Music Meets Mayhem in the Rhythm Action of Soundfall

When you’re securely employed by one of the most established companies in gaming, you might raise some eyebrows if you suggest jumping out of that safety net and into indie developing freefall. This was the first question I asked of Julian Trutmann and Nick Cooper, who left their positions at Epic Games to develop Soundfall as Drastic Games.
 
Soundfall is a vibrant and stunning game built on the backbone of Unreal Engine 4. Leaning on their experience with the engine, Drastic is creating a fast-moving action game that takes the player’s own music and sets it as the soundtrack and tempo to their adventure. Syncing bass beats with gratifying gunplay isn’t a feat easily achieved, however, so Drastic had to go to considerable lengths to make it all work.
 
Debuting their game on August 7, 2018, the reaction was swift and supportive. Soundfall had people intrigued and even Drastic themselves were not prepared for how well the game would be received. Now, with a number of appearances under their belts (PAX West, EGLX, and more), they’ve launched the game into crowdfunding on Fig and successfully smashed their goal within 24 hours. With plenty more time to go, the Soundfall team has set its sights on its many stretch goals.
 
We took a moment to chat with one half of the Drastic Games team, Julian Trutmann, about the perils of going indie, the passion of creating something you love, and the power of Unreal Engine.
 

 
Drastic Games is a small studio made up of two people who both came from the fold of Epic Games itself. What motivated you to pursue indie development?
 
Over the course of our years at Epic, both of us were lucky enough to be a part of the small initial teams on several projects, such as Fortnite and Paragon. We were repeatedly blown away by what a small, talented, coordinated, and focused team could accomplish in a short amount of time. This got us wondering what we could do with a small team of our own and wanting to explore pushing the limits of small team game development.
  
Soundfall is a fast-paced blending of action/adventure with a rhythm game, unlike anything we’ve seen before. How did you come up with the idea for the game?
 
Our initial plan was to brainstorm and game jam a simple concept that we could execute in six months. Obviously, our plans changed!
 
A few ideas we had floating around included a simple rhythm game and an Ikaruga/Gradius-style space shooter. At the time, we had recently played Audioshield, so the idea of a procedural rhythm game was also fresh in our minds. The music element stuck, and the shooter element evolved to be twin-stick since the versatility would allow us to use the systems we developed in a variety of possible projects. We moved forward with these elements and did a game jam over the course of a long weekend to see if they could mesh together in an interesting way. The result turned out way better than we expected!
 
We knew we had something with incredible potential on our hands, and we didn’t want to waste it on a small quick project. From that game jam, we had the beginnings of what would eventually become Soundfall.

  
Obviously, coming from Epic you have a strong grasp of the Unreal Engine, so what can you say has been your greatest advantage coming into Soundfall with so much experience?
 
Having a lot of experience in Unreal Engine gave us the courage to take on Soundfall’s riskier elements. Audio analysis is a good example. I’m not sure we would have even considered going down that road if we didn’t already know the tools inside and out. Knowing the engine also gave us the confidence to take on other features that we don’t see as often in similar indie games, such as online co-op.
 
We haven’t seen too much of the game just yet, but what we have seen is gorgeous. What’s been your most vital Unreal Engine 4 tool bringing this vibrant world to life?
 
There’s no one tool that takes the cake here. What’s made Unreal Engine 4 so powerful for us is how multifaceted its systems are. If we absolutely had to call out one tool, it’d probably be Blueprints. Basically, anything that reacts to the music in Soundfall is a Blueprint that’s responsible for coordinating some combination of other systems, like particles, materials, and animations. Ultimately, it’s using all these tools in concert that’s responsible for the vitality in our world.

  
What have been the biggest challenges aligning rhythm alongside the fighting mechanics of an action game?
 
Since Soundfall was designed to work with any song, the biggest initial technical challenge was getting the audio analysis up and running – in particular, beat detection. Initially, we spent a while developing some audio-analysis tools ourselves. We then discovered an audio-analysis library called Essentia, which we integrated to get a vast improvement on our beat detection, as well as a lot of other data about each song that we now use for our procedural dungeons and loot.
 
Switching gears from thinking about all game actions in terms of “seconds,” to thinking about them in terms of “beats” was another major technical and design hurdle. Since we typically want actions to begin and/or end “on-beat,” there is never a simple, consistent conversion between seconds and beats. For instance, the number of milliseconds in a “one-beat” delay is going to differ based on if we’re asking right on the previous beat, or halfway to the next beat! This gets even more complicated when we consider tempo changes.
 
As far as gameplay goes, just about all of our animations, abilities, and behavior trees needed to be authored in such a way that they are “beat-aware” — any portion that should be punchy or gameplay-relevant needed to occur exactly on-beat, and robust enough to work regardless of BPM and tempo changes.

 
Obviously, a massive component of any rhythm game is the music! Have you guys composed the tracks yourself? Tell us about the creative process involved with bringing the sound alive in Soundfall!
 
We’ve worked very closely with our audio engineer, Jens Kiilstofte, to shape the tone of Soundfall. In addition to all of the game’s folie art, Jens is responsible for the killer track on our trailer.
 
On the music side, we all wanted Soundfall to work with lots of different kinds of music. Even within the team, we all have very divergent tastes in music and we think that half the fun of Soundfall will be seeing how the game reacts to different songs.
 
When it comes to sound effects, striking a balance between musical and impactful has been challenging. If weapons (like Melody’s sword and beat blaster) sound too melodic, they’re often unsatisfying to use. On the flip side, more traditional video game sword and gun sounds don’t really synergize well with the music, or add to the world’s ambiance.         
 
 
From what we’ve seen in Soundfall’s reveal trailer, the world isn’t only stunning but is brimming with life and movement! What are the hurdles that present themselves when adding so many moving pieces to your levels?
 
On top of all the rhythm-based gameplay challenges we talked about before — performance! This has been particularly important to us, since traditionally in both rhythm and twin-stick games, players want the action to feel fast and smooth at all times. In typical games, most objects in the world are static, but in Soundfall, just about every actor in the world is animating or moving to the music. One of our saving graces is that our top-down camera helps give us a reasonable limit to how many of these moving actors are going to be visible at a time, so we can be smart about which actors we need to be ticking, animating, and sending “beat” events to.
 
When a lot of slow operations occur in a single frame of a game, that frame will take longer, causing players to experience a hitch. In normal game development, we often try to distribute expensive tasks over several frames to avoid this as much as possible. Unfortunately for us in Soundfall, having most of our big actions occur on-beat means we end up forced to have a LOT of instances of many expensive operations happening at the same time! The game would be essentially unplayable if it was hitching on every beat when we expect players to perform their most important actions. We’ve had to be very smart about how much we are doing on-beat, and what operations can be moved to occur off-beat, in order to prevent hitching.  

Soundfall still has a long way to go before it’s released, so it’s safe to say you have a lot of development time in front of you. How does Unreal Engine 4 help you streamline and save time on complicated processes?
 
First off, being able to get the initial game prototype up and running very quickly was very streamlined with Unreal Engine 4. Being able to quickly get an answer to our question “will a mix of rhythm and top-down action actually be compelling?” was crucial to deciding to go down this path. So many complex systems we needed just immediately work out of the box with Unreal — physics, networking, and navmesh, just to name a few. Blueprints and behavior trees continue to make gameplay iteration very quick and allow us to easily make new music-reactive actors.

 
Based on your experience, what advice would you give to aspiring developers just starting to learn Unreal Engine 4?
 
Start very small, learning one system at a time and by modifying existing examples. Re-creating an existing simple game, an 80s arcade game perhaps, is a great way to learn and will help anyone gain an understanding of how every system and discipline work together. Definitely don’t dive straight into trying to make a 100-player shooter or MMO!
 
Where are all the places people can go to stay up-to-date on Drastic Games and Soundfall?
 
People can check out more info about Soundfall or sign up for our newsletter at www.soundfallgame.com.

We’re also currently running a crowdfunding campaign on Fig, where people can pledge or invest to become more involved with development and share in our future success!

We also post a lot on social media:

Thriving in Early Access, AMID EVIL is a Retro Fantasy FPS with a Modern Mind

If you knew nothing of AMID EVIL and fired it up for the first time, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’ve already played it at some point in the distant past. Upon further inspection, you’d discover a modern game with crafty AI, blistering fast gameplay, and ultra cool, out of this world weapons. 

Built with a healthy respect for the games that inspired it (DOOM, Quake, Heretic, and more), AMID EVIL wears its inspiration on its pixelated sleeve, but that doesn’t mean it lacks modern mechanics that make today’s games great.

 
Recently releasing its fifth of seven distinct and unique episodes, AMID EVIL has enjoyed great success in Early Access and received a ton of input from its dedicated fanbase. Not letting the community’s valuable feedback go to waste, Indefatigable has taken the time to read comments and implement changes based on what they’ve seen. Showing their fans they value both their input and their faith in the game’s direction surely lends itself to AMID EVIL’s 98 percent ‘very positive’ rating on Steam.
 
To learn more about the project, we took a moment to chat with Simon Rance and Leon Zawada from Indefatigable about their game, their journey to indie development, and their experience with Unreal Engine 4. Stock up and reload as we talk modern-day retro shooters below!
 

AMID EVIL is the first game from your studio, Indefatigable. Tell us a little bit about what brought the team together and why you decided to jump into indie development!
 
Well, we (Simon & Leon) have been friends since 1994. We grew up playing games and making mods. Most notably Return of the Triad – a full Rise of the Triad total conversion mod for GZDoom. This eventually led to us joining Interceptor Entertainment to work on the official Rise of the Triad reboot in 2012.
 
That was our first jump into indie, so I guess this isn’t our first rodeo. After shipping some other titles with Interceptor, we left in 2016 to start on our own thing, which we had wanted to do for years. By that point, we had a lot of experience and the time just felt right. And so… Indefatigable was born!
 
A few friends who also used to work at Interceptor have joined us as well, such as the mighty Andrew Hulshult, who’s making the (seriously great) music and also doing some sound design. Daniel Hedjazi has helped us out with some of the level design. Chris Pollitt made the really awesome key art for the game, as well as some dope concept art pieces. James Miller (who was the ROTT 2013 QA lead) has helped a lot with QA. Finally, we teamed up with producer Dave Oshry who also worked with us on ROTT 2013 and now runs New Blood Interactive – our publisher. So, to make a long story short – Rise of the Triad brought us all together!

 
The studio name, the word ‘Indefatigable’, carries the definition of ‘incapable of being tired out; not yielding to fatigue, untiring’. How do you bring this philosophy to your studio, game development, and AMID EVIL in particular?
 
We got the name “Indefatigable” from the Horatio Hornblower stories. It was the ship of Admiral Sir Edward Pellew. An amazingly successful ship, in both fiction and real life – hopefully, our studio can be, too.
 
But we do run on low-stress levels at our studio. We don’t crunch and tend to work whenever we feel like it. Some days you just get tons of work done in no time, other days there’s just no mojo flowing and nothing happens; but we don’t sweat it. Trying to force creativity can burn you out easily, and by countering that we’ve gotten a ton of work done between us. Luckily our publisher is also pretty chill about it.

 
You make no qualms about your inspirations for AMID EVIL. Built on the Doom Engine, and released in 1994, Heretic is looked back upon fondly by genre fans. What was your biggest reason for using a game like Heretic as the inspirational building block for a game released into Early Access in 2018?
 
Well, it’s not just Heretic – we set out first and foremost to make a Fantasy FPS game with gameplay inspired by many of the classics such as Doom, Quake, Unreal, etc. A core gameplay loop focused on fast movement, cool weapons, cool enemies, fun levels, and lots of action.
 
There’s Heretic DNA for sure. We got inspiration for soul mode from Heretic’s Tome of Power – which is a really satisfying mechanic. Heretic also had a lot of color going on, which we’ve got happening in AMID EVIL as well.
 
And what most people don’t know is that AMID EVIL actually started as a Doom mod when we were kids way back in 1997. It then evolved into a top-down game. We even made a prototype of that in UDK. That prototype design had a sword that would transform into different weapons, which eventually evolved into the Axe that the player wields now. There are other elements from those old design docs we used in the current game as well. Maybe we’ll dig them up some day.
 
What features does AMID EVIL have that sets it apart from Heretic and other old-school FPS games?
 
Thanks to Unreal Engine’s versatility and use of modular assets, we’re able to have seven distinct episodes – each with a unique setting and unique enemies. This gives the game a ton of variety and means we can constantly keep it feeling fresh. There’s no being stuck in ancient Egypt or Atlantis or military bases or whatever for an entire game. We can change it up.
 
We’ve also got weapons the likes of which have never been seen before. Like an interdimensional mass of glass ribbons that shoots literal black holes and a staff that pulls planets out of space and launches them at enemies; sometimes even Earth (sorry, Earth!).
 
Soul mode is another cool feature which upgrades and overpowers your weapons for a short amount of time, allowing you to shred enemies. This was inspired by the Tome of Power from Heretic but we use it to a much more devastating effect. We don’t think anyone has ever turned a battle axe into a boat propeller… until now!
 
Not to mention that the AI is much more crafty than in most classic FPS games. They path extremely well and will jump up and down ledges to get to you. Some reflect your attacks back, some are able to dodge and flank etc. It adds a lot of depth that the classic games just didn’t have – but also a lot of strategy and fun.
 

 
What were some of the developmental challenges of bringing a retro-FPS to life in the modern era? How did Unreal Engine 4 aid you in realizing your vision?
 
Development wise – it’s been pretty easy! We have a lot of experience with Unreal Engine, so the challenge for us is mainly in our small team. We wouldn’t have been able to make this game if it wasn’t for our experience and Unreal Engine 4’s amazing tools and workflow.  We’d say the real challenge with any retro FPS is trying to appeal to both fans of the classics while trying also appeal to newer players. And creating kick-ass levels.
 
Has anyone on the team worked with Unreal Engine before? If so, how has that experience benefited you in development of AMID EVIL? If not, how difficult did you find it jumping into Unreal Engine 4 for the first time?
 
We’ve been working with Unreal for… six years? We first started using Unreal Engine 3 with Interceptor Entertainment on Rise of the Triad 2013. We jumped to Unreal Engine 4 for the development of Rad Rodgers. The jump to UE4 wasn’t difficult at all honestly. It’s got the fastest workflow of any engine we’ve used by far. You can rapidly turn your ideas into something working in no time. We’re big fans.

 
If you had to choose a favorite Unreal Engine 4 tool, what would it be and why?
 
It would definitely be Blueprints. The iteration times and ease of visual scripting etc. has been one reason why we’ve been able to make this game in less than two years. The game mainly relies on Blueprints, in fact. We don’t have much C++ going on.
 
The visuals in AMID EVIL are very unique. How did you manage to blend ‘90s FPS and modern looks so well? Is it true the weapons are actually sprites?
 
What we’ve created is a style that combines full PBR rendering and other features that Unreal Engine 4 offers (such as volumetric fog, GPU particles, extensive use of the robust material system, and reflection captures) with the old school, unfiltered texture look of the mid-90s FPS games.
 
And yes, for example, the first-person weapons and pickups you see are actually sprites with individual frames using masked materials, complete with normal, roughness, and metalness maps. They’re then baked with perspective from hi-poly 3D meshes, with a fairly unique workflow. We’ve actually got an upcoming technical blog about this aspect of the look we’ve gone for and how it’s done. Stay tuned!
  
Recently launching your fifth of seven total episodes, the feedback from fans and critics alike is hugely positive. How important has feedback been to the further development of AMID EVIL since entering Early Access in March 2018?
 
The feedback has been amazing and we’re truly blown away by how much people like the game. Early Access turned out to be a much better idea than we thought, mainly because the game is practically bug-free because of it!
 
Moreover, the episodic release schedule we’ve taken on has kept players interested and engaged during Early Access as well. So it was definitely the right decision. It’s allowed us to read nearly every comment and suggestion people leave during development since there’s always room for improvement and new ideas. We’ve taken many of these player suggestions into account and implemented them into the game, too – which is cool. Having a community invested in helping you make your game better every day is something seriously invaluable. AMID EVIL wouldn’t be what it is without them.

 
With two episodes to go, has your approach to development changed in any way since that initial release? Have you ‘course corrected’ on anything realizing it could be done better or more efficiently?
 
AMID EVIL’s development is actually quite unusual for us. We don’t really have much in the way of documentation or concepts. We basically just experiment with ideas until we build something cool, then iterate on it ‘til it’s solid all around. It’s neat because each episode has its own feel because of that. Sure, there are always things that could have been done better, some systems could be more modular, more optimized, etc. But it’s been fairly smooth sailing. And Unreal Engine 4 definitely helps with that.
 
What have you learned along your journey so far that you’d pass onto another developer jumping into Unreal Engine 4 for the first time?
 
Unreal is its own thing, some things within it are very similar to other engines, but others definitely not. Take time to read the documentation. Use the tutorials. And remember that the Unreal developer community is huge and welcoming, so there’s a lot of help out there if you ever run into anything. Talk to them!
 
Where are all the places people can go to learn more about AMID EVIL, New Blood Interactive, and Indefatigable?
 
●      http://AMIDEVIL.com
●      http://Newblood.games
●      http://Indefatigable.co.nz
●      https://twitter.com/TheNewBloods
●      https://twitter.com/indefatigablenz
●      http://discord.gg/newblood

Ghost Slinks From the Shadows to the Spotlight Thanks to Unreal Dev Grant

Sky Machine Studios is in the beginning chapters of developing its very first game, Ghost. Jumping into the indie-development scene fueled by their love of the industry they grew up with, this team of six from Sydney, Australia are one of the very grateful recipients of Epic’s Unreal Dev Grants.

In the demanding world of video game development, it can be hard to carve out your piece of the pie, and Sky Machine isn’t taking their good fortune for granted. Extra funding thanks to the Unreal Dev Grant is opening new avenues in their game’s development and also in their marketing and promotion. 

While the stealth genre has seen some hits and misses over the past few years, there’s no denying that a hungry fan base still exists for what could arguably be considered a grossly underserved audience. Specifically taking on the isometric stealth genre, Lead Project Director Robert Wahby and the rest of Sky Machine Studios aim to deliver an engrossing experience that benefits as much as possible from the one thing that every indie studio needs a little bit of — faith.

We caught up with the team to learn more about the project and their approach to a reimagined stealth genre.
 

Sky Machine Studios is a small team comprised of six people and Ghost is your first title. Tell us what brought the team together and what’s driving you to jump into the often daunting world of indie development.

One of the driving forces in developing Ghost is the opportunity to break into the indie scene. We are aware of the challenges that come with indie development, but nothing is worth pursuing unless there is a bit of trial. After all, that is how you learn. But most of all, we are all avid gamers and want to be part of the culture and industry that we fondly grew up in.

Ghost is a pretty ambitious game for a small team like ours. We are a close-knit team, and proud that we are able to bring Ghost to life without needing an army of programmers and artists.

Ghost is in very early stages of development and not on a lot of people’s radar just yet so please tell us a little bit about the game and its premise.

Ghost is an immersive isometric stealth game, set in the city of Anargal. You’re cast in the role of Arthur Artorias, a man stripped of his past, tortured and forced to escape into isolation. Thought to be dead, you return eight years later, a changed man, seeking answers and pursuing revenge.

In Ghost, you’ll explore a world full of mystery, eccentric characters, and compelling missions. Hide in the shadows, ready your blade and seek your revenge. You must hide, explore, and survive if you wish to last the first night of winter.

Does anyone on the team have prior experience with Unreal Engine 4? If so, how is that existing experience benefitting the team now? If not, how has the team found the learning process of such a robust engine? 

Yes, Lucas, our programmer, has had extensive experience with Unreal Engine. As for the rest of the team, we’ve become accustomed to the engine, and while there’s a bit of a learning curve at first (as expected with any piece of complicated software), it didn’t take too long to get a grasp of the engine.

One thing I must say is the level building and lighting portion of the engine is fantastic and very easy to use. Being able to quickly prototype a level has assisted us in fully fleshing out environments and script events.

The main protagonist in Ghost, Arthur, loses his entire family in an attempt on his own life and comes back eight years later to exact his revenge. What can you tell us of Arthur’s motivation? Is it more than just revenge?  

The ideas and concepts seen here revolve around falling into hell and ascending out of the muck. Arthur’s story is one of great demise and the fighting spirit that some individuals have to rise above their dilemma. It’s a narrative of growth, mystery and yes, it’s also a story of revenge. 

From an archetypal point of view, Arthur is no hero. He’s a custodian of his family’s wealth, accustomed to living an extravagant life. However, in Ghost, Arthur is cast out of his familiar world, everything he deems valuable has been stripped from him, forcing Arthur into a life of destitution, to return with a new sense of courage and conviction. Telling a tale of rebirth.

As Arthur continues his story, he will begin to notice how the world has changed in his absence. A religious militant group called the Greater Heaven has taken over the city with their tyrannical ideology. Arthur will soon discover, things are not what they appear to be.

A few months ago, Sky Machine Studios was one of the recipients of an Unreal Dev Grant. Congratulations on this prestigious honor! When you submitted your application, did you ever expect to win? Did you have any fears about submitting your work in such a manner?

Thank you! It’s pretty insane actually. At the time, we were developing a prototype build, fundamentally teaching ourselves how to work as a team, developing a workflow, figuring out how the various systems should function, etc. We submitted the prototype build in the hopes that it was good enough. You know, in the back of your mind, you’re always wondering if the project stands out. After we submitted Ghost to Epic, we, of course, continued developing and eventually turned the prototype into a much more functional game. We really revamped everything.

All in all, it was a pleasant surprise. We had no clue whether or not we would be selected, and as the months went by, our doubts increased. Then, one day, we received an email informing us that we were one of the recipients. I had to read the email a few times just to comprehend what just happened! It’s not every day you are recognized for something as special as this. 

Now that you have the grant, how much does this mean to the studio? How do you think this award will benefit not only your team but the game itself?

Winning the grant was a clear indication to me and the team that we are heading in the right direction with Ghost. The grant essentially places a spotlight on the project and not to mention a healthy boost to motivation.

The grant gives us some breathing room and allows us to be able to implement more elaborate ideas and concepts, such as new 3D assets. For example, we have a pretty cool sequence on a moving train, that may not have come to life if it wasn’t for the Dev Grant. The grant has also allowed us to push some development pipelines forward. For instance, we are currently working on character designs and investing in more advanced animations to bring these characters to life.

Along with improving the current state of the game, we plan on using a portion of the grant in getting our name out there via a marketing push. We are aware that the project is not on a lot of people’s radar at the moment, but hopefully, it will be in the coming months.        

If you were to offer words of encouragement or advice to someone thinking about submitting their own project to the Unreal Dev Grant program, what would you say?

Make sure the project has potential. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but the Unreal Engine team and the public need to see that there is something there. If the game looks too rough or it doesn’t stand out, you’re most likely not going to turn heads, especially considering the caliber of projects that are submitted. Just keep going at it and don’t be fearful of delaying the project until that potential is there.

Isometric stealth games have seen some success in recent years with games like Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun and Seven: The Days Long Gone. How do you feel Ghost stands out against its peers in the genre? Were there any other games that gave you particular inspiration?

With Ghost, we are trying to take the classic staples seen within the genre; such as hiding in the shadows, keeping your feet light, as to not make a sound, and grounding the experience within an isometric perspective, a true stealth experience. I believe this perspective has become somewhat popular in recent years, due to the fact that the stealth genre has primarily been played from a first-person or third-person viewpoint. It’s a reimagining of the genre.

Ghost takes plenty of inspiration from the titans of the stealth genre, primarily from the Thief and Splinter Cell series as they are the bedrock of stealth gaming. Besides the interplay between exposing yourself and not being seen, there is a great sense of open exploration these games offer.

Ghost, much in the same way, is a sandbox experience with the spirit of exploration at its core. Ghost is all about options and is a stealth experience built from the ground up to take advantage of the isometric perspective. This open-ended design is seen through our emphases on seamless verticality and the systems we have implemented to achieve this. This is particularly displayed in multistory buildings. As the player ascends each floor, the entire level is completely animated up into existence (floor, props, walls etc) within a blink of an eye. This allows the player to explore alternative avenues and grant access to such paths as a second story balcony or windows, no matter the elevation and nothing blocking the camera. The entire system, in my opinion, works quite well.

From a graphical perspective, the team spent a lot of time working on lighting and developing a sense of claustrophobia to interior locations such as buildings. For example, the entire outside world is blacked out with a heavy focus on what is in the player’s immediate environment, whenever a player enters a building.

However, one of the stand-out features seen in Ghost is our arrow-crafting system. From crafting water arrows to extinguishing torches, to poison arrows, and even electric-powered ones, it’s a fairly robust system. Now where the system really shines is how you can combine these elements, essentially creating more complicated arrow types. For example: If you take the poison arrow and add smoke to the mix, you’ll get an area-of-effect, basically engulfing the environment with poison smoke. This is one of many examples out of the 30+ different arrow combinations seen in Ghost. The arrow-crafting system, while used for offensive and defensive playstyle, will be an integral part of solving puzzles as well.

Despite being early in your development, how has Unreal Engine 4 helped you to create your environments of contrasting dark and light (which is very important in stealth games!)? Has there been a specific tool you’ve found especially helpful?

I’d have to say the lighting system has been one of the most useful systems found inside Unreal. The flexibility to tweak every scenario, with ease, from mood to directional lighting, has allowed Ghost to have that stylized look. There is something satisfying when placing assets and 3D objects inside the engine. Things just pop out. It makes you appreciate the cumulative efforts and constant refinement the engine has gone through over the years. I fundamentally believe Ghost would have been a much different looking game if we used an alternative engine.   

When it comes to specific tools, I would have to say that Unreal’s profiling tool assisted us in tweaking and optimizing performance. Instead of manually having to check each actor in a scene, the tool allowed us to locate what was causing any performance drops in any given scenario. 

You’ve still got a healthy amount of development in front of you for Ghost. Are there any other tools in Unreal Engine 4 you’re looking forward to using as you work toward release and how do you feel they’ll aid you in the game’s development?

We’re definitely looking to explore a bit more into Sequencer for creating great in-game cinematics since Unreal provides one of the best cinematic tools on the market. Also, we want to make sure we get the best LOD practices from the tools provided, not only on polygon reduction but on instance meshes to give us that little extra performance juice.

Where can people go to find out more about Sky Machine Studios and Ghost?

You can find information on Ghost via our website and social pages across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

A Two Person Team Brings the Immersive World of Elea to Life with UE4

Let’s face it – video game development can be a challenging, sometimes daunting endeavor. Trying to do it on your own in the saturated indie space is likely even more scary. Without the safety net of an established studio or franchise, an indie dev may remortgage their house and live month-to-month with paychecks coming few and far between. Still, for the love of gaming and storytelling, many developers take on the challenges to bring their ideas to life. Such is the case with Ivaylo Koralsky and Todor Todorov, the co-founders of Kyodai Ltd.

Leaving their full time jobs within the gaming industry, Koralsky and Todorov formed Kyodai Ltd. so they could bring their elaborate vision for their project Elea to fruition. Being a two man team, Unreal Engine 4’s tools proved to be a vital part of keeping their workflow smooth and development advancing at a regular pace. Of course, that isn’t to say it wasn’t without its challenges. Plenty of hurdles presented themselves over the course of the game’s journey, but with lots of family support and a brotherly relationship in tow, their project was finally released on September 6 for Xbox One and Steam.

Speaking with Koralsky, we explored the trials and tribulations of indie development, the importance of staying grounded, and all the ways in which Unreal Engine 4 helped the co-founders of Kyodai Ltd make their dream of creating their very own game a reality.
 

Elea is the first project from Kyodai Ltd. What can you tell us about the studio, your past experience and what motivated you to dive into indie development?

We are a small, two-person Bulgarian studio, founded in 2015. In regards to industry experience, my partner and I come from vastly different backgrounds.

I have experience in a wide spectrum of game industry disciplines – retail business (brand manager for the Bulgarian branches on companies like SEGA, Nintendo, Ubisoft, THQ and Midway), managing/editor-in-chief for a wide range of print gaming magazines and websites, game-tester and I’m still co-owner of the biggest gaming forum in Bulgaria.

Todor is an architect by education and worked as an environmental artist with Ubisoft where he took an active role in two globally acclaimed AAA projects – Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed: Rogue.

The driving force behind the decision to dive into indie development was simple and straightforward – pure love for the games. Elea is our first project under Kyodai, but it’s not our first attempt at indie game development. While still working our day jobs, we started brainstorming on a SHMUP game for mobile platforms, but the whole thing stalled in the initial stages, mostly because of time constraints. This experience was the main reason for us to leave our full-time jobs and concentrate exclusively on Project Elea (the working title of the game). As we are very close friends, we named our studio Kyodai which mean brothers in Japanese as perfectly describes our working relationship.

For readers unfamiliar with Elea, can you please tell us a little bit about the game and its narrative based gameplay?

Our greatest inspiration for Elea comes from the numerous hours we spent as kids reading and watching sci-fi books and movies including the works of classic authors like Stanislaw Lem and Arthur C. Clarke as well as films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars.

Elea can easily be assigned to the increasingly popular ‘experience’ products, where the mentioned experience, storytelling and emotionally touching moments are paramount to the player’s enjoyment.

Among other themes, the game’s narrative examines the human existence and identity in the context of interstellar travel in the wake of omniscient artificial intelligence. Our approach toward story-driven first-person adventures is a bit different compared to most of the games in the genre.

At the beginning of the development, we asked ourselves, ‘What innovation can we offer to the genre? What can be the distinctive element?’ Of course, the narrative is very important, but every ‘walking simulator’ wants to tell a specific story that different players will understand differently.

As a result of these brainstorming sessions, and the fact that this is our first game, we found out that it would be really hard to stand out when the main catchy element of our game would be just the story. In turn, we chose Elea’s narrative to be told in the veins of the old platformer-like titles, where almost every level is different – a lava level, snow level, underwater level, etc.

We also chose to diversify the locations because we are huge fans of the aforementioned old-school games and also because most of the story-driven FPS adventures offer just one distinctive location, with one specific visual tone. Gameplay wise, Elea is a mixture of all the genre’s tropes.

The story of the game is completely original and it is born from a collaboration between myself, Todor and the screenwriter of the game Decho Taralezhkov. For the role of Elea, we worked with experienced Hollywood actress Leslie Fleming-Mitchell.

The deep space setting for Elea allows for a lot of uniquely lit environments – from flickers in a cold, cramped hallway to epic starlit vistas. How did Unreal Engine help you create these environments effectively?

In the planning stages of the game, we chose Unreal Engine 4 because of the toolset that comes with the engine by default. Unreal is the main reason we can make a game with Elea’s scope and visuals by a team that consists of just two core members. The truth is that five years ago, at least in our case, Elea would be an impossible project to create. We can talk only from the perspective of our experience, but the whole workflow of the engine is almost flawless for a small team like ours.

The engine’s streaming system provided the opportunity for both of us to work at the same time on different maps without interrupting each other’s work. Reusing Blueprints classes was also very, very helpful. Actually, a huge portion of the game is made with the Unreal Engine 4’s native visual scripting language. Blueprints are absolutely perfect for our case because of the ease for prototyping gameplay chunks and also because we need very few tick events in our game, so the performance isn’t struggling.

For Elea, we are also using fully dynamic lighting – there aren’t any prebaked lights in the game. We started with static lights at the beginning of the development process, but because of the scope of Elea and our limited resources, the iteration time was very slow for our needs. Luckily for us, Elea’s story is a futuristic one, so we chose to work with a fully dynamic lighting system. This gave us the option for faster iterations of our lighting design and the opportunity to create more dynamic scenes and a specific atmosphere on the fly.

Unreal Engine 4 has many tools at its disposal for developers. What was your favorite tool while developing Elea and why?

As a two-person team, we needed to use the engine in a lot of ways. As for our favorites, the Material editor is absolutely amazing to work with – for both of us. Its node-based system is easy to understand and by default, the limitations are very few and far between.

Of course, Blueprints provide the flexibility for anyone on the team to create gameplay and the opportunity to call C++ events is another powerful tool that we consider a favorite.

Another amazing feature that we love, which helped us to achieve solid performance, was the automatic LOD creation tools.

In the end, the whole engine gives us the opportunity to become kids again, using it as a constructor base to create worlds with specific rules. From our point of view, Unreal Engine 4 is a magic wand with practically limitless potential for learning and creativity. A magic wand that helped us to release our game on PC and Xbox platforms (with full Xbox One X support) at the same time.

Elea is said to be inspired by notable classic sci-fi authors like Frank Herbert, Stanislaw Lem, and Arthur C. Clarke. How difficult was it for you to develop a narrative you were happy with when comparing yourself to such lofty inspiration?

For the narrative part of Elea, we worked with the screenwriter Decho Taralezhkov (he has an excellent track record for writing in the movie industry). In the planning stages, the story underwent a few metamorphoses before we were finally able to say “This is it!” – this is the message we want to convey.

We are perfectly aware that the first episode is very abstract at times and is mostly asking the player questions without giving many answers, but there are explanations and connections for and to everything. Some of them are ‘hidden’ even in the first episode.

Elea tackles some heavy topics focusing on big questions like humanity’s place in the universe and the meaning of faith. What hurdles did the team have to jump over as they attempted to put such a weighty narrative together?

The game’s main goal is to tell a nuanced and mature story about grief and acceptance. And as you guessed, this is not an easy task for such a small team. Not just for the writing itself, but also the way everything is presented visually, how the sound design is working in conjunction with the visuals, etc. Most of the music tracks are written by the Bulgarian composer Simeon Hristov exclusively for Elea, and the sound design is made by us.

We faced many limitations during the first episode’s development, and it is not just the technical stuff – managing the whole project was a big challenge as well. From the planning stages, budgeting for us to live while developing the game (remember both of us quit our other jobs) to constant communications with our freelance devs, we were constantly challenged. Of course, we’ve gained some valuable experience during the development of episode one, which, no doubt, will come in handy for the work on the future episodes.

Indie game development is known to be one of the most stressful endeavors any person can take on. With Kyodai being only a two-person team were there any times where you felt like you were in over your head? If so, how did you get past those tough moments?

We are not gonna lie – there were a lot of stressful moments during the development of the first episode of Elea. On one hand this was our first project as a team, on the other, the scale of the game is huge and of course, when you do something for the first time it is only logical to make mistakes along the road.

In these difficult moments, it was very important for us to be supportive of each other – in the end, we are Kyodai (brothers), right? Another big bonus for the game was the fact that we never had a serious conflict between us.

We also have an arcade machine in our working place and when the tension and the weight of the challenges got too high, we just played NBA JAM like crazy.

Of course, the support from our families was also hugely important – our better halves Ralitsa and Slavena helped us with the script and the budgeting. My sister, Virginia, helped us edit the script, and Todor’s father gave us ideas and support.

Now that you’ve released episode one of Elea, what can players look forward to in episode two (without giving too much away!)?

Because at the beginning of the development the story progression wasn’t created with an episodic structure in mind, the players can expect a tangible different tone in episode two – the narrative will be more straightforward and there will be more answers to be found. Let’s also say that the memories will still be part of episode two, but this time the players will know for sure when they are triggered.

There will be some new gameplay mechanics and the pacing will be faster – the players will be able to sprint right from the start by design.

Actually, I have to admit that the second episode is already at a playable state, of course, the visuals are on a white box level and the scripting is very basic, but still. From a technical point of view, we will know better how to tackle Xbox platforms on a memory management level this time.

Many people reading are only beginning their journeys into developing with Unreal Engine 4. What advice would you give to someone jumping into Unreal Engine for the first time?

Our advice to the younger (or the ones without any previous experience working with gaming engines) Unreal Engine 4 newcomers is to spend a couple of months with the engine before starting serious development. Make a few gameplay prototypes, learn the basics. The documentation of the engine nowadays is more than generous and there are plenty of tutorials from Epic and the community that can be of assistance. Also, don’t be shy to ask for help when you are facing challenges – Unreal’s community is excellent and can assist you greatly in these situations.

For the record, both of us spent five months with the first few versions of the engine, just learning the basics, while the game was in the preproduction phase.

Where can people go to learn more about Elea and Kyodai Ltd?

You can learn more about us and the game on our page – www.projectelea.com, our Twitter profile and our Facebook page.

Aspyr Uses Unreal Engine 4 to Bring the Dark-Science Fiction Mystery ‘Torn’ to Life in VR

If you’ve spent any time with a virtual reality headset on, you likely know that VR experiences come in many forms with varying degrees of depth and quality. While a large number of VR titles merely manage to demonstrate the basic capabilities of the medium, a select few are pushing the boundaries and breaking past barriers to showcase what’s possible. One such title is Aspyr’s Torn, releasing August 28 for PSVR, Oculus Rift, and HTC Vive.

A dark science fiction mystery inspired by television shows like The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror, Torn offers a journey into the world of an eccentric inventor/scientist and the spooky mansion he left behind after going missing 64 years ago. A narrative puzzle game by design, the player will bring the mansion to life while reactivating the scientist’s many mysterious machines. All the while, the player is pulled deeper into the rich narrative and story building that Aspyr has worked so diligently to create.

Encountering problems that traditional development may never have to think of, Aspyr leaned on Unreal Engine 4 as it endeavored to truly make a mark in the VR landscape. We chat with Neill Glancy, Creative Director for Torn, to discover what it took to bring a VR title from its early brainstorming sessions to shipping its final code.

Can you give us some background on Torn and how the project came about?
 
When we first started the IP discovery process here at Aspyr we didn’t have a specific title in mind to build. VR was a strong talking point across the industry as so little was known about it,  so it seemed like a good direction as there was no doubt the team could learn a lot by working in such a new medium. As the Creative Director of the team, I’ve always felt it’s important to fuse learning new things (keeping your knife sharp) with a story or creative context the team is excited about (the wrapper). I had a Vive rig at home so the team got together over beers and we looked at some of the initial releases titles like The Blu, Job Simulator and Valve’s The Lab. This was our first experience in room scale VR and everyone was very excited about the creative space and potential.
 
We spent time asking the question: “How is first generation VR succeeding, and where is it falling short?” As a small team with a small budget, it was important for us to determine early where we would place our creative bets. We couldn’t support tons of features or vast scope so we had to choose carefully which elements we would define as the game’s “tent poles.” From our look at the VR market, we determined the following statements were generally true of initial offerings.
 

  • The sense of being teleported to another reality is amazing and unparalleled.
  • Games we played had a fun VR centric mechanic vs. standard console mechanics.
  • Most of the early games or experiences had little story or context.
  • Many games featured static worlds that were beautiful to look at, but often couldn’t be interacted with in compelling or natural ways.

From this shortlist we were able to create some desired parameters to guide the next phase of our discovery work. We thought of this as VR 2.0 and asked what would be the tent poles for such a work? The things that jumped out to us were:

That we needed to embrace the touristic VR fantasy, place the player in a world that was richly compelling, one they wanted to pick at and discover more about.
 

  • Give the player something fun to do while giving them a story reason for doing it.
  • Make the experience sticky by tying it to a “page-turning” narrative, maybe some sort of mystery or detective story?
  • Make the world as simulated as possible so that it could be beautiful and convincingly alive.
  • Be aware of session length in VR and try to solve for that in a way that made sense for the creative.
  • Try to come up with an idea that spoke to the current Zeitgeist, a topic or spin on things that we knew people already enjoyed in other media.

 
Several years earlier I was the Lead Designer on John Woo Presents Stranglehold. Stranglehold used a ton of physics systems and this was an area I had a lot of experience in and wanted to leverage for the new work. In looking across the tech spectrum of physics I came across this video which I found to be very inspirational.

I was really fascinated with the water simulations and felt if we could do something with them in VR we might discover something interesting so we started brainstorming ideas where players could interact with fluids in VR. At the same time as spitballing creative ideas involving fluid simulation, we started to explore Flex in Unreal to make sure we weren’t totally insane and that we could run a fluid simulation in VR at the high frame rates VR requires.
 
It became immediately apparent that it was possible to render fluid in VR but only a small quantity of it. So all of our large-scale water/ocean ideas had to be abandoned. Instead, we would have to focus on giving the player a small amount of liquid and make that important somehow. We experimented with all sorts of ideas, maze games where the player controlled the orientation of the maze as the fluid ran through it, puzzle ideas where the player had to construct a solution with limited resources to get the fluid across a stage, and blob ideas where we made the fluid very gelatinous and the player controlled this roaming 1960s blob creature as it consumed small towns. At this time we made a minor breakthrough which was disabling gravity. All of our ideas had used gravity to bind the fluid to the scene but when we removed gravity the fluid was transformed into this floating tentacled “thing” that was super interesting to observe in VR and really fun to interact with and splash. Seeing the fluid splatter and twirl in low gravity was super compelling, riveting even, but the question ‘How will we use this?’ still remained. 
 
The other challenge was that rendering the fluid simulation was extremely GPU intensive. Whatever the answer was if we wanted to let players interact with this thing it would likely have to be in some barren context as we couldn’t render the fluid and have a complex world around it at the same time.
 
These technical and performance constraints led to the following creative epiphany. If we could only have a small amount of fluid what was the most important and valuable thing it could possibly be? The answer we came up with was a person’s mind. The mind itself is such an abstract thing to imagine the fluid representation seemed like a perfect fit. Moreover, maybe this person’s mind was trapped somewhere abstract, this would allow us to make that reality lightweight to compensate for the GPU load of the fluid.
 
It was becoming increasingly obvious that a story was emerging from the discovery process and technology research. Somehow a person’s mind had become trapped in some “other” place, but was that it? It didn’t feel balanced, it felt like we needed to think about the work as a swinging pendulum. One side would be this odd other realm, but what was at the other side of the pendulum’s swing? How could we make what was on that other side complement and contrast the lost mind realm? It was in this moment that the idea of the mansion came to be. What if the game’s pendulum swing was that the player spent time in the mansion and then time in the other realm? This would provide two very unique and differentiated realms for the player to experience and a natural rhythm as the games’ undercurrent of progression.
 
We also knew we wanted to tell a story so we needed actors that could deliver a compelling performance, but we didn’t have the budget to attempt a real facial performance nor do facial mocap etc. We felt the fluid simulation could be a real win here if we could feed it the dialog and tune it in such a way that as it spoke the fluid responded. We used test audio data from classic movies to feed test lines through the fluid simulation things like lines from Dirty Harry, Taxi Driver, The Three Stooges, etc. This let us see how the fluid responded to what we knew was a good dramatic performance and dial in the parameters around the fluids response to the WAV data.
 
With our fluid character now looking promising, we turned our attention to the mansion itself, its architectural design and focusing more on story so we could understand the scope of work. We hired two world-class writers to work on the project to help us write the story, but more about that later.

What sort of puzzles can players expect in Torn, and what makes for a well-designed puzzle to you?
 
Once we knew that a portion of the game was going to be set inside a mansion we knew we wanted to give players something interesting to do there. Ideally, this thing they would do would advance the story to meet our goal of “Give the player something fun to do while giving them a story reason for doing it”. We also knew from studying puzzle best practice (thanks GDC talks and Gamasutra!) that getting puzzles right was a very iterative process. To mitigate this risk we determined that puzzles should be agnostic to the mansion’s art. So, in other words, a puzzle could be constructed, torn down and rebuilt without the artists having to do any work to support the change.
 
We also didn’t want to make a puzzle game that was super challenging or twitch based. It was important for us that puzzles be something that might temporarily baffle players but never block them as we wanted folks to complete the game’s unusual story. And this is where we stray away a bit from conventional game puzzle theorem. We felt that, for VR specifically, having an accessible puzzle element was more important than building an intense challenge that only a few could complete.
 
We also identified “hero rooms” which had the potential to have bespoke puzzles, something to mix it up a bit and keep things fresh. These bespoke rooms would leverage the technology layers we had already built for classic room puzzles but put a new spin on them. I think overall we managed to get a good balance of bespoke room puzzles and conventional ones.
 
Personally, I think good puzzle design teaches the player lessons as layers and then asks them to combine those layers in unexpected ways or sequences over a series of more elaborate challenges. It’s all about the “Aha” moment. Puzzles in Torn are all tied to rooms, each room has three puzzles that increase in complexity. In our backstory, the mansion is actually more machine than building so the puzzles revolve around “waking rooms up” by activating and completing circuits in that room that bring its mechanical elements to life. We also liked the correlation between completing a room and VR session length. In general, most players can complete a room in around 15-20 mins and would then travel to the other realm to converse with the fluid character. These two swings of the pendulum (mansion play and fluid realm) both fit into a 30 minute window which correlated well with what other developers were telling us about VR session length.

 Are there unexpected challenges that VR presents for the genre, and how do you overcome them?
 
Some of our greatest challenges have been in two main areas:
 
Player Attention – It’s well understood that as the player can look in any direction in VR, it can be hard to tell them a story or be ensured the player is looking in the correct direction at a specific moment. To help provide player direction at specific moments we use a combination of lighting, motion, and sound to get the player’s attention then query the HMD to see if it’s worked and they are looking generally in the direction we want them to. It’s a bit of a dark art and there’s still lots to learn here.
 
Multiplatform – The second biggest challenge was making the game perform well across the spectrum of hardware targets we wanted to hit. Different platforms such as Vive, Oculus or PSVR have greatly different levels of competency when it comes to the basics like tracking fidelity, tracking solution type, CPU/GPU and memory speed. We took time to study the emerging best practice solutions inside of other games to make sure our solutions were best in breed and something the players would feel comfortable with and be able to grasp quickly.

 The narrative is obviously an essential component of Torn. What can you tell us about your approach to storytelling?
 
Story was one of our big tent poles and we knew audiences were eating up titles like Firewatch, What Remains Of Edith Finch, Black Mirror and Stranger Things and these experiences featured qualities we wanted to bring to our story. One of our other constraints was we couldn’t deliver animated characters, so whoever was speaking on screen couldn’t be an actual character model. We had already cast our fluid simulation as one of our central characters and we knew we wanted our player character to speak to give the experience momentum and help with player attention. Our last characters were what we call ‘Specks’ – small bright lights like Tinkerbell. These Specks were fragments of the fluid character’s mind that were trapped in the mansion and we would ask the player to collect them to repair his mind and slowly unravel the story as the fluid/blobs memory was restored. We liked this idea as it correlated with a story we had seen successfully executed in Christopher Nolan’s Memento. We felt this backbone of unearthing the story as the central character remembered it would be interesting for players and also provide fertile creative ground for player plot misdirection to keep things interesting.
 
This of course also made the story very much more complex than a conventional tale and it was clear we would need a professional full-time writer to help us deliver it. Initially, we worked with the extraordinarily talented Matt Soell for two months upgrading the early story draft into a true three act structure as well as answer some of the story’s bigger questions – such as “what is the twist?” It was super important to us that the story needed to be built on a very solid backstory foundation so everything in the world felt true to that world and made sense. We wanted to make a world with history that the player could poke and pick at and provide answers to any given place should they look there. As Matt’s contract came to an end we again sought a writing partner who could help us deliver the best story possible and as the fates would have it Susan O’Connor was available. Susan had worked on Bioshock, Tomb Raider, and many other celebrated titles so we were thrilled to have her join the team and help us complete our narrative vision.
 
The story structure in Torn follows the pendulum metaphor. When the player is exploring the mansion they have two primary activities;
 

  • Complete room puzzles to wake up the mansion’s exotic mechanisms.
  • Collect memory Specks and deliver them back to the trapped fluid mind.

 
This broke the narrative into two distinct cycles – one of puzzle solving in the mansion and then the reward phase of returning those memories to see what the fluid character could now remember to push the plot forward in the other realm. This pendulum-like swing between the realms felt like it had a good tempo and it’s one of the creative risks we took that I’m most proud of.
 
To keep the player company in the real world of the mansion, the Speck characters could talk. We thought of them as tiny mansion docents or room butlers. These Specks could tell the player the history of the mansion and its devices and rooms as the player organically explored the building but also serve as assistants and puzzle helpers should the player become stuck. They also offered a chance to add some light humor to the game world which we felt was a good match to the Mansion’s somber presence.

In addition to these measures, we also created what we called “memory constellations”. During the player’s visits with the fluid character, he would tell the player about things he remembered after receiving a dose of memory Specks that the player had collected mansion side. To make these story moments more compelling, we employed Tiltbrush illustrations. As the fluid character would tell the player things he remembered the player would see these recollections appear in the heavens to illuminate the story in a colorful and delightful way. This also greatly helped in keeping players engaged during the core story delivery as they never quite know what to expect during each visit that they have with the fluid character.

Why do you think mysterious old houses continue to intrigue us and how did you work to keep the setting fresh?
 
Old buildings hide stories and human beings are curious creatures so the two go together very well. To put a lens over this itch and make our mansion unique we also played with the idea of slapdash mechanical intrusion. In Torn’s story, the player is told that the mansion is the home of an eccentric couple who conducted weird experiments into the mind. The mansion is a container that they worked inside of if you will. Having said that, the inventor has no qualms about knocking walls down to feed oversized cables through and generally connect all of the strange apparatus together. It’s a fusion of building and technology such as one sees with trees and temples in Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

We wanted these mechanical intrusions to be objects of curiosity and to look purposeful but not necessarily menacing. The term we came up with to describe this tone was “Wonk”, so we would ask the question “How would Willy Wonka build this device?” We wanted these devices to feel friendly but also mysterious. To facilitate the wide variety of Wonk installations throughout the mansion we created a Wonk part set that could be used to build all kinds of strange yet form family familiar objects.

In addition to this, our Principal Artist Chip Patterson also used to be a professional architect so his structural sensibility helps our mansion feel grounded in real-world building practicality. It’s kind of this unseen thing that you just feel in the Mansion’s DNA.

Did you have prior experience with Unreal Engine, and why did you choose to use it for Torn?
 
Everyone on the team had used Unreal Engine before, and I had used Unreal Engine heavily on Stranglehold. For us, Unreal was a great solution as it has powerful performance optimization tools that we knew we would need to make world-class VR visuals performant. The source control integration and UI made the tool easy to use and helped us spend more time making great content without being bogged down.
 
The other big win with us for Unreal was NVIDIA’s Flex and Gameworks integrations which allowed us to hit the ground running during our discovery phase.
 
Can you tell us about a favorite tool or feature of Unreal Engine 4 and how it has aided development?
 
The Blueprint system allowed non-programmers to create interactive content easily and this was important to us as Torn only had one programmer (Thanks, Alex)! By leveraging the Blueprint system we were able to audition many ideas before committing full production resources. It also had the side benefit that it allowed us to create complex instanced objects with cooked in logic that could be copied and placed around the game world quickly and then linked to the puzzles.
  
VR gaming is still in its infancy. What do you envision for the future?
 
There’s no doubt in my mind that VR is a new paradigm for man-machine interaction. The application of VR in education and industry has already proven to be strong and compelling. VR enables a new type of interaction that I call ‘spatial comprehension’. Engineers and scientists can now look at medical or scientific data in a way that’s never been possible before, is intuitive and adds great immediate value. Hopefully, the future will give us more affordable and lighter, more comfortable headsets with less setup fuss than we see in today’s rigs. The more we can decrease friction in setting up a space for VR by employing inside out vs outside in tracking the closer we’ll be to making VR truly portable and convenient for everyone.
 
Where can people go to keep up with the development of Torn?
 
To keep up with Torn news please visit https://www.tornvr.com/

Dive Head First into the Wacky World of Iguanabee’s Headsnatchers

We’ve all seen them, those videos of crazy Japanese game shows making their players do the wackiest of tasks. Taking inspiration from such shows as Takeshi’s Castle, MXC, and AKBingo!, Chilean indie developer Inguanabee decided to make a video game based on the quirky Japanese variety show concept. 

In Headsnatchers you certainly won’t find anything as crazy (or as gross!) as the AKBingo! ‘Blowing Cockroach’ game, but you’ll find there are 25 unique arenas that allow you to do everything from using your opponent’s heads as a bowling balls to flushing their noggins down a toilet. An absolute riot to play with your friends and vividly brought to life with Unreal Engine 4.

Released into Early Access on July 24, you can hit up Steam to take a look for yourself. In the meantime, we had a chance to interview Daniel Winkler, Co-founder of Iguanabee. The Headsnatchers Lead Programmer discusses everything from inspiration to his most effective and favorite tools within the Unreal Engine 4 suite.

IguanaBee is a small but talented indie studio based out of Chile. Tell us what brought the team together and what you hope to achieve as you develop your games.

We’re hungry to make unique games. That’s the formula that brought us together. In spite of the inherent difficulties of being an indie dev team coming from a Latin country like Chile, we have been working hard and have a huge passion to deliver amazing experiences to our players. We seek to push the limits of our talents and skills with every game we make.
 
Headsnatchers appears to be strongly inspired by Japanese game shows. What can you tell us about this inspiration? Were there any shows particularly inspiring to you?

In recent years we have been traveling to Japan and we love the country. That inspired us to mix Japanese culture into our games. Indeed, Japanese game and variety shows have been a source of great inspiration for Headsnatchers, especially in terms of the ridiculous tasks they need to perform.

Keeping with this Japanese game-show inspiration, how well do you feel this translated into video game form?

Our main goal was to create a game that would be fun for four players. Japanese game shows are the epitome of fun, and taking inspiration from them opened up a lot of possibilities to create all kinds of crazy situations.  
 
When creating so many varied arenas and games, which Unreal Engine 4 tool was the most useful to you?

Well, for the levels themselves, Sequencer was of great help letting our animators produce interesting in-game intros in a comfortable way. Also, for creating the 100+ unique heads the way we desired (with physical animations), the PhAT was an extreme help.
What was the creation process like when coming up with so many different games and arenas?

We follow Chef Gusteau’s (of Pixar’s Ratatouille!) philosophy in that “anyone can cook”. We have brainstorming sessions where anyone can come up with their own ideas on how to make the game funnier. In those sessions, we received suggestions of new levels and then we work into shaping them into the form you end up playing. Even during the development, if someone comes up with an interesting and fun idea on how to improve a level, we evaluate and potentially implement it.
 
With each game having its own set of rules and logic, did you have to start from scratch on each one or were you able to use some Unreal Engine 4 tricks?

Thanks to the Blueprints tool, we were able to reuse a lot of the actors and other classes we created. So, when making a new level, we always contemplate the already-created code and Blueprints, and navigate into reusing them in a smart way whenever possible. 

Did you have a favorite tool from Unreal Engine 4? What was it and why?

The Animation Blueprint is a very complete tool that helped us to focus on what is really important, while allowing us to improve the game by adding cool stuff using its capabilities. The Animation Blueprint is by far better than the animation tool of other engines. Also, the other very useful tool was the Data Tables. Data Tables are a great way to maintain structures in an ordered way, while making it very easy to tweak values without needing to recompile.
 
In the trailer, I noticed mention of winning prizes on the Headsnatchers Show! Is this a component of online play and what can you tell us about it?

The Headsnatchers Show is a local multiplayer game mode where you are part of a TV show with a host. There, the players compete to win a “car” or “what is inside the mystery box”. Of course, the mystery box allows you to unlock really fun in-game content.

Headsnatchers has released into Early Access, meaning that there’s more on the way before you hit that 1.0 mark. What else do you have in store for players who jump into the game?

We’re currently working on adding support to more and more levels for the online mode, and improving the game by using the feedback of the people playing it.

If you could offer any piece of advice to someone jumping into Unreal Engine 4 for the first time, what would it be?

Learn about the tools that Unreal Engine 4 provides. They are very complete and strong, so don’t try to reinvent the wheel!

Where can people go to stay on top of everything Headsnatchers and IguanaBee?

We can be found on Steam, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook and of course our official website, but the most direct communication can be through our Discord.

Holospark’s Earthfall Brings Innovation to the Co-op Shooter Genre

After being kicked into high gear with the release and subsequent rabid fan base of Left 4 Dead, the four-player co-op shooter genre has seen little in the way of new games over the past few years. Bursting onto the scene in Early Access in April of 2017, Earthfall hopes to recreate and innovate on the magic Valve delivered way back in 2008.

Taking place in the not-too-distant future of 2031, players will be tasked with defending the lush environments of the Pacific Northwest against a violent alien invasion. Perhaps not as mindless as they seem at first, the alien invaders won’t go down too easy, but Earthfall will provide players with the firepower they need to mount their offense. Using the power of Unreal Engine 4’s development suite, Holospark has created enemies that smartly adapt to not only each player but the team dynamic as a whole, creating an experience like no other.

Now, coming out of Early Access and launching on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, Earthfall is poised to fill that void created by Left 4 Dead’s long absence from the gaming scene. We recently took some time to chat with Holospark CEO, Russell Williams, as the growing developer filled us in on their thoughts about working with Unreal Engine 4 and protecting the human race from alien devastation.
 

Tell us a little bit about Holospark and how this highly experienced team came together?

Holospark is an independent video game developer in the Seattle area. We have two teams, one focusing on Earthfall, our four-player co-op shooter, and a smaller team working on VR projects.

Built from a core team of experienced developers that previously worked together we broke off looking to create something new and exciting on our own. After setting the studio up and working on some ideas, we decided we all loved co-op shooters and started building Earthfall in 2016.

Over the last two years, we have expanded to our current staff of 37. Many of these developers bring their extensive background working on dozens of projects including multiple award-winning titles. Holospark also has a great relationship with some of the local schools in the area allowing us to recruit an entirely new group of developers who are immensely talented and hungry to make an impact.

Aside from it being your own backyard, what is it about the Pacific Northwest that made it the ideal setting for your alien invasion story?

The Pacific Northwest is a gorgeous, moody environment perfect for spooky woods where aliens can come out at you from every turn. It feels both open and isolated at the same time, with small towns up in the Cascade Mountain Range that are perfect for desperate holdouts, alongside industrial mining operations and wood mills for varied locales.

For us, the Pacific Northwest is iconic and the visuals immediately root you in a distinct, recognizable, mysterious world.

Speaking of the Pacific Northwest, it is a very beautiful and lush environment, to say the least. Were there any specific tools in Unreal Engine 4 that really benefited the team in creating this stunning backdrop?

The landscape and foliage systems were both used extensively in the creation of our levels. The landscape system has many features that allowed us a lot of flexibility in the creation and editing of our terrain mesh. In some cases, we sculpted terrain by hand, while in other cases, we used a third party software to create height maps. In either case, they were easily modified with the sculpting tools provided if a revision was necessary. This flexibility also extended to the painting of materials on the landscape.  
 
The foliage system was another tool with immense flexibility. It allowed us to quickly place large amounts of foliage with ease but also provided functionality that allowed us to tweak individual foliage assets when needed. Again, as revisions were needed in the development process, the tool allowed us to replace assets that are used across a map with a few easy steps.
 
In addition to providing a great workflow, both of these systems provided us with many avenues for optimizing our performance. The landscape tools offer ways to adjust LOD’ing the entire landscape or portions of it. The foliage tool provides a variety of tools to aid in optimization including distance culling by foliage type.
 
These systems were invaluable to our process, and definitely made our lives easier!

Inevitably, Earthfall is going to see some comparisons to the Left 4 Dead series. How did you use that inspiration and twist it around to make Earthfall truly unique?

First, we started this project because we were huge fans of Left 4 Dead, so we had a very strong vision in mind when we started designing the game. But when you go back and play Left 4 Dead, it’s missing 10 years of innovation in the shooter genre! So we were more guided by our memories of Left 4 Dead than the actual game. The result of that is something that is completely new and yet instantly recognizable.

Beyond the basic gameplay, we also changed the setting, moving from a present-day zombie outbreak to an alien invasion in 2031. We did this because we’re hoping to be evolving Earthfall into the future, and for that, we needed an enemy to evolve with it. While the aliens start as ravenous, mindless creatures, you’ll find out there’s more to them as you play, and we’re looking forward to telling that story as we introduce new aliens for you to fight, and new weapons to fight them with. 

Earthfall is a high-intensity action game, but if you keep your eyes open, you’ll see clues in the environments as to what’s coming in the game, and as you unlock lore items in the game, you’ll uncover the backstory of the world and the aliens.

Finally, there are lots of moments when the players are just trying to hold out and survive, and we wanted to give them some interesting tools to define and control the battlefield. Being set in the future, we have auto-turrets that can watch your six, mounted guns you can man to mow down the enemy, and deployable fences to barricade off areas and channel the aliens into kill zones. You can even upgrade the fences with propane tanks to make flaming death traps, or arc grenades to electrify them.

The alien enemies in the game are dynamically generated but how much of their behavior dynamically adapts to players’ play patterns?

We have a number of ways that the AIs modify their behavior to encourage teamwork and keep players engaged. For example, some of the AIs will intentionally focus on a player who’s straying from the group, so if you’re a lone wolf, you’ll want to keep alert! Others will focus on players that haven’t had much action in a while. Some AIs will attack a target with singular determination while others can be drawn away by a teammate. The AIs will change their aggression depending on the overall group’s progress, so if the group is tearing through a level with guns blazing, they’ll quickly draw the attention of nearby enemies. On the other hand, if a group is moving very slowly, some of the AIs might be dispatched to hunt the group and prod them along. This all ties back into the AI Director, which is constantly striving to create a steady ebb and flow of intensity for the group. 

Continuing with the enemies, not only are they terrifying to look at, they come at you in absolutely insane numbers. How did Unreal Engine 4 help you bring these aliens to life exactly how you wanted them to be?

Unreal Engine 4 comes with a number of built-in systems that we were able to leverage to get things running at a high level very quickly. This allowed us to focus on the actual AI and gameplay very early on. Blueprints, in particular, were invaluable for prototyping. 

We make extensive use of the built-in navigation system. This includes dynamic navigation mesh modification, path-finding, support for multiple agents, path filtering, and even AI movement. For the actual AI logic, we make use of Unreal’s perception, behavior tree, and Environment Query systems. These systems tie into very powerful debugging tools such as the visual debugger and gameplay debugger. This was a huge help in refining AI behavior and identifying and fixing issues that arose. We were then able to build on these systems and tools to deliver game-specific functionality.  

For animation, we use a combination of animation Blueprints and montages. These tools help us bridge the gap between raw animation and the AI system to deliver a compelling performance.

Earthfall has a diverse cast of characters. What brought these four together and how important was it to Holospark to bring that diversity to the table?

When we started thinking about our characters, we started off by thinking about Seattle archetypes and building our characters from there. We didn’t start off to make a statement as much as we were focused on telling a great story with memorable characters. It’ll be nice when the day comes that having different races and ethnicities isn’t exceptional and that people view the story on its own merits.

3D printed weapons! While that alone is a pretty fun mechanic, how do you develop that in-game and are there any surprises awaiting players as they advance through the campaign?

From the beginning, we knew that we wanted to set the game in the future so we could give new capabilities to the players, and the 3D printer was a natural fit. It gives us some natural objectives in the game world (“get the power back on to get the printer working to print those sweet weapons!”) and good checkpoints to resupply your weapons.

In the game, you’re exposed to the printers as just an expected part of the world, but you’ll find some info into why they work the way they do. We’re looking forward to expanding their operation in the future!

What advice you would give as experienced developers to someone who is in the beginning stages of learning Unreal Engine?

Unreal is amazingly accessible. First of all, it’s free, so there’s no cost barrier to jumping in and getting started! Second, it comes with great tutorials that take you through the basics, and sample games that will really show you how everything works in a functional and practical manner. Beyond what comes with the engine, there’s a staggering amount of information on the web to help you learn Unreal Engine. With so many developers using the engine, there are countless “how to” videos on Youtube on almost every aspect of the engine and tons of in-depth articles to read on sites like 80.lvl. It has never been easier to jump into game development.

Where are all the places people can go to learn more about Earthfall?

You can go to www.earthfall.com, or follow us on Twitter and Facebook to stay up to date!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Unreal Engine caught up with Holospark during E3 2018 to learn more about Earthfall. You can watch the video interview below.

 

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Aims to Stand Out from Castlevania in a Big Way

When you have the weight of a beloved and successful franchise sitting on your shoulders, it can be tough to get out from under it. In the case of legendary game designer Koji Igarashi, he holds the hopes and dreams of millions of Castlevania fans in his hands. It’s a responsibility he doesn’t take lightly and when he launched the Kickstarter campaign for Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night he knew the fans would come running.

Starting with a modest $500,000 goal, Bloodstained went on to smash said goal to the tune of $5,545,991. Fans were hungry to see what a fresh franchise could be when it came from the mind of someone they already respected so deeply. Of course, along with that 5.5 million dollars came the heavy responsibility of delivering on the promises. This fact, for better or for worse, wasn’t lost on Igarashi-san as he pushed forward with Bloodstained’s development.

As we inch ever nearer to the release of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, rest assured that every effort has been taken to please backers and fans. We chatted with Igarashi-san about the ways in which he used Unreal Engine 4 to bring Bloodstained to life and the advice he would offer to other developers who are considering crowdfunding for their games. 
 

Inevitably fans are going to draw lines between Bloodstained and your work with Castlevania. How does Bloodstained differ from the Castlevania games that you’ve already made?

My concept is to keep the same gameplay style but create a complete renewal of an old idea. The lore, the concept, and the game system will be very different while maintaining the same gameplay experience.

You didn’t come to the table alone, bringing legendary composer Michiru Yamane along for the ride. Known for composing music in not only the Castlevania series but also contributing to Skullgirls, Super Smash Bros. (Wii U) and even DDR, how did Michiru’s experience help shape the direction of the game? 

First of all, having Michiru-san join the team really brings the gothic feel to the game. The tracks are high quality and this time, we have live strings to go with it. At first, I wasn’t too sure about using an actual orchestra, but when I heard it in person it was amazing. I felt goosebumps all over me. 

Considering the variety of features we see in Metroidvania games, is there a mechanic or feature(s) that’s wholly different in Bloodstained? Or does Bloodstained double down on any specific feature and make it better?

The theme of Bloodstained is alchemy so there are a lot of features that resonate with it – transmutation, cooking, strengthening your character and more. The use of “shards” make the player stronger and is a feature that is specific to Bloodstained. There are many more features that are wholly new to the game.

What difficulties did you run into trying to make this its own product separate from Castlevania? Did you find yourself falling into any old tropes from that series and have to correct course?

The story and the setting of the game was the most challenging part. It was especially difficult to come up with the protagonist, Miriam, whose dark past was very difficult to differentiate with that of the older characters from the series. The Castlevania series has a lore that was built and accumulated over the years which has an uncomplicated premise, while the deeper part of the story is told by creating a connection with the previous title. With a fresh title like Bloodstained, the difficult part is explaining the setting and having people understand the concept. 

How did crowdfunding change the development process? What do other developers looking at this method need to know?

The largest difference is that there was so much information and materials necessary before the development even started. Normally, the promotion starts few months before the game’s release. When we show these things too soon, we end up not having enough exciting features to show by the time the game releases. I would love to show a lot more to the game’s backers, but it’s also a dilemma when too much content could hurt the charm of playing the game when it releases.

Keeping with crowdfunding, every single stretch goal was met as Bloodstained far surpassed initial expectations. Do you feel an extra level of responsibility knowing that so many people put their faith in the game? Has that been a source of inspiration or even stress?

Ever since being put in charge of a popular franchise with one of the most hardcore fan bases around, the pressure that comes with it has not really been any different. However, knowing that I have to keep in mind the stretch goals is quite stressful. Circumstances from when we set the stretch goals and the circumstances that we are currently in could drastically change, so there can sometime be concern about breaking those promises. 
 
Unreal Engine 4 is particularly known for its high level of quality in the 3D space. How did those same tools help you make such a gorgeous and compelling 2D game?

Although the gameplay style is 2D, the art assets are all in 3D. In terms of the visual appearance of the game, Unreal Engine 4 has really helped us. For us, we have been using the physics material and the built-in physics made it surprisingly simple to achieve the kind of look we were going for.
 
I always like to ask seasoned developers to pass on some of their knowledge to the eager new developers on the scene. If you could offer up a single piece of advice to someone taking on a game in Unreal Engine 4 what would that be?

With a basic knowledge of using Unreal Engine 4, it is very easy to create a mock of the game you’re trying to make and test it while building it. Although this seems simple, I would advise that not everything is as easy as it looks by solely relying on the engine. The developer must first and foremost pick a plan that is the best way to approach building a game by understanding the engine’s limitation and its advantages. Unreal Engine 4 is free and an open source engine. There are tons of resources that developers could study before starting a project without prior knowledge and workflow plan. I think it is important to keep a mindset of not being satisfied with only what we are given for granted.

Where are all the places people can go to keep up on Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night?
 

You can find the latest information on Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night through our Kickstarter update page and through the Discord community. An official game website will be created soon as well.