Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Unreal Engine

First launched in 1998 alongside it's namesake game, Unreal has been powering everything from AAA releases to indie projects for almost 20 years. I've watched and dabbled with it from time to time, and it even saved my degree in a roundabout way.

If you're not familiar with games technology and how it all works, don't worry. I'm not going overwhelm this post with tech babble. I just love playing around with this software and decided to talk about my experiences modding and tweaking the different games that have run on it over almost 20 years. 

The full history of the Unreal engine is explained in more detail here. I'm pretty sure if you're reading this that you've probably got a passing knowledge of what an engine actually does as well, and there's nothing worse than having an article bang on about stuff you already know. Just in case, that's covered here. (Yay wikipedia!) 

I started getting my teeth into the engine with it's second version, and I created two levels for Unreal tournament 2004 using it's editor (UnrealEd) in that same year. Incredibly, doing a little bit of investigative googling I've just found that one of them is still hosted online! (For the time being anyway). 

Making DOM-Paperclip was the first time I ever did something just by teaching myself the tools and enjoying the process of "creating". Artistic expression was severly suppressed in our house growing up, with my dear father once angrily tearing up a sketchbook because everything i'd drawn was "Fucking terrible" also he "wasn't going to spend money on sketchbooks for me to waste time on this shit.".

He was a fair man, I mean, at eleven years old it probably was fucking terrible, and that 99p that it would have cost could've contributed to one of his days of drunkenly beating his children. I was a selfish child, so obviously I didn't realise any of this at the time.

So I grew up with the idea firmly implanted that any artistic expression was a total waste of time, and I truly believed that well into adulthood. Once I'd made DOM-Paperclip though, I actually realised that here was a form of art that actually could have financial merit somewhere down the line. Not only that but it flexed that creative part of my brain that hadn't had a workout in so many years. This was exciting!

The map itself was about as basic as it could be. From the top down it had the shape of a paperclip, with the two teams spawning at either "end". The game mode involved each team trying to capture and defend two "Domination points", and in a spark of wild creative level design I decided to place these right next two each other. 

So it wasn't exactly Dust2. But the basics were there, spawn points, geometry, weapons etc. and I was bloody proud of myself. A remnant of the second map I made, CTF-Depth, is still kicking around online here although the file is no longer hosted anywhere. This was another pretty basic map based on my old school, which sounds actually quite dark now I think about it. I know a kid over in America got the boot when he made a counter strike map of his school. Over here in England the worst we ever had in school was smoking in the toilets so the school shootings connection just never occured to me.

At this point in life I was fresh out of college, and totally set up for life with my BTEC in Business Management. (Seriously, whatever people say kids, unless you fucking love the vocation offered by a BTEC, do A-levels. I wish I could go back and sue my teachers for making out BTEC's were "just the same" as A-levels). I was working as a rentals manager for an estate agent, and It sucked BALLS. But they did have a big printer which I used to print off every UnrealEd tutorial I could find though.

At this point the Unreal engine was becoming my passion project, and I started getting really interested in editing other games that ran on it. Knowing the basics of the engine with one game gave me transferable skills to use on any of the others, so I moved to making my own singleplayer levels in Postal 2, building locations familiar to me and challenging myself to improve my level design skills. 

It got to a point where the supplied assets (the 3d models and textures etc.) were no longer enough for what I was making, and so I "acquired" some 3d modelling and 2d art software and began to make my own. Y'all ready to see some skills?

Brollyfluff, or "The Bollock Monster"

Kind of looks like Father Jack off of Father Ted now I think about it. Note the mouth created from simply deleting polygons.
A cheery guillotine.
I hated my life at this point. My job was horrible, I was having to evict people from their homes as well as deal with irate landlords who'd been screwed over by my bosses. Home life wasn't much better either, and at 21 I knew I wasn't about to spend the rest of my working life doing this crap.  

Everything about that situation could fuck off, I was off to university!

Uclan Preston's Computer Games Design BA (Hons) more specifically. And it was amazing. Going to uni later in life (I was 24) gave me a jump over other students, as I already had self taught the basics. The course heavily used Unreal engine 2, as at the time is was the most accessable and the most prevelant software development kit around

When I applied in 2007, the general idea was that if you were good or even qualified in the Unreal Engine, you could pretty much walk into a job over in the states, so that was the plan. Of course then the 2008 financial crash happened, and the rug was pulled out from under us all, but who cared. Plans change, but here I was developing a skillset that I loved.

First year didn't include much Unreal work at all really, it was focused on the fundamentals of game design, which was the right way to do it. Second year rolls around, and it was into the nuts and guts of the engine. First off was a project to build, texture, and rig a character to use in game. I built this.........thing.........

I called him nesquik.
Then as a final project for year two I handed in a level with completely custom assets. We were given a number of mechanics that had to be in our level, like an object that has real world physics, a switch from the player's point of view to an external camera, etc. The idea I finally came up with to wrap all this up in was that you were a builder on top of a skyscraper when an earthquake hits, and you had to make it to safety. Only I couldn't figure out how to stop the player character from starting with a rocket launcher in his hand.

So yeah, you were a builder with a rocket launcher.

By this point the rate at which I was developing my skillset had completely waned. Uni life had taken over, and getting wasted on pound-a-pint nights four times a week had severely taken it's toll. Honestly if it wasn't for having been so motivated to learn before I arrived and so already had a good "stock" of knowledge, I would never have learned the necessary stuff whilst there.

Second year ended, and we all went home for the summer. I was bored as hell, so started playing around with the Killing Floor editor. The Killing Floor was a bit of an anomaly at this point (2008/09), as it was a really popular recent release based on the Unreal Engine 2.5, where most new games using Unreal had moved on to version 3.

Unreal Engine 3 made significant changes to the editor interface, and there was at this time no reason for anyone on my course to jump onto the next iteration of the engine and relearn all the new stuff. The thinking was that we would learn the new tools when we needed too, for now we were being judged on artistic ability, level designs, all the fundamentals. Whatever tool we needed to use to get us "there" was fine.

Killing floor meant we could keep current whilst sticking with a familiar interface, and everyone on my course was playing with it. Then the makers, Tripwire, began a map making competition. This started around the time second year finished, and the closing date was just before the end of summer. It was perfect!  

And so I set about making "Land Of Slaughter" -

It didn't win any prizes, but I was happy with it, sort of. 

I returned to uni. It was time for round 3.

All the way through, we had amazing lecturers, and when I started third year I got so motivated because of them that I decided that THIS was going to be the year. Being a design led degree our projects were always very open ended, so I decided I was going to create something from the ground up in Unreal Engine 3. 

It was going to be a mod for Unreal Tournament 3. It was going to be a singleplayer first person shooter, taking place in an arctic research base overrun by zombies. It was going to have an A.I. controlled squad who fought alongside you, fully voice acted. It would feature NPC's trapped in the base who would help you if you rescued them, again, fully voice acted.

Also I was going to be different this year! This was my FUTURE we were talking about after all! The weeks of being out on the lash four or five nights on the trot were going to be a distant memory, as the game creating powerhouse that was the new and improved Olly 2.0 took CHARGE.

Yeah, that lasted a week.

The block map for my proposed mod
In reality, the mod never made it past the concept/block map stage. I got pretty far into laying the groundwork, but the ridiculous target that I set for myself was unreachable from the get-go. This was only one of three projects I had on the go for my degree, but stupidly I felt I was pot comitted and threw so many hours away trying to realise this idea.

With no development pipeline in place I'd just jump around different things that I wanted to do at that paticular time. Sometimes that would be blocking out gameplay, as above. Other days I'd work on 3D models. (The mod was called "Genesis" by the way) -


With no real project management in place, the whole thing was just a mess. With a couple of months to spare, I had the realisation that if I carried on I was destined to fail. I was in a pickle. Then it dawned on me, Land of Slaughter!

That project had been there all along. While it feels a little bit dodgy saying that I had this fallback option, in reality it's not. This was a thing I had made off my own efforts, and it contained all the elements for a successful submission. Who was to know or even care about the exact time of year that I had made it? After formalising some of my earlier prep work and sprucing the level up, I submitted it at the end of the year and came away with a 2:1.  

Since uni I've worked on and released a number of games, however because of licensing costs at the time, and the games being 2D, I started with Unity, and more recently Gamemaker Studio. In that time the Ureal Development Kit (using Unreal engine 3) has come and gone, and been replaced by the current Unreal Engine 4. 

An example of what Unreal Engine 4 can produce
Licensing of the engine has been completely overhauled over the past few years as well, with the software free at the point of use. It's also free to release your game, with developers only having to pay a 5% royalty on gross revenue after the first $3,000 per product. Which is one hell of a good deal I think.

With the addition of the new paper 2d system, Unreal engine 4 has become a far more attractive option over other engines for 2d game creation for me personally. Check out the below image, and try to get your head around the fact that it was made with the exact same technology as the image above -

As a games artist with a history of using unreal, and little to no knowledge of code, I've now switched over all my in-development projects to Unreal just because of it's ease of use. (Obligatory shameless plug for mooshoomedia.co.uk, a graphic design and games development website run by a really handsome and awesome guy, I hear.)

If made it this far, you're a trooper and thankyou for reading. About halfway through writing it I kind of realised the niche on the sort of person who was going to find this interesting was getting slimmer and slimmer. So thankyou muchly.

As usual, feel free to come hurl abuse, praise, and your comments about the article on twitter @themightyodog or in the box below.

Thanks again for reading!