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?

IKINEMA and Unreal Engine Empower Globo’s Live AR World Cup Heroes

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Connect with Unreal Engine Next Week in New Zealand and Australia

Following up on recent stops in Melbourne and Adelaide, Epic Games is excited to announce that developers in both New Zealand and Australia can connect with us next week during special events designed to equip devs with tools to get started and grow in UE4: David Stelzer, Epic’s US-based Unreal Engine licensing manager; Chris Murphy, our evangelist for Australia, New Zealand and Southeast Asia; and Jack Porter, Unreal Engine mobile team lead based out of Epic Games Korea.

Event details:

Epic’s Chris Murphy and David Stelzer – Unreal Engine
Where: PROJECTR | Level 2, NEC House, 40 Taranaki Street · Wellington, New Zealand
When: Friday, October 19 | 5pm – 7pm

Unreal Dev Grant recipient Aurora44 (developer of Ashen), in conjunction with WREDA, will graciously host us for a free game development talk in Wellington. Held in the heart of the city at the collaborative workspace ProjectR on Taranaki Street, Epic’s Chris Murphy and David Stelzer will share their experiences on the business of Epic and Unreal Engine. They’ll talk about new and upcoming features, how we’re making improvements to workflow to lead to faster and more efficient development, and more!

Before and after the talks there will be time for relaxed networking opportunities, with food and drinks to be provided throughout the evening. There are limited spots available for this special event so RSVP right away if you want to be part of it!

The event will take place on the 19th of October 2018 starting from 5pm:

5:00pm – 6:00pm: Networking time
6:00pm – 7:00pm: David and Chris presentation/talk and Q&As
7:00pm – 7:30pm: Wrap up / catch up with attendees

Epic Games Presents: An Introduction to Unreal Engine
Where: EPIC Innovation Center | 78-100 Manchester St · Christchurch, New Zealand
When: Sunday, October 21 | 2pm – 5pm

Hosted by the Christchurch Game Development Meetup group, you’re invited to join us for Introduction to Unreal Engine, a live training workshop where participants will learn the basics of creating their first project in UE4.

This introductory tutorial assumes participants have basic 3D game development understanding, but no prior experience with UE4. You will learn the basics of creating a game from starter content using the UE4 Blueprint visual scripting system. Blueprints are easily leveraged by all game development disciplines, so artists, designers and programmers are all welcome.

Topics we’ll cover include: project setup, controller setup, importing assets, building materials, creating character classes, creating AI, navigation, blending animation, spawning enemies, maintaining game state, and configuring in-game UI. We will also cover design principles, Blueprint debugging and performance optimization techniques.

A Truly Unreal Cantaru – A Social Gathering for Game Creators with Epic Games
Where: The Cuban | 236 St Asaph · Christchurch, New Zealand
When: Sunday, October 21 | 7pm – 10pm

Also hosted by the Christchurch Game Developers Meetup group, Cantaru is a friendly gathering of Canterbury game creators held every so often. Come on out to meet other local devs, show a prototype or just have a chat. Epic’s David Stelzer and Chris Murphy will be in attendance.

At Game Connect Asia Pacific (GCAP), two separate talks will provide insight into UE4 project scalability across multiple platforms and bringing console-quality experiences to iOS and Android.

Project Scalability with Unreal Engine 4 
Where: GCAP | Room 210 | Melbourne Convention and Entertainment Centre located | 1 Convention Centre Pl, South Wharf VIC 3006
When: Tuesday, October 23 | 11:30am

Deploying to multiple platforms can seem as developmentally intimidating as it is potentially lucrative. This talk with Epic’s Chris Murphy and David Stelzer delves into the many tools, techniques and features created to accommodate scalability for PC, console, mobile, AR and VR development from a single, unified Unreal Engine build. 

As an overview of recent platform developments, insights into the future as well as the licensing and support models Epic offers, this talk is for both new developers interested in discovering what the tools provide in addition to veterans looking for solutions to scalability and multi-platform hurdles.

Bringing Fortnite Battle Royale to Android and iOS
Where: GCAP| Room 204 | Melbourne Convention and Entertainment Centre located | 1 Convention Centre Pl, South Wharf VIC 3006
When: Wednesday, October 24 | 1:30pm

This session with Epic’s Jack Porter will step through existing Unreal Engine features along with enhancements Epic made to the technology and tools in order to bring the full Fortnite Battle Royale game experience to both iOS and Android.

We will discuss challenges faced bringing the full PC and console game experience to mobile platforms and also how we used and enhanced Unreal Engine’s scalability systems to address these issues. 

The talk will also focus on unique challenges posed by the Android ecosystem, such as a diverse set of system software and graphics driver versions, a wide range of memory capacity and performance capabilities across popular mobile devices as well as engineering solutions we used to overcome these limitations.

You can also follow Epic’s Chris Murphy on Twitter (@highlyspammable) for the very latest on these events and more throughout Australia, New Zealand and Southeast Asia.

We hope to see you there!

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.

How ARK: Survival Evolved Made the Move to Mobile

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

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

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

Uncompromised quality

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

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

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

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

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

Team tactics

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

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

Mobile evolved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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