Giant Spacekat’s Brianna Wu opens up about her team breaking the mould on mobile with Unreal Engine 3
[This feature was published in the November 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]
A few years ago, Brianna Wu was considering her future as a mobile developer, contemplating the crowded 2D landscape.
“I’d done a lot of iOS development work, and was looking to start my own games company. My art background was in 2D, and I was very worried about competing in an endless sea of 2D sprites. Then I saw the Epic Citadel demo, and I immediately knew I was looking at the next 20 years of mobile gaming,” declares Wu.
She and Giant Spacekat co-founder Amanda Warner dropped their game plan for an overhead tactics game, and began dreaming about how they could push cinematic experiences on mobile using Unreal Engine 3 instead. They conceived the original, highly narrative world of Revolution 60, downloaded the Unreal Development Kit, and never looked back.
A US team of four, Giant Spacekat is one of the only all-female development houses in the industry, and the team doesn’t shy away from ambition. Media have described their action-filled, interactive storyline as ‘Heavy Rain meets Mass Effect’, and they’ve embraced a heavy workload on the animation side in order to achieve the desired aesthetic style for the all-girl cast.
Wu says: “As a small studio, we have to really choose where we invest our resources. We were much more interested in telling a story than building an engine, so we asked ourselves who had the product that would get out of the way, and let us do the work we loved. Unreal was the obvious choice.
“I have to admit, I was very intimidated by Unreal at first. This is everyone on my team’s first game to ship, but it’s proven to be very easy to learn. There have been so many games developed with this engine that it’s easy to find answers when we need them.
“I’m constantly amazed by how much the toolset encourages iteration. We’ll sometimes assemble a scene, but it doesn’t quite hit the tone we want. So, we’ll tweak lighting or sound, or we’ll polish an actor’s animation and plug it back in. It’s an extremely agile development environment.
“We also appreciate the vast array of materials and particles included in UDK. Often, I’ll wonder how Epic managed to do a material or an effect on mobile. What’s awesome is I can just open up one of their effects and take it apart until I understand it. Then I can create something that’s my own work.”
When it comes to interactive storytelling, Wu says Unreal Matinee is the most mature toolset available: “The sophistication with implementing animation sets, controlling cameras, triggering events – it’s unquestionably the best. What really appeals to us is not worrying about exact GPUs, tablet specs, memory, garbage collection, or trying to support new Apple devices. Unreal takes care of all that.”
Wu emphasises how integral Unreal Matinee and Unreal Kismet are for her team: “It is literally at the heart of everything we do on Rev 60. Using the visual scripting, we’re able to compile incredibly complex scenes with dialogue trees, action events you can pass or fail, and even slow down battle events to Matrix-style bullet time. Programmers can create custom Kismet nodes, seamlessly adding things mid-scene, and we’re even able to have beautiful lighting follow the characters around within Matinee nodes.
“My animation team appreciates that we’re able to animate the characters within Maya, and simply export it into Unreal with FBX. We were worried about the pipeline, but it couldn’t be easier. A director assembles it all in Unreal, carefully adjusting the lighting, music and camera angles. The result is one of the most cinematic games to ever appear on mobile.”
Facial animation may just be Revolution 60’s biggest technical achievement. The lead character Holiday has a staggering 78 mesh-influencing bones.
“All the girls’ hair is fully animated,” beams Wu. “A lot of games give women a pinned up hairstyle and call it a day, but we felt strongly that giving the characters good hair was critical for immersion.”
When asked what she would say to newcomers to the Unreal Engine, Wu replies: “Unreal is a very friendly engine for an indie dev to work with. I would estimate we’ve spent less than five per cent of development time troubleshooting, and I quickly learned how to use it.”
There’s more news to come from Giant Spacekat and the Revolution 60 universe before the game ships in April 2014. Visit unrealengine.com/showcase to read the full story and stay up to date with this up-and-coming team.