How The Culling is Crafting a New Survival Experience with Unreal Engine 4

By Brian Sharon

A new breed of Survival games have emerged in recent years and, rather quickly, they have grown to heights of immense popularity. Players of all types and from all corners of the world have become infatuated with the adrenaline rush that games such as Day Z and Rust provide. Unlike the once mighty survival-horror genre of old though, the fear factor in these modern survival titles relies less on traditional scare tactics and more on the multiplayer experience. Specifically, the infusion of a new crucial component to virtual survival -  the human element.

In the blink of an eye the crafted supplies, weapons and personal time that the player has invested can be wiped away as this enormous x-factor is introduced. Do you approach other players in hopes of an uneasy allegiance, or do you behave like a famous smuggler and shoot first, collecting what you can before you can become collected? It can all be gained, or lost, in an instant. One wrong decision, one misinterpretation and it could be the end. For many, the raised stakes can become downright intoxicating.

Yet for some, there may be a similar, but superior experience on the horizon.

For as beloved as the new generation of Survival games have become, they’ve also given way to a new way to play, a new design that players are flocking to in rising numbers. 

Named fondly after the cult-classic novel and film series, Battle Royale mods have grown to be nearly as popular as the base games that have spawned them. Distilling the lengthy slow-burn that has become synonymous with the Survival genre, Battle Royale mods focus on immediacy and action, while also retaining the tension and gravity of losing progress through the permanency of death.

Some of the biggest fans of the burgeoning Battle Royale style of gameplay reside in the state of Georgia, within the walls of the independent video game studio; Xaviant.

The creators of Lichdom: Battlemage, Xaviant fell in love with the most recent form of the Survival genre, often playing long sessions in the workplace during their downtime. It wouldn’t take long for the entire office to get hooked on the genre and for inspiration to set in.

During these lengthy matches it became apparent to the team that most true Survival games were designed for co-operation with other players and yet, tended to be more fun when fragile allegiances were broken. And who could argue with them? After all, bludgeoning is usually more thrilling than bargaining.

With this in mind, the team began to explore ways to break the player’s natural inclination to work with others, and to embrace their instinct towards violence. Battle Royale was the logical next step. However, instead of modifying an existing property, they’d set out to define the genre, starting from scratch and building their Battle Royale vision from the ground up.

The result is The Culling and it spares no one from its brutal approach to Battle Royale. We recently spoke with Xaviant about what’s gone into redefining a genre and how Unreal Engine 4 is helping them to craft the exact experience they want to deliver.

In The Culling, survival must come at all costs.

I’m sure you get this a lot, but what exactly is The Culling?

Josh VanVeld, Producer: The Culling is a 16-player free-for-all survival game coming to Steam Early Access on March 8th. It combines melee and ranged combat with elements of exploration, crafting, traps and more in a highly competitive environment. It’s framed as a game show in which the contestants are forced to fight to the death over the course of a twenty-minute episode. There is also a solo mode where you battle alone against everyone else in the match and a team mode where you can pair up with a friend.

Judging by what’s been shown so far, The Culling places a huge emphasis on action and combat. Given that you’re featuring both melee and ranged combat, how have you implemented such a variety of attacks using Unreal Engine 4?

David Dearing, Engineer: We have developed a modular system for building weapons which gives us a number of reusable components to easily define new weapon archetypes without having to code them all from the ground up. A base weapon implementation enforces the Input scheme and handles general network replication. On top of that, our weapon variety is then built on a small number of weapon subclasses for Melee, Guns, Bows, Blowguns, Chainsaws, Consumable items and Deployable traps, all of which leverage different Fire Mode components for it’s different inputs. For example, melee weapons and bows define a Charged Fire Mode for its primary input capable of handling the animation and generating a single Launch event for the weapon when the user releases the input.

While combat is clearly at the core of The Culling, crafting is also a key component. How have you managed to make your crafting system both interesting and accessible at the same time?

David Dearing, Engineer: Crafting in The Culling has always been something we wanted to keep accessible and unobtrusive. Managing large inventories and navigating UI takes the player out of the experience in a way that we find detracts from the overall excitement of the moment. With limited inventory space and simple recipes we found that two-ingredient crafting based on a small number of available ingredients provided a surprising amount of depth for something that initially seems very simple. 

UE4 allowed us to very quickly implement a data-driven prototype of this system in a few hours. That system worked so well, in fact, that it exists largely unmodified to this day. With the crafting system proven, the idea of “mining” the world for the desired ingredients was a natural extension of the crafting itself. A minor addition to melee weapon impacts combined with utilizing the existing Physics Surface tagging information made it possible to quickly and easily prototype that feature as well. 

Scavenge to survive and craft your own defenses or die trying.

Though The Culling is still in an early-Alpha state, it’s still visually striking. What tools/features of UE4 have helped you create its visual style?

Kevin Murphy, Character Artist: The Physically Based Render system yields fantastic results on its own. Combine that with the ease of creating custom materials in a node system, and the visual possibilities are easily multiplied. This allows us to iterate quickly on visual changes and ideas.

Developing a game as varied as The Culling comes with many revisions. Knowing that you're set to launch into Steam Early Access, how has UE4 made implementing changes easier on the fly?

David Dearing, Engineer: Iteration time. The ability to make meaningful code changes and recompile the engine on the fly without having to reload the editor environment has been crucial for gameplay iteration. 

What's one feature/tool that's a staff favorite or has had the biggest impact on development?

David Dearing, Engineer: The ability to run multiple clients in-editor and simulate network conditions has been pretty important while working on a multiplayer game. Also, being able to control a second client in-editor with a gamepad makes testing combat much more efficient.

Josh Van Veld, Producer: It might seem like a small thing, but the property matrix editor in the UE4 editor is a really handy feature that speaks to the general usability of the editor. I’ve been working in games for a long time, but The Culling is the first project where I’ve cracked open the editor to help with tasks. We’ve got a small team and an ambitious game, so it’s all hands on deck. There’s a lot of work that involves data entry with dozens or hundreds of asset files, and the editor makes it so easy, a Producer could do it!

Steve Caywood, Designer: For a designer, Blueprint is one of the strongest features of UE4, allowing any team member to quickly prototype features without waiting for engineering support, which can be at a premium. Blueprint provides that rapid prototyping power with a playable result that can make or break a new idea. Quickly proving out whatever madness you've been dreaming up is an invaluable tool, which Blueprint provides in spades.


Signups for The Culling’s Closed Alpha are currently live and open to the public. Reserve your spot now on the game’s official website and be sure to follow The Culling on Twitter and Facebook for all of the latest info on the game.

The Culling heads into Steam Early Access on March 8.

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