Armed with charm, HYPERCHARGE: Unboxed creates a compelling co-op shooter experience
Much of HYPERCHARGE: Unboxed’s charm comes from the fact that it leans on toy-driven nostalgia to create a wonderful sandbox experience. Setting up defenses to shoot waves of enemy toy soldiers within relatable childhood environments that include bedrooms and toy stores make the game feel like a mixture of Toy Story meets Left 4 Dead.
To discuss how Digital Cybercherries designed and executed making HYPERCHARGE: Unboxed, we interviewed Public Relations and Marketing Manager Joe Henson, Lead Programmer and Game Designer Dec Doyle, Lead Audio Engineer and Game Designer Ulrich Gollick, and Environment & Level Designer Andrew Hielscher. The developers talk about their inspirations while developing the game, elaborate on what toys they sought to incorporate, and delve into how they incorporated both four-player split-screen and online co-op while keeping performance in check. What drew Digital Cybercherries to design a co-op tower-defense game with a toy-centric theme? Was there a strong desire to evoke a sense of nostalgia?
Public Relations and Marketing Manager Joe Henson: Being able to play as a small plastic soldier is fantastic. It opens a box of fun possibilities. Alongside this, having the ability to build defenses spices up the experience. It offers more diversity in how you play the game. For example, what wall should you build against wave number two? What turret will be most effective against wave number four? It keeps things fresh throughout each playthrough.
There definitely was a strong desire to evoke a sense of nostalgia. We wanted Unboxed to take players back down memory lane. It’s amazing to read player feedback when they tell us stories of their childhood, and how happy such memories made them feel playing the game. Such emotions are amplified when being able to play co-op with your friends. Each person has unique memories to share with one another. So yeah, nostalgia is an awesome thing!
How much did individuals from Digital Cybercherries lean on memories from their own childhoods when developing the game?
Lead Programmer and Game Designer Dec Doyle: Quite a bit, honestly. Most of the basic enemies in the game and toy-environment props are inspired directly by toys that many of us owned as children. We looked to our late 80's/early 90's generation for inspiration for our enemies and more modern action figures for the player-characters.
Digital Cybercherries has recently revamped HYPERCHARGE: Unboxed with the launch of the game’s Early Access 2.0 update. Can you walk us through what has changed since the Early Access 1.0 release?
Doyle: Since EA 1.0, we've had an almost complete redesign of the game. All core mechanics, including AI, gameplay, physics, wave spawning, level layouts, and balance were redesigned or rebuilt to be more robust and scalable, to allow us to take the game in a new direction. Basically, everything from EA 1.0 will feel completely fresh. The game now has progression, balance, unlockables, new enemies, new weapons along with attachments, new levels, and a much more satisfying gameplay loop that has players wanting to return to each map with new tactics and defenses to try and tackle the new scaling dynamic difficulty.
What have you learned developing HYPERCHARGE: Unboxed with the game being in Early Access?
Doyle: Early Access has really allowed us to learn more about what our community wants. Having players play and test and give feedback has really allowed us to shape the game into something that both us developers and players alike can enjoy. We have also learned as a team how to better balance the game using a combination of player feedback and analytical data.
HYPERCHARGE: Unboxed features numerous enemy toys to fight. Some will go straight after the HYPER-CORE while others will target players. How did you go about selecting classic toys to recreate and how did you balance them from a gameplay perspective?
Lead Audio Engineer and Game Designer Ulrich Gollick: Mostly, we chose toys that we thought would be funny to fight as waves, as well as what would provide some possibilities for different gameplay mechanics. To balance them, you always need to make sure to keep their size in mind, how they will move (in the air or on land), as well as if they should attack the player, go straight for the core, or both.
With 30 objects players can build, how did you set about designing and balancing defensive structures?
Gollick: After the first ideation and designing phase, we started planning out the various gameplay properties on a spreadsheet (health, damage, costs, etc.) and tried to get an overview of how the overall progression of the Buildables work in theory. That usually gives [us an initial idea] if something is off or if certain values are too small or too big. After testing in-game, you usually go back and tweak, test, and repeat. After a few iterations, you get close to something that balances quite nicely.
With numerous detailed locations that force players to shoot and platform their way through bedrooms, garages, toy stores, and more, how did you approach level design?
Environment and Level Designer Andrew Hielscher: Designing the platforming is tricky because it needs to be simple to traverse while looking like a believable, lived-in environment. UE4 helped us develop the platforming rapidly because playing in-editor is so seamless. UE4’s lighting features were also a big help. The high-quality pre-computed lighting and volumetric fog effects allowed us to make beautifully shaded environments while keeping the game performant on lower-end hardware.
The weapons in the game feel very satisfying. How did you nail HYPERCHARGE: Unboxed's gunplay?
Gollick: Thanks. First, we tried to give weapons a heavy “feel” with the recoil pattern and animations. In combination with the lighting and VFX, it feels very close to what we are trying to achieve. Finally, the audio adds a lot to the satisfaction. We went with heavy “larger-than-life” weapon sounds as we thought players had certain expectations when it comes to FPS games.
HYPERCHARGE: Unboxed features impressive graphics with lovingly-crafted environments. How did you achieve the visual look of the game?
Hielscher: Lots of measuring! Measuring the size of things in my house and doing many Google searches to find the dimensions of objects that were created for the game. When scale is such an important part of your game, you have to make sure you get the dimensions correct. Once we have the dimensions, we scale [the environment] 12 times larger to make our action figure characters appear six inches tall.
In addition to looking great, the game runs really well. Can you talk about how you optimized performance?
Doyle: Performance is one of the most important things to our team. Allowing our game to scale well onto multiple devices while still maintaining the visual clarity has been of key importance. Most of this is done by designing our game systems intelligently and using C++ for more complex operations. For the Blueprints portion of our work, which consists mostly of Animation and AI Blueprints, we try to use Blueprint Nativization wherever possible. This helps reduce the cost of Blueprints and gives a large performance gain for the CPU side. As for the GPU, we use a lot of carefully generated LODs for all meshes and developed our own simple tools for helping calculate fade distances for static meshes in the world. We also made sure to remove as many of the unused Unreal Engine rendering features as we could (E.g., using higher quality Cubemap Reflections instead of Screen Space Reflections) to limit everything to only what we needed. We also made use of almost all Unreal Engine tools to find bottlenecks and other performance hitches.
Not many games today feature both online co-op and four-player split-screen with support for multiple control schemes. With four players on the same screen, was it challenging to keep performance in check?
Doyle: Split-screen is always a huge performance hog and we knew it'd be a challenge to keep the game feeling smooth with four players. But we made sure to test frequently and made a simple way for players to be able to lower the graphics settings when more players were added while not changing the users' default video options. We allow players to adjust these settings if they think their PC can handle split-screen at full resolution. We also made sure that other less noticeable special visuals are removed when playing split-screen to further push the performance.
How did you approach balancing the challenge of playing solo vs playing co-op with other people?
Gollick: The first thing is that the number of NPCs change dynamically with the number of players by a multiplier that we worked out and can be set appropriately. The second thing is that you also must adjust the delay times between [spawning enemies], as the DPS (Damage Per Second) increases with more players. The spawn interval of NPCs then has to [change] to compensate this DPS accordingly.
There are a few other things we set up to make it more challenging while keeping it optimized, which isn’t always easy and is something we’re constantly trying to improve.
What made UE4 a good fit for HYPERCHARGE: Unboxed?
3D Character Artist and Animator Josh Lennen: Everything in UE4 made sense and was a breath of fresh air by allowing our ideas to form organically. Working on characters became much more than a successful low-poly bake and material setup. It evolved into an integrated animation Blueprint, full-featured particle system, and the birth of a team's characters to the fullest extent imaginable. Developing Unboxed with UE4 opened the door for more possibilities by allowing a small team to wear multiple hats while helping each other succeed. For us, it was a no brainer.
Did the studio have any favorite UE4 tools or features?
Lennen: Combining C++ and Blueprints is the real powerhouse for us. Simpler features like sockets played a key role in our character construction.
Digital Cybercherries recently attended Nordic Game 2019. How was the event?
Nordic Game was a fantastic event for us. Meeting like-minded people in a smaller and more personal event made it easier to connect and establish great new contacts. We're thankful for the opportunity.
What can players expect to see from HYPERCHARGE: Unboxed as the game approaches official release?
Hensen: The biggest thing players can expect to see is just how much content we have added to the game based on their feedback. We truly value what our players have to say. In the end, they’re the ones who make the final version of the game become something special. But to get [specific], there will be new maps, enemies, attachments, and game modes.
Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about HYPERCHARGE: Unboxed?
Hensen: The best place is our Steam store page or official website. If you’d like to talk to us about the game, we’re most active on Discord. You can also drop us a line on Twitter.