We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Wlad Marhulets, founder of Unfold Games and creator of the award winning game DARQ. Arriving in the U.S. from poland in 2007, he details his journey from poor musician to first time game developer using ZBrush to help bring his artistic vision to life. Wlad has now written an eBook entitled Gamedev: 10 Steps to Making Your First Game Successful targeted at first time game developers, sharing advice from his experience making his first game DARQ!
Thank you for speaking with us Wlad! Tell us a little about your background as an artist
My life has been quite an adventure. Back in 2007, I moved to the U.S. from Poland. I was desperate, broke, and naive. I literally came with $300 in my pocket, without knowing a word of English. I was broke, and there was nobody I could ask for help. Although it’s not easy to admit, I also suffered from social anxiety and severe stuttering. At the time, my dream was to pursue a music career. Thanks to a series of serendipitous events (accompanied by countless obstacles, suffering, actual starvation, and living on the edge of homelessness), I somehow ended up getting into Juilliard – the most renowned music school in the world. How come? It’s a long story. It certainly wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Suffice it to say, I got the honor of receiving a full scholarship and studying with Oscar, Pulitzer Prize, and 5-time Grammy-winning composer John Corigliano. It was pure luck – the kind of luck that is earned by acting despite fear, working hard, and overcoming obstacles.
Right after I graduated, I was headed to Los Angeles, to make another dream of mine come true. I wanted to become a film composer. Again, I had to go through incredible hardships to make it happen. However, it wasn’t long before my name started to show up in the credit rolls of big Hollywood movies (The Giver, starring Meryl Streep, Sabotage, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, November Man, starring Pierce Brosnan, and others). One could say I was doing well, considering I was fresh out of college. As much as I love writing music, working in the film industry made me feel emotionally drained. It also didn’t help that I was still struggling financially, as film gigs didn’t come regularly. It was at that point that I decided to change my life and basically start it from scratch. With a few months’ worth of savings, I entered a completely unfamiliar territory: the video game industry.
I’m very fortunate that my first game DARQ turned out to be successful. The journey was turbulent and full of challenges and sacrifices. However, it was worth it. DARQ was one of the top 50 most wishlisted games before it launched. When it launched, it got to “Best Selling,” “New and Trending,” and “Featured and Recommended” tabs on Steam. It was featured in major media outlets, such as IGN, Kotaku, GameSpot, Forbes, PC Gamer, and hundreds of others. With a user score of 9 out of 10, DARQ won multiple awards, including The Best Game at the MIX / PAX West, and ultimately became #42 Most Shared PC Video Game of 2019, according to Metacritic. It blows my mind every time I think about it. Over the course of 13 years, I went from a helpless starving stuttering orphan to the founder and CEO of a rapidly growing company. I couldn’t be more grateful for all the hardships I had to go through – now I can see that all the difficulties I had to face were opportunities in disguise.
How did you first begin using ZBrush and what attracted you to it
When I started working on DARQ, I knew nothing about coding, texturing, modeling, animation, or any other aspect of game development. At first, I really didn’t know what I was doing. In the early stages of the development, DARQ was supposed to be a 2D game, so I thought a drawing tablet was a necessary purchase. I bought a tablet from Amazon – to my surprise, it came with a license to ZBrush Core. I didn’t know what ZBrush was at the time. I was curious to try it out, and I got hooked immediately. It was intuitive to use, and most importantly, fun! I ended up having a blast sculpting a monster I had envisioned for DARQ. Not long after, I decided to start DARQ from scratch and make it into a 3D game. Needless to say, discovering the power of ZBrush had something to do with this decision.
For the readers who don’t know, let’s tell them about DARQ, how it came to be and where ZBrush helped along the way
DARQ is a spooky puzzle game set in a lucid dream. It tells the story of a boy named Lloyd, who realizes that he’s trapped in a nightmare. As the game progresses, Lloyd learns to control the dream by walking on walls, ceilings, and manipulating the environment in interesting ways. Puzzles often include abstract solutions. I thought the dream world makes for a perfect setting when it comes to the genre of psychological horror. The game is not meant to be truly scary, but it has a few moments that remind the player that the rules of logic do not apply. It allowed for creating some interesting, often abstract, characters. DARQ is not a game developed by a solo developer, but pretty close to it. I had a team of a few talented contractors who helped me with character modeling and rigging. All characters were made in ZBrush. The workflow involved sculpting hi-poly characters, baking normal maps from those meshes, and retopology. It was pretty straight-forward to achieve a low-poly character with good topology, ready to be rigged and animated. When it comes to other tasks, most of the game was done by me. I had to wear many hats to bring DARQ to the finish line. I had to learn marketing, PR, community business, project management, publishing, distribution, accounting…the list goes on.
You’ve created a book. When will it be out and what can people expect from the book?
During the lockdown, I was devastated seeing my friends and colleagues lose their jobs and worry about the future of their industries. While it may change, the video game industry is doing as good as ever, so I decided to do something that could potentially be useful to some people. The book is called “GAMEDEV: 10 Steps to Making Your First Game Successful,” in which I share everything I learned during the development of DARQ. The book assumes no knowledge of game development on the reader’s part. It’s meant for beginners – ambitious beginners, who want to make a strong statement with their first game. The book is for those who might discover game development to be their true passion, just as I did a few years ago. In the book, I’m being very upfront about what it takes to turn your first project into a success story. It’s not easy! Nothing that is worth doing is easy. The book is an in-depth exploration of the process of making a video game from scratch, both from business and artistic perspectives. The book guides the reader through a step-by-step process of making a commercial game, ready to be sold. It teaches how to learn all the necessary skills and covers various aspects of game development, such as mindset, preproduction, funding, business, law, development, marketing, PR, publishing, distribution, as well as pre-launch, launch, and post-launch strategies.
The book features advice by 14 industry professionals, including Quentin De Beukelaer (game designer of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Ghost Recon Breakpoint), Mark Kern (former team lead for World of Warcraft, producer of Diablo II and Starcraft), Bjørn Jacobsen (sound designer of Cyberpunk 2077), Austin Wintory (Grammy-nominated composer of Journey), and others. The foreword is written by my dear friend and mentor, John Corigliano – Oscar, Pulitzer Prize, and 5-time Grammy Award-winning composer. I’m honored and humbled to have collaborated on this book with some truly incredible individuals.
The book is available as of this morning on Amazon (Paperback & Kindle). The audiobook is coming later this month.
What advice would you give young aspiring game developers?
Too many people live within self-imposed limitations. It’s not the most talented people who get to the top of their fields. It’s those who have developed the right mindset, self-discipline, and self-confidence, who make it to the top. That’s the case in every discipline. Before you focus on the technicalities, fix your mindset, your habits, your beliefs about yourself, the language you use, the people you associate yourself with. Chances are, you weren’t born in an environment where self-confidence, self-discipline, and self-growth were nurtured. You have to address those psychological pitfalls as a grown-up before your self-limiting beliefs prevent you from reaching your full potential. Whether you’re a 3D artist or a game developer, you can’t win a battle if your brain makes you surrender before the battle even begins. If you lack self-confidence, you’ll aim for the average, and you will get the average. I was lucky to discover this early on in my life. While I’m still at the beginning of my journey, I was blessed to achieve success in three completely different fields: classical music, film, and video game industry. The psychological principles of achieving long-term goals apply to every industry. I find this topic so important that I begin my book with it. A book that is supposed to be about game development! That’s how important I think it is.
What can we expect from you and Unfold Games next?
DARQ‘s second free DLC is now weeks away from being released. Next, DARQ will be released on consoles, while my team and I begin working on a new video game, a new IP. I can’t say what it is yet, but I’m very excited to announce it when the time comes. In the meantime, I’m incredibly grateful to be able to share my story with you all. I hope some of you find it helpful.
Big thank you to everybody at Pixologic! Your software had a big impact on the development of DARQ, and ultimately, my life.