By the time most of the world entered lockdown, sending most game studios scrambling to set up work-from-home arrangements, Hell Let Loose developer Black Matter had already been working this way for more than a year. When we first checked in with CEO Max Rea, he told us about Hell Let Loose’s international development, led by designers all around the world. Since then, Hell Let Loose has seen a successful Early Access launch on Steam and the addition of several updates that have expanded the FPS game’s scope and appeal.
This past year of widespread pandemic restrictions hasn’t put much of a hitch in the development cadence for Hell Let Loose, it’s been built by developers working remotely, usually from home since day one. That’s given the team an edge over the past year – many of the problems other, larger studios were encountering for the first time were issues Black Matter had already found solutions for. For example, the loss of incidental conversations that happen over a desk partition or at the office vending machines.
“I think our advice would be to encourage open voice conversation in channels like Discord, where team members can shoot the breeze throughout the day as they would if they were sitting side by side in an office,” Rea says. “Being able to chat about the latest movie, game, or book is a great way for people to get to know each other and build camaraderie, and you’ll often find solutions for issues that the team will stumble upon just in the course of casual conversation.”
There were other things Black Matter had to learn, however. Hell Let Loose is the studio’s first title, and it’s an ambitious one – a historically authentic WW2 shooter that pits two teams of 50 players against each other in combat that hinges heavily on teamwork and planning.
“There was serious trepidation in revealing it,” Rea tells us. “Would people like it? Would they play it? Would they want to continue playing it? These are the questions that keep you up at night – even more so as, like all creative endeavours, we know the game intimately, and its negative qualities especially!”
It turns out that people did like Hell Let Loose, enough to give Rea and the team “a nice cushion” to take a breath after the Early Access launch and assess their next set of priorities. One thing that quickly became apparent was the need to make updates that would allow the team to fully leverage the power of the Unreal Engine 4.
“Unreal is most powerful if you use functions like blueprints and material instances properly to allow you to adjust large portions of the game extremely quickly without lots of error-prone manual labour,” Rea explains. “For our first year in Early Access, most of our time was spent swapping from naive do-it-ourselves systems across animation, sound, and mapping, to using the highly procedural Unreal Engine systems.”
Related: Here are the best WW2 games on PC
A perfect example was the weapon animation system Black Matter had initially built for Hell Let Loose. The FPS game includes more than 40 gadgets and weapons for players to use, and each weapon required more than 130 individual, hand-crafted animations for both first- and third-person perspectives. Adding or adjusting any weapon required a huge amount of work, and Rea says this added up to being a significant production bottleneck.
“Fortunately, we quickly swapped to using an IK [inverse kinematics] method, and the power of the Unreal Engine animation graph enabled us to quickly develop a procedural system that only requires two animations per weapon – an idle pose and the reload animation,” Rea says.
“Working with Unreal Engine 4, we found it extremely easy to maintain an update cadence of roughly one significant update every six to eight weeks, with smaller patches in between,” Rea says. One of these major updates added the Carentan map – a location in Normandy made famous by countless WW2 films and media, including HBO’s Band of Brothers.
Each new addition has introduced new challenges, but Rea says the growing community has been supportive. “We’ve been very fortunate that the Hell Let Loose community is very patient with us as developers, and we’re able to have a two-way conversation about the majority of issues that pop up in the game,” he says. Black Matter keeps fans up to date on developments through frequent updates to the official Hell Let Loose Discord, for example, where players can also talk with each other about the game or raise pressing issues with the devs.
“We’ve found that an increase in the player base and the increasing interest in the competitive side of the game has moved the conversation from broadly encouraging aspirational conversations, like ‘I’d love to see this in the future!’, to more serious attention-grabbing conversations such as ‘The devs need to fix this right now!'” Rea points out.
Black Matter has to pay close attention to Hell Let Loose’s meta, and how it relates to the different and often fluid strata of the player base – the casual players, long-term players, and the highly competitive players.
“Naively, we thought that the competitive side may only eventuate after we left Early Access, so it’s definitely been a learning point to start addressing them much sooner than expected,” Rea says. “It should also be reiterated though, that it’s a joy people care about the game enough to have increasingly deep conversations about it.”
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, Team 17, and Black Matter Pty Ltd.