Nth^0 Infinity Reborn Interview – Soulsborne Design Meets Card-Game Mechanics in This Intriguing Indie Project
The importance of indie games in the last ten years or so cannot be overstated, particularly as a source of innovative features for the entire games industry. Triple-A productions rarely have the luxury to do meaningful innovations, so the burden falls upon independent developers to find a way to get noticed by coming up with novel gameplay formulas and ideas.
While we were scouring the Web for new indie titles, we stumbled upon an interesting Unreal Engine 4 project called Nth^0 Infinity Reborn. Targeting a February 2021 release on PC, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, the developers at Kitatus and Friends are trying to mix elements of the 'Soulsborne' genre with card game mechanics and turn-based combat, all the while setting a 'dimension-hopping' storyline for the game.
In order to learn more, we reached out to the studio and managed to have a long interview with Ryan Shah, CEO and Lead Programmer of the British company. Enjoy!
Can you talk a bit about Kitatus and Friends, the studio that you've set up to develop Nth^0 Infinity Reborn?
We founded Kitatus and Friends at the start of the year. We previously worked on some projects for Epic, Framestore, and a couple of indie developers. There's five of us all in all, you've got me who's the CEO and lead programmer. You've then got assistant programmer David who's fresh out of University, you've got Alicia who does all of the community management and QA side of things and finally James, who's the COO and also the scenario writer for our projects. We're quite a nice, varied team. We're all based in the UK, but we don't really discriminate between remotely working from all over the world. It's just at the minute since we're freshly started, we're mainly focused here in sunny Plymouth in the UK.
Were you impacted by the COVID lockdowns at all?
We've got the office here, and at the very start of the pandemic, it was quite a change because even though we supported remote working, the company wasn't set up to be completely remote. That was quite an adjustment to make and it took a little while. But we got there eventually, it was just incorporating things like Zoom for the business meetings. And most importantly, because we're working on pretty big game projects, synching files to and from each other turned out to be a lot harder than we thought it would. Because of the large file sizes having to go here, there and everywhere.
You've said you've just recently begun working on Nth^0 Infinity Reborn, right? Is it still early days, then?
One of the big benefits of our company is that it's focused on making high-turnaround projects, so we only tend to focus on games that have a maximum development time of about a year. That allows us to better face consumers in terms of what they want, against what we can provide. Instead of spending three or four years working on a game that's out of fashion by the time it's released, we're able to make hyper-focused titles with a one year dev time. The game itself has been in production since early January, and we're almost ready to start showing off to the public what it is and how it looks. We're about just past a quarter way mark in terms of the development cycle. We've got playable builds, they just need some heavy polish, and at the minute we're shopping around for publishers. We're talking to a few people right now, obviously I can't name names, but reception so far from the publishers has been really positive.
Are you planning to do an 'early access' phase for this game?
That's something we're discussing with the publishers because, with the type of game that we're making here, we want to get the community in as soon as possible. It's less so going to early access for funding and more so making sure we can make the best game the community wants.
Reading on your website and the public press releases, there seems to be a bit of conflicting information on how Nth^0 Infinity Reborn is going to actually play. Could you clear that up?
That's a brilliant point because you're the first person that brought this up. When development first started, no matter what this was a project RPG, we want to make an RPG, and the original idea was to go down the Soulsborne route. However, as we started to put it together and playtest it, people hated it. There was nothing special that it could bring to the table. And we kind of sat there. It's one of the benefits of the way the company works, being able to quickly adjust to what people actually want. We were like 'What do we take of what we've got now and how do we make it something that brings something unique to the table?'
We did a lot of racketing heads against the wall and we ended up coming up with the fact that when you take RPGs to their very core, they're heavily based on Dungeons and Dragons. What we found is if you take that out and replace that with card game mechanics instead, you end up with a very interesting gameplay formula, which we originally tried to retrofit into the Soulsborne mechanics, but it just wasn't quite there. It's one of those points where trading card games and collectible card games have been going for many, many, many years. Trying to adjust those mechanics into something that doesn't have the benefits of turn-based mechanics means you kind of lose out a lot of that magic. We then remixed the RPG elements a bit, pulled away from the action-based to focus on turn-based instead to give the players a lot more strategy, and that's pretty much where we've ended up.
We've now got a lot of cool mechanics that are only possible in doing things this way. You get to mix both the worlds together perfectly, which before wasn't possible. One of the examples is the health system. What you find in card games specifically is with the health systems, either the player has health, or the monsters that you get out of your deck on the field have health. Whereas here, we can take the turn-based RPG elements and bring them in. So before the matches even start, your characters are on the playfield, just like an RPG, and then that's your health. When they're all gone, they're all dead. Then we started to add some of the original ideas that we had back when it was a Soulsborne into this, so we could do things like taking the healing stuff out. We noticed when people were playing these turn-based RPGs there was a lot of just attacking for the sake of attacking. You didn't really care about one of your characters dying because you could just put a resurrection spell or a phoenix down or whatever, and bring it back to life.
We found that taking that out, your characters are a lot more vulnerable, so you're going to plan your moves very carefully because once that character is down, it's down for good. One of the things that really inspired that was the Final Fantasy VII Remake, which we were playing when coming up with the original Soulsborne idea. We noticed in their hard mode, they completely take the use of items out, which adds a completely new dynamic to the game. Another idea that's really cool is, with RPGs and with card games in general, you have elements systems like fire, water, air, it's pretty much common ground these days. But now that we're using card games as a base and giving people attack counters instead of just letting them attack willy nilly, we've been able to do really cool things. If you head into a battle with a fire deck against the water deck, usually you already know that battle's lost, which is lame. Whereas now what we can do with the mechanics that we've got is for example using one of three available attack points to change that character over to a water type if needed. That just opens up so many strategic elements. When we first came up with the idea of Nth^0 Infinity Reborn we knew that the card game space is massive, but at the same time, it's kind of dominated by some really heavy hitters like Hearthstone, the Pokémon Trading Card Game, Magic.
We wanted to head in not as a competitor to them, but as our own kind of game. That's why we're touting it as a turn-based RPG with card-based elements. It's completely 3D, and you have characters represented on the field as actual characters, and they fight, it's very similar to The Eye of Judgment (minus the gimmicky camera system), but your characters are on the field. It's just we use card game elements to push forward to turn-based RPG systems and offer something really unique. Actually, we were pretty worried when we first came up with this idea and even asked ourselves 'Why hasn't anybody tried this before?' But we found out with experimenting and playtesting that we may have accidentally hit a goldmine, so we're speeding ahead now.
When playing Nth^0 Infinity Reborn, does it bear resemblance to something like X-COM, Divinity: Original Sin, or something else?
The best way to describe it would literally be the Pokémon Trading Card Game if it were Final Fantasy VII Remake. Your characters are in play in the field and attack like Final Fantasy VII Remake, but the game board and the field are just like you'd find in something like the Pokemon Trading Card Game. It has fully dynamic environments though, we're fully using Unreal Engine 4 to deliver photorealistic rendering. We've got things like volumetric lighting, which makes things look fantastic. If you go to like a factory area, for example, the game board is that factory area. It's not just a PNG image of some sort of factory. We didn't want to make the minimum we could hit, we're really aiming for the double AA here. Games like Hellblade and the Ratchet and Clank Remake, that's where we're headed for, as opposed to some indie game or triple-A game. We're trying to hit that nice middle ground.
I've also read that you plan to reward 'explorative gameplay'. Can you expand on this part?
Yep. What we've touched on at the minute is the combat system. However, the overworld exploration and everything from there is still exactly the same from version 1.0, so it's still that Soulsborne inspired exploration and the worldbuilding is all still there too. It's just that when you get down to combat, it is now based on the card game style mechanics, but when it comes to exploration you've still got actions like climb, fly, etc.
There are so many different ways you can get around the environment and it's not something that's tacked on. It's very philosophically based on mechanics, just like in Final Fantasy VII Remake, where there's just as much love and attention put into the exploration and the world maneuvering that there is in the combat system. For example, we've recently been working on a certain robot character that has the ability to completely fly anywhere at their leisure, which at first completely broke everything, it definitely opened up a lot of interesting design issues. But we've been working on fixing that and the whole idea with Nth^0 Infinity Reborn is to give the player complete agency in the overworld and in combat as well, but specifically in the overworld.
We really wanted to not reinvent the wheel but refine everything that's been brought up to this point to make a turn-based RPG that has these motor mechanics in, but we're not trying to make a retro throwback RPG we're trying to say, this is the stuff that works and souls bonds the most. This is the stuff that works in card games. This is the stuff that the whole RPG genre, action, genre and adventure genre have learned over all these years. Let's make a game that's only possible in 2020 using the design mechanics learned along the way, and obviously the graphical capabilities of things like Unreal Engine 4's Megascans technology.
Is there going to be meaningful side content in the game?
Definitely. We want to make the worlds as believable as possible. One of the best ways to do that is by rewarding them for spending the time to talk to people around the world. We want to basically make a game that feels like the world is alive in a natural way, so you don't go to a place and there are quest markers and you grab them all as if it was a checklist to do. If you want to hang around this environment and talk to these people, then naturally events are going to occur in classic side mission fashion, where you'll get some nice rewards and things and maybe even extra characters to join your party, but we're not saying too much on that front at the moment.
The story of Nth^0 Infinity Reborn will take place 'across dimensions', according to the press release. What does that mean in practice?
It will indeed. That's been a massive pillar ever since day one of this project. We wanted a dimension-hopping storyline. We wanted to be able to really push the graphics that the studio's capable to the max. For example, The story takes place in Plymouth in the United Kingdom. And the reason for doing that is because we've got a great reference, we can literally go outside and get some fantastic references. And then we go to crazy places, we go to a variation of London where everyone is literal monkeys, we go to the moon where there's a cult that's obsessed with a spacecraft and they think they're God. We take the seeds that things like Rick and Morty have planted over the years and we really run with it.
Interesting. Is the plot going to be fixed or are you planning to allow meaningful player choice?
It's quite hard to say without spoiling things, but in classic RPG fashion, there are choices that you can make, but there is an overall story. You'll have a unique story based on how you're experiencing the world, but there is that one bad guy that's always going to be there, and he's really going to drive you to make those choices. So I would say, if that makes sense, you kind of have some choices, some big choices even, but we don't do consequences in something like the Telltale style.
Nth^0 Infinity Reborn is being made with Unreal Engine 4. What did you think of the Unreal Engine 5 demo?
It looks absolutely fantastic. Especially the Nanite system for a start, I had to scoop my jaw up off the floor after that. It takes a lot of the headache out of asset creation, but at the same time, it starts to raise more concerns. And one of the examples is Call of Duty Warzone at the minute, as people are harassing Activision over the size of Call of Duty Warzone. I think when we've got technologies now in the Unreal Engine 5 that allow us to use the original source meshes, with the original source textures and everything like that, the game file sizes are going to have to skyrocket which presents a unique set of challenges.
It was a very interesting presentation. What's more exciting than anything is that not all of the features, but a lot of the features are available in some form in Unreal Engine 4 as it stands. Like the particle system is already actively available to us now, even in a rough state, which has been fantastic for us, because this means when Unreal Engine 5 eventually launches, we've got the power to take what we've made now and kind of bring it up there instead of having to remake a game from scratch or make some serious porting adjustments. It will be hopefully relatively seamless to really tap the full potential.
The press release mentioned that you are targeting PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X as platforms, in addition to PC, for Nth^0 Infinity Reborn. What kind of experience have you had with these next-gen platforms so far?
It's one of those things that's really hard to talk about because there's a lot of NDA stuff still in place. I'm not sure what we can and can't say. We've got hands-on experience with one of them, I'm not sure if we're allowed to say which specific one, but we are targeting both for Nth^0 Infinity Reborn. The one we've experience with is very impressive and there's a lot that it plans to shake up in terms of how things work especially in audio departments and things that haven't had a lot of attention in the past years, there have been some fantastic strides. There's really a lot of power here. And I strongly believe we're getting to the point now - this is going to be a controversial opinion and to be clear, it is my own opinion, not the company's - I think we're getting to a point where technically in some aspects consoles can be better than PCs. I'm sure you've seen Tim Sweeney talking about the PlayStation 5's SSD. Having that kind of access to that kind of speed makes things a lot easier and opens up a lot more interesting possibilities. But what a lot of people tend to forget as well is when developing for PC, you have to tune your content for a specific range of devices. So that could either be the GTX 960, to the RTX 2070, or something like that. You have to kind of tune things to support that right wide array. Whereas what we've noticed in the next generation of hardware, we're noticing that it's relatively cut and dry to say 'Okay, if it runs on this specific device, it's going to run fine here, especially with the some of the tools that are being used'.
It's really hard to explain this stuff while bound by all these NDAs, but what we've noticed as well is
that there might be a lot of difference or a little difference between the two upcoming machines, but developing for both isn't as hassle full as it has been historically.
Despite NDAs, there's a lot of publically available information that can be discussed. For example, Sony went with a 'boost clock' design based on AMD's SmartShift technology for its PlayStation 5
I think it's a bit like when developing for PC, where you have access to all that different hardware and you can kind of tune things based on your needs. And what Sony is essentially saying is, here's your tool of options, you can absolutely throttle to the max. We'd prefer it if you didn't, but if there's like a fringe case where you're just off that tiny bit of performance you need, we will let you squeeze a little bit extra. It also opens up a lot of different opportunities such as, say that you wanted to take rendering for some specific thing like a particle and you wanted to run it through something like the CPU for a specific cutscene, that'd be possible now whereas historically you had to be really careful that you didn't flood a specific thread. It opens up a lot of interesting opportunities of offloading that kind of stuff elsewhere on the machine, which is something that's getting less and less common, to offload other parts of the machine, but it seems like especially from PlayStation 5's technical conference by Mark Cerny a few weeks back, they're really pushing for that 'Here's the hardware. Here's how you access what you need, go in and make something beautiful' kind of mantra.
There's been a lot of talk about the SSDs featured in both the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles. Many developers feel that it will be a major improvement in game development.
Definitely, without a doubt, and that just comes down to the fact that not even just open world games, but I believe any game could really benefit from it, in the sense that we've had to do smoke and mirrors for loading since pretty much the start of the industry, as soon as we moved away from those cartridges. And even during the cartridges era, we've always had to do things like narrow corridors to hide loading chunks or loading blocks, or even put mini-games during the loading screens.
Doors in the old Resident Evil games are a perfect example. If you include them now, they're just an aesthetic choice rather than something that's important to mask loading. But it also does come with caveats. Where in things like in Fallout 4 and even the Soulsborne games a lot of important hints towards the story and tips on how to play were displayed during the loading screens, because they're very much in the design of 'Here's the game, just go and play'. However, if you start any loading, here's some background, here's some lore or here's a tip for how to not suck. Whereas now they won't have that blanket. They're gonna have to think of another way of presenting that information in, which is interesting and not something people are really thinking about at the moment.
Another key feature of Sony's and Microsoft's next-generation platform is going to be hardware support for ray tracing. Are you planning to take advantage of that for Nth^0 Infinity Reborn?
We are looking at using ray tracing. Just because it really helps with all the dynamic elements, but the worlds are quite open in our game. And I think moving forward in terms of ray tracing, it's going to be those larger worlds that need a nice global illumination system that will lean towards it. Because it is hard, harder to work with that you have to bring in things like denoising and stuff like that, which is an increased overhead in performance. If you're making the most realistic looking scenes, it's quite tough. Trying to fight lighting systems historically, obviously, Unreal Engine five, has said, Oh, we'll do away with all that it's fine, but I'll be cautiously optimistic on that front. I think it's going to be more favored in open world games, the smaller games or the more games based in specific environments like The Evil Within with these claustrophobic corridors and things, I don't see the benefit of. Yeah, global. Yeah, sorry. It would look nice. I'm trying to figure out what it's trying to say there. It would look nice, but you've got the problem of there's so much light bleed. And there's so much actual performance hit. And it's quite hard to tune it specifically to get the aesthetic that you're going for if you're going for something like a horror game.
You believe that those games that require a very specific atmosphere will still go with baked lightmaps.
I think in certain cases, in smaller games and specifically horror games, it's still going to be a thing. Maybe you'll have a flashlight that's still fully dynamic and beautiful, whereas I think the world will still have baked maps. I think there's been, especially in recent years, a lot of cool technology developed to improve baked maps performance and more. Like in DOOM Eternal, where you can kind of change between different baked maps on the fly and give the illusion of GI. Personally, I wouldn't use ray tracing for anything apart from open world games, because it's technically cheaper having that one large light in the sky that's constantly firing off in all directions when you can have that literal representation of the Sun with its infinite light bounces and whatnot. Whereas I think for smaller games, it just doesn't make logical sense with the amount of power that it needs to perform well.
Right, so ray tracing would be the best choice particularly for dynamic games that have day and night cycles, for instance.
Especially while doing things like day/night cycles, without a doubt, ray tracing all the time, every time. Having to deal with that stuff historically has been a nightmare, especially to get specific aesthetics that you want. Whereas I think in those small corridor situations, it's a lot harder to get that specific, stylized visuals with ray tracing, because you'd have a light coming in from a window that's then just going to infinitely bounce around.
Going back to Nth^0 Infinity Reborn, are you going to support multiplayer in some way?
There will be multiplayer support, but at the minute the way it's planned is very similar to the Pokémon centers in your Pokémon games, where it's a single player adventure and there are points where you can go into battle arenas and face off against people. Multiplayer is something that we're looking at better supporting later, but we will have basic multiplayer support at the release of the game, how far we take that after the fact is currently up for debate in the office.
Are you planning to host any beta testing for Nth^0 Infinity Reborn?
As we said at the start, community feedback is very important to what we're building here, so we're looking at options on that front, but expect to hear something around early September time about how people can get involved and try the game out and offer their feedback.
Thank you for your time.