The version of We Happy Few that launched on Steam Early Access in 2016 is a very different prospect to the one we have now. Originally, developer Compulsion Games was making a roguelike survival game set in an alternative 1960s Britain. You had to navigate a procedurally generated world, craft resources, and stave off random hazards.
The glossy debut trailer seemingly promised a sort of Monty-Python-meets-BioShock shooter propelled by a rich narrative. But We Happy Few was always meant as a five-hour experience you play and then replay. That is no longer the case.
In 2019, We Happy Few has morphed into the more guided, story-focused game that players demanded. Out went the roguelike elements and harsh death penalties, and in came a full-blown action-adventure. There aren’t many games that have successfully pivoted quite so sharply. For that, we have the Unreal Engine 4 to thank. This versatile engine, with its powerful visual scripting language Blueprint, allowed the Montreal-based developer the freedom to deftly alter its game.
Ahead of We Happy Few’s recently released DLC, They Came From Below, we speak to David Sears, game designer at Compulsion, to find out exactly what benefits Unreal Engine 4 brings.
Firstly, why did We Happy Few undergo such drastic change? “We received very clear and loud feedback from our community that they absolutely loved the world and the lore of the game, and they wanted a narrative-driven game,” Sears tells us. “This meant redesigning the whole project midway through.
“We decided to reinvest what we made during Early Access and expand our studio in order to meet those expectations and create the game our community wanted. It was a gamble and it came at some cost – it can be stressful to change mid way through – but without that leap we might not have become the Microsoft first party studio that we are today.”
One of the biggest boons to designers working with Unreal is its flexibility. When you’re striving to bring creations to life, the last thing you want is to be struggling against the limitations of a game engine. For Sears, Unreal Engine 4 is currently the go-to option if you want the most tools for level designers and scripters.
“Blueprint, the visual scripting language inside Unreal 4, is an extremely powerful tool that lets us do whatever we need to in terms of level design, encounter design, and anything we can dream of. We’re not kidding, it’s super flexible. Sometimes it’s a bit too powerful – and gives our programmers nightmares – but by and large it allows us to do more.”
Examples of the baffling concoctions Unreal Engine 4 allows Compulsion to dream up are everywhere in We Happy Few. There’s imaginative butcher shop sequence, in which you discover some residents in Wellington Wells are open to a bit of cannibalism, and the cannon that shoots pure bees at people, and don’t forget Salty Dog, a taxidermy Boston Terrier with bulging eyes. Salty Dog was meant to be a single mission objective, but became so popular it resurfaced in multiple locations.
The retro-futuristic aesthetic proved a perfect canvas for Sears and his team. “That was an opportunity to depict both horror and comedy in a unique way,” he says. “Some people were concerned that it would be too graphic but we think we got the balance right.”
Then there’s Altar of the Yam. “It’s really just the weirdest thing we have ever made,” Sears says. “It’s basically about a cult that worships a cosmic yam that grants the possessor a power of their choice. Just a cosmic yam floating above an altar on a hill. And it talks. We thought for sure production would stop us from doing that one, but nope, it’s in there and people seemed to like it.”
Whether it’s a case of being let loose to unleash everything in the team’s feverish brains, or simply everything Compulsion touching turning to gold, it’s Unreal Engine 4 that underpins it all. “All these examples are great little notions,” Sears tells us. “But the point is that we’re really proud of the artists and writers who just went with some very odd ideas and embraced them.”
We Happy Few’s development was nothing if not iterative. That, of course, goes with the territory of making games, but the iteration usually happens behind closed doors. This one was torn down and rebuilt before our very eyes – and briskly, too. “We confirmed midway through the project that players really wanted more story-based encounters,” Sears says. “Which meant building larger, all-in-one locations in which they could experience bigger pieces of narrative. Unfortunately, these locations sometimes had a large footprint in the landscape which played havoc with the world generation, in the towns in particular.”
Sears explains how complicated it was to keep all of the game events and story logic intact during this upheaval. New locations, even smaller ones, would affect existing features and buildings, causing what’s known as world sprawl. If you don’t know what world sprawl is, imagine the dream sequences in Inception but with a much higher chance of crashes.
Not only did the world need rejigging but entire missions had to be cut. The shift in focus meant quests that Compulsion had designed prior to this point were lost completely. “Then we got more time and we had lots of small encounters and points of interest and some cool large encounters,” Sears says, “but were missing a lot of medium-sized locations that fit in the story arc.”
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You’d think all this would have a detrimental effect on the game, but so complete and polished is it now, you’d never guess what it’s been through. “The We Happy Few development was a strange one as the game we started building was not the game that released,” Sears says. “While most of what we shipped you could read in the initial design, the parts we focused on by the end – storytelling, user experience – were very different to what we thought would be interesting at the start – procedural survival, and a hardcore experience.”
Despite the back and forth, We Happy Few has came out better for it. If you want to give it a go, it’s never been a better time. The DLC is out now.
We Happy Few is out now for 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 Compulsion Games.