs of the past that made the genre popular in the first place: Jagged Alliance, Silent Storm, and the original XCOM.

What sets Spy DNA apart from most tactical games is the uncompromising focus on creating a realistic and believable combat environment. They added a gunsight cam, so when you are giving your character the order to attack, you can make sure they execute the attack exactly the way you want. Players have tremendous control over what type of shots their characters take. Anything from a snapshot to a well-aimed shot is possible. You can also vary the number of rounds you fire and where you aim.

Using advanced genetic modification technology, you create and enhance your super-spy character to match your play-style. You’ll lead a squad of spies with unique talents on missions around the globe.

There are several ways Spy DNA is unique from other games in this space. The following features comprised give Shy Snake an advantage:

  • Super-realistic combat and AI make you feel like a real super-spy on a mission
  • Realistic weapons behaviour, aiming, and cover
  • Hit points are replaced with anatomical damage
  • Time slicing turn-based combat. Provides the feel of turn-based games while allowing the realism of real-time with pause.
  • Immersive story
  • Deeply branched dialog
  • Rich character attributes and skills allow you to create and play a character based on your own play style
  • High tactical flexibility creates replay value

Combat in Spy DNA is Concurrent Turn-Based. This means that the game plays as turn-based, but the length of the turns is determined by your actions and stats. Turns for characters are determined by how fast the character can perform their actions. So a fast player may get more turns than a slower enemy. This opens up lots of choices in how you create your character.
combat turns

When it’s any of your characters’ turns, the game stops and waits for you to tell them what to do next. How long a turn takes is determined by what you told your characters to do. Spy DNA is also different in that all characters perform their actions at the same time. It’s not at all uncommon to see a character’s turn come up while bullets are flying through the air and explosions are going off.

Combat / Gameplay: Spy DNA implements a combat system designed to be “real world intuitive.” This means that if an action would work or not work in real life, you’d expect it to produce a similar result in game. The game implements a very detailed and complex simulation of combat, but presents it in an approachable way to the player. This opens up a large number of tactical options to the player that are not present in most games.

CaptureSome examples:

  • Weapon aiming respects character stance, including standing, crouching, and prone
  • Players can decide how much time a character spends aiming at a target. This replaces the overly simplistic “hit %” most tactical games implement.

Damage to characters are determined by an anatomical model. This replaces the random dice rolls most games implement. It gives the player a lot more options in their attack such as aiming for critical parts of the target or for example shooting the weapons out of a NPCs hand. The damage system in Spy DNA is based on injuries rather than hit points. As a character is injured they will be impaired by those injuries. The game internally has a model of human anatomy which it uses to model the effects of the injuries a character sustains. Weapons in Spy DNA are derived from real-world military weapons but extrapolated slightly for the future. The weapon models are physically based. Shots drift and lose energy over distance in a realistic way.

Spy DNA provides a deep character model allowing you to create a unique character tailored to your play-style. There are seven primary attributes, Strength, Dexterity, Health, Intelligence, Motivation, Charisma, and Senses. For those that wish greater control there are three detail attributes within each primary attribute. For example “senses” includes eyesight, hearing, and smell. If you want to create a character with great eyesight but not so great hearing, it’s up to you.

Skills in Spy DNA are another way the character evolves to mirror its player’s play-style. We’ve introduced weapon specialization. If your character has a favorite weapon they keep using, they will become better with it over time.

You can learn new skills between missions. Your state-of-the-art base has a number or training resources available for your character to prepare them for missions. Once you have a skill you can advance it both by training it at the base or using it on a mission.

Jason and Alex are firm believers that turn-based tactical/strategy game market is chronically underserved. They claim their game has been met with great enthusiasm by the players of this genre. Spy DNA has been in development for about 1.5 years.

Let’s take a look at this image of the gameplay UI:

1. Character’s body cam
2. Weapon and its firing mode selector
3. Character health status and stance
4. Character selector
5. Event log and combat status

HUD-and-UI

A little about Spy DNA’s tech and pipeline…

The primary platform at the moment is Windows PC. The engine is based on Unreal Engine 4 with customization at the C++ level. Ports to Mac, Android, or iOS are planned if there is market demand.

SpyDNA development stack:

  • Unreal Engine 4.12
  • Ikinema inverse kinematics
  • Nevigo Articy: draft dialog integration
  • Microsoft Visual Studio
  • Autodesk Entertainment Suite
  • Adobe Creative Cloud
  • Corel Creative Suite
  • P4v Perforce version control
  • C++ custom code
  • Intel Hardware
  • NVIDIA PhysX

The game logic is 100% C++ for best performance. Going with C++ also allows the team to customize the engine to bring about some of the unique gameplay functions in Spy DNA, such as their damage model and enhanced fog of war.

Spy DNA is not without competition and inspiration:

According to Jason, “We are trying to avoid going directly against established games and instead trying to revive an older and underserved style of gameplay. The most similar games on the market today would be XCom-2 and Jagged Alliance, Back in Action. Compared to these we are bringing a much more nuanced gameplay and combat experience.”

Let’s take a look…

Compared to Xcom-2:
Spy DNA has a combat system that gives the player much finer control over their characters actions. Cover in Spy DNA is line of sight so SpyDNA doesn’t have the XCom issues where you cannot hit the target 2 feet away because there is a guard rail providing “cover”. The team also implemented real concurrent turns which solves the very frustrating Xcom event when you wake up melee characters which then run halfway across the map to attack your party while you cannot respond.

Compared to Jagged Alliance, Back in Action:
Jagged Alliance had a good cover system but a very poor visualization of it. So often you would be shooting the ground or a building rather than the target. Also they had several RTwP issues where characters would just stand idle while being attacked if the player didn’t see the attack or didn’t hit pause fast enough. Spy DNA’s Concurrent turn based approach solved this and their gunsight view visualizes the cover for the player.

Spy DNA will be available to play on Windows PCs. Catch their trailer here.

SpyDNA has a number of web properties you may wish to check out:

    • spydna.com
    • shysnake.com/blog
    • twitter.com/shysnakegames
    • facebook.com/shysnakegames
    • shysnake.tumblr.com
    • YouTube: bit.ly/shysnakeyt
    • Google+ bit.ly/shysnake
    • Kickstarter: bit.ly/spydna

Analyst’s Viewpoint

Game development is frequently a challenging exercise in project/product management and software development. This means that unexpected difficulties can arise. These can cause the schedule to slip or features to be cut. One such factor is the exorbitantly high cost of time consuming assets creation. Many of today’s games are built using enhanced assets purchased from third parties.

However, by using Unreal, the developers have access to Unreal’s content marketplace. Epic makes it easier for game developers on a budget to acquire assets that may fit their needs, even if not custom due to their being in a marketplace or asset store. This trend of buying known assets, championed originally by Unity, continues to see a rise in popularity as a content solution for game developers, one that helps them stay within their budget and on time. Shy Snake is not exception. The team decided to structure Spy DNA such that, should their 3rd party asset makers fail to deliver, the studio could still ship their game on time and stay within budget by using placeholder assets or other drop-in replacements.

Another factor is the sheer number of titles vying for players’ attentions. By taking a risk and revisiting and reimagining a sub-genre with a passionate, albeit not large, fan base, Spy DNA may very well entice a new generation of game players onto turn-based tactical/strategy RPGs.

Contact Information:

Shy Snake LLC,
PO Box 66786,
Scotts Valley, CA
http://shysnake.com