With the popularity of digital distribution networks such as Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, many opportunities have opened up for independent developers like inXile Entertainment. And according to Brian Fargo, CEO of inXile Entertainment, Unreal Engine 3 is allowing video game developers to deliver quality gaming experiences like Choplifter HD despite the memory limitations of the format.
“The very best thing about making Choplifter over any of the previous games I’ve done, is that we’re doing this game ourselves,” said Fargo. “This is our company betting the farm on this product and delivering it directly to gamers with no milestones. It was wonderful to be able to just spend all of our energy focusing on the fun. Often times developers can get in these contracts, and they’re having to hit milestones, to make another demo for a tradeshow, and there’s this constant loop of trying to prove yourself. The best games come from the developers that that don’t have to do that.”
“Activision spent $50 million on Call of Duty and they’ve raised the bar for consumer expectations,” said Fargo of the changing market. “The graphic standard for what the consumer expects is quite high — fair or unfair — so we have to do our best to rise up to that bar on what is a fraction of Call of Duty’s budget.”
Fargo said that whether his team uses Unreal for a big triple-A game like Hunted: The Demon’s Forge or for a smaller DLC title like Choplifter HD, the technology allows them to focus on the gameplay experience.
“We’ve been using the Unreal Engine for just about as long as anybody, and my guys have done a wonderful job,” said Fargo. “They really know how to get every ounce out of it and make it do some really cool stuff. For us, we could start making the game day one. All we’ve been doing is focusing on the visuals and the feel of the gameplay without having to create an engine. It’s been great for this project.”
Choplifter HD has been a labor of love for Fargo, who grew up playing the original game. He brought in the game’s creator, Dan Gorlin, to work on this new interpretation. Fargo and Gorlin explored what worked with the original, and what didn’t translate in past re-makes.
“What makes this game so appealing to everybody is that when you fly in, you pick the people up, and you get them to safety,” explained Fargo. “It’s like a ‘god game’ in a way, if you think about it. There’s also the element that when you crash or drop these people, there was a sense of loss. We wanted to humanize this in this version. To me, that was the most important part.”
In the newly re-imagined version of the game, when you fly over a group of people and are unable to rescue them because you’re focusing on something else more important at the time, they're jumping up and down, yelling and screaming, “Come back! Don’t leave us here to die!” When you do rescue them and drop them off, they thank you and say things like, “I owe you a beer.” Gorlin explained that this audio added more depth to the objectives, just as the advanced visuals brought the surrounding environments vividly alive.
Beyond providing game development tools to help strengthen the connection between in-game character relationships, using Unreal Engine 3 helped the team bring a fully immersive environment to life. Fargo said the team was inspired by games like Call of Duty and Battlefield where there’s an intense sense of war surrounding the player.
“In Choplifter HD we wanted to dramatically place you in the middle of it all,” said Fargo. “You’re part of something bigger. When you’re flying your helicopter in, you see explosions in the background, jets are flying by, and there are firefights down on the ground. You feel like you’re more part of a theater of war that’s going on. We were able to use Unreal Engine 3 and all the latest hardware to bring that to life.”
Fargo said the team was able to utilize UE3 to really polish the game’s levels and feature multiple layers of action. Because of the limitations of the 2GB game size, Fargo said the team wasn’t able to utilize Unreal Engine 3 tools like Matinee. So instead, all of the effort was devoted to bringing environments to life.
“We’re pretty self-sufficient, but one of the great things about using the Unreal Engine is the tools and the support; for that, they get high marks,” said Fargo. “We tap into Epic’s tools every day. And whenever we have issues, they’ve always been very helpful.”
UE3 was used to bring a diverse range of environments to life, including desert, ice, urban, and jungle levels. Fargo said that his team was able to use the technology to achieve their goal of bringing a downloadable gameplay experience that doesn’t feel small or repetitive.
“We put all of our energy and money into what’s on the screen from a gameplay perspective,” said Fargo. “Really, it’s a more traditional game from that perspective. I think my guys have brought the visual fidelity of these levels to a much higher standard than a lot of other download products on the market. After an hour of playing this game, you get the feeling you've experienced just the tip of the iceberg, because we’re just constantly adding new elements like RPGs, tanks, jets, and mortar fire.”
All the way through to the end of Choplifter HD, players are constantly being introduced to new things, from variables to backgrounds. Fargo said it was also important to allow players to just fly around in these levels in order to acclimate.
“Whether you’re blowing chickens up, or making the goat speak, or pushing people out of your helicopter, or mowing them down with your rotor blades; there’s all this stuff that’s fun to do without you having to even solve a single mission,” added Fargo.
Fargo said Choplifter HD has been the most fun he’s had making a game in a long time. With Unreal Engine 3 and the self-publishing model of digital distribution, his team was able to focus on creating a gameplay experience that captures the original’s sense of fun while infusing the experience with modern day technology.