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Bring it on, Bitey! Check out Adam Phillips’ BrackenSack video game

Tags: News Animation Customer Story Games

For anyone who was online —or alive, really— around the turn of the millennium, digital video and games hub Newgrounds.com was where dreams and streams were made. Among the most prominent titles on the platform was Adam Phillips' Brackenwood and its anti-hero, Bitey. At the height of its popularity in 2009, the videos had more than 14 million views on Newgrounds.com and have racked up over 1 million plays on YouTube.

Phillips is continuing the canon by turning Bitey’s backstory into a video game, BrackenSack. It is based on the protagonist’s satyr-like, super-speedy species, the Dashkin folk, who enjoyed contests of skill and agility. According to lore, they would play with a leather ball crafted with a head and limbs to make its bounces more unpredictable, resembling a common grasslands creature called a “fatsack” — hence the name, BrackenSack.

Whether it be millennial nostalgia, smartphones or the popularity of platforms like Steam, BrackenSack joins the likes of Cuphead and Sundered (produced in Harmony) in a modern renaissance of 2D animated video games. For the independent 2D-3D action multiplayer game, Phillips worked with engineer Kirk Sexton to bring it from pre-production to playable in under 12 months using Unreal Engine 4 and Toon Boom Harmony.

The side-scrolling game is now available on Windows and gets free upgrades every three weeks; Steam is anticipated by mid-2018. Having literally written the book on animating in Toon Boom and worked on series like Bob’s Burgers, Phillips naturally used Harmony to create the hand-drawn 2D characters, creatures, frame-by-frame effects and sprite normals.

Toon Boom spoke with Adam Phillips about his journey to BrackenSack, the differences in creating in a game versus a series and what players can expect next.

Congratulations on starting your own gaming company, Brackenwood Games! Is BrackenSack your first venture into the playable world?

AP: This is actually my third attempt at making a proper game. I’ve teamed up with Kirk Sexton, an engineer experienced in the games industry. We’re assembling our 3D world in Unreal Engine 4 and I’m animating my 2D characters in Harmony. Over the past 18 months, I’ve also learned all the 3D tools needed to model, texture and light the world of Brackenwood.

That’s fast! Speaking of speed, what can fans of the franchise expect from game play?

AP: BrackenSack was initially designed as an adventure game with exploration, collection and storytelling. Because Bitey is capable of super speed, it was to have tons of high-speed flee and pursue levels. As we began assembling the first prototype, we decided it might be best to start with a multiplayer game. Not only would it be quicker to make and help us gauge interest in a larger Brackenwood game, but we could initially build small, contained arenas that would set us up for larger regions of the world later.

brackensack_character_toonboomSource: Adam Phillips.

Story-wise, BrackenSack is a kind of prequel [to the videos]. It’s a 2D side-scrolling football game over a 1 to 2 km track. You and your team score goals and prevent the opposing team from doing the same. You can play online, brawl with other Dashkin players, score goals and dash 2 km in about 10 seconds.

Why specifically did you choose Harmony to bring BrackenSack to life?

AP: I’m fairly comfortable with 3D, but with my 25 years in 2D animation it made sense that I’d animate the characters in 2D. I’ve hand-animated almost 100 separate character states in Harmony — and that’s just for the main character. To do all that in 3D, I’d need to be a better 3D character modeller, rigger and texture guy. It’s just quicker for me to draw it all by hand.

As a continuation of that thought, were there any features in Harmony that helped create BrackenSack?

AP: Absolutely. One of the killer features of this game is thanks to Harmony’s light shading. I’ve been able to export sprite normals for our 2D characters, allowing them to respond to 3D dynamic lighting. That means Bitey can run into the sunset, under glowing mushrooms or through dappled forest sunlight and I don’t have to do a single stroke of hand-drawn lighting. Additionally, I can touch up these normal maps in Photoshop by hand to give an even more hand-crafted look to the characters and creatures.

BrackenSack_Toon_Boom_Harmony_lightingSource: Adam Phillips.

Kirk also created export scripts for me and put them on a toolbar button in Harmony. So when I’m done with my animation, I hit that button and the character, normals and emissive maps like Bitey’s glowing eyes are exported as sprite sheets ready for hooking up in Unreal Engine 4.

How was creating a game in Harmony different from an animating a short video or television series?

AP: Maybe it’s just me, but animating for games feels more fun. I think it’s because I’m animating the character as many individual states and the transitions between them. At the end of a day, you can see a dozen milestones completed and feel like you’re a master of productivity. This is very different to making a short film or television series, where you tend to think of progress in terms of completed scenes that can take days or weeks.

And what are your distribution goals for BrackenSack?

AP: BrackenSack is for sale on our website in early access, which means you’re buying it in an unfinished state, but you get free updates every three weeks as we polish the game and release new features. The great thing about releasing something in early access is that the fan community wants to help with testing, bug reporting and general feedback and suggestions.

brackensack_throw_animation_toonboomSource: Adam Phillips.

To help with distribution, we also wanted to get some word-of-mouth going and get people playing with their friends. Buying the game gets you five free friend codes; for the price of a single purchase, someone can play immediately with friends on our dedicated servers. The second half of this year is our projected Steam launch, by which time we hope to be finished with features and can take a break. After that, we’re looking at porting for the Nintendo Switch. It’s a pretty big year ahead.

What are you most excited for in BrackenSack? Have you started playing already? Let us know in the comments below!

Banner image source: Adam Phillips.

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