It’s common knowledge that Unreal Engine 4 is one of the leading commercial game engines on the market today, being not only free to use but supported by an astonishing breadth and depth of features and decades of knowledge. It’s nonetheless a constant pleasure to learn exactly how the endless ingenuity of game developers around the world is making use of all that potential.
2019 has once again provided a wealth of such stories as we speak with developers big and small for our weekly Making it in Unreal series, and as with last year, we’re taking the opportunity to look back on some of our favourites as we approach the year’s end.
From passion projects about taking a nice walk made by solo devs with no experience, to major games looking to shake up genre conventions or even pioneer new ones, the ambition and imagination that devs are choosing Unreal to help them realise is inspiring.
Here are some of our favourite pieces from this year.
man of medan
Until Dawn came out in 2015 and blew up on YouTube and Twitch. Seeing creators share their playthrough of a story-heavy horror game inspired developer Supermassive to add multiplayer to its follow-up, Man of Medan – quite the challenge in a genre that, traditionally, has always been single-player, with design principles to suit.
Song of horror
One feature of Unreal Engine 4 stood out this year in the consistency of praise it got from developers, and that’s the blueprint system. This powerful visual scripting tool enables devs to program game functionality without needing to know how to code, enabling far more staff to contribute to the code base, which means more experimentation. If there were any doubt over its efficacy, Song of Horror devs Protocol Games put them to bed: “you can do virtually everything you want with them. In Song of Horror, the game’s code is 99.9% blueprints […] even an artist can pitch in if they learn some basic stuff.”
The core Darksiders series only switched to Unreal Engine 4 with Darksiders III, which remains a third-person hack-and-slash game. Genesis may look like a Diablo-aping ARPG, but developer Airship Syndicate insists it’s still “a Darksiders game, rather than a Diablo-like”. How did the team translate Darksiders’ feel to a new perspective while innovating enough to give Genesis its own identity?
life is strange 2
Our chat with Life is Strange devs Dontnod threw up all sorts of interesting technical implications inherent in making an episodic game. “What happens if someone deletes Episode 2 to make room for Episode 3? Will the art assets of Episode 2 that are supposed to appear in Sean’s journal disappear?” On the developer side, episodic games also allow the possibility of updating your tools between instalments, which factored in to Dontnod’s choice to use Unreal.
For all that Unreal has proved itself a leading choice for most mainstream genres over the years, it remains one of the most flexible game engines on the market, able to power a range of very different projects. Case in point: Foxhole, a game of rare ambition in which over 100 players per server can create thousands of functional assets (like sandbag walls and, of course, foxholes) in persistent online worlds across weeks of simulated wars. Supporting all that while keeping servers stable is a huge technical challenge requiring a robut multiplayer engine with plenty of tolerance for custom tech and iterative development.
The Cycle aims to move beyond battle royale, taking one of gaming’s hottest genres and adding the option to collaborate rather than compete with other players in taking on quests and hunting PvE enemies. Which makes the fact that it was conceived in 2016, before PUBG took over the world, all the more impressive. The project’s rapid and agile development since then by Unreal veterans Yager, despite a number of technical challenges around its open world and the goal of incorporating player feedback, bespeaks an experienced studio at the top of its game.
the forgotten city
The Forgotten City began life as a Skyrim mod, but its creator, Nick Pearce, chose to rebuild it from scratch in Unreal Engine 4 for its full release, and hired an experienced UE4 programmer to help. This gave him a ton of opportunities to realise his original vision more closely.
“Unreal is powerful in the sense that if you can imagine something, you can probably do it,” Pearce says. “I said to my programmer, Alex: ‘I know this is probably impossible, but I’d love it if when The Golden Rule is broken, liquid gold creeps over the bodies of the city’s inhabitants until they end up as solid gold statues.’ His response was ‘Yeah, we can do that.’ And I think he did it in a day or something. The result is awesome.”
A physics-intensive engineering sim in which you build and program your own (typically adorable) robots to solve a range of challenges, Main Assembly is a niche game with a particular set of requirements. It’s testimony to Unreal’s flexibility, customisability, and its vast pool of legacy features that it can support a game like this, and heartwarming, too – Main Assembly aims to excite and educate its players about engineering, which is a cause we can all get behind.
The brainchild of a solo Japanese developer, Inaka Project blew up on Twitter and Reddit earlier this year, and it’s easy to see why. Recalling the clean and colourful aesthetic of Studio Ghibli films, Inaka Project is simply about taking a nice relaxing stroll in the countryside, and a deeply personal one in that it draws on its creator’s childhood memories.