Not since the days of Sheep and Flockers have we driven a group of farmyard animals through a hazardous obstacle course in pursuit of high scores.
But while those gory games took Lemmings as their key inspiration, Moo Moo Moove is a more family-friendly take on the herd-’em-up – closer to miniature golf than any of its peers in PC gaming.
“You’re playing miniature golf with a bunch of cows instead of one ball,” lead artist Tom Woodward tells us. “It’s a tongue in cheek way of playing that game in a different way, trying to corral animals. I modelled a lot of the design of the landscapes on miniature golf courses and all their wacky mechanics, like the windmill.”
The initial concept began with producer Laura Well at university, before becoming a full-fledged project at Welsh studio Mochi Mode – where it won funding from UK game talent development programme Tranzfuser. Since then it’s blossomed into a casual arcade game for phones and PC. For good or ill, it’s also spawned the ear of Sauron.
“I’ve been working in Unreal Engine 4 pretty much exclusively for two-and-a-half years,” lead programmer Steve Sparkes says. “I’ve really pushed the limits with my own knowledge of programming and how I can use it to leverage interesting mechanics in games.”
Cow herding is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to work on
In one case, for instance, Sparkes experimented with procedural planet generation for a music visualiser. His creation allowed the user to sculpt mountains onto an orb – similar to one of Super Mario Galaxy’s planets – which was built from scratch at runtime. When the music played, that planet would warp in accordance with that sonic input.
“That, compared to cow movement, is as easy as pie,” Sparkes says. “It’s been the most complicated thing. We’ve got three programmers and we keep leapfrogging over each other to do little tweaks to it.”
There’s one thing the herd of cows you direct in Moo Moo Move needs to do: move away from you. Simple, right? “But the whole thing only works if they’re also attracted to each other,” Sparkes explains. “Then, you can’t just have them group up solidly, because you need to be able to split them off.”
At one point, the studio even prototyped a dog the player could control separately, which would exert its own influence on nearby cows. At that point, the task became akin to programming the eddies of a river. “It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to work on,” Sparkes says. “How do you write that stuff down on paper? We’re talking about blending percentages of influence with each other.”
The final result creates the kind of moments the team intended: when driving a group of eight cows in the game, you have to move in a zigzag pattern to avoid pushing any single cow outward. If that happens, you’ve got to make a choice between sticking with the group or breaking off to save the straggler, risking a far bigger cow scattering crisis. It’s finely-tuned chaos.
The ear of Sauron
Beyond Wells, Woodward, and Sparkes, the Moo Moo Move team consists of original programmer Liam Jones, lead designer Kevin Ho, and “lead Swede” Henrik Svensson. What they don’t have is a dedicated sound designer.
“We had this problem where, about a month ago, we realised we had to get all this sound stuff into the levels,” Sparkes recalls. “None of it was implemented, and we had all these different environments, bodies of water, foliage, all these cows.”
Dressing up each level with the appropriate ambient sound direction would take approximately eight hours apiece – time the team weren’t prepared to give up. “A running theme at the company is, ‘What’s the laziest way I can do this?’,” Sparkes jokes.
The answer came in the form of the iPhone X – and in particular the fancy facial recognition that allows owners to unlock their screen simply by looking at it. “It basically shoots out 10,000 points onto your face and that’s what maps it out,” Sparkes says. “For whatever reason, that popped up in my head.”
Using Unreal Engine 4’s visual scripting tool, Blueprint, Sparkes created a system that causes the phone’s camera to periodically shoot points into the game’s world. The camera counts up what it sees – water, grass, dirt, trees – and adjusts the ambient sound levels accordingly.
“That was a way to get Unreal Engine 4 to basically shoulder the work for me,” Sparkes says. “It ties into a bunch of Unreal’s other stuff – the landscape tool and the foliage tool. I call it the eye of Sauron. Tom calls it the ear of Sauron.”
Quite how the ear of Sauron will translate to Moo Moo Move’s PC version remains to be seen. We’ll find out what kind of magic laziness Sparkes has come up with once the game arrives on Steam next year.
Moo Moo Move 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 Mochi Mode.