How White Paper Games’ The Occupation became one of the most innovative immersive sims

The Occupation is one of the most creative and inventive games to come out in modern memory. In the immersive sim, you play journalist Harvey Miller and are tasked to uncover the truth behind a deadly explosion. The prime suspect, Frenchman Alex Dubois, claims that he is innocent. The setting takes you to a fictional depiction of England in the 1980s, where a controversial Union Act has been drafted that will restrict freedoms and push out immigrants to ensure national security. While The Occupation takes place a few decades ago, developer White Paper Games, based in England, wanted to create a game that stoked a nuanced debate regarding hot-button issues the world is facing today. In their review, GameSpot noted how successful the developer was in achieving this goal when they wrote, “It may well be set in the 1980s, but the issues tackled feel all too relevant today. It’s a smart story that’s told with a deft, delicate touch.” What gives the game a nuanced feel for approaching such a contentious subject matter is the fact that the game is driven by a “fixed-time” system, which equates one minute of in-game time to one minute of real-world time. This presents innovative mechanics at the intersection of gameplay and narrative design to create something wholly special and unique. 

We interviewed White Paper Games’  Co-founder & Game Director Pete Bottomley, Art Director Oliver Farrell, Audio & Narrative Director Nathaniel-Jordon Apostol, and Platform Programmer Dave Smith, and they explain how they were able to create one of the most innovative and refreshing games in years.

When you’re trying to tread new ground with a new narrative and gameplay mechanic, some challenges are bound to occur. On designing The Occupation around its fixed-timed element, Co-founder & Game Director Pete Bottomley elaborated, “The way we approached it was first to lay down the core beats of the game; this can take a simple form of sticky notes on a wall. Once we had a narrative structure, we could plan the environments around what the artist’s intention was. We then went quite low-level and planned the moment-to-moment gameplay: what our approach was and what a gameplay scenario should look like,” he added, “With The Occupation, we knew we wanted to be tactile with lots of in-world interaction and have gameplay scenarios that could be solved with different approaches (akin to the immersive-sim genre). Once you know these, it’s an on-going back and forth between mid-level design (player objectives per area) and the narrative beats.” 

One of the challenges that arises from giving players infinite freedom to explore within a restricted time limit is that you often won’t know how players will progress through the narrative. The game director elaborates, “Sometimes when telling a story, it’s just not clear to the player what is going on or they’re distracted with their gameplay objective, so they need to be intrinsically linked, but open enough for playtesting and integration when changes need to be made.” 

The fact that The Occupation features one-to-one fixed-timed gameplay is heightened by the fact that players are free to stealthily sneak into restricted areas and investigate as aggressively as they would like. Coupled with the fact that time is a finite resource, the game features non-linear branching pathways that affect the course of the story. “Every action you take affects the way the game’s narrative plays out,” Audio & Narrative Director Nathaniel-Jordon Apostol stated, adding “There are finite decisions you can make at key points that will give you different endings to the game.” Injecting a degree of plausibility to the game, Apostol added, “However, just because you ‘decided’ to do something doesn’t mean you’ll ‘succeed’ in doing it. Our endings are results of your gameplay actions as opposed to black-and-white successes or failures.” Considering White Paper Games created characters with complex perspectives, the narrative director elaborated on the depth that players might experience playing the game, “The thing that excites me is that there are optional moments in the world that we’ve built that (if experienced) will shape the way you think about the characters or the game world as a whole. If you miss them altogether then you may feel completely differently about the narrative paths.”

While the game can progress in a multitude of ways, which dramatically heightens the game’s replayability, Bottomley asserted that they also designed the experience to be satisfying the first time through. “I’m personally the type of player that likes to explore a world, find out about the people who live there and figure out exactly what happened. I’ll play through a story and whatever the outcome, I feel as though that reflected my journey through the game.” The studio did want to satiate the needs of players who wanted to dive back in to get a more complete experience, however, “There are people on the team that will pick through every small deal and make different choices on multiple playthroughs, and they’ll get reward from that,” Bottomley added. GameSpot echoed how rewarding it was to play the game multiple times, “After finishing it a second time, I had a good handle on the major events of this bureaucratic thriller, but it wasn’t until I’d played all the way through for a third time–and replayed individual sections several times over–that I felt confident I understood the motivations of the main characters. Even now, I’m contemplating a fourth go in an effort to figure out the smaller details and fathom just how deep the conspiracy goes.” 

While White Paper Games noted that they were inspired by stealth games like Dishonored, unlike Arkane Studios’ action game, there are no weapons or even a health bar in The Occupation. So how did White Paper Games handle making stealth a core and compelling component of gameplay? They leaned on the adage that “time is money.” Bottomley elaborates, “Time is our health bar,” he added, “In a fixed-time investigation, you’re working against the clock to find as much information as you can. You won’t be able to follow every thread and all the small narratives the world has, so it’s up to you to select what you think is the most interesting.” When players get caught snooping around in the game, a security guard effectively puts them in detention. This subtracts precious time players have to unearth clues to progress the narrative in a more satisfying light. Bottomley adds, “It’s amazing to see how much pressure a loss of time can have, which, we believe is as equally exciting and intense as losing health in a shooter.” PC Gamer praised The Occupation’s effectiveness here in their review, stating, “It creates a tension I haven’t seen in the genre before, and makes every second—every agonising moment spent waiting for an incoming fax to screech into an out-of-bounds office—feel vital.”

To keep the stealth and the actions of NPCs unpredictable, dynamic, yet believable, White Paper Games spent considerable time developing a robust AI. Bottomley stated, “The main divide in our AI design comes from scripted events and dynamic (reactive to player actions) events. Our scripted events hold the ‘route’ of the characters in the world. This takes the form of their daily tasks they need to complete. It provides the main foundation for our believable AI. Layered on top of these are dynamic events, which can be triggered to pull them out of their routine.” Providing an example, he continued, “Maybe they take too many coffee breaks and then need the toilet. A non-player facing stat will be counting all these small actions behind the scenes, which then pulls the NPC out of their routined task and tells them to go and use the toilet. More examples of this can be found in our guard AI who are monitoring the player’s actions and will move towards doors being left open or alarms sounding. We have stats that we monitor such as when they last saw the player, or where in the world the player currently is even down to how pressured they should make the player feel, which all help bring the world to life in a believable way.” To the team, it was important to make the NPCs feel like real, believable individuals. Bottomley adds, “We think that giving the AI scripted behaviours and a list of tasks to complete replicates how each of us approach our days: we all have a list of things we want to achieve in a day; however, dynamic events happen around us, maybe we need to take a break from our work, or use the restroom, or perhaps an urgent task comes out of nowhere, which requires our attention. Replicating these types of behaviors in the game world has hopefully lead to a world that feels alive with people going about their day.” 

The Occupation primarily takes place in a fictional UK city called Turing in 1987. In creating the setting, White Paper Games, who’s based in Manchester, got inspiration from close to home. Bottomley stated, “Whenever you’re setting out to create something, you want to put your life experiences and culture into everything you do. We can’t help but be inspired by the city around us. As you walk through most UK cities, you’ll see shop fronts, and a very modern look; however, if you raise your eye-line and look up, you’ll see incredible, towering architecture that is uniquely detailed and very beautiful. We felt the city was losing some of those aspects and we wanted to recreate what a city would have looked like in the 80’s. We’re also incredibly lucky as the pop culture around Manchester and Liverpool in the 1980’s was (and still is) world famous.”

On establishing the time period, Bottomley elaborated, “Whenever we’re concepting a game, we’re not necessarily looking for a ‘market opportunity’ or what we think might be successful. Although these factors are obviously incredibly important to a small studio, we can refine those decisions once we have our core values set. Our approach, instead, is to ask each area of development, ‘What do you want to achieve with our next project?’ Our design core pillar, for example, was something system-driven, which mixed our narrative-driven ‘walking-sim’ roots with the systems approach of an immersive sim. With this approach, it was definitely an art & audio pillar that really set the period. Our Art Director, Oliver Farrell, wanted to create a northern-UK city and our Audio Director, Nathaniel Apostol, wanted lots of in-world SFX and 80’s pop music (which is all written and recorded by Nathaniel) and not to rely as heavily on a scripted soundtrack throughout the experience. As a team, we like to give our games a place and time and allow them to fit inside the same universe. We pick a key event and date to base the game around.”

Visually, The Occupation features beautiful graphics that are stylized, yet are realistic enough to be grounded in reality. A part of what makes the game feel tangible is the large government building players must sneak through to uncover the mysteries behind the narrative. In designing the look and world of the game, Art Director Oliver Farrell stated, “With The Occupation, all of the inspiration we needed was right outside our studio door. As a team, we have spent many years in Manchester and being so familiar with the city has allowed us to create a game world that hopefully feels rooted in North West England. Everything from the building materials used to the architecture, it all has been inspired by the cities of Manchester and Liverpool.” He added, “On a technical level, creating a large circular building for the player to explore in a four-hour period was definitely a challenge! …But it was a great challenge, and I think it’s added to the unique style of the game. You don’t often see larged curved architecture in a game world so I hope it helps ground the foundations of a northern city in The Occupation. As Pete mentioned before, there’s a massive back and forth between the narrative beats and game design, which has a big impact on the level design — making environments harder to lock down. A way we planned for this in advance was to create each of the key gameplay areas as four-story buildings (even if we only ended up using two or three). As we knew we wanted ‘stealth’ elements, we knew this would lead to tight crawl spaces and vents. To account for this in the level design, we left a one metre gap between floors (each floor is between four and five metres high) to accomodate vents and crawl spaces, which may need to be iterated on as we play-tested. It meant we could lock down the overall architectural space of the building and keep it looking believable whilst giving us the flexibility to make level adjustments.” In their review, Polygon noted the fruits of White Paper Games’ efforts here when they stated “a lot of work went into building the world for me to explore.”

The fact that the studio was able to innovate and achieve all of this with just a core team of nine people is astounding. Bottomley asserted that there was no way the team could have done it without the help of Unreal Engine 4, “We’re a design-and-art-driven studio. We’re not really a studio of engineers and programmers (at least for our core gameplay systems). We need visual tools that we can iterate quickly with and that are simple enough for designers and artists to access. You’ve probably read that response from many UE development teams, but there’s no way we could have created a game like The Occupation with any other tool.”

Bottomley praised visual-scripting system Blueprints, in particular, for helping them execute on their vision, “We actually do a lot of our gameplay prototyping (and even final code) in Blueprints. The main benefits for us is the access to the graph in UMG, Blueprints behaviour tree tasks, decorators & services, and the ability to create components in C++ (or Blueprints, but we mostly do this in C++) to give designers access to powerful behaviour. All of these elements allow us to work in a very modular way.” 

Platform programmer Dave Smith appreciated how they had access to Unreal Engine 4’s source code, “UE4 is built to be multi-purpose, but the more you tread off the beaten path, the more likely it is that you’ll need to jump in there and make some changes of your own. Epic’s point releases are great, but being able to make engine changes immediately when necessary is invaluable.”

The culmination of all of White Paper Games efforts to make an innovative thriller are evident with Polygon concluding in their review, “The game can be bleak, and the stakes are high, but there’s still a pleasure to be had at figuring out a system and carefully dismantling it via subterfuge, cleverness, and patience.” 

The Occupation is now available. For more information on the game, visit www.occupation-game.com.

If you’re interested in creating your own game, you can download and explore Unreal Engine 4 for free today.

The winners of the 2019 Winter #ue4jam are…

It may be cold in parts of the world, but the participants of the 2019 Winter #ue4jam were on fire. The Unreal community created many great titles amongst their 120 submissions and our team spent the week following the jam playing and scoring them. It’s a tough job, but nothing that the Unreal Engine community team can’t handle!

The announcement of the theme, “all’s fair in love and war,” kicked off the five-day event. In the days that followed, games emerged where players had to fight their partner to stay in bed, rescue princesses, and joust for all the love and glory. There were also cats; and cats with knifes; and cats in tanks. All these games go to show that there is no shortage of creativity and talent in our community.

And we all agree that cats equal love and, occasionally, war.

Play your way through all the games on the official Winter #ue4jam Itch.io page.

And the 2019 Winter #ue4jam winners are:

Finalists

Awesome Cats – Cats Love Tanks

Fresh Lemonade – Bachelor Brawl

Quantum Ape – One More Second

Special Category Winners

Friends and Foes: SquashyKnight – For The Queen!

The Tiny Award: Nocturnal Arts – Demolition Debby

Something, Something Reality: UrbanWolf – Lupin’s Baking Brawl

Congratulations, everyone!

We would like to extend our thanks to our generous sponsors for providing helpful resources and fun prizes to our jammers: Intel Software, Falcon Northwest, SideFX, DXRacer, Soundly, Assembla, GameTextures, and Crowdforge.io.

See us play through the winning games.

Thank you again, jammers! Keep an eye on @UnrealEngine for ongoing Unreal Engine updates and information about the next #ue4jam in May, where we’ll be mixing things up.

Dozens of games to be featured in the Unreal Engine booth at GDC 2019

Last year during GDC, Epic kicked off an all-new initiative designed to celebrate the global development community as teams from around the world converged inside a new, second booth to showcase their amazing work in Unreal Engine.

After three jam-packed days of demos, food, fun, and beer during last year’s show, we’re thrilled to let you know that we’re bringing this dedicated games booth back at GDC 2019.

Check out dozens of games in our booth at Moscone South #327 throughout all show floor hours. From the amazing Kingdom Hearts III by Square Enix to the whimsical Kine by solo indie developer Gwen Frey, we’ll be featuring a fantastic mix of teams and titles across all genres and platforms. Of course, Unreal Engine tools demos will still be featured in our neighboring booth at Moscone South #349.

Today we’re announcing a few of the titles that will be in our games booth, but we’ll be updating this post in the coming weeks to reveal even more! Here are just a few of the games you’ll be able to get your hands on inside our booth at GDC 2019:

A Fisherman’s Tale 

Innerspace VR | Vertigo Games
Bend and twist reality in A Fisherman’s Tale, the VR puzzle adventure game in which being turned upside down and inside out is not merely a play on words.

ACE COMBAT 7: SKIES UNKNOWN 

BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment America Inc
Putting gamers in the cockpit of the most advanced war planes ever developed, ACE COMBAT 7: SKIES UNKNOWN delivers the fiercest air combat experience ever created through photorealistic visuals, intense dog-fighting action, a multitude of authentic and futuristic aircraft to fly, an immersive storyline, and even virtual reality!

Assetto Corsa Competizione

Kunos Simulazioni | 505 Games
Assetto Corsa Competizione is the new official Blancpain GT Series game. Thanks to the extraordinary quality of simulation, you can experience the real atmosphere of the FIA ​​GT3 homologated championship, competing against official drivers, teams, cars and circuits.

Close to the Sun

Storm in a Teacup | Wired Productions
Close to the Sun is a horror game that takes place at the end of the 19th century on a mysterious ship complex created by Nikola Tesla for the sake of knowledge. In this alternative version of history, his scientific breakthroughs have already had a major impact on the world.

You’re Rose, a young journalist looking for your sister and, as you approach this enormous and glorious complex for the first time, you quickly realize that something there has definitely gone wrong…

Daemon X Machina

Marvelous Inc | Nintendo
Daemon X Machina is a brand-new, fast-paced mech action game from Kenichiro Tsukuda that is coming to Nintendo Switch. Take your Arsenal, a fully customizable powered suit, out for an array of missions to surmount the enemy at all costs. Choose and equip your Arsenal with a multitude of weapons, obtain more from downed enemy Arsenals, and swap them on the fly to suit your strategy in the face of ever-changing threats.

DAUNTLESS

PHOENIX LABS 
Battle for survival at the edge of the world. As a Slayer, it’s up to you to hunt down the boss-sized Behemoths that are devouring the land. Team up with millions of players as you master challenging co-op battles, craft deadly weapons and powerful armor, and forge your legend as a Slayer of Ramsgate.

Dauntless is a free-to-play online action RPG from Phoenix Labs. Look forward to regular updates, seasonal events, new Behemoths, and more in a rich, evolving world.
 

DRAGON HOUND

NEXON 
Mount up and traverse through a vast landscape to slay lesser creatures and gargantuan dragons in the action RPG, Dragonhound. Player armaments range from bows and small firearms to heavy weaponry and mounted cannons that can pierce and pulverize the dragons’ thick hides. Gear up at the Weimaochi, a mobile stronghold and player hub, and prepare for the next thrill of the hunt!

Farm Folks

Overgrown | Crytivo
After washing ashore on Softshoal Island, you are given a chance at a new life. A plot of land awaits your green thumb to transform it into a booming farm, and a new world beckons you to explore its secrets.

Farm Folks offers a delightful mix of RPG and farming mechanics, giving you the freedom to get lost in the world while you build a farm from the ground up. There are many friends to be made, many crops and animals to tend, and a whole island to discover.

HEADSNATCHERS

IGUANABEE | ICEBERG INTERACTIVE
Hold onto your head with Headsnatchers, a stupidly hectic up-to-4-player local and online multiplayer party-game where you snatch your friends’ heads to come out victorious. Because, let’s face it, you’ll do anything to win.

Industries of Titan

Brace Yourself Games
Create a sprawling industrial city. Compete with the other Great Houses of Titan for resources, territory, and power. Do battle with ships, technology, influence, or the sheer productive power of your factories. Stake your claim to the Industries of Titan in this innovative sim/strategy game! 

Jump Force

BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment America Inc
For the first time ever, the most famous Manga heroes are thrown into a whole new battleground: our world. Uniting to fight the most dangerous threat, the Jump Force will bear the fate of the entire human kind.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the famous Weekly Jump Magazine, Jump Force is also making the most of latest technologies to bring characters to life in a never-seen-before realistic design.

Kine

Gwen Frey | Chump Squad
Kine is a 3D puzzle game about three whimsical machines that aspire to be musicians. Embark across a theatrically-rendered cityscape by solving increasingly difficult 3D puzzles. Guide Euler, Quat, and Roo as they struggle to form a band and find their big break! Learn more about Gwen and the game by watching this Unreal Engine livestream.

Kingdom Hearts III

SQUARE ENIX
KINGDOM HEARTS III tells the story of the power of friendship as Sora and his friends embark on a perilous adventure. Set in a vast array of Disney and Pixar worlds, KINGDOM HEARTS follows the journey of Sora, a young boy and unknowing heir to a spectacular power. Sora is joined by Donald Duck and Goofy to stop an evil force known as the Heartless from invading and overtaking the universe.

Through the power of friendship, Sora, Donald and Goofy unite with iconic Disney-Pixar characters old and new to overcome tremendous challenges and persevere against the darkness threatening their worlds.

LAST OASIS

Donkey Crew
Keep moving, the world is dying in the Nomadic Survival MMO Last Oasis. Build walking mobile bases and travel to new lands. Create clans and fight for territory. Resources deplete fast, so take your sword and scavenge, pirate, and trade to stay alive.

Morphies Law

Cosmoscope GmbH
Morphies Law is a robot morphology-driven 3D shooter with a simple basic law: each weapon hit transfers mass from the victim’s damaged limb (making it shrink) to the corresponding limb of the attacker (making it grow).

MUTANT YEAR ZERO: ROAD TO EDEN

The Bearded Ladies | FUNCOM
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a tactical adventure game combining the turn-based combat of XCOM with story, exploration, stealth, and strategy. Take control of a team of Mutants navigating a post-human Earth.
 

Omen of Sorrow

AOne Games | SOEDESCO
Omen of Sorrow is a classic 2D, four-button fighting game with a cast of characters inspired by classical horror, fantasy and mythology, and a battle system designed from the ground up to leverage player skill, rather than stats or random chance. Omen of Sorrow features deep combat mechanics that favor movement and spacing over tight execution to provide an engaging experience for pros and newcomers alike!

Learn more about the development of Omen of Sorrow in this Unreal Engine interview.

Remnant: From the Ashes

Gunfire Games | Perfect World Entertainment
Remnant: From the Ashes is a third-person survival action shooter set in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by monstrous creatures. As one of the last remnants of humanity, you’ll set out alone or alongside up to two other players to face down hordes of deadly enemies and epic bosses, and try to carve a foothold, rebuild, and then retake what was lost.

SPELLBREAK

PROLETARIAT 
Spellbreak is a new battle royale RPG featuring epic magic combat. Weave spectacular spell combinations and craft strategic builds in your quest for survival. Learn more about the project in this Unreal Engine developer interview.

THE CYCLE

YAGER
The Cycle is a competitive quest shooter, from the makers of Spec Ops: The Line. On Fortuna III you compete against other Prospectors or collaborate with them to claim as much resources as possible and escape before the planet crushes the life out of you.

The Sojourn

Shifting Tides | Iceberg Interactive
The Sojourn is a thought-provoking first-person puzzle game in which you traverse the parallel worlds of light and darkness in search of answers to the nature of reality.

Torchlight Frontiers

Echtra Games | Perfect World Entertainment
Torchlight Frontiers combines the heart of the beloved Torchlight series with a shared, persistent, and dynamically-generated world. In true Torchlight style, players will team up with friends and devoted pets to hack and slash their way through a vibrant world, discover ancient ruins of lost civilizations, and brave dungeons filled with dangerous creatures, deadly bosses, and of course, loads of loot!

TROVER SAVES THE UNIVERSE

SQUANCH GAMES
In Trover Saves the Universe, your dogs have been dognapped by a beaked lunatic who stuffed them into his eye holes and is using their life essence to destroy the universe. Does that make any sense? You’ve partnered with Trover, a little purple eye hole monster to save them. Find power babies and plug them into his eye holes so that he can absorb their power, track down Glorkon, and save your dogs (and the Universe).

But that’s not all… Check back here soon as we announce additional titles for the booth and be sure to follow up on Twitter and Facebook for all of the latest on GDC 2019. If you’d like to receive email updates about our GDC 2019 plans and announcements, you can sign up here.

Spellbreak is a unique battle royale game that combines magic, roguelike, and RPG elements

It’s impossible to deny the explosive growth of battle royale games over the past few years. Capturing the hearts of gamers worldwide, the frantic action of last-man-standing mayhem has dominated the landscape for several months. While we’ve seen many games join the excitement over the past year or so, not many have sought to truly break the mold, but Spellbreak is aiming to do just that… with magic.

Currently in development by an experienced team from Proletariat Inc, Spellbreak is a visually stunning escape into a world filled with battlemages, spells, and RPG-style gameplay. Brought to life with Unreal Engine 4, its cel-shaded aesthetic is already gorgeous even in its early pre-alpha state. Following along on the studio’s mission to put “Players First,” Proletariat shakes things up by flying in the face of the usual battle royale conventions and adding a twist that no other battle royale game has done yet. Blending together RPG and roguelike mechanics, Proletariat is working towards an experience that balances skill, strategy, and depth that is fun for all comers.

We took the time to chat with three of the fine folks at this motivated studio as we discussed their desire to do something different, their mission to put players at the forefront of everything they do, and how they’ve leveraged Unreal Engine 4 to create a unique battle royale experience they can be truly proud of.
 

Proletariat started with just five people and has grown into a team of 30. Tell us a little bit about the studio’s history and its motto to always put “Players First.”

Design Director/Co-founder Jesse Kurlancheek: We started Proletariat a bit more than six years ago after our previous company unceremoniously shut down their Boston office. The founders had often talked about starting a company over the 15 years that we’ve known each other and worked together and there wasn’t going to be a better time! 

CTO/Co-founder Dan Ogles: We’d all previously worked on games that were meant to be played with your friends as social experiences (including MMOs, Rock Band/Guitar Hero, and local co-op games) and we saw how much value there was in building communities around the game, not just for the players, but for the game and the company as a whole, and we wanted to create around that core idea.

Art Director/Co-founder Damon Iannuzzelli: Putting players first isn’t just a motto either, we put it into practice daily with how we interact with them. We’re often just hanging out in Discord, answering questions on Twitch streams, or posting (very rough) works in progress. We’re trying to be as transparent with our community as possible in ways that previous companies would never allow. I think it fosters a sense of trust from the players and at the same time keeps us accountable to them.

 
Spellbreak isn’t the team’s first venture into the PC gaming sphere, but is most undoubtedly its most ambitious! Tell us what Spellbreak is all about!

Kurlancheek: It definitely is! Spellbreak is a face-paced game where players assume the role of battlemages who wield a wide variety of spells, sorceries, and magic items. They face off against other players in a ruined fantasy landscape, level up, and learn new skills and gather artifacts to become even more powerful over the course of a match. Players can use runes to fly, blink, become invisible, and more to travel quickly and fluidly to gain the upper hand in combat. Spells and sorceries can combine with one another in both helpful and harmful ways, such as setting a poison cloud alight with a fireball or shattering an incoming fireball with a boulder of your own. 

Ogles: We’ve been hard at work nailing not only the visceral feel of magic combat while keeping the skill cap high, but still being accessible to all sorts of gamers all while leaving players with plenty of meaty decisions to chew on both in and out of the game. 

Considering the history of the team, there must be a lot of people with Unreal Engine 4 experience. How did having that background help with the development of Spellbreak? 

Ogles: For most of the team, our first experience with Unreal Engine 4 was with our prior game, Streamline. When starting Spellbreak, we already had in-depth experience with Unreal Engine’s multiplayer systems, art pipeline, and rendering. This allowed us to get the game to a playable state very, very quickly and iterate on the design and mechanics. With most of the initial team having prior Unreal experience, combined with the great documentation and training programs out there for Unreal, we have been able to ramp up new artists and engineers very quickly.

The battle royale genre feels like it’s gotten very crowded in a relatively short amount of time. How do you think Spellbreak stands out from the crowd? Can you tell us more about how it crosses into other genres like RPGs and roguelikes?

Kurlancheek: Before I get to the bulk of your question, I think it’s worth mentioning that we don’t really think of battle royale as a “genre” per se, but rather as a game mode and even within the confines of that mode, game developers are really only starting to scratch the surface and it’s very exciting to see what’s being done right now.

That said, I think the biggest way Spellbreak differentiates itself from other games is the theme and moment-to-moment gameplay. Being a battlemage who can quickly and effortlessly traverse the large landscape and ruined castles while casting powerful spells (that aren’t just “magic guns”) through a dynamic and fast-paced combat system is a completely different experience than what the market has available right now. When you combine this with our striking art style, Spellbreak makes a great initial impression to set itself apart. 

On the RPG side, the team here has always loved RPGs and MOBAs and how they let you take a character from a weakling to a powerhouse over the course of the game. We wanted to see what happened if we condensed that (often long) experience down into a 15-minute bite-sized match. By leaning into the classic RPG idea of classes, players can come in, read a one-line description or look at a set of class skills and immediately have an idea of how that class might play. On top of that, we allow players to choose two classes to combine both of their skills and spells for crazy combinations and emergent gameplay unlike most RPGs.

As for the roguelike elements, we decided early on that it was more fun to be dealt a hand and have to adapt to the changing situations in each match. While you might enjoy playing a Pyromancer, if you find a Legendary Toxic Gauntlet at the start of a match, maybe it’s worth mixing up your plans this time. By forcing players to explore the variety of skills, they often find things that they wouldn’t have otherwise and this leads to some great in-game and post-game discussion about the highs and lows. Some games you can end up with the perfect build and equipment and become a god and it just feels so good when everything falls into place like that. That said, we’re definitely looking at some limited-time and competitive modes, which tamp down the random element and let players be in more/complete control of how their characters develop. 

Have there been any specific instances where Unreal Engine has made a traditionally difficult process a little bit easier to handle? 

Ogles: Unreal Engine’s multiplayer and replication technology is top-notch. It is more robust and easier to use than any other engine we’ve worked with in the past. Newer features like the Replication Graph make it even easier to support large worlds with many players on a single server while maintaining high server framerates and quick response times. Epic’s long history of running popular multiplayer games is clear, and it’s great to be able to leverage that.

Another engine feature we rely on heavily is the Hierarchical Level of Detail (HLOD) system. Being able to group together objects into single meshes, and automatically make progressively lower-detail meshes for far view distance, is essential to making a large open-world game run at high framerates. Without this system, the large and intricate architecture in Spellbreak wouldn’t be possible.

With a range of tools in its suite, Unreal Engine 4 has a lot to offer developers. If you had to pick your single favorite tool, what would it be?

Iannuzzelli: Hard to pick just one tool, since Unreal Engine is a giant package of integrated tools that are all connected to one another. Can I pick two? The Material Editor is so powerful and flexible for creating materials as simple and as complex as an artist can imagine. The node-based approach is intuitive for visual thinkers and gives artists very accurate “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” results. Spellbreak has a ton of very custom materials for the visual style, and I’m always impressed at how easy it is to keep pushing them further with a little trial/error in the Material Editor. 

I’d also like to mention the LOD tools. It seems simple, but I can recall creating lots of manual mesh LODs in the past and having a simple interface for reduction targets and screen size LOD switching makes me very happy.

Spellbreak’s animation and art aesthetic is absolutely stunning! Did the team know the look they were going for right from the start? How, if at all, has it changed over the course of development?

Iannuzzelli: We did not start this way! Early in development, the game was actually themed differently and we intended to create something more realistic looking. About eight weeks prior to GDC 2018, we completely rebooted the gameplay and decided that the supporting aesthetic needed to be much more unique. I’ve always wanted to make a game that felt a little bit like Japanese animation from the 80s/90s, especially as it pertains to the punchiness of the hand-drawn visual FX. The art team built a visual target demo that really sold the look of an “anime-ish” (or, “faux-nime?”) adventure set in an ominous world. We were very passionate about the direction and felt that it would also resonate strongly with a cross-section of game/animation fans.

Drawing from the team’s experience, what advice would you give someone looking to jump into indie development in 2019? What advice would you give to someone learning Unreal Engine 4 for the first time?

Iannuzzelli: Creatively, the biggest challenge is to craft something unique and differentiated while finding an audience. Communicate with your audience early and often. Abide your convictions but also humbly listen to your players. They have valuable feedback and insight that will help you make your game better.

Ogles: Building your game has never been easier! The engine/tools are free, the prototyping content is cheap or free, and there are so many people using Unreal Engine now that a quick Google search will answer most questions and roadblocks. It really is amazing how democratized game development has become. 

Once you achieve 1.0 and full release, what plans do you have to support Spellbreak post-release? 

Kurlancheek: A large portion of the studio’s DNA comes from running live MMOs, so a 1.0/full release is only the beginning for Spellbreak! Speaking for myself, the most exciting time working on a game is after it’s live and we get to see what players love and what they’re less fond of, and to work with them to improve the game and unveil new challenges for them. 

Ogles: More concretely, we’ve set up a very extensible system so adding content like new spells and sorceries, more classes, crazy items, special events, and so on is very easy, and we’re hoping to hit the ground running. As for larger features, we’re big fans of social systems like guilds to really let friends play together in a way that they currently can only do in MMOs. Furthermore, we’ve talked about and prototyped a variety of different game modes beyond the current battle royale. Spellbreak’s theme and gameplay naturally lend themselves to all sorts of expansions on gameplay like different types of PvP conflicts or more co-operative modes and it’d be a shame not to explore things like that.

Development on Spellbreak is still in its early phases with several playtests coming up. Tell us how players can get on board.

Kurlancheek: We’ve got a long way to go before the game’s completely ready for release and to get there, we need help from a lot of excited players testing out the game, giving us feedback, and helping shape it into the best it can be! We’re always looking for more testers to join our (pre-)alpha! If someone’s interested, they can apply here: https://playspellbreak.com/ or if they want to hop in right away, they can also become a Founder and start playing now by purchasing a Founder’s Pack: https://www.epicgames.com/store/product/spellbreak

Also, for any content creators out there, they can sign up here: https://playspellbreak.com/creators to be kept up to date with our plans for partner programs.

Where are all the places people can go to keep up with Proletariat and Spellbreak?

Switching to Unreal Engine, Cornfox & Bros. is moving mobile gaming forward with Oceanhorn 2

For many, the concept of mobile gaming is restricted to rudimentary experiences that, while fun, fail to offer the interaction, engagement, and depth of a tradition PC or console game. As handheld hardware advances though, so to do the ambitions of aspiring developers looking to facilitate a future in which full-fledged gaming experiences exist in the palms of our hands.

One such developer is Cornfox & Bros. – a small but scrappy team of six based in Helsinki, Finland who has already earned accolades from the likes of Apple for its innovative mobile title Oceanhorn: Monsters of Uncharted Seas, which received numerous honors when it released in 2013.
 

Now, looking to improve upon its original offering with Oceanhorn 2: Knights of the Lost Realm, the team is leveraging its development experience and expanding on the game’s core concepts to take the series, and mobile gaming, to a whole new level. “What we try to do here is to develop a console-quality game for mobile,” said Lead programmer & Co-founder Jukka Viljamaa. “We try to provide an old-fashioned, full-fledged story-driven game as opposed to what you might expect from a mobile title.” 

“We’re currently just six people working in the heart of Helsinki and concentrating on making the best mobile game in the world,” said Creative Director & Co-founder Heikki Repo. “We started working on Oceanhorn, the first announcement of this project got a really good reception across the media. There was a demand for titles like this, so what that meant was two years of hard work. We released in 2013 on Apple platforms and it was selected as ‘Best Indie Game of the Year’ by the Apple App Store.”

While development of the original Oceanhorn yielded great results, it also produced some learnings that the team has taken to heart. “Getting the first Oceanhorn game done with only three people was a huge task for us,” stated Lead programmer & Co-founder Antti Viljamaa. “We had our own engine and we did porting to various platforms and we came across all kinds of small and big problems.” 

“When we moved into development of Oceanhorn 2, we didn’t want to spend time developing our own engine,” stated Repo. “We wanted to jump into developing the game itself.”

So, with its highly-anticipated sequel that was much larger in scope, the studio selected Unreal Engine over its internal tech in order to maintain its momentum and focus on doing what they loved most – making games. “Unreal Engine has helped us focus on the game without having to worry too much about technical implementation; with a small team like us, that’s of utmost importance,” said Jukka Viljamaa. “The engine for a game is like a camera for a filmmaker, so you don’t have to start by building the camera. You can just focus on the content.”

Of course, the decision to switch away from internal tech isn’t always easy. Adopting a new engine comes with concerns about the learning curve and ultimately the portability of the project – two areas where Cornfox found positive results when moving to UE.

“The learning curve was surprisingly low and we got some prototyping content running in a few days,” said Antti Viljamaa. “The number one thing that helps our work is the editor, which is really excellent and enables everything else. Level designers can make their own small puzzles and interactions with Blueprints and that helps a lot.”

“Another aspect of using Unreal Engine is the portability of the project, to take it to all the platforms that we want to take it,” stated Jukka Viljamaa. “When you want to have different kinds of controls for different kinds of devices, for instance, even those issues are easier to solve so we can concentrate on how we want the game to be different for different devices.”

Finalizing its decision to switch to Unreal was the knowledge that source code access would serve the project best when hitting the inevitable challenges that await during shipping. “There’s just six of us working with the game and we used to fiddle with our own engine during the release so we wanted to make sure that we have the access to source code, so these were one of the factors that weighted in when we choose Unreal Engine 4,” said Repo. “For any company, flexibility like that is a very important factor.”

Through the team’s initial vision and determination, it’s use of the tools found in Unreal Engine, and the core belief that mobile gaming experiences can be akin to their console counterparts, Cornfox & Bros. is helping to usher in a new generation of mobile gaming. As Repo stated, “When the first smartphones came out, I was thinking that this is the moment when the mobile gaming space is finally nearing console quality and….we’re really pushing towards that…with Unreal Engine, I feel like it’s the same game on all devices.”

Experience everything Unreal and more at GDC 2019

GDC 2019 is fast approaching and we’re inviting all developers to join us as we celebrate the amazing game development community! Learn about the latest features coming to UE4, connect with Epic and other developers, and play plenty of awesome games.

Save the date for “State of Unreal”, which will return to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, with tech talks following the address. Join Epic on the expo floor for all-new Unreal Engine tools demonstrations and learning sessions at South 349, and unwind at South 327, where you’ll find awesome games, tasty snacks, cold beer, fun giveaways, and even career opportunities.

Here’s a rundown of what to expect:

Epic Games: State of Unreal — Our annual opening session will be open to the media and all GDC attendees with an Expo Pass Plus or higher. See the latest advancements in Unreal Engine technology and learn what Epic is doing to help all developers be more successful from Epic’s founder and CEO Tim Sweeney, CTO Kim Libreri, and special guests. Please note our presentation will once again take place at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard Street in San Francisco (adjacent to Moscone Center) on Wednesday, March 20 from 9:30-10:30AM. The presentation will be livestreamed at /UnrealEngine on YouTube, Twitch or Facebook.
 
Unreal Engine Tech Talks — Join us on Wednesday, March 20 for a full day of programming with sessions running from 11AM through to 6PM PST at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater. These sessions will cover topics ranging from the future of physics and destruction in Unreal Engine to ray tracing and refactoring the mesh drawing pipeline in UE 4.22. More information about these sessions, which will also be livestreamed, is available below. 
 
Unreal on the Expo Floor — We will once again host a dedicated space on the GDC expo floor to showcase dozens of the most exciting new titles developed in UE4. Visit Moscone South 327 for opportunities to play a curated selection of indie and AAA games, meet developers, and connect with teams looking to hire Unreal Engine talent!
 
Unreal Engine Learning Theater — Visit Moscone South 349 during expo hours for an ongoing series of rotating presentations on topics including ray tracing, Niagara VFX, and animation. The full presentation roster is listed below.
 
Additional Talks by Epic  — GDC 2019 sessions offer an incredible range of UE4 educational opportunities by a variety of speakers including a ‘Technical Artist Bootcamp’ by Epic’s Ryan Brucks, ‘Killer Portfolio or Portfolio Killer’ Parts 1 & 2 with a panel of industry experts, and ‘Preventing Bugs: The Dark Matter of Early QA’ with Epic’s Chris Rando. Check below for details on these talks and more.

Unreal Engine GDC Education Summit — Epic is pleased to invite the education community to the annual GDC Unreal Engine Education Summit at 8:30-11:30AM on Tuesday, March 19 at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco. This free event for educators will feature many new learning resources for both games and non-game sectors. During the summit, we will present informational tech talks, reveal new initiatives and discuss successful curricula. Eventbrite registration link coming soon.

Stay connected at unrealengine.com/gdc2019.
 

YERBA BUENA TECH TALKS

Causing Chaos: The Future of Physics and Destruction in Unreal Engine
Get a first look at the future of physics and destruction in Unreal Engine as Epic walks through features that give content creators the tools they need to build highly interactive worlds that can be fractured, shattered, and demolished.

11:20AM – 12:20PM | Speakers: Matthias Worch, Jim Van Allen, Michael Lentine

Ray Tracing in Unreal Engine 4.22
Get an up-close look at the ray tracing functionality coming in Unreal Engine 4.22. Learn about the processes and techniques employed to bring cinematic-quality lighting to a real-time piece, developed in collaboration with a ‘soon-to-be-announced’ partner.

1:20PM – 2:20PM | Speakers: Juan Canada, Patrick Kelly, Partner(s)

Refactoring the Mesh Drawing Pipeline for Unreal Engine 4.22
Gain a better understanding of how the renderer has been refactored to pave the way for future improvements in ray tracing efficiency and GPU driven rendering in Unreal Engine 4.22. Learn how these changes will impact project-specific engine modifications, the new auto-instancing functionality, and what it will mean for future development.

2:40PM – 3:40PM | Speaker: Marcus Wassmer

Unreal Engine’s Audio Rendering: Retrospectives and Case Study Analysis
Learn about the Unreal Engine team’s development process for the new audio renderer, which includes balancing live Fortnite support and feature development, and maintaining backward compatibility, all while pushing forward on innovation and long-term vision. Hear the latest on feature prioritization and process, AB testing methodologies and techniques, and retrospectives on specific case studies. Preview new features coming in 4.22 and 4.23, along with a glimpse of the UE4 audio roadmap.

4:00PM – 5:00PM | Speaker: Aaron McLeran

New Animation Features In Unreal Engine
Get a roundup of all the latest animation features built for Unreal Engine over the past year, including those created for Fortnite that have made their way back into the tools.
Learn how new features and upgrades have been battle-tested to improve animation quality, optimize runtime performance and reduce memory usage in order to support a hundred players on mobile and large crowds of enemies.

5:30PM – 6:30PM | Speakers: James Golding, Laurent Delayen
 

LEARNING THEATER – Moscone South #349:

Ray Tracing Features in Unreal Engine
As of Unreal Engine 4.22, Unreal’s renderer will support the new DXR API for real-time ray tracing. During this session you will see how to build a visually appealing environment using the new ray tracing features in UE4. Through practical example we will show how to control ray tracing in your scenes, discuss benefits and drawbacks to real-time ray tracing, and cover tips on performance, all focused on helping you make a smooth start with this amazing new tech.

Speaker: Sjoerd De Jong
Wednesday, March 20 – 12:00PM, 2:30PM, 5:00PM
Thursday, March 21 – 11:30PM, 2:00PM, 4:30PM
Friday, March 22 – 11:30PM, 2:00PM

Learning to Make Games with UE4 and Action RPG
In this session, you will learn more about Epic’s newest feature-packed example game project, Action RPG, a complete third-person hack-and-slash sample game that targets high-end mobile devices and showcases a massive variety of tools and systems. The project has been designed from the ground up as a teaching tool aimed at both new and seasoned Unreal developers alike. The session will cover its features, and how to use the project and documentation to implement a variety of sophisticated systems and techniques in your own game projects.

Speaker: Sam Dieter
Wednesday, March 20 – 11:00AM, 1:30PM, 4:00PM
Thursday, March 21 – 10:30AM, 1:00PM, 3:30PM
Friday, March 22 – 10:30AM, 1:00PM

Enhancing Animation with Control Rig
Control Rig is a highly flexible tool based on Blueprint that can be used to drive animation inside UE4. In this session, you will get a look at the Control Rig system and learn how to set up a Control Rig Blueprint to drive and animate a Skeletal Mesh, illustrate how Control Rigs can be driven through the Sequencer cinematic tool, and how you can blend to and from other animation states within an Animation Blueprint. 

Speaker: Wes Bunn
Wednesday, March 20 – 11:30PM, 2:00PM, 4:30PM
Thursday, March 21 – 11:00PM, 1:30PM, 4:00PM
Friday, March 22 – 11:00PM, 1:30PM

Building Effects with Niagara and Blueprint
Niagara is Unreal Engine’s powerful new VFX tool for authoring sophisticated real-time particle effects. In this session, you will see how to use this new tool in a practical example that combines Niagara with Unreal Engine’s visual scripting language, Blueprint, to create a dynamically-generated, in-game high-end effect.

Speaker: Chris Murphy
Wednesday, March 20 – 12:30PM, 3:00PM, 5:30PM
Thursday, March 21 – 12:00PM, 2:30PM, 5:00PM
Friday, March 22 – 12:00PM, 2:30PM

Order from Chaos – Destruction in UE4
Whether making a high-end AAA game or a small-team indie title, physics simulation and destruction can play a huge part in bringing your games to life. In this session you will see new tools and techniques for creating high-end, sophisticated physics and destruction effects in Unreal Engine. Learn how to use these tools to develop interactive worlds that can be fractured, scattered and destroyed.

Speaker: Alan Willard
Wednesday, March 20 – 10:30AM, 1:00PM, 3:30PM
Thursday, March 21 – 10:00AM, 12:30PM, 3:00PM, 5:30PM
Friday, March 22 – 10:00AM, 12:30PM

 

ADDITIONAL TALKS BY EPIC

Preventing Bugs: The Dark Matter of Early QA Day 1: Definition and Execution
Speaker: Chris Rando (Epic Games)

Preventing Bugs: The Dark Matter of Early QA Day 2: Communication
Speaker: Chris Rando (Epic Games)

Killer Portfolio or Portfolio Killer Part 1: Advice from Industry Artists
Speakers: Greg Foertsch (Independent), Alison Kelly (Alison Kelly Consulting), Wyeth Johnson (Epic Games), Moby Francke (Riot Games), Claire Hummel (Valve), Gavin Goulden (Insomniac Games)

Killer Portfolio or Portfolio Killer Part 2: Portfolio Reviews
Speakers: Greg Foertsch (Independent), Alison Kelly (Alison Kelly Consulting), Wyeth Johnson (Epic Games), Shawn Robertson (Ghost Story Games), Gavin Goulden (Insomniac Games), Darren Bacon (343 Industries), David Johnson (Undertone FX), Matthew Kean (Firaxis Games), Lisette Titre-Montgomery (Double Fine), Moby Francke (Riot Games), Peet Cooper (Riot Games), Claire Hummel (Valve), Dennis Moellers (Firaxis Games)

Scalability for All: Unreal Engine 4 on Intel (Presented by Epic Games and Intel)
Sponsor Speakers: Rolando Caloca (Epic Games), Jeff Rous (Intel Corp.)

Bringing Fortnite to Mobile with Vulkan and OpenGL ES (Presented by KHRONOS)
Sponsor Speakers: Jack Porter (Epic Games), Kostiantyn Drabeniuk (Samsung Electronics)

Technical Artist Bootcamp: Distance Fields and Shader Simulation Tricks
Speaker: Ryan Brucks (Epic Games)

Digital humans: 3Lateral cracks the code for real-time facial performance

3Lateral has long been recognized as an industry leader in facial performance capture. In the latest podcast in our Visual Disruptors series, Vladimir Mastilovic, Founder and Director, talks about how new developments will change filmmakers’ approach to digital performance in virtual production, and how 3Lateral joining forces with Epic Games will affect the availability of these tools in the future. 

Listen to the full podcast below or read on for an overview, then visit our virtual production hub for more podcasts, videos, articles, and insights.

There’s a good chance you’ve already seen 3Lateral’s work in action. The company was behind the facial capture and animation for AAA games like Marvel’s Spider-Man, Activision’s Call of Duty, and Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. With Epic Games, 3Lateral has worked on real-time digital humans in projects such as Siren, Hellblade, and Osiris Black with Andy Serkis.
Mastilovic has been fascinated by facial animation since he saw the groundbreaking film The Abyss in 1989, where director James Cameron created the first CG face made entirely of water in film history.

“I was completely mesmerized with that,” says Mastilovic, “and I wanted to know more about how that was done.”

Fifteen years later, Mastilovic would go on to found 3Lateral in his native Serbia, and forever change the way facial motion capture and performance are approached in the industry.

From micro expressions to true performance

Underlying 3Lateral’s work is the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), which categorizes facial muscle movements. FACS was developed in the 1960s by researcher Dr. Paul Ekman, who studied cultures untouched by modernization and discovered that all human beings use the same facial expressions to express emotion. 

Ekman’s research led him to develop the science of micro expressions, the facial contractions common to all peoples of the world. “I love the fact that there is a nonverbal universal language between every human being,” says Mastilovic. 
While FACS has long been used by the VFX community to inform manually keyframed facial animation, 3Lateral has taken things a step further. Part of 3Lateral’s secret sauce is “rig logic,” which goes beyond traditional facial capture systems to retain the essence of the live actor’s performance while targeting it realistically to a digital character. As an actor performs live on camera, 3Lateral’s system translates the actor’s facial movements to FACS in real time, which then tells the target facial rig what to do.

To inform the transfer of human performance to a completely different facial structure, 3Lateral introduced the notion of digital DNA. “DNA is a set of measurements that we are observing on a particular face,” explains Mastilovic. “The DNA file contains the offset from the general model that is specific to a person. And that DNA file then becomes the key for translating geometric data into semantic data.”

3Lateral recently showcased this technology in the Osiris Black project, where actor Andy Serkis’s performance of a Shakespearean monologue was targeted to an alien character in real time. The video shows the power of this virtual production technique where, despite the fact that Serkis has facial features very different from the target character, the realism, emotion, and power of the original performance remain.

“That’s a technology that translates the performance Into this nonverbal universal language,” says Mastilovic. ”We basically just transferred his [Serkis’s] performance into FACS code and then just loaded it on the alien.”

The result stunned the industry, and opened up a new world for real-time facial performance capture in virtual production.

Beyond the rigs: The future with Epic Games

Epic acquired 3Lateral last month. Mastilovic, with his lifelong passion for realizing lifelike human performance in CG, looks forward to expanding 3Lateral’s R&D, and especially wants to develop tools that can be made publicly available. 

He laments that due to increasing demand for facial capture and animation, 3Lateral has had to turn away more than 95% of projects offered to them in the last year. Mastilovic hopes that with the new availability of tools that anyone can use, no one will have to walk away disappointed.
Mastilovic sees Unreal Engine as a tool for much more than gaming, with future applications in machine learning, communication, personal self-improvement, social research, and more. Within filmmaking, he sees immediate uses in virtual production beyond simple facial capture. For example, parts of an actor’s performance can be remixed in real time to try out different emotional pacings for a scene. 

“The applications are too long to list,” he says. “It creates a wonderful new world of opportunities where the users of this tech will inspire us back and show us the ways that this can be used, that we didn’t even imagine.”

This podcast interview with Mastilovic is part of our Visual Disruptors series. Visit our Virtual Production page to get more great podcasts, videos, and articles on virtual production!
 

How indie developer Bit Dragon tackled cross-platform play in Hyper Jam

Hello, my name is Geordie Hall and I’m a co-founder of Melbourne-based studio Bit Dragon. I’m excited to be able to say that our first title, Hyper Jam — a fast-paced synthwave arena brawler with a dynamic perk drafting system — is launching today on PC, PS4, and Xbox One!

Although we’re only a small team, I’m super proud that we’ve been able to ship with local versus, private online, and cross-platform matchmaking (with extra local players). This game has been a truly awesome learning experience, and we’ve had to push ourselves in almost every way. I’m really glad we chose to go with Unreal Engine for Hyper Jam, as it provided our small team of three programmers the tools we needed to make this ambitious multiplayer game possible.

I told you it was fast-paced!

The road to cross-play

Like a lot of indie multiplayer games, our initial online experiments focused primarily on private lobbies using peer-to-peer listen servers. In our pursuit of better netcode we eventually decided to test out dedicated servers to see how they compared. After that initial playtest, we were all very impressed with how good they felt – particularly on Australian internet. Once we committed to a cross-platform launch, the expense of dedicated servers started to seem more justifiable, and the possibility of cross-play matchmaking convinced us it was worth taking on.

Cross-platform matchmaking itself has some major benefits, the most obvious being more players in your matchmaking pool. For a large game, this should decrease queue times and improve the player experience, but for a small game it could be the difference between someone finding a match or leaving in disappointment. Sharing a matchmaking pool can also hedge against a single platform becoming a ghost town if it doesn’t perform as well as others, which might temper bad reviews and increase the longevity of your game. If you manage to support cross-platform parties as well, then you’ve really broadened your audience!

So how achievable is crossplay as an indie? If it’s your first time tackling online services then there’ll definitely be a steep learning curve, and you’ll inevitably have to jump through more hoops than you were expecting. But the good news is that with so many companies working hard to consolidate and democratize online game services, it’ll only get easier over time! Epic themselves even offer a suite of cross-platform online services rolling out over the next year, adding to the list of options available to developers.

If you’re like us and have an online game on multiple platforms, that’d be a great fit for crossplay, read on to find out what we learned along the way.

Dedicated servers

A major prerequisite for cross-play is dedicated servers. If you’re already using listen servers peer-to-peer, then you might have noticed you can’t simply host a listen server on one platform and connect to it from another. Each platform generally has its own net driver, which handles NAT traversal on that platform (e.g., the SteamNetDriver uses Steam Sockets). But for cross-play, you need each platform to connect to a single server and “speak” the same language (e.g., using the standard IpNetDriver). If you still want to use listen servers for private matches (like we do), then you’ll need to change which net driver you use at runtime.

Although P2P works pretty well for private matches where players know each other, it has some inherent downsides that make it a poor choice for matchmaking:

  • You’re reliant on the host’s internet connection for a good player experience — even with good QoS checks
  • Host advantage, something we’re quite mindful of as a client-predicted fighting game
  • Host migration is hard, and without it a host can easily ruin the game for others
  • You can’t trust the host, which rules out ranked modes

Dedicated servers solve all of these issues, with the obvious downside that they cost money to host. This ongoing cost can be difficult to justify as an indie, but after committing to a cross-platform launch, we decided to make the investment.

If you’ve only used listen servers before, then dedicated servers might seem scary, but they’re actually quite straightforward. You can build a server for both Windows and Linux, but since Linux instances tend to be cheaper to run than Windows instances, it’s probably worth spending the time to get a Linux build working. Thankfully, UE4 makes this very easy! Once you install the cross-compile toolchain you can then include Linux as a target platform. Clang has historically been a bit pickier than VC++, though they’re slowly becoming more similar. You’ll also need to check that any plugins you’re using support Linux, and be disciplined about keeping gameplay logic out of cosmetic objects (since dedicated servers don’t run widgets, sounds, etc.).

By default, a dedicated server will run headless and simply log to a file, though you can add the “-log” argument to have it launch a log window as well, which can be very useful during development. Dedicated servers are also very easy to integrate into your Continuous Integration (CI) pipeline — just one extra UAT argument! When you need to test a Linux server, you can spin up a local VM or EC2 instance, though a Windows server should suffice for most development testing. You can even use dedicated servers in PIE, which is great for debugging Blueprints.

Cloud hosting

Once you have your dedicated server binaries and your netcode is running great, you’ll need somewhere to host the server so that clients can connect to it! There are lots of hosting options, including Amazon GameLift, Google Cloud Compute/Kubernetes, PlayFab, and more. The major things to look out for here are cost, scaling, and support.

You need to be able to scale your servers up and down to meet player demand, ideally scaling as low as possible during off-peak. Most of these systems will spin up a virtual machine that get assigned a specific IP, and runs N server processes, each of which listen on a different port. The server manager can then assign game sessions to each server process, keeping track of which ones are busy. Once the number of free server processes on an instance drops below a certain threshold, the system will spin up another VM, which will add another N available game sessions to the fleet. The scaling system should also assign new sessions intelligently to allow scaling down and make good use of resources (e.g., you don’t want five game sessions spread across five machines).

Most providers have some kind of free tier you can use to play around and try out different configurations, which is a great way to dip your toe in the water.

As an indie, cost is always a concern, and you’ll need to balance how much extra work you’re willing to put in to lower server costs. When looking at scaling costs, the main equation will be “players per server x servers per instance x number of concurrent players.” The GameLift pricing page has an example of a typical player demand curve, and shows how that affects the number of instances required throughout the day, although these numbers may seem high for an indie game.

Optimizing your game for both CPU and memory will increase the number of servers you can fit on each instance, lowering your costs. Keep in mind you may also be charged for network traffic, so optimizing your net code may actually improve your server bill as well as your gameplay!

You’ll want at least one instance running in each region to take on new players, but depending on your availability requirements, you might be able to take advantage of Spot/Preemptible Instances for additional scaling, which are instances that cloud providers can terminate at short notice in exchange for big discounts.

It’s also a good idea to forecast costs against estimated player counts well before launch to make sure servers can add more value than what they cost. You’ll need to keep evaluating this in the months and years after launch, and it could even be worth thinking about a contingency in case you end up having to turn them off (e.g., you could switch back to P2P).

If you already have a CI pipeline in place, you can automate the uploading of game servers along with client builds. Having the option to spin up a fleet to test nightly builds can be pretty useful, though you’ll need to keep an eye on your host’s storage space limits, etc.

Choosing which regions to host servers in can be a difficult balance of cost versus demand, particularly before launch. Both AWS and Google Cloud have pretty good worldwide coverage, and AWS recently opened up GameLift in China, too. If you’re passing player latency data up to your matchmaker, then you’ll be able to more clearly see where your player demand is coming from, and which regions could do with some servers.

You may also want to overprovision for launch to ensure any “best case” traffic is handled. Support will also be important come launch day, since you’ll no doubt have something go wrong and need as much as help as possible to put out fires – something I’m probably doing right now!

Matchmaking

Once you have a scalable fleet of dedicated servers waiting to receive games, you’ll need a way to actually match players together. Although most platforms have some kind of first-party matchmaking API, to do cross-play, you’ll need a centralized matchmaker that can also talk to your server manager.

Like with hosting, there are many different options for game backends, ranging from fully integrated solutions with hosting/matchmaking/client-side SDKs, to providers that handle servers/matchmaking but still require your own backend to handle auth and client communication.

At bare minimum, a client needs to be able to tell a backend that they want to find a match with certain parameters. The backend will then authenticate their request using each platform’s auth token, and add them to the matchmaking pool. Once a match has been found, the matchmaker then needs to assign the game session to a server, tell each client about that server’s IP and port, and tell the server which players it should allow to join, as well as any useful matchmaking data, such as teams or game type.

When evaluating different options, try to think not only about your current requirements but also about future possibilities to avoid denying yourself features that would’ve been great to add down the line. For instance,

  • Do you want rule-based or lobby-based matchmaking?
  • Do you want to be able to relax rules over time?
  • Do you want to take latency information into account?
  • Do you want to allow queueing for multiple game types at once?
  • Do you want to support parties in matchmaking?
  • Can they be cross-platform parties?
  • Do you want to support multiple local players?
  • Do you want teams, and can parties team up?
  • Do you want asynchronous matchmaking, so that players can do something else in the game while waiting?
  • Do you need to be able to restrict which platforms can be matched together? (hopefully, this is eventually a “no!”)
  • Do you need avoid- or block-lists?
  • Do you need access to persistent player data to enable skill-based matchmaking and/or ranked modes?
  • Do you want to support back-fill, so that someone can join a match in-progress?

Any specific advice we can give will probably quickly become outdated, but one timeless recommendation is to start thinking about this as early as possible.

When evaluating matchmaking features, also look at each backend provider’s other offerings, such as player identity, friends, presence, parties, leaderboards, analytics, and more. If you do end up using a backend provider, the quality of these other services could help split the difference — and they’re all things that take time to integrate well into your game. You don’t want to have to rush into something that could be hard to change later! That being said, if you’re already using a certain provider for some areas but want to use someone else for matchmaking, then you can do that, too. Online services seem to inevitably involve a number of moving parts, and it’s up to you which parts you source from where.

Versioning and net compatibility

Once you have dedicated servers — and especially once you have cross-play — you need to think about client/server versioning, and how that affects your matchmaking. This is actually one area that I haven’t seen many nicely integrated solutions for, so you may have to come up with something yourself.

What happens when you need to release an update that breaks net compatibility? Can you release new, net-compatible server builds without having to update clients? If you do need to break cross-play for a certain platform, can you still require other platforms to be on a certain version?

It can take some time for a client update to roll out across all platforms and regions, so you probably don’t want to just shut down old servers immediately in case a player doesn’t even have the update available to them yet. And even once the update does become available to someone, you wouldn’t want to kick them in the middle of a match.

Creating a seamless update experience isn’t necessarily hard, though it does require some forethought and planning. We settled on a setup that accepts matches for both old and new versions during the update window, keeping the old servers around so players can finish their match. We allow clients to check for updates themselves (and apply an update before starting new matches), and after a reasonable propagation time, we turn off the old servers and reject requests from any old clients. If we need to deploy a server-only patch, the matchmaker will direct any new matches to the new patch’s fleets, and then once all matches on the old fleets have been completed, we can take them down in the background.

Testing your client/server builds for net compatibility is also important, particularly when making fixes on an existing release branch. If you use the Blueprint Nativization feature, you may also run into compatibility issues when connecting to a nativized server from a non-nativized client (e.g., PIE or cook on the fly). If you want to avoid being kicked with a “Net GUID Mismatch” error while testing in-editor, you can set the net.IgnoreNetworkChecksumMismatch CVar to 1.

A related tip is to check out the TimeoutMultiplierForUnoptimizedBuilds config variable, which can increase the net driver’s timeout thresholds in-editor. Since we have relatively short connection timeouts and “lagging” thresholds, our in-editor testing could often time out during travel if something took longer than expected to load or compile. If making a networked game, you no doubt already use multiple PIE windows and multi-process PIE, but I think it’s worth acknowledging just how awesome these features are compared to what’s available in other engines.

Platform requirements

As you will have learned from cross-platform development, there can be some pretty specific requirements placed on you by each platform, especially if your game is online. In terms of cross-play, this can involve things like indicating (or not indicating) which network other players are on, sanitizing player names and handling collisions, validating player privileges and calling other platform-specific APIs.

It’s best to talk with each platform early on to make sure you have all the information needed to implement these requirements and avoid nasty surprises that can leave a dent in your schedule.

Consider cross-play!

Indie multiplayer can be tough, but cross-play is one way to help grow your matchmaking pool and increase the return on your cross-platform investment. It may seem like a lot of work for an independent studio, but it can be a big selling point for your game, and it’ll only become easier as game service providers mature and platforms become more open.

Hopefully this has been a helpful overview of what to consider when adding cross-play to your own game!

Hyper Jam is available now on Steam, PS4, and Xbox One!

How first time devs RedG Studios is using mystery to fuel horror in S.O.N.

With many robust features and tools built into Unreal Engine 4, anyone brand new to game development will need to take some time to explore and learn the engine. With a strong desire to create games that stick with people long after they’ve finished playing, Unreal Dev Grant recipient RedG Studios took those first steps of game development just a few short years ago and have now proudly produced their first title, S.O.N., which is coming exclusively to PlayStation 4.

In S.O.N., players take on the role of Robert Alderson, an unemployed, hard-nosed father who drowns out his past demons with alcohol – neglecting everyone and everything. You’re tasked with rescuing your son, Jay, who was taken out of his home to the mysterious forest known as “South of Nowhere.” Here, Robert will unravel his son’s disappearance while confronting his own true nature in the process.

We connected with RedG Studios Founder Jordan Davenport to learn more about the project, discuss a few of the fears that first time developers face, and talk about the highs and lows of showing your first game to the world.
 

RedG is a brand new studio. Tell us a little bit about what the team’s motivation was to jump into the world of indie development.

RedG Studios originally started out with just me from about late 2016 all the way until mid-December 2017 when my current Lead Programmer Sterling Zubel came onboard. When I started RedG, I had the dream of making video games that stayed with people. Games that connect with people and progress along with them in life, which isn’t the most common answer I’ve found. Regardless, those two things meant a lot to me starting out in development because they are continuously significant, regardless of the era or console generation. 

I see what games like The Last of Us, Metal Gear Solid, Uncharted, and God of War (to name a few) have done to impact people’s lives far outside of gaming. Those games manage to make characters that aren’t just characters — they’re so well-developed that they are relatable to the player. Almost as if the person playing the game is that actual character, whether it’s Nathan Drake, Kratos, Snake or Joel. Graphics and environments are pretty to look at and can be important to a good story in itself, but to me, personally, it’s about how much you can give the main character a story, a solid background that is relatable, good or bad. That was our reason to truly pursue game development, to make games that last for decades that stay in the minds of those who play them.

Coming soon to PS4, a lot of people likely haven’t heard of S.O.N. Can you fill us in on what the game is about?

Absolutely! S.O.N is a first-person horror game where players take on the role of Robert Alderson — a struggling father who uses alcohol to drown out his inner demons daily, often neglecting his wife and son. Players will travel with Robert to the infamous Pennsylvania forest, ClarenCaster, which is home to the world’s most notorious section of woods fearfully referred to by locals as “South Of Nowhere.” His reason for journeying to such a terrifying destination is to rescue his son Jay, who was snatched by terrors unknown straight out of their home and into the forest. 

The reason is unclear, but as the game progresses, players will find out the intentions behind the apparent kidnapping. South Of Nowhere had over 600 people go missing in 2016, ranging from missing adults to missing children. Inside the forest, players will also explore the Caves of Stacy, where old legends claim the caves aren’t caves but another world, another dimension that brings things in your life, good or bad, to life themselves; an “upside-down” version of what life is like above ground.

Will players get a chance to learn more about Robert? Is there any chance at redemption for him along the way?

All through the game, players will learn what makes Robert the way he is.  What makes him tick, what sets him off, what makes him…him. Players will also see significant parts and moments in his life, and in his family’s life, that elevated Robert to be labeled as a “bad father.” As for redemption, we will let the game answer that. Players will experience and hear things that, when the game is over and finished, they’ll be able to come to a conclusion if Robert was a good or bad father on their own, which ultimately is our goal. We want players to hear the story, see his actions, then let them decide internally if Robert, in the end, deserves what is inevitably coming to him.

How much experience did the team have with Unreal Engine 4 when you started on S.O.N? What are some of the ways that Unreal Engine made first-time development approachable for a new team?

When Sterling and I came together, we had combined maybe three months of experience. Sterling had been using Unity for the most part and wanted to jump into Unreal Engine. The bigges task for me was simply learning the engine as a whole, taking those first steps into something unknown. 

As soon as I opened Unreal Engine and saw the interface, I 1,000 percent got nervous and even a bit discouraged. I saw a million things on the screen and had no real idea about it, even prior to reading a book and watching a few YouTube videos. I found out that Unreal Engine had videos online and through the Epic Games launcher that made things a million times easier. It wasn’t a whole lot at the time, but it was enough for me to get a grasp of what I was doing. I would watch YouTube videos of people teaching it, but because they already knew what they were talking about they often kind of blew through things too fast for someone new. Epic took the time to explain what buttons did, why it’s like this, what Blueprints is, what the little trinkets are. It really made it easier on both Sterling and me. A lot of people see the engine at a first glance and they are kind of in shock, but if you just take the time to watch the videos, you’ll be just fine.

Over the course of development, what’s one tool in the Unreal Engine 4 suite that proved to be the most valuable?

I would say the most valuable tool throughout this entire process would be how simple it is to not only drag and drop but to size, move, and rotate things. That’s a pretty basic and amateur answer, but I can’t tell you how simple that was for me as a level designer. I don’t have to type in a certain coordinate for it to be placed, I just click on those and Unreal Engine 4 does all the work me. That’s a blessing for someone who places a million and more props in places that need that type of attention. Originally, when I started learning Unreal Engine, I was that guy who would literally mess with the X/Y/Z locations to get that perfect spot without just simply using the move tool. So it was a big time saver and I just think it’s a good simple tool for beginners. 

Horror games are very dependent on darkness to help immerse the player into the game, but players won’t get very far without some guiding light. How did you incorporate dark and light elements into S.O.N?

Horror thrives in the dark. If you can’t see, you fear what’s waiting for you, what’s watching you, what’s following you. However, I believe it’s the atmosphere you create that makes the player truly scared. It’s conditioning the mind to believe something is about to happen or to believe something is there, but in reality isn’t. 

As you said, lighting is a huge part but in that same breath, I believe the color of the light plays a significant part in horror. In S.O.N, instead of giving the player a flashlight, we let them use the strategically placed lighting that shines on and off objects placed all around the caves. Almost as if that object is telling you, ‘“Hey…come over here.” Maybe something happens, maybe something doesn’t. We wanted to make the player question each and every lit and unlit area they come across. To me, this feeds into the mind-game aspect of what makes horror truly great and fun to work in. In S.O.N, we worked in darkness by, at times, placing a light far down a hallway that is dark in between where you are standing and where the light is located. We also use objects to light rooms, but only to a certain extent because, you know, those $10 lamps can only go so far! 

Getting your very first game to market is quite the challenge and you’ve likely learned a ton along the way. For aspiring developers who would like to emulate your journey, what advice would you give them? If they’re jumping into learning Unreal Engine 4, what advice would you give to make that process easier?

Before anything else, please realize that it is a marathon, not a sprint. If you want to create something special, it is going to take a ton of time, a ton of dedication, and a ton of sacrifice. If you can get over that first mental mountain, the second mental mountain to conquer (and arguably the biggest one) is to never lose hope. All through the journey in developing your first game, you need to stay motivated, stay inspired, and remember why you started, and who you are doing this for. What I mean by this is when you post what you think is a cool screenshot on social media from your game and you get no attention for it, don’t let that discourage you. When you post your first trailer and people online in the comment sections tear it apart, don’t let it define you. Don’t get upset to the point of stopping. A lot of people will love your game, and a lot of people will probably hate your game. This is just how it works. 

I can remember being so upset because I truly believed that what we were making was special and no one seemed to care, and by no one I mean big companies and mass audiences. Even after reading some hurtful comments, it really struck me as if I truly didn’t know what I was doing. Don’t ever do what I did because, after a while, I realized as long as I smiled making this, that’s all that matters in the end. Don’t make something you don’t believe in because people can sniff that out right away. Passionate work is always noticed. If you are excited about your game, people will catch on to that. I have faith in you — just stay the course and when times get hard, put one foot in front of the other and just keep going. 

Lastly, learn, learn, and learn some more. It will literally change your life. Watch the videos that Epic provides, it will only help you become that much better of a developer. Learn as much as you can about game development, from level design all the way down to programming. Don’t be a one-trick pony. Learn it all or as much as you can handle. All the videos Epic has to show are valuable and useful ones. Take advantage of that.

Where are all the places people can go to keep up with RedG Studios and S.O.N?

You can catch up with all of RedG at the following spots:

Twitter 
Facebook
YouTube
Website

We love the feedback (almost too much) and listen to the community (literally every notification)! We would like to thank Epic Games and the whole Unreal Engine team for helping us get to where we are today.