How Evasion Pushes VR Shooters Forward with Innovative Combat and High-Production Values

While there are many VR shooters, Evasion, by developer Archiact, incorporates numerous elements that make it stand out. The sci-fi space shooter offers an action-packed campaign with four playable character classes, innovative combat, full-body inverse kinematics, and high-production values coupled with online co-op gameplay. Powered by Unreal Engine 4, Evasion does all of this with a level of polish that is rare in a VR game made by an indie studio. We got a chance to interview several members from Archiact to learn more about how they were able to create one of VR’s most compelling shooters. 
 

Approaching the idea of designing a VR title, the company really thought about what made the medium unique and how they could leverage its strengths to make something gripping. Lead Game Designer Ian Rooke asserted, “The biggest difference is that in VR, you get to use your body to physically move in your space. You can dodge, duck and use all your reflexes instead of just your thumb dexterity. So developing a shooter in VR means you want to design for this gameplay. The more players get to move, the more immersive it becomes.” 

While VR introduces a heightened sense of immersion coupled with new mechanics, Rooke notes that it poses new developmental hurdles, “There are also many challenges to overcome. You are always mindful of frame-rate and camera motion to ensure players don’t get sick, and you want to try to make sure that players’ movements in game match one-to-one with their body movements. If they swing their arm, they expect that to match perfectly in game,” Rooke explains. Failing to do so can make combat feel clunky and break immersion. The lead game designer continues, “This can be tricky in situations where players are dual-wielding two controllers, but in-game, they’re holding a two-handed weapon, or in melee games, when a player slashes a solid object, nothing stops their real arm’s motion, but in-game you’d expect the blade to meet some resistance on impact.” Rooke adds, “So there’s lots of prototyping and trial and error. This is not that different than traditional console development, but it can be a longer process before you’re happy with your mechanics, and you might have to go back to the drawing board more often than you’d prefer.”

Infusing Influence

Combining time-tested gameplay with modern tech, Evasion draws inspiration from arcade classics like Galaga and Space Invaders. “It was the concept of dodging and blocking projectiles in VR that we liked. We didn’t want to simply soak up damage from instant-hit weapons. It’s really fun to navigate a hail of lasers flying your way. So we looked at old-school shooters as well as more modern bullet-hell games for inspiration,” Rooke stated, adding, “This gameplay marries well with high-intensity, fast-paced shooter combat featured in games like Doom and Destiny. The idea is to throw overwhelming odds at you while providing you with over-the-top weapons to fend off the swarms of enemies,” Rooke continued.

Players will be able to wield these over-the-top sci-fi weapons as one of four “Vanguard” classes, which are basically elite super soldiers. As Rooke notes, “You’re almost unstoppable as most enemies on their own do not provide a big challenge,” but the adage “strength lies in numbers” certainly applies here with Rooke adding, “there are so many of them and they’re relentless.” 

Block Party

In prototyping the insect-like alien enemies, known as the Optera, Archiact borrowed a page from VR shooter Space Pirate Trainer by having a few flying drones shoot projectiles at players. Rooke adds, “Then we thought it would be fun to not only dodge them, but also block them with a shield.” Thus, the inclusion of a shield became a core defensive mechanic of the game. Rooke continues, “It seemed like a natural thing to try. The loop of dodging, ducking, blocking, and shooting was simple and fun.” Rooke expands on how the gunplay and weaponry evolved from here, “As we polished the mechanic, it became more and more fun. We decided to give the player a few weapon pickups as temporary power-ups. Players could grab weapon cores out of the air, similar to our [current] power cores and health cores, each one providing a more powerful weapon with limited ammo. Once the ammo is expended, your default weapon returns. The weapon power-ups included a spread shot, burst fire, auto fire, laser, chain lightning orbs, and a slow moving nuke. This was our demo — one class with multiple weapon power-ups.” 

Stay Classy

While this prototype started with a single character, after demoing an early build, Archiact found that testers wanted different classes that would fit varying playstyles and archetypes. Rooke explains, “Some people said they wanted to be more of a support or healer class, while others still wanted to destroy everything in front of them. So we took what we liked best about the various weapons and used them as a starting point for the four classes. The spread shot turned into the Warden’s primary fire, while the nuke was nerfed down and used as his grenade launcher. The laser and default blaster inspired the Striker, while the burst fire inspired the Surgeon. And, of course, the chain lightning orbs gave birth to the Engineer class. Each class has a unique way to finish off the enemy with a Tether Lash mechanic, and each also has a unique support buff that’s applied while they’re healing their teammate [online].”

With four distinct character classes to choose from, Archiact had to ensure each of the Vanguard were fun and balanced. Rooke notes, “There’s the DPS (damage-per-second) output of each class to watch, while giving various shield sizes and health values to each class. The Warden has the most health and largest shield, and deals a ton of damage up close, but is less effective at long range. The Striker has fast and precise shots, and can strafe faster than the other classes, but her shield is the smallest, and she has the smallest health pool.”

Regardless of which class players pick, they’ll be confronted with several campaign missions chock full of enemies to overcome. Developer Archiact honed in on VR’s ability to provide player movement agency as a focal point for gameplay and challenge. “The way to succeed is to fight really hard like you would in a game of paintball. Once you get used to moving and dodging and being mindful of every projectile flying your way, it will click,” Rooke stated, adding “We made mission one exciting, but not overly challenging. Players can take their time to get used to their weapons and become accustomed to taking advantage of their charge shots and tether-lash mechanics to finish enemies off. Mastering the loop of destroying enemies and pulling in power cores to level up your weapon is key. By mission two, the action starts to get more intense. This mission is like graduation from training. If you can survive this mission, you should be ready for the rest of the campaign.” Rooke adds, “The enemies get progressively harder as the ‘elites’ are introduced in the later missions, and some boss battles add some tough spikes. With only one difficulty mode (at launch) the key is to get good at the game in the first couple of missions. Retrying them a few times is acceptable and expected until you get the hang of it.”

Adding to the immersion of the missions are the game’s destructible environments. Archiact used UE4’s integration of the Apex destruction system to incorporate this. Archiact Software Engineer Thomas Edmunds noted the benefits of this approach, “[It] not only allowed us to heavily customize how destructibles look, but also to optimize them for different platforms and LODs (levels of detail).” Edmunds added, “This was important because destructibles can be very expensive and we did not want to sacrifice the ‘cool factor’ for performance.”

Prime Performance

While Evasion features high-production values with great animations and detailed backgrounds, the road getting there wasn’t easy considering the indie developer only had five artists. This issue is compounded by the fact that the studio needed to optimize the game to meet VR’s steep performance requirements. Not only do VR games need to be rendered at a high resolution, but they need to run silky smooth, or judder can occur. This can cause motion sickness for certain players. Archiact Senior Modeler Austin Huntley elaborates, “We had to be very diligent about staying on [performance] budget. Running on the PS4 in VR at 60 FPS constant requires you to look closely at every aspect of your game in detail to cut down and minimize performance costs. You have to make trade-offs and find a lot of creative solutions to problems. Transparency is a good example. We created shields with thin faded grids to give the illusion of a transparent energy shield instead of a large plane.” 

To meet VR’s steep performance demands, Archiact had to really think outside the box. For instance, Evasion features a level with an open outdoor environment that features a lot of bullets and enemies, which can create a draw-call nightmare. To overcome this, Huntley explains, “We used a lot of mesh instancing as well as shared atlas materials to reducing the amount of both material and mesh draw calls.”

Intelligently synergizing optimization with game design was another elegant move Archiact made. Huntley elaborates, “Early on, we made targets for enemy performance and the cost of any combination of enemies on screen.” By thinking ahead in this regard, the senior modeler remarks, “This helped our enemy performance stay consistent and more predictable in any combat situation by limiting how many could be spawned based on this budget.”

The game’s visuals and immersion are enhanced due to Evasion’s use of full-body avatars. This is noteworthy considering that, with only three points of contact, many other VR games simply opt to render a virtual head and floating hands. To achieve a believable full-body, Archiact leaned on inverse kinematics (IK) by IKINEMA, but Edmunds added that “UE4’s versatile animation Blueprints allowed us to layer and blend locomotion and detail animation, such as trigger pulls with the IK model.” Considering Evasion supports traditional VR motion controllers and singular peripherals like PlayStation VR’s Aim Controller, this implementation was particularly helpful with Edmunds adding, “It also allowed us to support one-handed and two-handed animation sets for our different platforms.” 

While maintaining a high, consistent framerate is paramount to mitigating simulation sickness, some players may feel nauseous by the use of free movement. This is an undesirable effect that stems from joystick locomotion which causes the eyes to be out of sync with one’s inner ear. Thankfully, Evasion offers numerous movement methods for those who want your standard run-and-gun action and for those who have yet to get their “VR legs.” As Rooke notes, “Everybody is different and there’s no getting around that when it comes to VR. Some people have iron stomachs and some don’t. Instead of declaring that we’re catering to a specific crowd, we thought it would be best to provide robust accessibility options so everyone can feel comfortable and ‘at home’ in our game. More and more people want the authentic experience of running around in VR like they would in a traditional game, so of course we delivered a free movement option.” To ensure that this method was as friendly to stomachs as possible, Archiact employed a few tricks, “The key to making this option comfortable is to keep the camera motion constant and smooth. Strafing and reversing is slower, which is what your brain naturally expects. Most important, this helps prevent nausea,” Rooke stated. 

For those that can’t handle this free motion method at all, Archiact implemented an innovative dash-step option. “It works really well as an alternative,” Rooke says, adding, “It’s like little mini jumps forward instead of a gliding camera motion. Between these two options, most people can play the game comfortably.” As a more inventive, immersive option, the developer also incorporated a mode that allows players to jog in place. “It’s similar to free move, but requires an up and down motion from the player’s head as if they’re jogging on the spot.” This mechanic allows the inner ear to more closely align with what the eyes see and Rooke asserts, “This makes it feel like you’re actually running around in the world and further helps to reduce discomfort.” Rooke exclaims, “It’s also a fun way to get exercise.” 

Making It Unreal

As an engine for virtual-reality production, Edmunds praised UE4, stating, “Unreal Engine 4 is a great choice for VR development, since it provides you with a complete VR framework to work within, while allowing you the freedom to change things to suit your projects needs.” The software engineer continues, “Each VR platform’s subsystem is nicely contained, and totally open for changes once you hit the inevitable weird ‘edge case’ as your project progresses.”

Edmunds highlighted Blueprints coupled with the consistency and extensibility within the engine that eased development, “Having all sorts of tools integrated right in the engine makes workflows so much faster. Even the destruction assets and cloth assets have tools in the editor, which was incredibly helpful.”

The studio used Blueprints “extensively” exclaimed Software Engineer Jake Moffatt, “Many of our systems are highly customizable within a Blueprint’s default values, using UPROPERTIES to surface complex data structures that are easy for designers to use.” The software engineer added, “We also made great use of Blueprints for scripting our missions. We have many custom nodes for stringing together mission-specific events, including many that use the Blueprint Async Action pattern, which we found kept our mission scripts very intuitive to read.”

With online co-op being a major feature of the game, Archiact leaned heavily on Unreal Engine 4’s networking features, “Our team made great use of the UE4 Network Profiler tool during development to ensure that we weren’t using excessive amounts of bandwidth,” Moffatt stated.  

Considering Evasion is available across PlayStation VR, Oculus, and Steam, Edmunds noted how UE4 made the game easier to port, “Unreal Engine 4 nicely abstracts away many of the platform differences. In VR development, however, some of these differences require different gameplay systems that translate to a need for ‘un-abstracting’ certain things. Handling all the different input systems, and each platform’s own requirements for VR, was a significant challenge that was made manageable by Unreal’s subsystem framework.” 

Interested in experiencing Evasion for yourself? The game is currently on sale in celebration of this week’s Steam sale event. It’s also available on the Oculus and PlayStation stores. For more information on the game, check out www.evasionvrgame.com and follow the title on Twitter and Facebook @evasionVR.

If you would like to experiment building your own VR game, download Unreal Engine for free today.

How Survios’ Creed: Rise to Glory Revolutionizes VR Melee Combat

Survios has been one of the most successful pioneers in the VR space. The Los Angeles-based developer has an impressive resume of critically-acclaimed VR games such as Raw Data and Sprint Vector. With its most recent release, Creed: Rise to Glory, garnering a ton of praise, the studio has not only created one of the best VR boxing games, but one of the best boxing games period. We recently had the chance to interview several members from the team, and in this post, Survios explains how they were able to solve many hard VR problems while producing a knockout title.

Feeling the Friction

Even though VR can offer unparalleled levels of immersion, clipping through opponents when you’re punching through them can be an immersion breaker. It’s a difficult problem to solve; after all, your opponents aren’t really in front of you to provide friction and resistance. This is why many other VR games avoid melee mechanics and instead rely on gunplay and archery for combat. 

To overcome this issue, Survios needed to revolutionize melee for VR. Setting the stage, Lead Survios Engineer Eugene Elkin stated, “In our initial prototype, we set out two goals for ourselves: punching had to feel great and getting punched had to be impactful. We decided right away that the game would not be a straight boxing simulator, but a cinematic-inspired boxing experience. Despite a relatively compressed prototyping timeline, we were still able to create multiple gameplay iterations. The result of that investigation stage was the set of technological rules and techniques we dubbed ‘Phantom Melee Technology’.” 

Explaining how the system overcomes melee clipping issues, Elkin elaborated, “At all times, there are essentially two separate player avatars that are contextually synced/desynced. One avatar is the representation of the player’s character and is bound by in-game physics like collision, hit reactions, and knockdowns. The second avatar—codenamed ‘Phantom’—always represents the player’s true position.” This separation is quite ingenious as it allows players to punch through opponents without ever feeling like you’re awkwardly clipping through them. 

Lead Designer Valerie Allen was inspired to develop this system after reading a sci-fi manga. As Allen explains, “There was a scene in one of the Battle Angel Alita volumes that involved her brain getting overclocked. In that scene, she zipped forward to deliver a punch, only to find herself crashing to the floor because her mental projection of what she was doing was so far ahead of what her body could handle. This is largely how Phantom Melee Technology works.” 

Despite having separate avatars, combat never feels disjointed. Allen explains, “After playing around enough, players quickly start to acclimate, and rather than wasting their real-world effort punching through things, they start to treat the avatar’s arms more like their own, and thus react to the position of their virtual opponent like a real-life one.”

While Phantom Melee Tech solves one major VR issue, Survios still needed to deal with players that might try and “break” the game by constantly flailing their arms about, which is neither fun nor realistic to the sport, but may be effective. To solve this problem, Survios incorporates limited stamina. Allen elaborates on this design philosophy, “Throwing a lot of of rapid punches leads to the avatar getting tired, so the player must focus on defending until the avatar’s stamina recovers.” The lead designer added, “The more we tested and tweaked stamina tuning, the more our gameplay started to look and feel like an actual boxing match.” Those with outstanding real-life endurance may balk at the inclusion of a virtual stamina system, but Allen explains, “While the avatar may tire out more quickly than the player does, the player isn’t the one experiencing the debilitating effects of being punched in the face and gut.” 

Meaningful Matchups 

This inclusion of limited endurance also made online PvP more enjoyable. Elkin notes, “The stamina system became a very important tool to encourage players to block and defend, strategically deploy their punches wisely, and treat it like an actual boxing match.” Even though Rise to Glory is not the first VR boxing game, it is the first VR boxing game to feature online play. Early on in development, Creed wasn’t going to feature multiplayer, but Survios knew the package wouldn’t feel complete without it. Adding online PvP to a melee-focused VR game while making it feel immersive and fun is extremely difficult. Elkin elaborates, “Unlike traditional fighting games where moves and abilities are predetermined, it’s extremely hard to predict how real-life players will behave in a PvP setting.” This issue is heightened when you consider that Rise to Glory features full-body avatars. On the networking front, Multiplayer Engineer Eva Hopps added, “The biggest challenge we immediately knew we had to deal with was network lag. Since we couldn’t rely on the usual fighting game tricks to mask or compensate for it, we tweaked Phantom Melee’s fatigue-triggered slowing effect as our way of concealing lag from players.” Even though incorporating online play while creating a new revolutionary VR combat system was no small task, Hopps mentioned that, “for the most part, Unreal made this pretty easy for us.”

To ensure that the boxing felt realistic, Survios enlisted the help of professional boxers early on in development. Not only did the team heed their advice, but they signed up for boxing lessons. “To this day, we have boxing coaches come twice a week to our office for lessons, and that experience was invaluable for our designers and engineers in crafting a realistic boxing experience,” Elkin explained, elaborating, “Our marketing team also worked with Buzzfeed to have an Olympic-level boxer, Mikaela Mayer, play the Career mode on the hardest difficulty setting, and she was blown away at how similar the mechanics were to the real sport.”

Hitting Hard

To take the game’s realism to the next level and to reward players who really get into the action, Rise to Glory leverages VR’s accelerometers and motion sensors to track how hard players hit. Allen adds, “We check both the distance and speed of the player’s hand movements, and in some cases the angles as well. We tuned the values to require a reasonable amount of force to throw a punch, but not so much that players feel like they always have to punch as hard and fast as they possibly can for maximum impact.” As a result, Creed ends up being a good workout that takes “shadow boxing” to the next level. Even recovering from a knock down requires players to exert physical energy to get back into the fight. While many past boxing games would often force players to quickly tap a button to recover, Rise to Glory does something wholly unique that gives players more agency than ever before. Allen explains, “I really liked the concept of the player getting hit so hard that they experience a sort of barely-conscious tunnel vision, and that it would require physical effort to run back to their body.” Taking a page from the studios’ past VR racing game Sprint Vector, once players are knocked down for the count, they get shot out into a dark tunnel and must swing their arms to run back to their bodies. Considering you can hear the ref audibly count to 10 in the background, it provides a tremendous sense of urgency and heightens the experience in a fun way that only VR can deliver.

While most VR games opt to render just virtual hands, as it can be really hard to figure out where your elbows, torso, and feet are with only three points of contact, to overcome this issue and render players’ full bodies, Survios wrote a lot of code to create believable inverse kinematics (IK). As Elkin notes, “The body IK system has gone through several iterations here at Survios. The current system is in active development and is shared among most of our projects, but is currently a custom animation solver that determines optimal joint location from three tracked inputs.” The lead engineer added, “Luckily, Unreal makes it pretty simple to create new IK Solvers, which is extremely powerful for us.”

Considering the core Rise to Glory development team consisted roughly of nine developers, Survios has impressively been able to solve many difficult challenges with relatively little resources. Elkin attributes much of the success to the passion of his associates, “I’ve never worked on a more self-motivated team: everybody loved the project from the initial prototype and only wished we could have more time to continue working on it. While it may sound cliché, we truly were making a game that we wanted to play.” 

With this being Survios’ third Unreal Engine 4-powered VR game, Elkin also attributes much of the studio’s success to improving upon an already strong UE4 foundation, “It’s extremely important for us to reuse technology between projects. Throughout the years and over the course of several projects, we have continued building out our custom toolset in UE4, and that has significantly sped up our dev cycles on new projects. Having access and the ability to change engine source code is also invaluable.” Hopps added, “UE4 also makes it easy to move from project to product with a consistent set of tools, so nothing on our end feels like it’s changing drastically as the project evolves from prototype to retail-ready.” 

In terms of specific tools, Elkin had high praise for UE4’s debug stump allocator, “Unreal has great tools for tracking nasty memory stumps and analyzing performance.” As a multiplayer engineer, Hopps praised UE4’s Profiler and noted how “amazingly easy it is to network things in Unreal.”

Continuing the Fight

While Rise to Glory marks Survios’ fourth VR title, Elkin asserts that we’re just at the frontier of VR gaming. “I think that we’re experiencing a time similar to the pioneering days of the ’80s when game developers were exploring, experimenting, and trying basically everything for the first time,” adding, “Right now, developers just don’t know for sure what will work or not in VR; all of the traditional knowledge of game development that has been acquired over decades is just not valid most of the time in VR development. VR is a unique beast and we’re just beginning to scratch its surface–but every day we discover something new, and it’s definitely a very exciting time to be developing in VR.”

Survios recently announced Creed: Rise to Glory’s first content update. Releasing November 27, the free update will feature two new free-play and PvP opponents: Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler and Viktor Drago. Both characters are the two primary antagonists from the upcoming Creed II film. For more information on Creed: Rise to Glory, make sure to visit survios.com/creed.

If you’re interested in creating your own VR game, you can download Unreal Engine for free today.

How Studio Wildcard’s ‘Extinction’ Expansion Evolves the ARK Franchise

ARK: Survival Evolved has consistently been one of the most played games since it hit Steam via Early Access in 2015. Now, with the release of the ARK: Extinction Expansion Pack, the team at Studio Wildcard has delivered new items, environments, creatures, and mechanics that further evolve the franchise. 

We recently had the chance to interview Chris Willoughby, Project Lead for ARK: Extinction, to learn more about how the game’s third expansion really mixes things up by taking the franchise to Earth. We also explore Extinction’s new Titan bosses, modes, and lore while finding out how the studio has grown over the years, how Pokémon had a positive influence on the project and how Unreal Engine 4 has helped the team throughout the development process.
 

Thank you for taking the time to chat with us about ARK: Extinction. What were some of the goals you set out to achieve with the expansion?

We are always looking to bring something new to the table with ARK. With Extinction, our goal was to introduce new mechanics and ideas that we have not been able to do before. Between the base game and two previously released expansion packs, we have created a vast amount of content for ARK players so far. So creating something completely fresh and unique can be a challenge. We think we have a good formula between the various creatures, Titans, and many new mechanics that players will enjoy in Extinction.
 
Studio Wildcard co-founder Jesse Rapczak tweeted that ARK: Extinction is going to challenge and delight players in new ways. Can you explain how the expansion will accomplish this?

Since ARK was first released, our team has grown substantially in both size and talent. We want to give players that joy of experiencing something new, but still hold true to the established ARK experience. This has involved revisiting some of our past successes and improving on those mechanics to elevate ourselves to the next level. We wanted to do the same thing for the player experience. Extinction will be on a level all of its own and players will be able to see the progress that we have made as a studio since 2015. 

 
Considering Extinction now takes ARK to Earth, can you provide the backdrop for the story?
 
The survivors are aware that there is some overseeing force that has been creating these floating biodomes in space known as the ARKs. We know that this force has been collecting samples from all of history and bringing them back to life, preserving them in a way in artificial biomes. This is because Earth had fallen into disarray by the plague of Element. Element was able to infect the planet and the populations within it, which then drove the planet to extinction. In ARK: Extinction, we will learn what exactly happened to planet Earth that caused that downfall to happen, and if we are able to save the planet and start its return to glory.

Where does Extinction fit in with the company’s overall vision for the ARK franchise?
 
Extinction is ultimately the conclusion to ARK’s current storyline. The burning questions in everyone’s mind have always been: how did we get here, and what exactly is an “ARK” anyways? Extinction finally answers both of these questions and more. Over the past few months, we have been teasing this storyline through events called the Extinction Chronicles. Each month we released new Explorer Notes into the already released game and expansion packs that hinted on the story that will unfold in Extinction. 

Can you talk about the new environments, like the overgrown city, you’ve built for the expansion?

Since the expansion is located on Earth, players can expect to see some things that would be familiar to home. However, the Earth, prior to its present day downfall, was progressed further along than current technology has allowed in our lifetime. For example, one of the main areas as you’ve mentioned is the City, now overgrown and decayed, but still surveillanced by a protection force of Scouts and Enforcers. Players can discover other biomes with giant overarching domes, “Proto-ARKs,” containing within them the desert, tundra, and failed experiment: the Crater forest that lies beneath the city itself. The terrain outside of these areas has been ravaged by element, sulphur, and corrupted creatures. 

Studio Wildcard has revealed new, inventive beasts, with creatures such as the seemingly cute Gasbags to the perplexing Gacha. How many new creatures will the expansion introduce and how might they affect gameplay?
 
Extinction offers many new creatures: Velonasaur, Gasbags, Managarmr, Gacha, Snow Owl, as well as temporary tames—the Titans—and craftable creatures like the Scout and Enforcer. There are also the corrupted creatures of which there are many different types, but they are untameable due to their resistance to narcotics and aggressive tendencies. Each creature serves a specific purpose to the player and to Extinction as a whole. For example, the Gasbags is a beast of burden capable of hauling extensive amounts of materials and weight for long distances. It breathes in air and expels it through the lining on its stomach to be able to float gracefully–perhaps awkwardly–through the air. With each of these new creatures we sought out to fill gaps in our current lineup of creatures that allows them to be individuals and useful among hundreds of already established creatures.

How will the new untamable corrupt dinosaurs in Extinction affect the world and gameplay?
 
They are located in the most dangerous area on the map known as the Wasteland. True to its name, the Wasteland is extremely harsh and nearly uninhabitable to humans due to the ever dominating presence of corrupted creatures. While treacherous, this biome remains one of the most valuable to players, too. Players will be able to find Orbital Supply Drops in this biome which they must defend from waves of corrupted creatures at varying levels of difficulty. If successful, they will be awarded top-tier loot, some of which can only be obtained through these drops. Players can base up in this environment if they are able to protect their home from the corrupt, which are able to damage all structures, but it will be a very challenging experience for even for the most veteran of players. 

How does the studio come up with all of the interesting creature designs? Do members of the team research paleontology for inspiration?
 
At the beginning stages, we like to pool ideas from everyone at the studio, this is something that we continue to do throughout the entire creative process. Everyone throws out ideas on what they’d like to see and we pick at the things that stick the most. By keeping everyone involved in the creative process, we are able to produce many unique ideas that may not be possible if we completely segregated the roles at our studio. We do also like to take influence and inspiration from many things, paleontology being one of those. We also have a deep appreciation for games of the past and pop-culture references. 

Can you talk about the massive roaming Titan mini-bosses in the expansion? Will players be able to tame them?
 
Yes, some of the Titans can be tamed for short periods of time! Each Titan uses a different set of mechanics in order to take down the beast and convert it to your side. This also requires a decent amount of teamwork, as these are boss-level creatures and, once summoned, will be difficult to tame. Once tamed, they have saddle platforms and players are able to build defenses in their backs like a giant moving fortress. 

Does Extinction introduce many new weapons and armor?
 
The (literal) biggest addition would be both a combination of armor and weapon: the Mek. Mek’s are crafted by the player and then the player climbs inside their giant weaponized creation. There are multiple weapon types and ammo that can be given to the Mek to change its purpose. You can choose to shield your allies or shoot down your foes with a giant cannon strapped to the back of your Mek. A Mek is required for some of the highest difficulty gameplay on Extinction including Orbital Supply Drop (OSD) and the final boss fight.

Extinction will allow players to freeze creatures into little ice cubes so that they can more easily carry them around. That’s a really interesting mechanic. Can you talk about how you came up with this concept and what it might add to the game?
 
One of ARK’s long standing requests has been a way to manage players hoards of tamed creatures in a meaningful and impactful way. ARK does encourage players to tame large amounts of creatures due to needing a variety of harvesting creatures, egg laying creatures, and creatures for fighting. This new cryo feature allows people to pick and choose what creatures they have around their base at any given time without the negative side effects of having hundreds of mouths to feed, and does come with a performance boost especially if players cryo a majority of their tames. The actual implementation is very reminiscent of Pokémon, which is something many of us have played and enjoyed over the years. 

Extinction will introduce a new PvE event that incorporates tower defense-like gameplay. Can you explain how it works?

This new mode is called Orbital Supply Drop (OSD). Essentially, players will trigger these randomly as they walk throughout the Wasteland. Once a supply drop plummets down from the sky, a tribe of players must defend it from taking damage against waves of corrupted creatures. If successful, they will be rewarded with loot that coincides with the difficulty level of the supply drop. There are four different difficulties: easy, medium, expert, and legendary. At the legendary difficulty it may be one of the hardest things we have ever introduced into ARK and will require substantial teamwork and investment to complete successfully.

Does the team have a favorite UE4 tool or feature?
 
Without a doubt it’s the UE4 Editor itself. All of the tools allow us to build content at a speed that we could not achieve any other way. Whether it’s materials, particles, gameplay scripting, or level design – we can build better things faster than we could anywhere else.

Did the team use UE4’s visual scripting language, Blueprints, for Extinction’s development at all?
 
We use Blueprints extensively in gameplay development. They empower us to make numerous diverse mechanics. In addition, the iteration time when working with Blueprints enables us to develop more with less, keeping the indie vibe while working on a massive game. Beyond that, we use Blueprints as a platform upon which we enable users to mod our game and then drop in their own logic and content, which allows them to take the mechanics even further.

What has been the biggest developmental challenge to overcome?
 
Balancing our team’s passion for the project against time. There’s so much creativity and enthusiasm for what we work on, day in and day out, that it can be tricky at times to rein in our ambition and shelve really cool ideas to ensure we hit our deadlines. That said, this “abundance of imagination” internally along with great feedback from our players allows us to have a pretty vast store of features to think about for the future.

 
What has the studio learned from working on the franchise?
 
ARK is our first game as a studio which I think comes as a surprise to people who have not known us since the beginning. We began as a very small team of developers working out of a team member’s house in the early days. Since then, we’ve grown considerably. There were growing pains as we had to scale up very rapidly to keep up with the demand from our audience. We wanted to deliver our passion to our players just as much as they wanted to experience it but ARK’s immediate success took us by surprise and it was difficult, and still is, to onboard people at a rapid rate who can keep up with the development process that is ARK. Over the years we have made significant progress. We now have two studio locations and dozens of remote employees from around the world. One thing we haven’t learned is to not underestimate your audience. Many times we think we have adequately prepared and our players show up in ways we didn’t expect and we have to scramble to online servers, for example. The amount of dedication from our players is something that we honor very much, but it still takes us by surprise.

ARK: Survival Evolved has been one of the most played games for several years. What do you attribute this to?
 
There is nothing else quite like ARK. That, as well as just how customizable the game is, has kept people playing for thousands of hours. There is a little something for everyone to enjoy. This was quite intentional when it came to developing an open-world game. We wanted all player experiences to be valid, up to and including plenty of modding support for those so inclined. This has allowed many talented creators to develop their own maps, creatures, and content for the game that benefits the entire ARK community greatly. Players can build, fight, tame, explore, and create stories of their own in the world of ARK and we think that is something very special. 

Thanks for your time! Where can people learn more about ARK: Extinction?

ARK: Extinction is available now on Steam and is free to all ARK survivors who own the season pass. PlayStation and Xbox One players will be able to jump in game on November 13th. For any questions, you can also visit our community forums at survivetheark.com.

Considering Studio Wildcard was able to make such a fantastically wonderful world with UE4, if you’d like to experiment building your own virtual world for free today, download and explore Unreal Engine.

Creating Realistic Digital Humans Using UE4 Livestream Recap

The graphics industry is continually striving to achieve photorealistic visuals. While we’ve largely been able to capture realistic environments, creating believable faces is orders of magnitudes more challenging.

This is due to the fact that if a digital human looks even slightly off, they can enter what is known as the “uncanny valley,” making faces look eerie. That is why many developers often opt to create highly stylized faces, which circumvents the issue, but doesn’t solve it. 

At Epic, we are tackling this difficult problem head-on. To do so, we had to get a deeper understanding of the human anatomy. We then built new tools that allowed us to create believable digital humans the likes of which the world had never seen in real time. Our Virtual Mike, Siren, and Andy Serkis demos exemplify our major graphical breakthroughs. 

In a recent livestream, Senior Character Artist Adam Skutt demonstrated how we created Virtual Mike, which is available for you to download and experiment with through the Epic Games Launcher. 
 

Improvements to the way we render skin represents one of the largest leaps we’ve made to advancing real-time digital humans. In the livestream, Skutt walks you through how we took a facial scan of researcher and writer Mike Seymour, crafted skin that realistically captures the roughness and oils of the human face and utilized two normal maps to drive detailed facial animations. Highlighting the updated Subsurface Profile Shading Model, which allows skin in Unreal Engine to more believably interact with light, Skutt shares how to solve the fake-looking “CG grey” shadow effect that typically plagues digital humans by also leveraging a Screen Space Irradiance post process material. 

Advanced hair is created by using a mixture of individual splines coupled with innovative techniques that delve into how we blend follicles into the scalp. Finally, Skutt delves into how we create extremely convincing eyes. 

The culmination of all these new rendering tools amounted to a digital face so realistic that, during the livestream, even Skutt had a hard time distinguishing the in-engine render from the real-life reference photo. 

For an in-depth look on how we were able to create lifelike digital humans, make sure to watch the embedded livestream above. For additional information, dig deeper with our technical documentation and stay tuned for more content on the subject. 

If you would like to experiment with our Digital Human engine feature sample yourself, make sure to download Unreal Engine 4.20 for free today and check it out through the Learn tab within the Epic Games Launcher.

How ARK: Survival Evolved Made the Move to Mobile

When Studio Wildcard announced that ARK: Survival Evolved would be coming to mobile platforms earlier this year, the news stunned the video game industry. Considering the graphically-intensive open-world game takes full advantage of high-end PCs and modern consoles, how could it possibly run on significantly less powerful smartphones? 

To turn this monumental task into a reality, the publisher enlisted the help of War Drum Studios, a seasoned developer who’s worked on acclaimed mobile games that include Bully, Grand Theft Auto, and Auralux. The recent release of the mobile version of ARK: Survival Evolved sets a stunning example for how developers can port AAA console-quality titles to mobile devices.

The mobile version of the action-adventure survival game offers an equally thrilling experience as its PC and console counterparts. Available across iOS and Android, it features a massive island, over 80 dinosaurs, and the same crafting and building mechanics from the established game. While many mobile ports of AAA games offer watered-down mechanics, players of the mobile version of ARK: Survival Evolved largely get the same great experience. This certainly isn’t a heavily trimmed-down version of the base game. To see how War Drum Studios accomplished this colossal task, we interviewed CEO Thomas Williamson and Community Manager Jordan Kleeman to learn how they were able to port such a gargantuan title to the smallest of platforms using Unreal Engine 4

Uncompromised quality

One of the main goals that War Drum Studios set out for itself was to faithfully recreate the desktop version for phones and to maintain its high-graphical pedigree in the process, but even they questioned whether they would have to make significant compromises. “Early on, we weren’t sure if we’d be able to support the aquatic and flying creatures,” they told us. Fortunately, they were able to engineer a solution.

While War Drum Studio did tweak some elements of the mobile version to run optimally on phones, they assert that the game is very similar to its desktop counterpart. The developer elaborated that the port was based on the PC’s Early Access 2017 build, “We feature all 50 square kilometers of the island and its surrounding body of water with only a few caves omitted. We removed the boss fights due to size constraints, but we’ve got over 80 different creatures in addition to all of the engrams from the original PC release.” 

Whether you’ve played the mobile version of ARK or have just seen snippets of its gameplay, you know that it looks visually amazing. It raises the bar for how good games on phones can look. Like the desktop version, it features vast draw distances, an immersive day-to-night cycle, and great water and fire effects. The development team is impressively squeezing every ounce of performance from mobile processors. 

How did War Drum Studios get the mobile version looking so good? The developer credits UE4 for much of the help, “Unreal Engine 4 enthusiasts will be very happy to know that 95 percent of this happened just in the editor! This is not too hard if you are working with a complete game that already has an established look and feel, it’s just a lot of asset work.” To keep frame rates smooth, War Drum Studios employed a few intelligent performance-saving measures. “First we created about 20-30 simple materials that replicated the general look of each type of asset (dinosaur skin, beach sand, building materials). Then we re-parented all of the MICs in the game to these new materials and tweaked values,” they added, “New assets entirely consisted of some detailing textures we sampled on top of diffuse textures to get away with a lower texture resolution. That’s where most of our memory savings came from, along with determining which high-level features just wouldn’t fit in memory, such as the bosses.” The developer reiterated how integral UE4 was in the porting process and stated, “It would have taken twice as much time without the Unreal toolset.”

The mobile version is all the more impressive when you consider that it was predominately ported by just 13 people working on the title for a little over a year. “We handle everything in-house: from programming and art, to QA and community management. Studio Wildcard helped us build promotional content, plan the launch, and get our server infrastructure off the ground. By title, we have five programmers, three artists, three QA, and two community managers, but every single person here wears all the other hats in some regard. You have to have that in a small team.”

Team tactics

One benefit of such a scrappy studio using UE4 is that they can quickly iterate to push updates. “Due to our small team size, we’re quite agile and can implement changes rather quickly. For example, we can have a discussion with community members about a new feature on Wednesday, implement it on Thursday, QA it on Friday, and our players are downloading it in an update on their devices by Monday,” the developer exclaimed.

One of the reasons why the port was able to come together so quickly and efficiently was due to UE4’s Blueprints system, which allows non-programmers to code in an easy-to-understand visual-scripting way. “There is no better interface to have between all of the team members. Programmers, artists, and our QA department were able to work with Blueprint graphs and fix bugs and work together,” the developer remarked, adding, “It’s a great common language because it’s so easy to pick up. Because everyone was able to work with Blueprints, user interfaces, gameplay features, and other new content came together very quickly.” 

Mobile evolved

The seasoned developer had a lot of great things to say about UE4 as a mobile development platform, “Frankly, if you have a high-end game that you want to adapt to mobile, Unreal Engine 4 is far and away the best toolset. Things are simple to scale. Every aspect of the engine framework is tweakable. Integration of third party services, if it hasn’t been done already, is trivial.” The company expanded upon how working with UE4 serves as a beneficial long-term investment, “It’s a proven commodity. If you are an independent game developer breaking into the industry, consider this: if a big studio is looking to hire someone or a team for a project, which engine can you sell your experience on? With Unreal Engine 4, you get all the selling points. It’s known to scale well, is used by all the biggest names, and it gives you access to and experience with bleeding-edge technology.”

Even though they had a competent team and the tools to excel, the company still faced challenges along the way. At the onset, the developer questioned whether faithfully recreating the massive and graphically lush world of ARK: Survival Evolved on significantly less powerful mobile devices would be possible without major sacrifices. “Early on, [our build] only ran on the highest-end devices and took up much more memory than we had available,” the developer explained. An easy way out would have been to scrap a ton of features, which was a direction the team flirted with. “We almost didn’t include underwater exploration, but [publisher] Wildcard encouraged us by giving us a few extra months to work on the problem,” the developer stated. The studio was able to engineer a solution that changed how the mobile version streams in level content to solve this issue.  

Optimizing controls from the PC version’s keyboard-and-mouse setup so that gameplay would feel natural on a smartphone’s touch screen was another obstacle for the studio. Luckily, the developer had an esteemed history of porting AAA console games over to mobile platforms and had the experience to tackle this issue. War Drum attributes iteration as the key to their success here, “Our design philosophy stems from one specific mantra: avoid making the player have to know where their thumbs are as much as possible. You end up wasting a lot of attention with a ton of virtual buttons that could be spent on the game experience otherwise,” they added, “You’ll notice this with ARK’s default control scheme. For 95 percent of your in-game actions, your thumb placement on the screen is unimportant to your next action.” The developer elegantly implemented many context-sensitive controls that are intuitive to a touch screen. For instance, while running, players will automatically jump over little hurdles in their way. They also added an undo button to help players finetune their builds. These quality-of-life tweaks make it feel like ARK was built from the ground up to be a mobile game. 

Despite having a large phone-based audience, War Drum Studios found that many players loved having complete control and designed the user interface to suit their needs. “For almost everything we tried to automate, we’ve added the option of a dedicated button, including an on-screen hot bar.” But the mobile version of ARK: Survival Evolved isn’t just for hardcore players. The development team made tweaks to make the game more accessible, too. “We added feedback, such as meters to let you know how much time is left when cooking items or taming creatures. Many of the game’s timers for things like breeding and imprinting creatures have been reduced,” they stated. They also added a casual mode that prevents players from losing all of their equipment and blueprints when they die. This makes the experience much less intimidating for newcomers. In addition, the studio created a Pursuit system, which acts as a tutorial to ease new players into the game and helps veterans adapt to the new mobile control scheme. The Pursuit system provides additional focus and guidance to players as they journey across the game’s island.

Players will also be able to explore ARK’s vast world with numerous others online, as the mobile version supports crossplay between Android and iOS. The studio praised UE4 for being instrumental here, “Unreal Engine took us 95 percent of the way with compatibility between the platforms.” They added, “The engine design makes it very simple to integrate new systems such as metrics, ad services, and networking solutions with new modules. We’re very fortunate to have such a leg up with this project because of Unreal.”

The mobile version of ARK: Survival Evolved represents a landmark title that changes the landscape of what mobile games can be. It proves that a small, scrappy team can produce a AAA-quality experience in a relatively short amount of time. You can download ARK: Survival Evolved for free on iTunes and Google Play today.

If you’re interested in creating your own game, download and explore Unreal Engine 4.20 for free now.

How Dragon Quest XI Came to Life with Unreal Engine 4

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age is the biggest and most beautiful game in the long-running, esteemed JRPG series. Its vibrant colors and cel-shaded visuals draw you into an epic, anime-looking world that appeals to series newcomers as much as it does to long-time fans. 

To find out more about the project, we connected with Dragon Quest XI Director Takeshi Uchikawa to discuss how he and his team at Square Enix were able to bring the acclaimed title to life using Unreal Engine 4. 
 

In Dragon Quest XI, you take control of a pre-destined, hunted hero who must embark on a perilous journey across the fantastical world of Erdrea. Along the way, you encounter a colorful cast of characters who help you on your adventure. To achieve the wondrous look of the game, Square Enix leveraged the power of UE4 and used character designs by legendary artist Akira Toriyama, who is best known for creating Dragon Ball. The combination resulted in cel-shaded characters that look like they’ve been meticulously crafted with love; even low-level enemy minions are super charming. 

To ensure that the universe looked cohesive throughout, several teams from different departments would continually meet and iterate on the design. “It took us quite some time to achieve the final look, but we all worked towards the goal of blending Mr. Akira Toriyama’s characters and the realistic backgrounds together,” Uchikawa stated, adding, “So the character team, background team, and the technical team came together to repeatedly scrap and build­ – ultimately succeeded in creating this unique look, which has such a distinct flair.” 

Contrasted to contemporary dark and dreary RPGs, Dragon Quest XI features a bright and vibrant world full of color. To capture this visual flare, Square Enix used Enlighten to deliver powerful, dynamic lighting solutions. Square Enix technical artists also paid special attention to water effects, which garnered much praise when Dragon Quest XI initially launched in Japan last year. The game also employs subtle depth-of-field effects, which provides the aesthetic a more cinematic look. 

A new adventure

With the 11th installment, it’s the first numbered game in the series to use a non bespoke engine. One of the reasons Square Enix chose Unreal Engine 4 was due to the engine’s advanced graphical pedigree. The team also selected UE4 because they knew it had a long-running track record of working well across a wide variety of platforms. This is especially helpful in Dragon Quest XI’s case since it’s available across PC, PS4, is optimized to take advantage of the PS4 Pro, and is coming to the Nintendo Switch. 

Another huge benefit that the team got out of using Unreal Engine 4 was the ability to quickly iterate, which is a vital asset to any game’s development. “The rapid pace at which we were able to update on the UE4 editor was very helpful when we were making adjustments to the map design,” Uchikawa stated, adding, “The fact that we could confirm differences right away as we were deciding on the direction led to greater efficiency in development.”

This rapid iteration time is partially what allowed Square Enix to develop such a large game. Not only does Dragon Quest XI’s fantastical world sprawl across wide expanses that include beaches, caverns, and towns, but it offers a sense of verticality and explorability with platforming mechanics that no Dragon Quest game has been able to offer before. With UE4, level designers could build and quickly get feedback on their newly prototyped environments. “We were able to edit shapes in the editor and test it out right away. Thus, whenever we got lost in the terrain during our test play, we could revise it and reflect the changes in the following day’s build,“ Uchikawa stated. Square Enix also knew they wanted to incorporate a day-to-night cycle within the game and were surprised how easy it was to change the time of day considering they just needed to tweak numerical values within the engine. 

Further breathing life into the world, Square Enix thoroughly localized the dialogue for English-speaking audiences and enlisted the help of top-notch voice actors who provided numerous accents to immerse players into the experience. To bolster the quality of its western release, the developer also re-animated the lip-syncing. In regards to animations, the plentiful cinematics were all constructed using UE4’s native cutscene and effect tools. A symphonic/MIDI musical score by famed Dragon Quest composer Koichi Sugiyama wraps up the presentation. 

Finishing strong

With so much passion going into the world, character designs, and graphics, one of the driving forces for the team was to encourage all players to see the game through to the end. Considering how few players actually finish titles to completion these days, coupled with how meaty Dragon Quest XI is, that’s no small task. 

To set out to achieve this, Square Enix followed three game design tenants laid out by original Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii. These include creating an “ease of understanding,” “a sense of reassurance,” and the drive to facilitate an “exciting adventure” throughout the experience. Uchikawa elaborated on these principles as it pertained to Dragon Quest XI, “For the story, we aimed to provide a pleasant surprise to our players in the way the story unfolded. For the exploration, we made sure the player would not become lost from the main path, but also prepared a satisfying reward if, and when, they did want to sidetrack. As for the combat, our goal was to avoid requiring players to grind, while still allowing them to sense they were progressing.” Uchikawa added that the team put their heart and soul into the ending, stating, “It is naturally something we put in our best efforts into it. Therefore, I would love for everyone to play until the very end!” 

In building a game as massive as Dragon Quest XI, Square Enix encountered performance hurdles relating to memory management and load times. The developer worked with Epic to tweak the engine to better handle garbage collection, and according to Uchikawa, “These improvements have been merged in the latest version of UE4.” As a result of these efforts, Dragon Quest XI not only runs well, but features minimal load times, and supports 4K resolution coupled with vast draw distances that span as far as the eye can see.

Dragon Quest XI marks the 30-year anniversary of the series, and with it, Director Takeshi Uchikawa set out to create a “beautiful and brand new beginning” that felt “new and yet nostalgic.” The developer wanted to capture the essence of the franchise with its classic turn-based combat, but tailor it for veterans of the series and newcomers alike while producing state-of-the-art graphics. “We wanted to create a game where everyone, even if they didn’t understand the nods, would think ‘this is fun!’,” Takeshi stated. Considering the game recently released to rave reviews across the western world, the fruits of their labor certainly paid off. To find out more about Dragon Quest XI, head over to DQ11.com.  

If you’re interested in creating your own game, you can download and explore Unreal Engine 4.20 for free today.