Zombie Studios is no stranger to Unreal Engine technology. After using Unreal Engine 3 to create Blacklight: Tango Down and Blacklight: Retribution, Zombie Studios was among the first to adopt Unreal Engine 4, which enabled the small team to transform an ambitious idea for a new horror game into a reality.
In Daylight, players wake in the maze-like ruins of an abandoned hospital. Helpless and aided only by the small light of a smartphone, there is one simple goal; escape. Made for short and varied play-sessions using procedurally generated environments, every game of Daylight is different with new layouts to navigate, hidden secrets to discover, and unsettling encounters with the dreadful residents of Mid Island.
Unreal Engine 4 gave Zombie Studios the ability to jump into development with incredible speed. As creative studio head Jared Gerritzen, recalls, "When the idea for Daylight came up, it was really wild, because I literally brought the idea up and then I went to Korea for two weeks. When I came back, all the guys here just took it and ran with it, and it was just a team of six with one engineer and mostly artists."
Gerritzen adds, "Making everything with Blueprint and being able to rapidly prototype and iterate without a lot of engineers is something really special. The cool thing about Unreal Engine 4 is that you can do all of these things that you wouldn't have been able to do in the last cycle, mostly because you don't need to have so many programmers and you have these flexible modules. It's awesome."
Blueprint is the new visual scripting tool in Unreal Engine 4, and it affords small teams like Zombie Studios the ability to test new ideas and create content that otherwise wouldn’t be possible without the aid of larger teams and potentially wasting valuable time.
Rather than translating an idea across disciplines, calling upon multiple development roles to create a prototype, and waiting to see the result, Blueprint gives anyone the ability to build an idea into a fully-functioning prototype. In turn, more of Zombie Studios' team members are able to lend their unique influences to the creative process, and still save time compared to previous development methods.
Technical artist David Sursely shares his experience, saying, "Before, we had to design something and then wait a day or two to see if it was implemented. Now, we can design, create, and prototype something within 30 minutes and see if it works. If it does, we can expand upon it immediately."
Artists and designers are not the only roles to benefit from Blueprint. As director of technology Russell Nelson is happy to say, "If designers want something, they do it, and I can walk away. Blueprint allows a designer to be successful without bothering an engineer whose time could be better used to optimize rendering or get file systems up and running faster for better load times; the little things that make the end-user like the game more."
Unreal Engine 4 is a one-stop shop engine with tools like Cascade for particle effects, Persona for animation, and Slate for custom UIs, but the needs of developers are as varied as the games they create. The modular design of Unreal Engine 4 affords developers an incredible amount of flexibility to add and remove components as needed.
"We've added things to the engine and removed things, literally by just saying, 'I don't want it there.' That's tricky with other engines that have a lot of integration points," says Nelson, who points to Slate as another example of Unreal Engine 4's customizability. "It's proving to be something we can use without having to worry about a secondary UI solution. And, I like the fact that I don't have to look through third-party libraries to figure out why something isn't working this week."
Horror is a delicate balancing act between the seen and the unseen, and the unspeakable things lurking in the gloom. As any fan of the genre knows, lighting is a critical component that can make or break the ambiance. But, due to Daylight's procedurally generated environments, the project may have ended if not for Unreal Engine 4's dynamic lighting system.
"We wouldn't have been able to create Daylight on Unreal Engine 3 without a lot of support," explains Sursely. "We would have needed a bunch of engineers to create a dynamic lighting solution for us. All the procedural elements are put together at runtime while you're playing, so it's not like we can put everything together ahead of time and build the lighting. Dynamic lighting is the only way we could have achieved that."
When asked why Zombie Studios continues to use Unreal Engine, Gerritzen says, "I've worked at studios that had their own engines and you have need to have such a giant team to make an engine that grows and evolves the way that Unreal does. Every new build, we get new toys, and that's the greatest part. "