2007's S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl was a seminal game and one ahead of its time in many ways. A first-person survival horror shooter with RPG elements, it was set in an alternate version of our world where a second nuclear disaster (following the original and real one from 1986) mutated everything and everyone in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, leading to nightmarish results.
Since the last franchise installment (2009's Call of Pripyat), there have been several attempts at bringing back some of that magic, but none have truly succeeded. GSC Game World announced S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, of course, but we didn't really get anything concrete about it yet other than a screenshot and the confirmation it'll be using Unreal Engine technology.
Meanwhile, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. fans can find some of that atmosphere in Chernobylite, even if this isn't a full-fledged open world game. Developed by The Farm 51 and originally crowdfunded on Kickstarter, Chernobylite also puts you in the shoes of a stalker who ventures into the deadly Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in order to investigate traces of Tatiana, the main character's lost loved one.
Just like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Chernobylite also lets you interact with other stalkers roaming the Zone, whether that's through collaboration or competition. You'll investigate both natural and supernatural threats, though ultimately the game is more narrative-driven than any of the released S.T.A.L.K.E.R. titles have ever been.
Chernobylite has been available through Steam Early Access since late 2019 and its roadmap reveals plans of a full release happening in a few months, in the Winter season. We've caught up with The Farm 51 Creative Director Wojciech Pazdur to discuss the progress of the game's development at length. Enjoy!
Given that this was your first Kickstarter campaign, can you tell us about the experience you've had with Chernobylite in this regard?
The biggest thing about Kickstarter is the obvious thing: there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Theoretically, we were well prepared and we knew that the Kickstarter campaign would be a hardcore marathon of communication, social relations, marketing and emotions, but we were still overwhelmed with the number of things to be handled every day. Within a few weeks, we had to do tasks that normally take a year or two when you run the regular game development and marketing campaign. I guess only game launch is as intense in intensity as the Kickstarter action. But still, we believe we’ve done our homework before on campaign preparation and thanks to this we’ve gathered a big number of backers, followers and fans, ending with very successful results.
However, as planned from the very beginning, the Kickstarter was not the goal in itself – the biggest value of the campaign was in building a strong community of people who wanted to support the project. Many of the highest-pledging backers helped us not just by buying some stuff and paying the money, but they simply wanted to be involved in the development process. Since the Kickstarter they helped us on testing and bug-fixing the game, spreading the word, translating the in-game dialogues for many languages (a thing that’s quite hard to be handled with the specialized translation companies when your project is all the time evolving). This community and belief in the project is a success that I value even more than any money we’ve gathered with Kickstarter.
Can you tell us a bit about the expanded nuclear power plant and the Red Forest locations that were originally unlocked through the stretch goals?
We wanted to add places which are not easily available to reach for tourists and also are a great fit for our story. We plan to recreate these areas as precisely as possible and add something extra from us. However, sometimes it can be a tricky task because few places in the Zone are harder to be digitized – especially when there’s a higher radiation level there. To properly prepare to work in these places we needed more time and better logistics than for scanning the random parts of Pripyat city or Chernobyl village. For example, when we wanted to scan the undergrounds of the Power Plant below reactor 4, it turned out they are completely sealed due to high radiation and entering them would kill us. Fortunately, we were lucky to scan other parts of the undergrounds that are identical and implement them in the game.
What was the reason for splitting the locations into different maps in Chernobylite instead of using a seamless 'open world' design?
First, we wanted to recreate a real Exclusion Zone of Chernobyl and in reality the area is 2500 square kilometers, 95% of which covered with forest. We didn’t want to change its character and ruin its real mood by artificially placing hundreds or thousands of artificial objects only to give players anything interesting to watch or to do there. Instead, we decided to focus on showing the most interesting parts that are scattered within the whole area, and in order to do this, we had to cut the smaller parts from the whole Zone. And second, but not less important - we’re a small team of around 30 people and creating a seamless open world with such detail as we do would be impossible in a team of this size. We would need to sacrifice the quality just to let players explore bigger and more empty or non-inspiring areas. That was a big no for us. However our maps are still going to be big, and the player will be able to walk around wherever he or she pleases… while paying attention to radiation of course.
The recent overhaul mentioned doing work that was not planned in the Chernobylite roadmap. Does that mean the estimates for the upcoming updates have to be revised to reflect a delay?
Regarding the initially assumed time limits, so far we’re fully following the plan. Our roadmap was crafted and communicated as quite a safe scenario because we wanted to have reasonable time margins for unexpected bug fixing and implementation of changes that come from players’ feedback. Plan for Early Access release required to keep maximum time and content flexibility for a lot of re-works here and there. We knew that we are doing a long-time surgery on a living organism and everything may happen regarding the changes in project scope or balance. Then when we saw during last months that we still have some of these margins left, we’ve used them to
add a bit of new content and features – and we actually always wanted to add them, but we were not sure if we’ll manage to do it on time, so we kept them on the reserve list. Of course, some of the hard parts of the development are still ahead of us, so we can’t guarantee we won’t have any delays with the following content, but today we’re looking good here.
Can you discuss what's featured in the new Chernobylite 'Pripyat Central District' map?
For the Central area of Pripyat City, we’ve changed the original map design a lot after the first prototyping phase. The initial plan was to divide Pripyat into 3 districts (Port area, Lenin Square and Central District). For the Early Access launch we’ve delivered the first part (the port). The other two were just rough sketches on paper at this time. When we started to work on prototypes, it appeared that it doesn’t make gameplay sense to divide the Lenin Square from Central District, because in the real world first is connected to the second. And it’s not working well for the designed exploration paths when they’re disconnected in the game. Also, thanks to the optimizations we made in the meantime, we’ve achieved the level where we can afford having a much bigger seamless map instead of two separate chunks of the city. We put a lot of effort into this kind of stuff because right after the launch of Early Access some players were unhappy that the scale of some of our maps is not that huge as they expected. Therefore we’ve decided to merge the parts of original two maps to create the one, seamless bigger map called simply Pripyat Center. It contains, among others, Lenin Square, surrounding buildings like the famous Palace of Culture Energetik, Hotel Polissya, and the cherry on the cake – the Amusement Park. And the next steps will be to expand it with more walkable areas and interiors, like we’re doing with other maps too.
Are you planning to address the game’s performance issues in an upcoming performance patch?
We’re addressing the performance issues in every patch. Not counting Megapatches that are being released every month or two, we post smaller hotfixes whenever we manage to improve or fix some areas that are annoying on some PC configurations. Besides in-game content optimizations, in the last Megapatch we’ve added support of DirectX 12 and AMD’s FidelityFX functions to let players better setup their performance vs quality experience. Still, our game is very heavy on the content side because of photogrammetry and there’s still a lot to do before we can finish optimization. Early Access is not helping here, because in typical video game development scenario
you do 70% of the optimization work when all your content is finished (Alpha/Beta stage). And we need to do this work also for the content that is at work-in-progress status. But the good thing is that when we finish the development, thanks to all of this, Chernobylite should be very well optimized at the launch of the final version.
When is the console release scheduled for Chernobylite? Will it be alongside the 1.0 launch on PC?
Our priority is still intact – we’re pushing to go for consoles as early as possible, but we won’t sacrifice the PC version quality to be able to launch consoles sooner. Instead, during the actual development, we’re doing a lot of work to make the console versions on par with PC. All features and content are being designed, implemented and tested as for console experience, and we occasionally run the test builds on console devkits to make sure it’ll go well. This is not that hard for us because the team already created several console titles and many of us are console players at heart.
Today’s environment requires us to think not only on the current generation of hardware, but also about the next-gens and streaming services, so it’s almost certain that we won’t reveal all the target platforms at the same time. But of course the current-gen consoles are the most important step in expanding the Chernobylite outside of the PC ecosystem.
Chernobylite is made with Unreal Engine technology. Did you look into adding ray tracing into the game, or are you planning to wait until your next game?
We really want to have the ray tracing tech in Chernobylite, and I’m almost sure sooner or later it’ll be implemented. But because of focus on Early Access optimizations and game world expansion our priority today is to make sure that major players can enjoy the game as much as possible even without having the ray tracing-enabled video card. If we had focused too much on ray tracing abilities now, we wouldn't have had the chance to push so strong in the non-ray tracing visual aspects of the game.
This seems to be a time of great technological advancements in the industry. Microsoft recently unveiled DirectX 12 Ultimate, which includes improvements to their DXR API, Variable Rate Shading, Mesh Shading and Sampler Feedback. Are you looking to take advantage of the other DX12 Ultimate features beyond ray tracing?
The base of DX12 is already implemented in Chernobylite since the last Megapatch and we’ll be looking to see how much of its advantages can be used within the game. But the same as with ray tracing, we’re cautiously doing very small steps here. We have Early Access work in progress and only 3 programmers on the board for the whole project, so we can’t split the engine core functions at a too early stage.
Microsoft also shared the official specifications of the Xbox Series X console, while Sony did the same for its PlayStation 5. Looking at the specs, do you think there will be a fairly sizable gap between the two? Will SSD technology really revolutionize how games are made as some have stated?
I don’t think players will feel too much of the difference just because of the hardware specs, the same as they don’t feel it so hard for the current generation. All will be related to skills in the utilization of the tech and the engines used by developers. Even more, Uncharted 2 was so great on PlayStation 3, which was weaker than Xbox 360, and now Uncharted 4 is even greater on PlayStation 4, but not because this console is stronger than Xbox One. But I’m sure that proper SSD usage will lead us to some groundbreaking changes in development technologies and content production pipelines. And for the last 10 years, I was never so excited as I’m now to grab the Unreal Engine 5 and check what this baby really can do with all our 3D scans waiting to shine on the next generation of hardware.
The new DualSense controller for the PlayStation 5 was also revealed, with new haptics features, while the Xbox Series X controller will focus on achieving lower latency. Which one are you most excited about?
The best thing for me is that these controllers (finally) will be similar enough with shape to not disrupt my comfort when switching from one to the other. I’m happy that Sony ultimately agreed that the PSX-shaped gamepad is not the song of the future (even if, having not very massive hands, I always felt comfy with the DualShock controller). Hard to say today if the extra features or parameters will play a big role – I was very enthusiastic about the PS4 controller on its release, but at the end of the day all the fancy features didn’t mean a lot to my gaming experiences.
What do you think of the store war between Epic and Valve? Would you ever consider going exclusive to the Epic Games Store?
We hope that the existence of more store platforms will ultimately lead to a better situation for players and for developers. But since we’ve decided to go into the community driven development, launching Kickstarter, planning Early Access – then a non-exclusive presence on platforms like Steam and GOG seemed a much better idea for us with Chernobylite.
Thank you for your time.