When it comes to creating a new game, an important development choice is between using an in-house proprietary engine or one of the established and well-supported game development platforms. In the case of Striking Distance Studios and its upcoming game The Callisto Protocol, the team chose the latter – specifically Unreal Engine version 4.27.
I had the opportunity to speak with Striking Distance Studios CTO Mark James to discuss the business and development side of a new game, why and how Unreal has helped, and some of the bespoke improvements that the team has made to the engine.
IGN: With the huge challenge of setting up a new studio and a new team, how has the use of Unreal Engine been a catalyst in your three-year program?
Mark James, CTO, Striking Distance Studios: Starting with an engine that has shipped hundreds of games is a big plus. Workflows and tools are widely understood and experience using a commercial engine makes hiring easier. There are always certain changes you want to make to the base engine based on product needs, and at an early stage we decided on key areas we wanted to improve. Not that we did this in isolation, we communicated regularly with Epic about these changes to help with integration. When you start a project, you want to keep taking engine drops through the development cycle and consulting with Epic on how best to make their changes to make future integrations easier.
You’re using Unreal’s simple demolitions system and customized it for the Callisto protocol. What are some of these customizations, and does this extend to the game’s dismemberment system?
This is an area that we created from scratch. We knew we wanted a gore system that touched on all the components of a great horror game. Our Gore system blends blood splatter, chunk creation and dismemberment to create the most realistic system possible. We wanted Gore to be a diegetic health bar for each enemy representing realistic flesh, muscle, and skeletal injuries. Not only was this used on enemies, but we also used it to represent bloody player deaths. In Callisto Protocol, even losing is a visual feast!
The game uses ray tracing for some of its visual elements. Can you share if these are Unreal Engine 5 lighting and shadow based assets or did you go in another direction?
It was important for us to get a consistent lighting and shadow pattern in-game. Contrast and occlusion make for great horror.
Using our corridor-based scale of about 20 meters, we found that about eight lights could affect an area of the environment. Unfortunately, we found that UE4 was limited to four shadow casting lights, so we first worked on modifying the engine so that we could support more lights at a lower cost per light.
We looked at the UE4 ray tracing solution at the time and found that for the amount of shadows we wanted to create, we had to create our own solution. So instead, we’ve created a Hybrid Ray Traced Shadows solution that applies ray-traced shadow detail to areas of the screen that matter to the overall scene quality.
UE5 took a very different approach to lighting with Lumen that didn’t fit the internal hallway model we wanted for the game, but I’ve been very impressed with the quality of the UE5 demos so far.
The Callisto Protocol — State of Play 2022 Official Screens
Being a cross-generational game, how did the team find the transition to PS5, Series X and S based on the previous generation?
We created TCP with the next generation of consoles in mind. We wanted to focus on the advanced hardware features provided by these consoles. We embraced technologies like positional audio, super-fast storage, and of course ray-tracing capable GPUs as part of the design.
That said, we’ve always maintained a scalable content generation approach to ensure we’re able to deliver a quality game no matter what generation you’re playing.
Did previous-gen versions present any key hurdles to overcome?
The biggest change to the new consoles was the speed of the storage device. With the SSD of these new consoles, we could have seamless loading throughout the game.
The biggest design challenge was getting it back into the slower hard drive of the previous generation. We needed to figure out where to place load volumes and in some cases load screens where we didn’t need them on the current gen.
Do you plan to expand the console and/or PC versions with other technical improvements beyond ray tracing, loading, and possibly framerates. For example, do you have denser or similar geometry for current generation machines?
As a team, we want to get the most out of any hardware spec given to us. We’ve depicted far more material detail, geometric density, and lighting interactions than any of our previous projects. One of the goals we had at the start of the project was that “every step was different”. We wanted to represent an inhabited world and show the practical design of a space prison. This meant investing in kit-based geometry and a complex material system to represent diversity.
You mentioned that you incorporated Unreal Engine 5 stuff into your custom spur of UE 4.27. Can you share details about this please?
As we worked to complete TCP on UE4, we looked at areas of UE5 that we thought would be useful for both the development iteration and new console features. Epic even helped us move some of these features into our custom version of the engine. There are no big components that stand out, but rather many small optimizations and workflow improvements that have helped over the past few months.
The character models, post-effects, and overall visual rendering of the characters, faces, and movements are above almost any other game I’ve seen, with main character Jacob (Josh Duhamel) genuinely looking like a actor live on video at certain times. What are some of the key technical improvements that help achieve this goal?
The goal of photorealistic characters starts with capturing models and materials with the right light response. We have invested heavily in a capture validation system that allows us to pass photography setups for easy review of the state of technology and creation. Using this approach, we focused technology investment in areas that differed from photo reference and character rendering. For example, one of the key areas of technology investment for us was rendering translucency correctly. This can be seen in simple areas like how light is represented behind a character’s ear but also in our enemies making translucent membranes on the skin.
The horror and tension in the demos really stand out. How much has your sound team worked with gameplay and rendering technology to improve that and are they using new techniques with new hardware, like Tempest 3D Audio?
Audio is such an important part of horror that we wanted to give it as much technological development as rendering. We think of audio as a game feature.
Our goal was a physics-based audio model that represents both directional audio and audio interactions with geometry and materials. Traditionally, these models were too CPU-intensive to run fast for real-time gaming. With new dedicated audio hardware in new consoles, we now have the power to do just that.
Sound alone gives us a tremendous sense of space, even without a visual component. Doing this well creates greater immersion in the game. We use sound to create fear and tension wherever possible.
What is the key area of the game that you are most proud of, be it gameplay, technology or otherwise?
There are so many things I’m proud of in the game we’ve delivered. Whether it’s our lighting techniques, immersive audio, or combat gameplay, it’s hard to pick a favorite. The team is what I’m most proud of. We built a studio and a new IP in a global pandemic, all without compromising on quality. It takes real passion.
#Callisto #Protocol #Developer #Explains #Tech #Games #Gory #Details #IGN