Metro Exodus Developers Talk Game Design, Work Ethics and Freedom

In a recent podcast, 4A Games’ developers talked to Sergey Galyonkin, SteamSpy creator and Epic Games’ director of publishing strategy, about developing Metro, open levels and moving to Malta

4A Games is a renowned studio, famous for the Metro series. Their recent title Metro Exodus is easily one of the biggest releases of this year. So how was it made? What’s the story behind its creation? Many questions were answered in the Russian-language podcast from kdicast.com, hosted by Sergey Galyonkin – Epic Games' director of publishing strategy, who has spoken with Sergey Karmalsky (art director), Aleksandr Kostyuk (lead game designer) and Oleksandr Pavlenko (lead artist).

We’ve chosen the most important bits of the interview.

You can check out the podcast itself, but keep in mind that it's available only in Russian

How the developers found themselves in 4A Games

Sergey Karmalsky, the art director, has always been fascinated with video game worlds. Even the outside world seemed a little too ‘’unhackable’’ for him: he wanted to be the ultimate god of his universe. Tired of modding the existing games, he started thinking of something more. Thankfully, GSC Game World was only happy to ‘’pick him up’’ after his parents no longer wanted him idling around. That’s where the magic happened and the famous S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise was born.

Oleksandr Pavlenko, the lead artist, also fell in love with game development thanks to modding. Actually, it was Unreal Tournament editor that got him hooked: after changing a couple of textures, he found his passion. After the team that had made S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl dissolved, it asked him to come with them and make Metro – and Oleksandr said ‘’yes’’.

Aleksandr Kostyuk, the lead game designer, never really wanted to be a game dev – he was about to become a mathematician. But then he tried a few titles and that was it: he found not a hobby, but a new type of art. He wanted in.

Two countries, one big office

In 2014, when Ukraine was suffering from the biggest crisis in its history, 4A Games studio decided to move places. Or, to be precise, to split into two. One half of the company has moved to another country – to Malta. A very brave move from the studio that desperately wanted to stay relevant in Europe and the whole world. It was a trying time for the company, who had to leave many of their brave new ideas behind in order to stay alive in the fast-changing world. After all, they did think about maybe less bloody and grim projects, but they just couldn’t risk it all moments after moving the studio abroad. In other words, ‘’whatever we start to make, in the end, it always ends up as another Metro game.’’

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Malta office, photo: 4A Games

The two offices are interconnected. Hundreds of kilometers between them is not a problem – nowadays many studious are decentralized. After all, ‘’sometimes you use the phone all the time, even to speak to the person sitting at the table on the other end of the room’’. In the era of high-speed internet, it’s not hard working from different countries.

4A Engine: The hard-earned freedom

4A Games use their own proprietary engine – a rare thing for an independent studio. 4A Engine is a very important tool, which grants unique freedom for the developers. A freedom that’s impossible when you work with a licensed engine. When the need arises, 4A Games can easily fix the code and change anything they want – not everyone has that power.

The developers say that their engine has tons of neat features, and mostly everything is done in real time, on the fly. The word ‘’freedom’’ comes up repeatedly – even when discussing GeForce RTX. 4A Games work closely with Nvidia, which has generally impressed them. Are such partnerships profitable? This, we don’t know – 4A decided to keep this info to themselves.

Metro: Exodus RTX on

‘’We’re not very smart developers’’: the development process of Metro Exodus

Metro Exodus is a very different game compared to the previous ones. First of all, it’s the first open world game of the franchise – a massive change both in terms of the technology involved and the game design. The balance here is very important: it’s easy to make the levels ‘’too open’’, which can distract the players from the story and create unnecessary problems for the engine itself. It took them two or three years to finalize one level – the first one in the game. Only then everyone in 4A was happy with their work.

‘’We’re not very smart developers. We don’t care about statistics, we’re not bound to the publisher’s will. We have tons of creative freedom – the freedom we use, sometimes incorrectly. But we get lucky. One might say we make it harder for ourselves, but it’s just fun for us.’’

‘’We always wanted bigger worlds’’: 4A talk about their desire to evolve

What made them choose the open world design? Modern trends? Maybe the publisher pressed them into that decision? Thankfully, no, 4A just wanted to test themselves. Previously they had experimented with open spaces, and the players generally enjoyed these little diversions. For a long time, 4A Games had been itching to do something like that: something big and open. It was a dream for the developers, a ‘’tasty’’ new experience. An evolution.

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The Taiga level was supposed to be larger

Metro Exodus is not a ‘’true’’ open world game – it’s no Far Cry. But, as Sergey Karmalsky affirms, in the beginning it could’ve been much more spacious. But too big a game means looser story and less details of the settings. The plot must always ‘’be near’’ so that the player would not forget about it. This balance is very hard to archive.

‘’Even if our early work never sees the light of day, we still use lots of newly accumulated knowledge. Yes, we had bigger levels at first – the levels we didn’t need in the end. But what we learned while making them proved to be vital.’’

Between main missions, players could explore the Aurora, talk to fellow comrades and listen to Stepan playing the guitar

The first level is the hardest to make

In fact, the first ‘’Volga’’ level turned out to be a very hard thing to make. To kick off the story proved to be a real challenge; after all, the fans expected more of the same: underground, Moscow, monsters and suspense. But Exodus is very different – in every way imaginable. And that first level is very important: you must gradually prepare the players for the inevitable change in both the gameplay and the setting, and remind them of the past events. For all that – only one hour of play! You can’t meddle: if the level takes too long, many players will lose interest and won’t even see what Metro Exodus has in store. ‘’It was a real challenge’’, confess the developers.

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The Volga offers a vast territory to explore on foot, boat and a rail car

Strong narrative is very important for the final. Your player must be completely immersed in the story: that’s why the 2-hour final mission is so linear, with lots of unique enemies. The fact that there’s no final boss concerned many in the studio: how will the players react? But the main element – the plot – must always prevail. And a good story and a strong emotional connection are more important than one flashy baddie in the end. Overall, they are happy with their decisions, but the question of whether to include the boss or not had been bothering them constantly.

In the end, when asked about modding, 4A Games couldn’t answer: ‘’No-no-no, we are not to talk about this.’’

‘’We have our own fun multiplayer’’: when Metro games will stop being a single-player experience

In 2015, the company was working on a multiplayer mode behind the closed doors. It looked very impressive, but Metro Exodus supports only single-player mode. Why is that?

The developers confirm that yes, the multiplayer mode (which looked akin to Call of Duty) was created and they, in fact, spent tons of hours having a blast playing it. In fact, half the company was obsessed with it.

So, why wasn’t it released to the general public? As usual: not enough resources.

‘’To publish something like that, you have to make it for someone else, not for yourself. It takes years to make it.’’

4A had to choose – either they give all their attention to the single-player campaign, or they split it, to create two mediocre modes. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to make it sooner a later.

‘’We really want that multiplayer game. We don’t know if we will ever release it, but we really want to.’’

“We loved working with Deep Silver”

Koch Media's Deep Silver has been working with 4A ever since Metro: Last Light. But is it worth working with a big publisher? How does it work? Can they just waltz in and order you to make a completely different game?

‘’Well, lots of fantastic people work there. They visit our art and development departments. We work with Nikolay Stoyanov – kick-ass art director from Deep Silver. I love his work and his team of concept artists.’’

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Nikolay Stoyanov, Lead Art Director at Deep Silver, has worked on the Metro, Dead Island and Sacred series

4A believe that partnership with Deep Silver is beneficial for both parties. They especially like how it allows them to see the game in a completely new light.

‘’They help a ton with the development and new features. Playtests, feedbacks – lots of help.’’

First Malta, then – Epic Games Store

Changing platforms is a big deal. When Metro suddenly moved from Steam to Epic Game Store, it created a massive outrage from the fans who have already pre-ordered their game on Steam. Sergey Karmalsky says that this decision was up to the publisher. But they all were ordered to stay shut and say nothing. It was not up to 4A to break the news. But how hard is it to move from one platform to another?

‘’PC version is a PC version. Something had to be changed in terms of support, but after a month it was all done. No real changes – PC is overall easier in that regard. Consoles have bigger barriers.’’

There were some hiccups along the way. For example, with pre-downloads.

‘’Epic didn’t want to risk it since they were afraid that some issues might occur with the press versions. But in the end, it was Steam that messed up the pre-downloads.’’

Metro Exodus released on February 15, 2019, for PC, PS4 and Xbox One, while earlier today 4A Games and Deep Silver revealed the DLCs to be released within a year.