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Revving the Engine: Unfortunate Spacemen

John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing was a dud at the box office in 1982, but in the years since, its influence has grown to the point that you can’t help but see it everywhere. Just this year, the soundtrack was re-released on vinyl, a board game based on the movie was announced. I can’t even tell you how many recent movies have taken obvious inspiration from The Thing – The Void, The Hateful Eight, Black Mountain Side, Almost Human and Blood Glacier all spring to mind. Any time you have a story where people are stuck somewhere, preferably in the snow but not necessarily, where they can’t be sure they trust the person sitting next to them, because they can’t be sure they are who they say they are, that’s it: you’ve spotted the influence of The Thing.

The paranoia is the secret sauce. When you’re in a desperate situation, can you reallytrust anyone? How well do you know them? It doesn’t matter what scares you most – communists, fundamentalists, flat earthers – the fear to trust is a powerful and isolating one.

What I’ve never thought it was is funny, but in that, the videogame Unfortunate Spacemen proves me wrong.

Unfortunate Spacemen is a multiplayer first person shooter where everyone is a workaday spaceperson except one person who is a shapeshifting monster with a voracious appetite. The result is extremely paranoid but, also very, very silly.

Geoff Keene, developer at Sandswept Games, took time out of working on Unfortunate Spacemen to chat about horror, comedy and the joys of eating your friends.

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How did you start working on games? Who is on the team?

When I was 17 I started developing games with my father (Richard) and that’s pretty much all I’ve been doing ever since. We’re nearing on about 9 years of creating games and have seen a few people come and go over the years. Most of the time I work by myself, but currently I’m paired with an artist and a great QA crew from New Blood Interactive. As a whole, we’re currently working on Unfortunate Spacemen, and a Diablo-esque VR dungeon crawler called Darken Crawl.

How do you describe Unfortunate Spacemen?

Unfortunate Spacemen is basically The Thing, but in space and with your friends. Someone in the game is a shapeshifting monster who infiltrates and steals identities while the other players are hapless Spacemen trying to complete objectives and escape, while at the same time hunting and trying not to get eaten by the shapeshifting monster.

The Thing references jump right out at me immediately, so let’s start there. Are you a big horror fan? How did horror inform your approach to developing the game? Besides The Thing, what other horror media inspired you?

Oh yes. I especially love some good alien horror. I’ve sort of said “just about anything goes” when it comes to alien horrors and beasts from the blackest parts of space. The weirder, the better. If it drips, wriggles, writhes, or lays eggs, it’s probably inspired Unfortunate Spacemen.

For that matter, Unfortunate Spacemen seems equal parts scary and lighthearted. There’s a long tradition in mixing horror with comedy – can you speak to your thoughts on the combination and how you used it in the game?

Unfortunate Spacemen is really about humans facing unimaginable space horror with a thick layer of funny/corporate-nonsense on top. You can imagine in the distant space-future, tentacle-laden aliens are just something space station personnel simply have to deal with once in awhile, so I wanted to capture that essence. “Yeah sure Jenkins, that alien will totally melt through your bones, but you know, we got you some gloves for that, so… Have it done by 3 PM.”

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The influence of The Thing seems to being continuing to grow. Why do you think that’s so?

That’s because despite its initial niche popularity, the internet has helped it grow. It’s actually a fantastic film. It’s got awesome mystery, great suspense, and oh, I don’t know, maybe it shines a light on humanity’s natural (or unnatural) paranoia towards their fellow man. That’s something I capitalize on heavily in Unfortunate Spacemen. You would not believe some of the witch hunts I’ve successfully led as the Monster.

I think of hidden traitor games as mostly a board game sub-genre. Is Unfortunate Spacemen the first to play with the concept in videogames? If not, who preceded you? And how did previous hidden traitor games influence you?

There was one game that made me want to make Spacemen. It was a top-down Starcraft 2 custom map. Besides that, I didn’t take anything from existing games. Everyone is always surprised to learn that I actually haven’t played any other games like this. Players from those games (or mods) come and tell me how excited they are about Unfortunate Spacemen and the fact that it’s got so much content and depth in comparison. I’d like to say I’m the first to do a fully in-depth first person shooter about a space-monster killing Colonel Mustard in the dining room with a candlestick, so . . . yeah, let’s go with that!

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Paranoia is a key feature of the game. How did you approach designing to emphasize paranoia? Can you walk me through a bit about how proximity chat works?

Paranoia is not just key, it’s the keystone of the gameplay arch. At first I thought it might be impossible to design the game in a way to force people to grow paranoid, but it turns out . . . you totally can. Everyone in the game has a very strict identity – usually a random color, such as Red, Azure, Lasagna or Mustard.

The Monster, who gets their own identity as well, can, at any time, switch to look like one of the people in the game. This causes insane distrust between people, because you never really know if the spaceman you’re talking to is real, or simply blending in to steal, betray or otherwise do harm to you.

I’ve balanced the game in such a way that sticking together is always stronger against the Monster (especially when it transforms and attacks with its vicious claws). To counter that, the objectives, the power weapons, and other sabotage by the monster often require people to split up, meaning you lose sight (and sound) of your “friends” and . . . who knows if the next time you see your buddy . . . is he actually your buddy or just the monster wearing his skin?

Proximity chat ensures that you only hear people pretty close to you. This ensures the Monster can sew their seeds of distrust and chaos with many players being none the wiser.

Oh, and dead players can roam the map as ghosts and occasionally flicker the lights to try and tip off players, or otherwise drive the paranoia deeper still.

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I feel strangely compelled to collect all the custom space helmets. How do you go about designing not just the helmets themselves, but the impulse to collect them?

YES, CHASE THAT FEELING. BUY ALL THE HELMETS.

Actually, they’ve been fun to create and design. Connor “MadDok” Moran has done most of the helmets and some of the newer artwork, and he does some fantastic work. We just come up with designs we find exciting, interesting or just plain different. There’s a few homages to various sci-fi works and some are simply functional and awesome. I think a lot of science fiction games have helmets that are just a mess of geometry and glowing lights. (Compare helmets in Halo Reach to helmets in Halo 4and you’ll see what I mean). The art is good, but they have so little in the way of personality and, in Spacemen, personality is everything. We wanted each helmet to really have some character and bring a totally different look to your spaceman.

And of course, the Monster mimics any customization a player has when disguising as that player, so customization doesn’t have any detrimental effects on gameplay.

The development blog is fascinating and in-depth. What made you take the open development approach?

I can’t imagine doing things any other way. Why would you not talk as often as possible to the community that plays your game? Who else are you making the game for if not them?

It’s probably a good time to mention that I host Unfortunate Spacemen community games every weekend on our Discord, which I also hang out at all the time.

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How does Unreal Engine help in developing a game like Unfortunate Spacemen? Are there any unexpected benefits or challenges?

Unreal Engine is the best engine I have ever used and I have nothing bad to say about it. The team is responsive, they fix issues and the community of developers always has an answer. Not only that, Unfortunate Spacemen is about 99% blueprints as well, which really opened up a gateway to visual coding that I never thought possible.

Has the Dev Grant allowed you to do anything you otherwise would not have been able to?

Besides hiring an artist or two and paying my rent?

I think the Dev Grant is absolutely wonderful. Up until this point, Unfortunate Spacemen was pretty much running on the bare minimum funding requirements (which wasn’t much.) I can’t express how grateful I am to Epic for giving us the opportunity to make Unfortunate Spacemen the game it needs to be for final release – a terrifying, hilarious adventure into space-based paranoia. Just make sure you bring your friends along for the ride!

You can learn more about Unfortunate Spacemen on the development blog. There is no firm release date, but the most recent update included a co-operative, wave-based survival mode. A tutorial for playing the Monster is also forthcoming because Geoff, “wants new players to feel super welcome in an environment where someone is constantly trying to trick you into being eaten.”

This series of articles is made possible through the generous sponsorship of Epic’s Unreal Engine 4. Every month, we profile the recipient of an Unreal Dev Grant. While Epic puts us in touch with our subjects, they have no input or approval in the final story.

Composure Compositing Tool Sample Released

Inside of the Unreal Engine 4.17 release you will find a new compositing tool called Composure, which enables you to composit real world images or video footage with computer-generated imagery like tools traditionally used in film. Unlike most other compositing programs, however, Composure does everything in real time! That’s right, with Composure there is no more waiting to see how things will look once rendered. With Composure what you see in the viewport is what you get in the render.

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Pictured above is the default UE4 mannequin taking a stroll on the third floor breezeway of Epic Games’ headquarters in Cary, North Carolina.

Due to the varying needs of compositing pipelines, Composure has been created in a way that makes it very modular – kind of like your favorite building blocks. In fact, Composure is so modular that it is kind of like having a machine that prints building blocks in addition to all of the blocks you already have.

Inside of the official documentation you will find a Quick Start guide that covers how to re-make the third shot from the sample, which is available to download now within the Learn section of the Epic Games launcher. As the tool matures, additional in-depth documentation will be released, covering everything from customizing Composure to your specific needs to tips and tricks from people who are using Composure in their projects already.

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We’re truly excited to get this into your hands, and we look forward to delivering more supporting resources to help you get the most out of this powerful new tool.

Expos For Indies

Introduction

Hello! Jess here again, following up with another 'For Indies' blog (if you haven't already, check out the first in the series 'Marketing for Indies'). First up I’ve got to give major shout-outs to David Dino and James Megretton (Sumo Digital) and Chris Wilson (Cardboard Sword) for their contributions to this article. Being seasoned expoers themselves they’ve added a lot of their own insights and advice to this blog – cheers!

The idea for this blog came around last month when I was up at Dare Academy sharing stories about my expoing exploits and many of the things I subsequently learnt with this year’s participants. I thought it might be useful to share this knowledge wider, so I’ve written up my talk (and the aforementioned contributions) into another blog covering three main sections:

  • Expos & Builds: Why, where and how?
  • Booth Setup: Logistical booth creation
  • Personal Prep: How to manage when you’re there

I hope you find it helpful!

Unreal Engine Booth Unreal Engine GDC Booth 2016

Expos & Builds

Why Should I Show my Game at an Expo?

With game development, it can be very easy to be pulled into an all-encompassing development where even eating can be forgotten at the wayside. That feeling when you get sucked into a creative flow, where you’re making and making and making is amazing. But, we all hit a moment when we get stuck, we are constantly hitting the same blocker and need a different perspective, which is normally a new set of eyes. Well that’s where expos come in – they give you that fresh perspective on a massive scale.

Not only do expos give your brain a rest from development, and let your subconscious filter through ideas and thoughts, you get to see your game through untested player eyes – basically a lot of free playtesting! That sign marking the path you want the player to follow seem obvious to you? Well, when 80% of people run straight past it you might need to reconsider. It turns out that puzzle you thought was only solvable after a series of difficult manoeuvres can be completely avoided by climbing up a pole and jumping across the majority of it. When the 100th person walks away angry they couldn’t get the character to go where they wanted, you may want to revise the unique control system.

Expo’s aren’t just for finding the flaws in your project, they are also there to celebrate the successes. My favourite moment in game development is when you see someone playing your game for the first time and they crack a smile – the funny smile when an in-game joke has made them giggle, the proud smile when they’ve managed to make a tough jump or beat a difficult boss, the ‘I’ve-gotta-go-tell-my-friends-about-this’ smile when they are so excited they just have to run and grab their mates but at the same time they are so engaged they don’t want to put the controller down, and the ‘this-is-awesome’ smile when they are blown away by what they are experiencing.

Enjoying Gear VR Jeremy Anderson (London is Unreal Meetup Leader) enjoying Gear VR at GDC 2016

Game development is tough, but seeing somebody enjoy your game not only makes everything you’ve done feel worthwhile, it motivates you to keep making more. It’s addictive.

And what’s more, at an expo this isn’t happening in isolation. There can be hundreds of other developers sharing this experience alongside you and it brings you all together. You get to know the other people showcasing around you, sharing stories of what’s happened throughout the day and trying each other’s games, so when you all pack up and leave, you’re leaving with a new set of friends as well as ideas for your game.

Rezzed 2017 Team Photo Unreal Showcase Teams at EGX Rezzed 2017

Where Should I Expo?

As is the case with most of game development, you have a finite budget and timescale for going to an expo, so how do you choose which one is the best to go to?

Well it completely depends on what you are trying to gain from showcasing your game. If you are wanting to attract publishers/press/financing you would be better off at one of the larger scale expos (like Gamescom, EGX, PAX and GDC) because there are simply more people attending, and those who do are there to find and meet with companies. The downside is there is a lot more competition and it’s far pricier. If you do go for a big one, it’s worth pre-booking as many meetings as possible before you go and then using any leftover time to slot in meetings that happen on the day. Many conferences now run a meeting service (like MeetToMatch at Nordic) to make it easier for developers to reach out to other companies.

If you’re wanting player feedback on your design or game direction, a smaller expo can be more beneficial. With less players in attendance you can focus on each player longer and gain qualitative data. Shorter expos also work well if you are early on in development; most bugs in a build come to light in the first day of an expo, so instead of having to watch the same bugs be found over and over at a week-long show, you could showcase for a day, work on the build for a week, and the showcase the updated build the following week.

If it’s your first time showing off a title, I’d recommend starting at a smaller expo. Not only do you learn a lot about how expos work and gain some ideas of what to do next time, you can also ensure you have a suitable and stable build before going somewhere larger.

If budgets are tight, look to see who you could partner with to get a discounted or free space. At this year's EGX Rezzed we hosted the Unreal Engine Pavillion where Indie teams could double their space for free. We also sponsor the Indie MEGABOOTH at GDC, PAX East and PAX West so more developers can showcase their games. On top of this, we may even extend an invite to showcase on booth with us at conferences like Nordic, Develop and GDC.

But we are not alone in this, Nvidia, PlayStation and Xbox to name a few are always on the lookout for fantastic games to showcase. Places are limited and in high demand but it’s always worth a shot. If you’re building for their platform or using their technology, reach out to the teams and see if there are any opportunities available. At worst you’ll get a ‘not at this time’, at best you’ll get a yes!

How Do I Create a Build for an Expo?

When creating a build for an expo, have a goal; is it for promotion, or for play testing? It can't be both. When you’ve decided on your aim, keep in mind:

  1. Player Turnaround

Let’s say you have four workstations at an expo, it’ll be open for 8 hours and it will take players around 20 minutes to finish your demo. Seems reasonable, except even at full capacity all day less than 100 people will have time to play. In practice somewhere between 5 – 10 minutes works well. If you can get your player into the game, give them a sense of accomplishment and leave them wanting more in that timeframe you’ve got a good build!

  1. Get to the Juice

If we think about the start of many games, you often have to go through a tutorial section teaching you the controls and systems which you will need to understand in-depth for long term play and be able to learn without any outside guidance. At an expo you don’t need to do that. You can be on hand to quickly show how the controls work or give advice during play so you want to drop the player into a point where they can immediately do something fun/cool/awesome but most importantly attention grabbing.

  1. Polish

In games, systems and mechanics are often overlapping and interlocking so it can be hard to bring everything up to a layer of polish (when you do, you’re ready to release!). Consider branching off of the main build to create an expo demo. This way you can implement horrible hacks without affecting the rest of development or interrupting the majority of the team. Having less content but all to an equal polish is less jarring and more immersive than a build with greatly differing quality levels. You want to give off the best impression of your game, so if something’s not ready leave it out of the expo build.

  1. Lock it Down

Do your best to finish the demo build at least a week or so before the expo. It’ll save a lot of mental stress to get things done early than try to fix them in the few days/hours before the expo opens. If your build is ready, you’ll feel a lot more confident when you arrive and showcase.

  1. If Possible, Make it Standalone

If you can, create a build that doesn’t require an outside server or internet connection. Both can be difficult to maintain a connection to so best to avoid. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible, so make sure if you need to connect to a secure server that the locations IP is white listed, or any other setup, is in place before the event.

I’ve also got to mention different types of games showcase more effectively than others. Fast paced, instant reward games with simple controls are often the best because they can be picked up and put down easily. Strategy or narrative based games are harder to show because they require time and investment from the player, both of which are limited in an expo scenario. If you can’t find an expo set-up that works for you, spend your time looking at different options for gaining player feedback (online playtests, etc).

With all of that in mind, let’s next look to booth setup!

Booth Setup

Know your Limits

Every expo is completely different. The limitations on how you can change your space and what you can have in it differ vastly from conference to conference. If you’re sharing a booth with others (it’s quite common to see publishers and countries have their own space) you may need to keep within a certain style, so I highly recommend before you plan anything you read up or contact the organisers to find out what the major no-no’s are (if there are any).

Also make sure you know what you can and can’t do legally. Did you know that in Boston, at PAX East for example, due to union show floor guidelines you yourself are not allowed to carry anything that requires two people to carry? Or how about the fact you're not allowed to use power tools on site. Labour laws are a thing and if you're found breaking them in any fashion, they could mean a hefty fine with the potential of your booth being shut down. 

Tailoring the Space to your Game

Expos are incredibly loud and are full of movement. Is your game quiet, relaxing or serene? How can you recreate that atmosphere for your player inside a space that can often feel like a concert? Can you give them somewhere comfortable to sit? (After a long day on their feet it’s often appreciated.) Can you dampen down the noise around them? Is there a way you can subtly shield their peripheral vision so they aren’t being distracted by movement? Noise-cancelling headphones are a must if your game focuses heavily on audio, but should still be high on your list regardless.

If your game requires players to move around, how can they do so safely? I’ve seen many a person (and have done so myself) elbow, slap, kick or push someone away because they unwittingly got too close without realising. It was bad enough with things like the Wii or Kinect when you still had a vague awareness of the space and people around you, but with more VR being showcased, your player has no way of knowing who is nearby. It is your responsibility to make sure they, and the people around them, stay safe.

Sprint Vector Sprint Vector by Survios at GDC 2017

I’ve seen all sorts of different solutions: the good old tape on the floor, mini fences around the play space with a gate so no-one can enter the play space accidentally, different (brightly) coloured carpet denoting the play space so people know where is safe to stand, and full individual ‘pods’ with walls that come right out so people don’t crowd around.

Gary the Gull Gary the Gull by Motional Entertainment at GDC 2016

Is the content in your game suitable for young ages or is there highly violent or adult content in it? If so, you’ll have to let the expo know. Many have special 18+ areas, or will require you to screen off your content so minors can’t see your monitors.

You may also want to screen off your area for other reasons:

  • To stop footage of the game being posted out on the internet.
  • If there’s a big reveal you don’t want spoiled for the next player.
  • To give your players some privacy if you have an emotional game (no-one wants to be caught crying on camera) or if you have a unique control system (some players can be very self-conscious about others watching them).

Seek Booth Seek Booth at Dare to be Digital 2014

When I took part in Dare to be Digital in 2014, I worked with Team Five Pixels to create Seek, an AR/VR experience where you used the tablet as a window to the world around you. During playtests we found some people felt self-conscious about the movement so we designed our space to give them a bit of privacy. Hence we had a large gazebo which we covered on two slides with cloth to help shield them.

Booth Artwork

Once you have an idea for the layout of your space, you have to decorate it! My advice, if you can, is to make it bold (preferably bright if it fits the game) but not busy.

RiME Booth RiME by Tequila Works at EGX Rezzed 2017

This is a photo of the RiME booth from our Unreal Engine zone at this year’s Rezzed. We had 14 teams showcase with us and they did a fantastic job of their artwork. They have a beautiful graphic that stretches across their area. It takes into account where the monitors will be so avoids any nasty truncating and by placing the text at the top it can be seen from across the room above people's heads.

Most teams followed a similar theme and it works – you can see two others teams work in the background, and even from this distance they are still striking and legible. It’s also a good idea to include your social media details on your booth artwork. People will be taking photo’s all the time so encourage them to tag you in their posts by clearly displaying your hashtags or @'s.

Normally you have to submit your booth artwork at least a month in advance to allow time for adjustments, tweaks and printing, so make sure you think about your artwork early on.

Hardware

Another point to think about getting ready for your booth is the list of hardware requirements you’ll be asked to submit. Don’t assume anything. Include everything down to how many plug sockets you need. List every type of cable or adapter required and if you need something very specialised – mine always used to be a hdmi to mini hdmi cable – it’s worth getting one yourself and taking it with you than relying on the conference to provide one.

A word of warning – if you are using mobile devices or controllers that can’t be constantly plugged in to a power source you will need double the amount you are demoing. So say you have four PSVR kits on show and each uses two move controllers, you are going to need sixteen controllers in total. This means you can have one set on charge whilst the others are being played so you can easily swap them out when they die without having to have any down time.

And on top of that, you will probably want to bring at least one spare of everything. Controllers, PCs, monitors, they sometimes decide to die when you least expect so always have a spare to hand.

When the time comes to actually setting up your booth, make sure to arrive early. I can guarantee, something will be broken if you leave it until the last minute, so give yourself as much time as possible to set-up. That way if you need any additional equipment or emergency fixes you have more chance of grabbing someone to help you. Arriving early also applies to show days, just because everything worked the night before doesn’t mean it’ll work in the morning. I’ve arrived to booths to find everything has been unplugged so make sure you come in with plenty of time to get things up and running.

Giveaways

People like free things. In some cases it’s not worth spending a lot of money on them, as most people will throw stuff away when they get home, but if you can make them memorable or unique to your game they can really be an asset. The Snake Pass team at GDC gave away inflatable snakes, and I still I have mine (who is named Sherman) at home.

Sherman the Snake Sherman joins Alex & I live on Twitch at GDC 2017

Stickers are always good as people pop them on their phones, laptop etc but make sure there aren’t any convention rules about them. At GDC companies aren’t allowed to give out stickers and for every sticker they find of your brand stuck somewhere nabs the offending company a hefty fine.

Practical items often go down well; coasters, usb sticks, bottle openers, pens. Stuff which has a use beyond just being (sorry!) ‘tat’.

Also think about you can use them to engage with more than just the gamers. At Dare we did non-helium filled balloons and colouring sheets for small children and it worked well. It kept younger siblings amused while their brothers, sisters or parents played the games.

Personal Prep

Once you have your booth setup, you actually then have the fun part of running it! I’m going to be blunt here, running a booth isn’t for everyone and that’s okay. It doesn’t look it but it’s incredibly hard-work; you are going to be on your feet for at least nine hours and constantly interacting with people in that time which drains you both physically and mentally.

Personally I really enjoy it, but I know I’m in the minority here. The days are long and can be stressful so I’ve got some quick fire tips for you to help you feel great throughout the day.

Think About Where to Stay

Staying close to the venue, or even in the venue, can be incredibly expensive and not always possible if you are on a tight budget. Staying further out can definitely be cheaper but you have to consider how you are going to get to and from the venue. That 45 minute walk might not seem that bad when you book it, but doing that in torrential rain when you’re knackered from a day of expoing certainly will.

If you have friends nearby, see if you can stay with them or if a group of you could share an Air BnB. I will say, spending that bit extra to be close by is worth it. It means you can quickly drop by your room at the end of the day to drop your stuff off, nip back easily if you’ve forgotten something and generally give your feet an extra bit of rest.

Wherever you do stay, make sure you plan a route on how you are going to get to the venue and back – especially late at night.

Have the Right Team Size

Depending on the size of your booth, you’ll want to have an appropriate team size. By a rough guide, half the number of screens you have plus two works well. So 3 people for two screens, 5 for six screens, 7 for 10 screens etc. This means you can have some people helping those play, some to talk to people watching and still be able to switch out easily for breaks.

If you do end up running a booth by yourself, see if you can rope in a friend for some extra support. An extra pair of hands who can bring you food or water (or watch the booth for a few minutes for a bathroom break) will make your day far easier.

Wear Comfortable Shoes and Clothing

I went out and bought reebok airs specifically for doing expos. You will walk miles during an conference – when I did my first GDC I walked through three pairs of shoes! Having shoes that properly support and air your feet makes a huge difference to your day when you’re on your feet, at the end of it when you take your shoes off, and in the morning when you have to put them back on.

Expos also tend to be very warm and sweaty. If you’re like me and can’t cope with the heat then make sure you wear clothing to stay cool so you don’t overheat. A word of advice on team t-shirts (which you should totally have!) don’t ever use grey as your base colour, out of all colours it shows sweat marks the worst.

During the expo if you are going off to business meetings that aren’t being held in your booth, it’s well worth having a set of ‘smarter’ clothes to change into. Jeans, t-shirts and trainers are fine for the expo floor but going into meetings (especially financial ones) it can leave you feeling underdressed when everyone else around you is in suits. Apart from reducing the chances of the ‘expo fud’ lingering on you, I’ve always found dressing smarter gives me a confidence boost which can be helpful if you’re nervous about a meeting. You don’t have to go crazy – decent trousers, shirt/top and shoes is all it takes.

Bring Your Own Food and Water

Staying hydrated is really important, between the heat and the air conditioning it’s amazing how much it dries you out. If you have storage space at the booth, bring a pack of bottled water for the team to drink through the day. Many conferences have water fountains where you can refill them too.

Don’t bank on eating during show hours. Lunchtime does exist but when you want to eat will likely be at the same time the 10000+ attendees also want to eat; queues at all the local food shops will be long so if you can, plan ahead and bring food with you.

When I’m at a conference I make sure to eat a big breakfast because I know that it’s unlikely I’ll eat again until dinner time. You can’t choose when you’ll get caught up in an important conversation, so make sure to also take things like cereal bars to snack on when you a get a few minutes down time.

Hygiene

If there are any germophobes reading, you ain’t going to have a good time at a conference. You are going to shake hands with an awful lot of people during a day, so always have a bottle of hand sanitiser nearby. Use it regularly, especially before eating to avoid the dreaded ‘conference crud’ as it’s dubbed.

Hygiene also extends to any hardware the public handles. Controllers, tablets, mice they all need to be wiped down regularly and if any of you are demoing a VR project, you need to buy the wipe clean protectors to cover the foam face rests and the headset must be cleaned in-between every single use!! No exceptions and no excuses.

Staying Safe

The majority of conferences these days have safe spaces for you to go to if needed and always have first aiders (or a full ambulance team) on site. If you have any worries or pre-existing medical conditions it may be worth finding these areas when you arrive and letting the staff on hand know your concerns.

Learn the Patter

Before the show, make sure everyone in the team knows what they should be talking about. What are the major ‘beats’; the features you are showing off, any upcoming milestones or announcements consumers should look out for, selling points about your games, etc. If there are things you don’t want to mention, again make sure everyone knows what is staying behind closed doors. Press and Media don’t always wear identifying badges, so treat everyone you talk to the same and don’t drop hints to anyone. If someone is asking questions you don’t want to answer ‘we’re not quite ready to talk’ or ‘we haven’t decided about this yet’ will suffice.

As you talk to more people, the patter will evolve over the course of the expo. When you describe your game to hundreds of people, you’ll find wording and phrases that you’ll end up repeating over and over again. If you find something that particularly resonates with the player write it down and share it with the team.

Having a ‘patter’ that you know off my heart and can even say in your sleep can be a life-saver. I once ended up doing a very impromptu pitch to Apple for Seek (previously mentioned iOS title) and I was so nervous I just switched onto autopilot mode for the demo. If I’d have had to make something up on the spot I don’t think the pitch would have been successful (which thankfully it was!).

Always Have Something Playing on your Booth

There will be lulls where no-one is playing your game. Crowds attract crowds so having an empty booth is not ideal. There are a couple of things you can do to attract people to play; when the pod is idle have a looping gameplay trailer on show so consumers can see what the game is about; or start playing it yourself and when you find people watching you offer up the controller to them. Hopefully you’ll have played your game a lot (and be good at it) so you can show off the cool/fancy things you can do in the game and get people excited to try it themselves.

And Finally, Smile!

If you are excited about your project, then those around you will be too. I see it a lot and it’s a really bad habit, but never start a conversation by apologising about the game – like ‘oh I’m sorry it doesn’t have this feature yet’ instead reverse it and make it positive, say ‘we’ve got this working so far and are looking to add x and y’.

If someone compliments you on your game, don’t respond with something like ‘oh it’s not that great, it’s still missing..’ just say ‘thank you’ and smile. I get there’s a line to balance between being humble and big-headed but new developers seem to err on the side of negative humility (Brits I’m looking at you especially). If the player didn’t like it, they will say it (trust me, kids in particular will happily tell you when somethings c***) so don’t try to justify the compliment and just enjoy it.

By staying happy you become approachable, which means people are more likely to talk to you. And every moment you are not talking to someone at conference is a moment wasted. The best connections I’ve made have been completely chance encounters, randomly talking to somebody whilst waiting in line or having a quick breather outside, so make yourself look approachable and who knows what may happen!

Happy Developers Smiling Developers from Top Left: Sumo Digital, Ocean Spark Studios, Pixel Blimp, Puny Astronaut, Right Nice Games, Pantumaca Barcelona, Planet Alpha, KeokeN and Bulkhead Interactive

I hope you found this blog useful. Again a big shout out to David Dino, James Megretton and Chris Wilson for their input. As before, if you’ve got questions, or have tips of your own that you want to share, feel free to drop them in the comments. I’ll keep an eye out and answer as many as I can. Thanks!

Creating a Data-Driven UI with UMG

When implementing a game UI, we often don’t think much about maintainability. We receive a mockup from an artist, break it out into individual elements, place our widgets on the screen with placeholder art and drop in the final assets when they’re ready. This works great for elements such as a HUD or a menu that doesn’t require much iteration, but what do we do when we need to expose a more complex system? Rather than make constant modifications to the UI every time a new item gets added or a new menu option is required, we can set up a data-driven UI to remove ourselves from the pipeline, coupling the underlying data directly to the interface automatically.

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DATA-DRIVEN UI

A data-driven UI element is one which is constructed procedurally based on some underlying data source instead of being built by hand. The beauty of this pattern is that a designer could make changes to the system being exposed by the UI without having to make any adjustments to the UI itself. The biggest drawback is that since the element only exists at runtime, it can be difficult to preview and finely control how it will appear in the game.

For example, imagine a shop in a game. Our interface needs to show a list of all available items for purchase with their price and an icon. It wouldn’t be too difficult to build a window with all of this information, but what if a designer wants to add or remove items from the shop? What if the prices need adjustment or icon art needs to be updated? All of these would require modifications to the interface, and forgetting to do so could cause the interface to fall out of sync with the data. Nobody wants to purchase an item in a game listed at 500 gold only to find 1000 gold taken out of their inventory!
In this post, I’m going to describe how to set up a data table and couple it to a shop widget which will display an arbitrary number of items in a scrolling list. I’ll also show how to broadcast events when selections are made and talk a bit about how we can expand upon these ideas to fit the needs of your project.

GETTING STARTED

The most important part of any data-driven UI element is the data itself, so let’s set up a data table to contain our shop’s inventory. First, we’ll need to create a struct that represents the columns that each row of our table will contain. Create a struct by clicking Add New, opening the Blueprints category, and clicking Structure.

I’ve set mine up like the image below:

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Note that I didn’t create a Name field, as the data table will automatically add this in later. We’ll use the name if we ever need to look up a specific entry in the table.

Next, we’ll create the data table itself by clicking Add New again and expanding the miscellaneous category. Select the struct you created previously, and then start adding in some entries!

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Now that we’ve got our data, we need to create two widgets. First, we’ll need our main shop window, which we’ll create whenever the shop is available. Then, we’ll make an ItemRow widget, which will be created at runtime to represent a single row of our data table.

Let’s start with the ItemRow. Our goal is to create a generic widget that can be duplicated and populated automatically, with a layout that can adjust to fit the different text lengths and such that we allow.

I’ve made some assumptions about maximum text size and icon size, but here’s my widget:

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Note that I’ve deleted the starting canvas panel from the top of the hierarchy, as this widget will be positioned and sized by its parent.

I also created a SetValues function to simplify feeding the data into my template. I could have used property bindings for a quick and easy solution, but bindings will update the value every tick. In any situation where performance may be a concern, it’s best to avoid bindings and instead, set up events to only update your properties when needed.

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Next up, we’ll create the main widget which will hold our entries. This widget will contain the Blueprint for reading in the data table and creating an ItemRow widget for each row. We can temporarily drop some ItemRow widgets in to visualize, but we’ll want an empty scroll box in the final product since the rows will be added by the Blueprint.
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Now we just have to add our main widget to the viewport, and it’ll fill up with all of the latest info from the data table! If we want to add, remove, or change any of the entries, all we have to do is update the data table.
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MAKING SOME IMPROVEMENTS

The first annoyance you may have noticed is that you have to actually start PIE to view your shop interface, which means making adjustments may come down to trial and error. Luckily, if you’re on 4.15 or later, we’ve added in an Event Pre Construct node for widget Blueprints. This is essentially the same as the Construct node, except it’ll run at edit time so we can see how the widget will look in our preview viewport without hitting play. Simply disconnect the Blueprint we used to build the rows from the Construct node and attach it to the Event Pre Construct node.

Be aware that if you modify the data table, you’ll need to hit Compile to rebuild the preview widget, even if the button is still showing the usual checkmark.

It’s also important to keep in mind that although the nodes connected to Event Pre Construct will still be called at runtime as before, they’re now being called within the Blueprint editor on the preview widget as well. You’ll want to stick to cosmetic code, and avoid referencing anything that isn’t going to exist until runtime.

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Another consideration is that even though we’re currently displaying an arbitrary list of items, we’ll need a way of informing other game systems (such as a character controller) when a button was clicked so that we can deduct the gold and add the item to the player’s inventory. To keep things as modular as possible, I like to create an event dispatcher on my top level widget to act as an intermediary between the individual entries and anyone who wants to receive events when a particular button is pressed. Your ItemRow will need a handle back to your root widget so that it can fire the event, which you’ll call by overriding your ItemRow’s OnMouseButtonDown.
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In the ItemRow Widget.
Any interested parties can bind a custom event to the root widget’s event dispatcher, receive the name of the clicked item as a parameter, and do their own lookup in the data table for the full details.
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In your main, top-level widget.
 
It’s also important to understand that the data table used in my example is meant to be modified only at edit-time. There may be cases in which you need a more dynamic data structure which can be modified during the course of your game. You may even want to use a data table as the starting state for your data, copying it over to another structure which you can then modify as needed. For maximum versatility, you can create a data structure with arbitrary properties and some metadata that tells the UI how to display those properties. It’s worth taking some time upfront to decide which solution will work best for you, rather than run into unexpected limitations down the line.

FINAL THOUGHTS

While some UI elements don’t change enough to warrant the extra time and effort needed to set up a data-driven widget, many systems can benefit from the flexibility they afford. Rapid iteration is pivotal to good game design, and generating an interface procedurally lets you go from idea to execution in no time at all.

Check Out These Unreal Engine Games Inside Indie MEGABOOTH at PAX West 2017

Pax West 2017 is happening September 1-4 in Seattle and, once again, we’ll be sponsoring several Unreal Engine developers inside the Indie MEGABOOTH. The games on display feature a wide variety of content ranging from fast-paced jetpack shooters to turn-based war operas.

Here are the Unreal Engine-powered titles you’ll find this year at PAX West.

Midair by Archetype Studios – Midair is a fast-paced jetpack shooter set in a breathtaking new sci-fi universe. Use movement and physics to your advantage, outwit your enemy from every angle, build bleeding-edge defenses, and fully customize the way you play. Break the mold of traditional shooters and jetpack your way into a challenging new experience!

MOTHERGUNSHIP by Terrible Posture Games and Grip Digital – MOTHERGUNSHIP mixes bullet-hell intensity with the shooting, customization, and traversal of the first-person genre. Fight your way through the alien fleets, facing randomized enemy and level mayhem as you clear rooms and take out some of the biggest bosses seen in the FPS genre. Fight, Craft, and Resist in a uniquely chaotic experience.

Obduction by Cyan Inc. – From Cyan, the indie studio that brought you Myst, comes a new sci-fi adventure. As you walk beside the lake on a cloudy night, a curious, organic artifact falls from the starry sky and transports you from your cozy existence across the universe into an alien landscape infused with pieces of Earth from unexpected times and places. The strange worlds of Obduction reveal their secrets as you explore, coax, and consider their clues. As you bask in the otherworldly beauty and discover the enigmatic landscapes, remember that the choices you make will have substantial consequences. This is your story now.

Q.U.B.E. 2 by Toxic Games – The highly anticipated sequel to the top-rated spatial-puzzle game, Q.U.B.E. 2 puts players in the shoes of British archaeologist, Amelia Cross, on a gorgeous, new alien destination. With the help of her fellow survivor, Emma, Amelia must face the challenges of the Q.U.B.E. in the hope of finding a way back home. Q.U.B.E. 2 retains the shifting, environmental puzzles of the original but wraps the action around Amelia’s own intimate story and her quest for survival.

TINY METAL by Area 35 – It’s war! Join second lieutenant Nathan Gries and his troops in TINY METAL, where you’ll go head-to-head against the invading Zipang army with your ground and air units. Send them running scared, then take the fight to their home turf and defend your kingdom’s sovereignty as a proud soldier of Artemesia. In this turn-based war opera for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PC and Mac, experience a riveting tale unlike any other and answer for yourself what is, and what isn't, worth fighting for.

Congrats to all of the above Unreal Engine teams on the upcoming showings of their games. If you’re attending PAX West, please be sure to swing by the Indie MEGABOOTH to visit with these amazing developers! We’re proud to support the program with sponsorship that helps fund booth space, signage and equipment needs.

Have fun!

Join us at Devcom & Gamescom

There are lots of exciting moments to be had at this year’s Devcom and Gamescom! With fantastic talks at Devcom, the annual Unreal Engine Mixer and an exciting new addition – the Unreal Engine Dev Garage – there are plenty of ways for you to get involved with the Unreal Engine team. We’ll be stationed in Hall 2.2 so make sure to drop by and say hello!

Talks

From a keynote with Tim Sweeney, to a masterclass with Sjoerd De Jong, to many talks from our amazing developers, there’s plenty going on at Devcom that you won’t want to miss!

Business Keynote by Tim Sweeney (Epic Games)
Tuesday, August 22nd | 11:00 – 12:00 | Congress Hall 4th Floor, Congress Centre East

From UNKNOWN to PLAYERUNKNOWN: Deconstructing BATTLEGROUNDS
Monday, August 21st | 11:00 – 12:30 | [RSP] Channel 5 – Candy Cotton Classroom 4th Floor, Congress Centre East

PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS has sold more than two million copies worldwide, remains in the number one slot on Steam and the top five most watched game on Twitch. Brendan Greene (aka PLAYERUKNOWN) will share his experience in going from modder to Creative Director for Bluehole. He and the team will highlight things learned from his modding days and how they applied them to larger scale game development, covering the following points: How to funnel and apply feedback Developing a partnership with livestreamers and players From Modding to Full Game Design – Making the jump, the do’s and don’ts with insights from Brendan.

EVERSPACE – From Forging the Game Vision to Self-Publishing
Monday, August 21st | 17:00 – 18:00 | [ddc3] Conference Room 2 2nd Floor, Congress Centre East

With their debut title EVERSPACE, the veteran team at ROCKFISH Games created a surprise hit on PC and console by combining a high-quality 3D space shooter with roguelike elements, unusual storytelling, and optional VR support. At the beginning of the project, in a situation of an unexpectedly canned previous work for hire production, the team had to come up fast with a strong vision within a competitive, yet niche genre to secure funding to develop this new IP before running out of business. Michael Schade, CEO & Co-Founder of ROCKFISH Games, will walk the audience through a 12-step process, which enabled the team to turn around the doomed studio into a creatively and financially independent position, eventually.

VR Postmortem ‘NewRetroArcade’: What Indies Shouldn’t Do
Monday, August 21st | 17:00 – 17:30 | [RSP] Channel 2 – Carousel Stage 4th Floor, Congress Centre East

The session will discuss our experience releasing New Retro Arcade, a VR title that has been previously released as free product. Questions which will be discussed are: What is the best price point for releasing a VR game which also allows NON-VR players to play the game? What is the best sale strategy on Steam? What to do if your game's price point is to high? How to deal with unhappy customer reviews on Steam? What to expect on revenue when you sell your VR game on Steam? What to look for when your game deals with thirdparty software (legally, costs)?

How to Kickstart your Project
Monday, August 21st | 18:00 – 19:00 | [RSP] Channel 3 – Rollercoaster Stage 4th Floor, Congress Centre East

In October 2016 we launched our Kickstarter campaign for Lost Ember without a significant track record or any kind of community before we started promoting our campaign. After about 48 hours we reached our funding goal of 100,000€ and ended the campaign with almost 340,000€, making Lost Ember Germany's second most successful crowdfunding campaign for a game. Tobias Graff will talk about how we prepared the campaign months before the actual launch, built our community from scratch, and got international press and influencers to talk about and work with us, as well as share some insights about what it entails to manage a crowdfunding campaign, what ups and downs we went through, and what we learned in doing so.

Master Class by Andreas Suika (Daedalic Studio West)
Tuesday, August 22nd | 10:00 – 12:00 | devcom developer lounge 1 Hall 4.1

Mastering Unreal Engine 4 Real Time Rendering by Sjoerd De Jong (Epic Games)
Thursday, August 24th | 13:00 – 15:00 | devcom developer lounge 2 Hall 4.1

In this 2 hour masterclass Sjoerd De Jong will dive into the depths of Unreal Engine 4 rendering. From the perspective of an artist Sjoerd will go through a big portion of the real time rendering process the engine runs through each frame, and what its practical implications are on art production. The masterclass will focus primarily on occlusion, geometry, and lighting rendering in order to give the attendees a better understanding of performance considerations, art pipeline, and rendering features of Unreal Engine 4. The class targets both game developers and people from the film, architecture or visualization industries.

Mixer

The annual Unreal Engine Mixer returns once again on Wednesday from 17.00 to 19.00!  Join us for some free beers and fun networking at:

Joe Champs Sportsbar Deutz
GmbH Constantinstr.
96 50679 Köln Deutz

You can sign up to the event on Eventbrite, and don't worry, you don't need a Devcom or Gamescom pass to take part. We hope to see you there!

Dev Garage

We don’t succeed unless you succeed, so this year we are introducing the Unreal Engine Dev Garage at Gamescom. On Thursday afternoon from 13:00 – 16:30 you can book a half hour slot to get some on hand tech support, discuss custom licenses, promotion and more.

Spaces are limited and time is tight, so to make sure we get the right person to help you, please e-mail the following details to GCDevGarage@unrealengine.com to request a meeting:

Team Name:
Project Name:
Team Member(s) Name(s) Attending:
Questions:

Please note, the Dev Garage will be held at our booth in Hall 2.2. To enter the hall you must have a trade pass!

Epic and Unreal at SIGGRAPH 2017

SIGGRAPH 2017 attendance was up on previous years and there was a renewed sense of optimism at the show, fueled by excitement around real-time production, advancements in virtual, augmented and mixed reality, as well as the impact of the cloud, AI and machine learning on the production pipeline.

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SIGGRAPH 2017 Real-Time Live! Best Real-Time Graphics and Interactivity Award winner, "The Human Race" (The Mill & Epic Games). Photo by John Fujii © 2017 ACM SIGGRAPH #SIGGRAPH2017

Epic was at the center of these SIGGRAPH trends, generating buzz around its first-ever Unreal Engine SIGGRAPH User Group and a range of demos and presentations. One theme in particular – real-time production – was a common thread across our presentations:

  • The Human Race’, co-produced with Chevrolet and The Mill, received the “Best Real-Time Graphics and Interactivity” award at Real-Time Live! – the third win in a row for Epic and Unreal Engine.
  • Our cinematic trailer ‘Fortnite: A Hard Day’s Nite’ was featured, along with ‘The Human Race’, at the Computer Animation Festival. This was the first year the festival included short films rendered in real-time – and both were Unreal projects.
  • Studio Daily’s Bryan Frazer featured Unreal Engine and real-time production in ‘Five SIGGRAPH Trends Changing the Way We Make Media’.

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The Orpheum Theater, Los Angeles

The Unreal Engine User Group on Monday night was a jam-packed, 100-minute showcase, featuring 20 presenters across multiple industries – film and animation, TV, automotive, architectural and design visualization. For those who missed it – or would like to watch again – here’s the recording.
 

"One technology receiving a great deal of attention at Siggraph this year was the game engine. Unreal Engine from Epic Games showed off new uses in architecture, product design, and product marketing… Petit noted how game engine technology is built for storytelling, and storytelling is moving to VR." – Randall Newton, Graphic Speak

We’d like to thank the guest presenters and contributors who made our first-ever SIGGRAPH User Group a success: aXYZ AnimaChaos Group V-RayDigital DimensionEsri CityEngineHarley-Davidson MotorcyclesHOKLissoni AssociatiMike SeymourTwinmotionZoox.

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Top image: Scene imported via Datasmith into Unreal Engine and baked, no further refinement. Bottom image: Corona rendering from 3ds Max. Images courtesy of A-VR.

Datasmith, our workflow toolkit, debuted at the user group – to a round of applause – confirming our belief that many of you will welcome help getting 3ds Max and CAD data into Unreal. For more information and to register your interest in joining the beta program, head to unrealengine.com/beta.

Augmented, virtual and mixed reality was another hot topic at SIGGRAPH – with Unreal driving many of the experiences generating the most interest. We hosted the VR Film JamGhost Paint and Michelangelo’s David – and we were a key partner in the Meet Mike virtual human research project.

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The Ghost Paint VR graffiti wall in action at SIGGRAPH

Special thanks to our friends at Valve for supporting the Ghost Paint VR graffiti wall, Meet Mike and Michelangelo’s David, all of which ran on HTC Vive at the show.

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Virtual Mike Seymour: Rendered at 30fps above, and at 90fps in stereo at Siggraph

“Unreal Engine 4 is a beautiful reminder that technology and art can merge in fantastic ways. The graphics for ‘Kingdom Hearts III’ are some of the best we’ve seen, and the trailer for ‘Fortnite’ is as impressive as the game itself. If Epic Games has its way you’ll be seeing a lot more real-time production in animation, video-games, and beyond.” – Tristan Greene, The Next Web

Convergence has been widely discussed for decades – and at SIGGRAPH 2017, it was clear that it is now upon us – with game engine technology firmly at the heart of computer graphics and interactive techniques.

Turning Linear Content into Interactive Experiences at the SIGGRAPH 2017 VR Film Jam

New for SIGGRAPH 2017 was the VR Film Jam, where teams were invited to submit finished linear animated shorts, along with one-page treatments detailing how they would turn their work into an interactive VR experience. The goal was to demonstrate how traditionally crafted linear content can be turned into engaging, interactive VR worlds with the final projects being experienced by SIGGRAPH attendees in VR Village on Wednesday, August 2, and Thursday, August 3.

From the pool of entries, three teams were selected to realize their shorts into VR experiences in Unreal Engine 4 with the help of the team at Epic Games. In the end, two of those teams were able to make it to SIGGRAPH in person.  The participating teams and projects are detailed below.

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From the School of Visual Arts New York, Hannah Roman brought “The Moon Is Essentially Gray,” a CG-animated short about a young child, her makeshift rocket, and her fantastic flight to the moon.

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From Cogswell College, Peter Mo, Scott Stewart, Jordan Boone, and Kimberly Wong brought “Trouble Brewing,” their short film featuring an adventurous young goat that encounters an angry troll in its old, run-down house.

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A few of us from Epic consulted with teams to help bring the experiences to life in VR:

  • Animation and Rigging – Chris Evans
  • Blueprint and VR mechanics – Wes Bunn
  • Lookdev and art pipeline – Luis Cataldi

The VR Film Jam took place over three days. Wes and I kicked off the event on Sunday morning with a two-hour workshop to help participants get up to speed in Unreal Engine. We had also been in touch in the weeks leading up to SIGGRAPH to help prepare some of the content and VR interaction mechanics in order to ensure the they could hit the ground running.  

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Hannah Roman’s short film, “The Moon is Essentially Gray,” is a touching story about a young girl who builds a rocket ship out of her bed and old pizza boxes only to find herself radioing home from the surface of the moon.

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The VR experience that Hannah built during Siggraph in Unreal Engine had the player helping the little girl assemble the “bed” rocket ship while she talks you through the process over the TV screen with strong audio cues. It was a clever solution for VR and the quick turnaround needed for this project. You can download a build here.  

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The team from Cogswell College came to the VR Film Jam with a humorous short about a couple of goats and a troll. “Trouble Brewing” is a lot of fun with a small goat wreaking destruction and havoc in the home of a troll who loves his fancy plates and china sets. With that in mind, the team choose to build an experience that lets users break all sorts of of things in the troll’s house while in VR. The project and mini-game turned out to be a blast and can be downloaded here.  

To provide a bit more background, our team loaded all of the original assets from the linear projects into Unreal Engine so that the participants could spend their energy iterating on lighting, animations, audio, and gameplay mechanics. From there, time went into refining art assets, textures, materials, animations, audio samples, lighting passes, design timings, Blueprint tweaks, you name it.

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The teams worked tirelessly over the course of the jam to ensure that their animated shorts would be represented in UE4 in the best light possible, and both teams caught onto the tools with ease. Hannah seemed excited to be able to light the little girl’s room so quickly and interactively, and Scott from the Cogswell team took to the UE4 material system like a pro.  

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SIGGRAPH attendees streamed in and out of the room, often stopping by to check in on the progress and play test builds while offering valuable feedback to the teams. Playthroughs of the projects began as soon as possible and continued well into the installations of the projects at the VR Village.  

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It took a bit of time to refine the experiences, but finally the games were ready for the toughest of audiences.  

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The VR Film Jam provided an excellent opportunity for these talented teams to transform their linear works into interactive experiences. With the recent arrival of Unreal Engine 4.17, all developers can take advantage of the latest tools and enhancements to bring their creative concepts to life.

Download Unreal Engine for free here.

 

Making Michelangelo’s David in VR for SIGGRAPH 2017

Epic’s’ Lead Technical Animator Chris Evans discusses the process of bringing one of the world’s most recognized pieces of art into virtual reality.

In 1998, Marc Levoy lead a team from Stanford to scan Michelangelo’s David in Florence. Over the years, this dataset has been used by many papers presented at SIGGRAPH, but since it totals in more than a billion polygons, it’s never been viewable in real time.

Until now.

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I am a bit of a Michelangelophile. I actually have a plaster cast of David’s face at home, taken from the statue in 1870 when it was moved. I have studied Michelangelo for many years, and I find his life and works really intriguing. At one point I was told that I have more books on Michelangelo than the Staedel Art Library in Frankfurt!

As the Games Program Chair for SIGGRAPH 2017, it was my job to try and get unique and interesting experiences powered by game engines into the conference – experiences like Shane Caudle’s Ghost Paint, the rear-projected VR spray paint exhibit.

I really tried to think of other uses of VR that could allow attendees to experience things they haven’t yet seen. And then it hit me, what if I could somehow get the Stanford David dataset in VR and allow any attendees to ride a scaffold right up to his face?

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I contacted Marc Levoy from Stanford, and he agreed to allow us to try and create this experience for SIGGRAPH 2017.

Over six months, and with the help of Adam Skutt, a character artist at Epic, we baked the dataset onto an in-engine representation, down to the quarter millimeter! I modeled the interior of the Tribune at the Galleria della Accademia in Florence, where the David is housed, and created the level allowing people to ride a scaffold up and down while walking around the statue.

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Peter Sumanaseni, senior technical artist at Epic, lit the scene using lots of photo reference and information about the skylight given to us by Victor Coonin, the world expert on the David.

In the end, the piece was well received at SIGGRAPH 2017. There was always a line to see it and many people said it was the best VR experience they saw at the show. This was really a humbling experience, but going into it I knew that it would provide a unique and interesting opportunity to profile this famous piece of art. I was glad to see that others felt the same way.
 

Probing the Minds Behind the Cyberpunk Horror of >observer_

We live in an age of constant observation; tracked and analyzed by everything from email to smartphones and even household appliances. Increasingly, the only things we truly have to ourselves are our thoughts and memories, but in the world of >observer_, even that line has been crossed.

A tale of cyberpunk horror from Bloober Team, the creators of Layers of Fear, <observer_ puts players in the role of Daniel Lazarski, an Observer in a corporation-run police force who uses neural augmentation to enter the minds of other people.

Set in 2084, <observer_ draws upon wide range of cyberpunk influences, including the voice talents of Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner), while staying true to its Polish origins in order to establish a unique identity in this classic genre.

We talked to Bloober Team Brand Manager Rafal Basaj about the studio's approach to horror, their cyberpunk influences, and how they used Unreal Engine 4 to bring the two together in >observer_.

What is the premise of >observer_?

>observer_ is set in a very dark and gritty cyberpunk universe. The game starts when your estranged son calls you for help. You respond by travelling to a seedy, class C district of Krakow where you enter an old tenement building. Soon, you discover there's more going on than expected. You will need to investigate what's happening and how your son is connected to all of that. You will scan the environment using your implants in search of clues, talk to tenants seeking guidance, and hack into other people's memories to uncover the mystery of the unfolding events.

From a player's perspective, how does Daniel's role as a detective fit into gameplay?

It's a cyberpunk setting, so Daniel is no ordinary detective. He has many body augmentations that help him in his job. He is equipped with retinal implants that allow him to scan the environment in two different modes; UV and Bio. The former highlights electronic objects of interest, and the latter biological signatures. Using them, Dan can seek clues and additional information about what is really happening in the tenement building.

Obviously, the more interesting part of his work is the ability to hack into people's memories and relive them in search of answers. He does so with the Dream-Eater device, which he plugs straight into someone's neural implant. Don't expect a joy-ride though – minds are chaotic places, where anything can happen!

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Given Daniel's employer and skills, he almost sounds like a villain. Was this sort of ambiguity of good and evil intentional?

Daniel is a tool for an oppressive mega-corporation ruling the entire country. He is not pure evil, however his line of work makes you wonder how distorted his morality really is. The ambiguity is of course intentional; as in real life there are no black or white situations, and Daniel is a flesh-and-bone character that walks in the shades of gray. It's up to the players to decide how his actions tie into their own morality and decide what kind of character he really is.

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Are you and the team big fans of cyberpunk? Are there any particular movies or books that inspired you during development?

Definitely! There are a lot a cyberpunk fans in our office who grew up watching movies like Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Akira, and Johnny Mnemonic, and people who read all the works of William Gibson and Phillip K. Dick. And, we've clocked countless hours telling stories in the pen and paper game, Cyberpunk 2020.

There are so many good cyberpunk works that influenced >observer_, but we wanted to give our universe a local Eastern-European flavor mixed with a sort of retro vibe, as if we imagined the future from the end of the '80s. It's filled with décor that everyone growing up in Poland during the '80s and '90s remembers from their family homes. It's a very unique blend of classic themes overall, though darker than a lot of US or Japanese cyberpunk, with a somewhat exotic Eastern-European approach.

Bloober Team has described its style as "hidden horror." What does this mean in comparison to other horror games?

The horror genre in gaming is very limited, boiling down to mostly two types of action-oriented gameplay styles; kill thousands of enemies, or run from a few that you can't kill. We wanted to give players the sort of variety that the film industry has enjoyed for years with more subtle horror about the fear of the unknown, rather than in-your-face scares. This is how the idea of "Hidden Horror" was born.

Integral to this is a subject that is morally/socially/politically ambiguous; one for which there are no simple answers and how you perceive it depends on your own worldviews. With Layers of Fear it was the decision between choosing family over work, or the other way around. In >observer_ it's the boundaries of humanity.

The second is something we call "Catharsis 2.0." All horror has one task at hand; to relieve you of tension. We want to expand on that with another layer of catharsis regarding your own worldviews. If you faced the same situation as the mad painter from Layers of Fear, would you strive to create the masterpiece, or would you sacrifice perfection for family? There is no correct answer, and this is precisely the point. We want people to reflect upon their own lives after playing our games.

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Besides scaring us, do you feel there is something that horror can achieve that other genres cannot?

Absolutely. Horror is a genre that directly impacts our psychology while crossing boundaries of style and setting, be it an old XIX century mansion or a cyberpunk dystopia. Horror is both a mature genre and a genre for the matured. Creative minds can do almost anything with it, presenting improbable situations with enough realism that people can still become immersed. As a result, horror games can tackle themes and problems other genres might find difficult.

That said, horror is also a very hard genre to pull off.  Mood, design, audio, art style – everything must be done correctly or the whole experience will be lacking. It's a risky genre, but if done right you'll have a masterpiece on your hands.

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Layers of Fear was made in a different engine. What made you decide to switch to Unreal Engine 4 on this project?

We chose Unreal Engine 4 mainly due its flexibility and how much we can expand upon it. With Layers of Fear, we weren't able to modify or extend the engine to suit our needs in the way that UE4 allows. Having access to the source code and the ability to modify every aspect has been pure gold for us.

We were also very satisfied with how painless it was to upgrade to newer versions of the engine. One additional crucial aspect for the change is that UE4 is written in native C++, which helps to create games for consoles.

What has been your favorite tool or feature since you started using UE4?

The most important aspect for us has been the source code access and ability to code natively in C++, allowing us to painlessly expand upon the core engine and fit it for our needs. Blueprints are also an immense help for our designers, as they can script visually and not worry about lines of coding.

The FX work in >observer_ is incredible. Tell us about some of the FX and how they contribute to gameplay.

We've modified the engine rendering pipeline to implement order independent transparency. That feature allowed us to achieve many alpha blended effects that stack upon each other without visible artifacts. We've also used vertex/procedural animations in many places – UE4's flexibility allows us to write custom vertex factories – that pushed procedural animations entirely into GPU, so we had CPU free for other fancy things.

We created custom shaders that we used throughout the whole game and simulated 'living meat' and liquid effects with ease. We have also been using voxelized geometry that was set up first and managed by adding shaders to them by level designers and the art team in general. This became a kind of a puzzle that could later be used freely by the team.

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What is the hardest part about creating a game that so heavily distorts our perceptions of reality?

The hardest thing is to not overdo the effects. There's a thin line between what looks cool and what makes you feel uncomfortable in this type of mind-bending experiences. People have different tolerances to the amount of events and effects their mind can process at one time. Visually crafting the game to create this effect is also a meticulous and slow process. It's often based on countless renditions and tweaking the effects time and time again until we are satisfied with the final result.

Where should people go to keep up with development and learn more?

They can go to the website at www.observer-game.com and sign-up for our newsletter. We also strongly recommend visiting our social channels, including facebook.com/blooberteam and twitter.com/blooberteam as well as those of our publisher, Aspyr Media – facebook.com/aspyrmedia and twitter.com/AspyrMedia.