Imagine the side-scrolling drama of Inside, but instead of body horror and creepy worker drones, there’s a dog. An alaskan malamute to be precise – large and furry enough that he thinks he’s a wolf, and spends a lot of time howling at the moon. It’s why his parents abandoned him.
It’s got you already, hasn’t it? Hook, leash, and chew toy. That instant connection with a canine protagonist is what powers Doggo, the debut game from Manchester’s Wip Tail Games.
“It’s a companion adventure with man’s best friend,” project lead Nathan Robinson tells us. “You’ve got a dog and there’s a bond straight away. Through the game and story, we want to build an even tighter bond between the Doggo and the player.”
Robinson has never actually owned a dog. But he and his team have learned that ownership starts with good training. For Wip Tail Games, that has meant teaching its Doggo to look at specific points in the world on command, or to tread a cinematically satisfying path through the story they want to tell.
Walk the spline
If you’ve played Inside you’ll have noticed that the side-scroller doesn’t just scroll from side to side. Although you steer your child protagonist left and right along a single axis, the game gently pushes the boy towards the foreground or background, behind trees or through hatchways, drawing a 2D route through a 3D world.
“It’s been quite difficult [to replicate],” Robinson says. “But then we discovered splines, and that helps.”
Splines are used by game developers to define the path that actors, in this case Doggo, take through their environment. Conveniently enough, Unreal Engine 4 comes with a tool that allows Wip Tail Games to add spline points into their level designs, in the same way you would lay down waypoints for a soldier in Frozen Synapse 2.
On a basic level, Doggo needs to follow a path that doesn’t involve colliding with objects or becoming obscured by terrain. But Wip Tail Games also thinks about Doggo’s path from a cinematic perspective. In combination with camera zoom, the spline helps the studio frame each scene – pulling back for wider views that take in the full moon, for instance. The moon is important: throughout Doggo, it functions as a diegetic objective marker.
“In the cutscenes you see him howling at the moon,” Robinson says. “We always want to try and get the moon in the frame, because that’s what you’re aiming for. As a player you think, ‘I’ll go that way because there’s light’.”
If you were to load up Doggo in Unreal Engine 4, the game would appear as a giant, persistent level. “The whole game is one long, big block of levels,” Robinson says. “It uses level streaming to switch back and forth.”
While directing Doggo along a riverbank, you can see his head turn to watch the fish jumping in the water. As in Inside, animation provides the crucial details that sell the characters on-screen in absence of dialogue.
“I just give it a go if I’m honest,” Robinson says. “I only did one unit of animation at university but we needed an animator. He’s actually looking at a rock in the lake, but we just used a head tilt. We have a Blueprint that uses the skeleton of the dog, but we tell it to rotate at certain points.”
Blueprint is the visual scripting tool in Unreal Engine 4 that allows developers to implement ideas without extensive knowledge of programming. Its pawprints are all over Doggo.
“I don’t really like coding,” Robinson says. “I’ve done little bits, like the camera zoom. But a lot of the narration is triggered by Blueprints. It’s easy for someone who would be prefer to be doing something other than programming, because it can be set up in a couple of minutes and it works.”
Tools like these have enabled Wip Tail Games to get Doggo up and running in a very short time frame, beginning just ten weeks before the game was demoed at EGX. Just don’t ask to see its code – which is messier than walking four dogs at once.
“We say it’s a lot like Spaghetti Junction right now in the Blueprints,” he admits, in reference to the infamously tangled UK motorway interchange. “There’s a lot of things going everywhere. We’re fairly new to it. Having Blueprints has helped a lot.”
Doggo is coming to the PC. Unreal Engine 4 development is now free.
In this sponsored series, we’re looking at how game developers are taking advantage of Unreal Engine 4 to create a new generation of PC games. With thanks to Epic Games and Wiptail Games.