Look, let’s get this out in the open now: if a game has wonderful water effects or extravagant explosions, we’re smitten, irrespective of what else follows. Sure, you might accuse us of being shallow, but if the H20 looks invitingly deep, it all balances out, right? Fortuitously, forthcoming multiplayer drone shooter Hovershock sports gorgeous examples of both things – including some particularly frothy looking waterfalls. Predictably, then, we’re already feeling receptive.
“The art style is probably what took me the most time to finish,” designer, programmer, and artist Luís Agostinho tells us. “I’m more of a technical artist, and I love delving deep into shader creation and material tweaking. The visual style was born out of two different things: a love for cartoony, exaggerated visuals, and the need for a simple and fast workflow that I could execute by myself in a timely fashion.”
Shader-centric or otherwise, the results speak for themselves. There’s an appealing chunkiness to the whole shebang that calls to mind the colourful solidity of Team Fortress, Fortnite, or the Witness. The effect – despite all the guns, flying tanks, and flaming death – makes for particularly welcoming first impressions. However, it’s not, no matter how much your brain may insist to contrary, cel shaded.
“The references to cel shading are something I hear every time I show the game publicly, though I don’t use any at all,” Agostinho reveals, when we attempt to drill down into the aesthetics. “The visual style uses Unreal’s full lighting features, just like an ultra-realistic game. The materials, though, use bright solid colors, with small breakups provided by noise textures, to add a bit of complexity.
“This is then complemented by a strong outline effect around every object, that brings to mind the cel shading style. These materials are procedural in nature, really ‘simple’ and nearly textureless. The only textures used are from a small library of noise textures that I use to bring some extra detail.”
Whatever the process behind the scenes, the result is irrefutably cartoony. That has gameplay implications, too, and is not simply a way to swerve the time-consuming process of creating bespoke textures.
“The environments in HoverShock are one of the things that I most enjoy designing,” Agostinho says. “The reason for this is that there are almost no rules. Everything goes, as long as it works, is fun gameplay-wise, and looks good. One of the reasons for Hovershock’s cartoon look is that it sets us free from some constraints expected in a more realistic environment, and allows us to work on crazy and exaggerated settings.”
That free-form approach to design is illustrated by the contrast between the game’s two currently finished environments – one is a beautiful island draped in foliage and bisected by those aforementioned frothy falls, while the other is cosy house that sees your weaponised craft miniaturised into a child-unfriendly choking (and dying by missiles) hazard.
“It’s immensely freeing, enabling me to be very creative,” Agostinho explains. “Still, there are always some restrictions. Gameplay-wise all environments need lots of verticality and obstacles to avoid, as flying in open spaces quickly loses the sense of speed and challenge. My main objective when designing an environment is to create interesting spaces for the player to explore and enjoy, but to also have different, but specific, areas to push the gameplay in the desired direction – areas where the players can easily fight one another, and areas with more obstacles and navigation challenges, where they can ambush or dodge each other.”
Dogfighting in deathmatch is one way to enjoy the game, but there’s also another mode which Agostinho says is inspired by some little-known multiplayer game called ‘League of Rockets’, or something…
“I’m a big fan of Rocket League,” he smiles, “and when I searched for alternatives or similar games to Rocket League, I didn’t find anything very interesting or polished. It seemed like a good opportunity, and I felt like the genre could benefit from more good options. So I started experimenting with lots of ideas around that base formula, and that’s how the QuiddShock mode came to be.”
While there’s a clear reverence for Psyonix’s megahit in the execution, QuiddShock feels distinct. For a start, you’re always in the air, and the inspiration here isn’t football, but – as the name subtly suggests – Quidditch.
“There are new mechanics,” Agostinho adds, cleverly dodging Rowling’s prowling lawyers in the process, “like shooting other players or even a force field that can be used to defend or push the ball to the goal. Another thing that works well is each team having three different goals, going from a big goal worth one point to a small one worth three points. This means that a game can change at any moment with a single three-point goal. All in all, I feel like this will be an intense game mode, where player skill will definitely have a big impact on the outcome.”
While now firmly ensconced in Unreal Engine territory, the project actually started in Unity. A fine engine, certainly, but one that – in this case, at least – threw up blockers in the creation of those frothy falls. And nothing – we repeat, nothing – should ever get in the way of a frothy fall.
“At that time, I had just finished our first game, a mobile release made with Unity,” Agostinho recalls. “Right away, I started working on a prototype for what would eventually become HoverShock. Since my original goal was to create another mobile game, once again, I turned to Unity for its development. Once I had a prototype running, it was clear that it would become a larger experience than mobile could handle. So I started creating a richer experience with PC and consoles in mind.
“The need to change the development to Unreal Engine 4 arrived once I started exploring what would become its visual style. Right away, I felt problems in achieving what I had in my head. In some cases, it was due to difficulties with the tools, other times for outright lack of some features I needed. I was eventually able to overcome some of those problems through the use of plugins, but that led to another set of difficulties as those plugins can be updated or just left dead by their developers.
“This has the potential to damage a project that takes multiple years to develop, especially for small teams. At that time, I already had some experience using Unreal for interactive VR projects, so I knew what kind of capabilities it had. I knew I could probably solve every problem I had in Unity with just the base Unreal tools and features. I started doing some visual tests, trying to create the visual style I pictured, and I got some inspiring results extremely fast! I became so thrilled with the results that I decided to port the prototype to UE4 and shift development from Unity. Best decision ever!”
Hovershock will release in 2020 – check out the official website for more details. 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 CanPlay.