Unreal Engine 3 powering downloadable games

Unreal Engine 3 powering downloadable games

By Develop

January 14th 2009 at 12:01AM

Demonstrating the flexibility of Epic Gamesâ?? renowned game engine, Unreal Engine 3 is now an increasingly common choice for studios working on a variety of downloadable games.

Here we take a look at three examples where Unreal Engine 3 has been employed by studios working on distinct titles made purely for digital distribution.

American McGee’s Grimm

American McGee’s unique perspective on the world of games is coming to life through GameTap with his first episodic endeavour, Grimm.

McGee, creative director of Shanghai-based Spicy Horse, turned to Unreal Engine 3 to tackle his new take on traditional fairy tales, which presents an accelerated production schedule for the game’s 24 episodes. The model requires that McGee’s team go from concept to shippable content in 12 months.

In that regard, McGee said that Unreal Engine 3 works ideally because it allows his studio to prototype an innovative game concept, establish a unique art style, and build large amounts of content in a rapid and efficient way.

“The funny thing is, because of my background with id Software, I always thought of Epic and their technology as ‘the other side’,’” said McGee.

“In the early days, we’d play around with Epic’s engine just to see how it might have solved problems with tools, interface, etc. Over the years, the change has been phenomenal. The toolset has evolved into a mature, robust, and flexible total solution. These days I feel confident we’re working with the best total solution for our needs.”

McGee’s core team explored several engines before settling on Unreal Engine 3 and ultimately found that they were able to integrate content and achieve the visual results they wanted faster and easier with Unreal Engine 3.

“This was primarily attributable to the superior reference materials, tutorials, and content pipeline and tools. Once our decision was made, attracting other team members with UE3 experience and gaining critical knowledge on our own was easy,” explained McGee.

“Because Grimm is such an experimental game concept, rapid prototyping was essential to proving our new ideas. Being able to quickly build a world from near-final content allowed us to focus on the challenges of implementing original ideas.”

Although the initial core team of ten had little experience with the engine outside of what it gained during its evaluation, it had no problem meeting all of the game’s deadlines throughout the development process, even as the team grew to over 35 internal employees, 20 external artists and a handful of people in the US.

When it came to the engine’s toolset, McGee said Spicy Horse utilised every aspect of Unreal technology to some degree or another. “And everything was useful,” said McGee. “Because Grimm contains a large amount of narrative cinematic elements, we spent a lot of time editing content inside the FaceFX and Matinee tools.

“Custom modifications we made often had to do with ‘old-schooling’ something. Take the FaceFX tool for instance; we had to gut it in order to get the sort of simple animated faces we wanted. It’s not easy to get South Park-style facial animation out of a next-gen game engine!”

Gameplay is wrapped around the idea of transforming things from light to dark; wherever the main character Grimm goes, darkness follows. He’s like a dark paintbrush in a cute cartoon world. As he converts the world to dark, his power grows, and as his power grows, he’s able to transform larger objects, move faster, and jump higher. Each episode focuses on a traditional Grimm fairy tale.

“There are standard 3D platform game elements layered on top of the transformation mechanic,” explained McGee. “The end result, we think, is a visually compelling, compulsively addictive play experience with rich story, and a lot of humor. I think we can honestly say there’s nothing else out there like Grimm.”

McGee said Unreal Engine 3 provided his team with the ability to go from concept to playable concept in record time – something that the episodic game’s development cycle required.

In simplest terms, the model has forced Spicy Horse to break 12 hours worth of game content into 24 smaller games. This means the development cycle for an individual ‘game’ is measured in weeks, not years. Yet despite the accelerated cycle, the team has not had a single crunch time, missed milestone, or even a minor production mishap.

“The development process follows some standard schedule beats like design, concepting, first playable (alpha), beta (content lock), and final, but the whole process is accelerated – each major phase taking no more than six weeks,” said McGee.

“The combined process takes 18 weeks for a single episode. Additionally, we have multiple development cycles running in parallel, with content moving from designer to designer, from concept to final. In many ways, it’s a mini model of larger-scale development efforts.”

The result of all this is that Spicy Horse will release its first Grimm episode about one year after its first pre-production meeting. Subsequent episodes will be released weekly for eight weeks. The development team will then take a short break to make adjustments to content based on user feedback before embarking on the remaining episodes over another eight-week period.

“Episodic content, or whatever it evolves into, will continue to be interesting to us – and to our audience, I hope – for a long time to come,” concluded McGee. “There’s definitely something worthwhile about the process and the result. Grimm is just another step in the evolution of the idea for how to build, distribute, and consume games in an episodic fashion.”

Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars

Elsewhere, Psyonix, the studio behind Monster Madness: Grave Danger, has licensed Unreal Engine 3 to develop Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, an arena-based online vehicular sports game for PlayStation Network scheduled for release this fall.

“We’ve been working with other studios using Unreal technology for years now,” said Dave Hagewood, director of development, Psyonix.

“I’m very proud to license the engine for our first title developed entirely in-house and am blown away by the fact that Epic goes out of its way to make its industry-leading technology affordable for developers of games like this.”

Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars features vehicles with physics-based manoeuvrability, including boosters for launching high into the air or accelerating at break-neck speeds on the ground.

Cars can roll, flip, jump, dodge and spin, and players can manoeuvre vehicles to perform breathtaking saves, awe-inspiring shots on goal, and gruesome demolitions of opponent cars in the BattleBall Arena team-based soccer game.

Sky Gods

Meanwhile, BlackFoot Studios has licensed Unreal Engine 3 for Sky Gods, a military tactical action game for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

BlackFoot chose Unreal Engine 3 because it is perfectly suited to the company’s vision for its products, offering cutting edge technology, versatility and the ability to develop a multi-platform product.

“Epic supports the smaller studios, and they work hard to make the right things happen for all involved,” said John Sonedecker, founder of BlackFoot Studios. “Epic is a great company to deal with, and we are proud to partner with them.

“A nicely proven engine solution makes it feasible for us to release our first title, Sky Gods, on multiple platforms. Unreal Engine 3 is proven on PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 with an art pipeline that allows for easy cross-platform development and drastically reduces the effort and costs involved with releasing a title on both PC and consoles,” added Sonedecker.

Sky Gods will focus on a complete co-operative game experience centering on Special Forces operations, specifically HALO (High Altitude, Low Opening) and helicopter insertion missions. BlackFoot Studios plans a worldwide release of Sky Gods via digital distribution in the first quarter of 2009.

The interview with American McGee was conducted by John Gaudiosi for www.unrealtechnology.com.

To discuss anything raised in this column or general licensing opportunities for Epic Games’ Unreal engine, contact: mrein@epicgames.com