Inside Indie Development with Fictorum; Unreal Engine, Game Development as Second Job

Inside indie development with the team behind Fictorum

I recently had the opportunity to talk to the two people responsible for Fictorum, Greg Curran and Chip Flory. Their tiny team at Scraping Bottom Games released Fictorum just a few weeks back. We get into the trials of game development as a second job, working with the Unreal physics engine and their favorite spells in the game.

COGconnected: I was curious to learn more about the initial idea you guys had for the game. I read some stuff on the site about how you guys finished some campaign together and you decided, you know, let’s start making games. Is there more to that story?

Greg: A little bit, the original idea for Fictorum was actually a tower defense game, believe it or not. You were going to play as a mage that just stood on top of a tower and threw powerful spells to defend his tower. That was the actual original idea for Fictorum. We mocked that up, starting from nothing, in a couple of months. We mocked up the very first playable demo of that and we quickly moved away from it. It wasn’t very fun, but throwing really powerful spells was. So we moved into… well, we had a lot of ideas and we ended up where we are now. There were more iterations to get to where Fictorum currently is.

Chip: Starting with a very simple idea, feeling really overconfident and then shifting to something really complex, and then settling somewhere in the middle.

COGconnected: That sounds about right. Starts easy, gets… not so much.

Greg: We had lots of simple ideas and then we realized “Maybe if we had the million-dollar budget big studios have, sure we could maybe pull this idea off. Well, let’s cut the idea down in half, and maybe in half again.

Chip: And that works pretty well.


COGconnected: I think I tend to agree. To that end, what kind of challenges did you guys run into during the development process? I mean, the ideas had to change as the project evolved. Were there any other roadblocks that came up along the way that proved especially tricky?

Chip: Technically we ran into a few issues. We learned a hard lesson: Don’t upgrade your engine too early when there’s a new version out. We had to deal with some fallout of that for a few weeks. I think one of the biggest hurdles that we’ve been dealing with is that when it gets to be push time, you’re trying to crank it, trying to do some marketing, implement features, interact with the community, and it gets really tricky to do that and a day job at the same time. Stress, fatigue, all of that becomes part of the equation. Eventually, you just learn what you need to do in order to take care of yourself and make it through. That’s been a really important lesson that we’ve both learned throughout this process.

Greg: On the more technical side, it never feels like a big hurdle once you beat it because the solution’s always simple programming. Maybe that’s overstating it a little bit. The biggest example is… We have the buildings blowing up, and that’s always a lot of fun. But up until just a few months ago, blowing up a building served no purpose other than to blow up buildings. The debris caused no damage to anyone or anything when it hit. It took us a surprisingly long time to figure out how to make that work. It works now, and it works fairly well. Whenever I watch a streamer or a Youtube video and someone’s running over stationary debris on the ground, my heart stops a little bit. We’ve also had trouble with stationary debris killing players. Well, we had problems with it. I haven’t seen it kill anyone in a while.

Chip: It’s gotten a little better.

Greg: It’s gotten a lot better.

Chip: A lot better.

Greg: You used to touch a piece of debris and it would kill you.

Chip: It is also nice to see the occasional streamer or YouTuber freaking out as they’ve destroyed something and a wall of debris is heading their way and they’re going “Crap, crap, crap, crap!

COGconnected: I totally know that feeling. I can imagine that would be really tricky to balance out, so it actually does damage but not in a hair-trigger kind of way.

Greg: It was a lot of tuning, it was “let’s try these values, let’s multiply it by this.” One of the big challenges was that the Unreal engine records the impact force when objects collide, but for some reason, the impact force doesn’t get recorded properly on destructible debris chunks. So we had to use other methods to figure out how big a piece is and how much damage it should be doing to the player.


COGconnected: Was there anything you wanted to include in the game but just couldn’t for time, budget or technical reasons?

Greg: About three thousand things.

James: Okay. Three thousand is a fair number.

Greg: A simple thing that we couldn’t implement due to lack of time and money that I really wanted was a female character model for the main character. That requires an entire new animation set, an entire new character model and an entire new equipment set for the main character. And a voice actor. Chip did all the voice acting for the main character. He has a decent falsetto, but he probably wouldn’t be appropriate for a female character model.

COGconnected: Fair enough. I feel like that might cause a little turbulence.

Chip: Animations have been a pretty big struggle for us. I think now they’re finally at a really good spot, but you would require a new animation set, and tuning and tweaking those until you finally get it looking right. It’s a mountain of work. Given time and funding though, we’d still love to work on something like that. Another thing that comes to mind, my big drum that I’ve been beating is co-op, or multiplayer. It’s one of the most common questions that we get. We just can’t touch that right now, you know? If we’re gonna be even close to being ready, especially a week out from release. There’s a mountain of technical hurdles that we’d have to surmount as well.

COGconnected: I suppose the follow-up question to that would be if time and budget permits if things go well, is that something you guys would be looking to implement at a later date?

Greg: Absolutely. If we’re successful enough that we can continue working on Fictorum, then we will. I mean, we’ll continue working on Fictorum regardless, but obviously, if we sell a hundred copies that doesn’t give us more funding to put in a female character model and things like that. But we’ll continue to work on the game, especially bugs that appear that I’m sure we’ve missed, and other improvements to the game as it goes on. The scope of those improvements will greatly depend on our success with Fictorum’s release in the following weeks and months.


“My big drum that I’ve been beating is co-op, or multiplayer. It’s one of the most common questions that we get.”

COGconnected: As hard as it would be to implement multiplayer, I can imagine it adding a whole other layer of fun, as well.

Chip: I can see friendly fire being just, so much fun. “You need some Health potions Greg, you should go in there and grab them.” “No, I’m not doing that. Ididot.”

Greg: Setting up some type of horde mode is something else that Chip has talked about wanting to do. We have a whole list of things to revisit after release.

COGconnected: You guys talked about the destructible physics being an issue with the Unreal engine. Were there any other issues or quirks when working with physics in Unreal?

Greg: Well, that’s where we can talk up the Unreal engine. We added our own bit of logic so we could figure out how much damage debris should be doing, but other than that… and that’s just logic that’s on top of the physics engine that’s already there. Everything works really, really well. Every now and then something strange will happen, but overall we’ve been really happy with the Unreal engine. Fictorum wouldn’t exist without the Unreal engine, I can confidently say that… for a multitude of reasons. We’ve been super happy with the support we’ve gotten from Epic, their answer-hub is fantastic. There’s a ton of resources out there. If anyone wants to develop, has never made a game before, has never programmed before, you can jump into the Unreal engine and start doing something, and that is fantastic. As a lifelong tinkerer, there’s never really been anything like it.

Chip: Their starting templates were amazing to get up and running super quickly. They just put so much thought into how they design things that if you know what you’re doing, it’s so simple. The physics are top notch, the appearance of the engine is incredible. We love it. Unreal has been incredibly good to us.


COGconnected: What’s your experience in games, prior to Fictorum? Have you guys done anything like this before?

Chip: Not really. Let’s just say, nothing that’s seen the light of day. Greg has a little bit of coding experience from some of his classes back in college. I’ve worked on some custom campaigns in… Starcraft One? Which really started the initial itch. I played around with RPG Maker when I was in high school. My brother and I tried making a little RPG on my PSone or whatever it was. It was a blast, I spent a lot of time working on it. But this is the first one that we’re proud enough to share with the world and I’m pretty happy with it.

COGconnected: You should be happy, it’s a fantastic effort, so to speak. Do either of you have a favorite spell or spell rune that you developed for the game that you like, perhaps more than some of the others?

Chip: Man, that’s a tough one.

Greg: Well, for me it’s easy. I just love Plasma Ball. It’s effectively a slow-moving fireball that does a ton of damage. But when you strap a Seek rune and a Chain Reaction and Multishot, then there’s all these Plasma Balls flying everywhere and blowing enemies across the map. I just really enjoy it. I love the sound effect that we have tied to Plasma Ball, it gives a very satisfying explosion. It’s by far my favorite spell in the game. I can’t really explain why other than that I just absolutely love it.

Chip: For me, since I lot of the design comes from my end it’s like trying to choose your favorite child. I love Frozen Spear but I think Glacier’s gotta be the most fun. Just visually it’s always so great to see that massive pillar of ice shatter whatever it touches. But with projectiles, you get cool stuff like Seek and Chain Reaction. Seeing a single Plasma Ball or Fireball just jump between all of the enemies and cause this massive destruction, it’s… yeah. Those are some of my top ones.

COGconnected: I’m pretty partial to Lightning Bolt, myself.

>Chip: Lightning Bolt’s a good one. We just implemented new sound effects for that one as well, our sound guy worked that up and it’s fantastic, super satisfying.

COGconnected: No arc to mess with, either. Almost like a sniper rifle shot, just fabulous.

Chip: It’s great, one of my favorite things to do is take Telekinesis and throw somebody up in the air, and use Lightning Bolt or Frozen Spear and just watch them launch off, it’s so great.

COGconnected: Awesome.

Chip: It works if somebody else says “Pull!”

COGconnected: That’d be some good teamwork.

Chip: Exactly, see that’s what we need Co-op for.

Greg: Duck Hunt, Fictorum-style.


“The amount of games where you play as a really badass mage are few and far between.”

COGconnected: Sitting down and talking with you guys just makes me want to go back and experiment more with the game.

Greg: That’s one of my favorite things about the game, is that every time I play through it, I’m always having a blast with it. The fact that I get different spells, different runes every single time I play through. No matter what I end up with, I always feel really powerful and, you know, have fun destroying everything and killing everyone. It’s just a fun rampage simulator, where you get to go across and destroy everything. I think that type of game is sorely lacking in the world. Especially playing as a mage. The amount of games where you play as a really badass mage are few and far between. Or you start as a really puny mage, and then 40 hours into the game, right before you beat it, then you’re the badass mage. You get to start out as that mage in Fictorum and that’s part of the fun.

COGconnected: Not enough games give you that super buff power right from the get-go. Hopefully, Fictorum starts a trend, so to speak.

Greg: That was one of the overarching principles when we first started working when we first started making a powerful mage. We had a discussion very early on, whenever you’re reading these books. You always read about the great mage of old that did all these great things. We thought, why don’t we make a game where you play as that mage? Our original version of the game had you playing the very first magician in the world. Of course, that version was much more in-depth, had a great single-player campaign, all these features, effectively a massive open world, you’d be taking part in large 600-on-600 battles… that was one of our initial ideas of the game. That was obviously very ambitious for two guys who have never made a game before.