Lionhead takes a Fabled leap onto Xbox One with Unreal Engine 4
[This feature was published in the October 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad]
Lionhead Studios’ contributions to the Xbox platform and the modern gaming landscape via its Fable franchise are indisputable, with the critically acclaimed, best-selling series approaching its ten-year anniversary. Lionhead previously turned to Unreal Engine tools to build Fable: The Journey, which brought an adventure ripe with storytelling and beautiful scenery to Xbox 360 with integrated Kinect motion controls.
The Guildford-based team is now working toward the release of Fable Anniversary for Xbox 360, which uses Unreal Engine 3 to bring the gameplay and story of the original Fable together with re-mastered high-definition audio and visuals, as well as Fable Legends, which will define the world of Albion on Xbox One, all powered by Unreal Engine 4.
AN UNREAL CATALYST
According to Lionhead executive producer Geoff Smith, adopting Unreal Engine technology across its projects has been a massive win in terms of productivity and efficiency – especially with regard to Fable Legends, which brings a new campaign as well as four-player co-op and SmartGlass integration to the series.
“The output and quality of what can be achieved with Unreal is an order of magnitude more advanced than what we could do if we tried to write everything ourselves. Instead of using bespoke programs to build levels, particles, lighting and cut scenes, it’s now all in one place. Asset discovery is in one place. Version control is in one place. We use a single system which comes with all of the market-leading parts. As content creators, we used to have to wait for months or years for a stable toolset, but now we’re able to get straight into building games.”
Crafting a next-gen experience for unreleased hardware is no small task, and as such Lionhead’s developers count on Unreal Engine 4 to help make the most of its talents.
“The architecture and toolset provided by UE4 allows us to dive straight into making this without waiting for tech to come up to scratch. Immediately we are able to fully utilise the incredible team we have available. We’ve been able to get assets into the game in double-quick time, plus we’re getting visual feedback in a matter of seconds. All this, combined with the flexibility of the materials and shaders, leads to a better looking game.”
MEGA-PALETTES AND UBER-BUILDING
Fable has always been about colourful, beautiful worlds, and Lionhead is set to deliver its richest interactive realm to date. “We really appreciate how our assets look in-game,” affirms Lionhead’s art manager Mark Smart.
“As an artist you want everything to look fantastic. It’s possible to drill right down into quite complex shader instructions in UE4. There are many parameters that can be tweaked and revised. As we are aiming for a unique style, we needed to unify our focus. Due to the engine’s ease and flexibility, we’ve set up master materials for a consistent look. Using these tool pipelines frees artists up to concentrate on the artwork.”
Unreal Engine 4’s new Blueprints system encourages people across disciplines to express their vision directly through the tools, reveals Ben Brooks, lead content designer at Lionhead.
“Blueprints have turned our designers into implementers. Where previously, they’d have written a document, our designers can now build a working prototypeto show off their ideas. Our artists can tweak the size, shape and scale of assets across everything in the level or a single set of assets. They can apply moss to specific rocks with simple sliders or light their world in real time. Our designers can work directly with the game to set up all the characters or build all the AI routines, leaving our programmers free to work on other needs.”
Going on to describe how Blueprints lighten the load on scarce programming resources, Brooks says: “The number of times designers can iterate on an idea has increased massively while the time it takes to do these iterations has dropped dramatically. We can have an idea prototyped within hours of discussing it. The toolset itself is also very mature with core systems in place from day one. We can build on these foundations and make something unique from both a gameplay and graphical perspective, and our programmers can get on with making refinements and bespoke features.”
Smith concludes that UE4’s Blueprints and asset systems provide a huge advantage in terms of scalability and flexibility: “Functionality can be boxed off and reused easily, and individuals can do their own work without treading on others’ toes. The toolset allows us to easily group assets and systems together into Blueprints and distribute them across the team, and we can even customise Blueprints to scale the functionality required. One person might need to be able to tweak variables, or adjust material colour, and so on. We can do all of that without having to ever go back to a programmer and request new functionality. The complexity of game development can be scaled for each.”
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