Image courtesy of Digital Confectioners

Dread Hunger combines survival horror with asymmetrical multiplayer

Brian Crecente
Released into Early Access earlier this year, Dread Hunger is a clever mix of survival horror and social gamesmanship. It’s a game that has you working together with a crew of seven other players trying to survive an arctic crossing and each other. Hidden among the helpful are two traitors who will use dark magic and a touch of cannibalism to derail your attempts to survive the blistering cold and hungry wildlife that threaten your every move.

We spoke with developers Digital Confectioners and Slowdrive Studios about some of the fictional and real-world inspirations for their game, how their design empowers in-game chaos and paranoia, and why Unreal Engine was such a good fit for their creation.

Alex Quick

Alex Quick has been playing games for 30 years and designing them for almost 18. He was the original designer of the game Killing Floor, and the creative instigator behind Depth and Maneater. Originally from Canada, Alex now lives and works in the good ol' USA with his partner and their two dogs. Dread Hunger is his fourth commercial title.

Neil Reynolds

Neil Reynolds is an executive product designer for Kiwi Studio, Digital Confectioners. With over 10 years of experience in both the indie and AAA spaces, plus a flair for game design and balance, he makes the games he loves to play.
Image courtesy of Digital Confectioners
How did the Digital Confectioners studio come about, and what would you say is the identifying element of your studio’s take on game development?
Neil Reynolds:
Digital Confectioners started with only two people from a modding background—particularly within Unreal Engine games like the original Unreal Tournament. With the company officially founded in 2007, we began with contracting for Epic Games.

After some time working with a variety of other studios on their Unreal Engine-powered games, we dove into development on Depth. We first partnered with Alex Quick in 2012 to start building Depth and two years later, we released it.

As our first internal game, it really drove Digital Confectioners forward. Since then, we have expanded beyond our early engineering focus and became a complete studio by adding a fun mix of creative artists to our team.

To date, we’ve worked on over 20 games—from small indie games to the largest AAA titles.

As our founding roots, it’s no surprise we really identify with engineering and design. We’re also Unreal Engine specialists—especially in those areas. With a long history of shipping multiplayer titles, we’re comfortable within that space, and love working with the dynamic of players gaming together.

What was the original concept behind Dread Hunger?

Alex Quick:
Watching the excellent AMC show The Terror got my gears turning. I started reading about The Franklin Expedition and became immersed in the lore of the show along with the real-life events that inspired it. I was fresh off working on Maneater and looking to make a multiplayer-focused game for a change of pace. The idea of a multiplayer video game adaptation of The Franklin Expedition seemed too good to pass up.
Image courtesy of Digital Confectioners
How did you come up with the idea of combining elements of a survival-horror game with a social-deduction game?
I was playing a whole lot of Secret Hitler with friends and loving it. At the same time, I was seeing games start to crop up like Project Winter that aimed to capture the same feeling on PC. I felt like it’d be neat if I could marry that deception element with a survival experience. Survival games are pretty common these days, so I knew that we didn’t want to make yet another of those, but I felt that wrapping a social-deduction framework around it would elevate it into something unique. The team-oriented nature of the survival experience creates an environment where you have to trust your fellow players, which makes it all the worse when they stab you in the back!
Are there any particular games that influenced your design or inspired your work?
Artistically, we were heavily inspired by the aesthetic of the Dishonored games. The grim, painterly style of those games is a great fit for the story we are trying to tell. A number of our characters were actually created by a character artist who also made characters for Dishonored 1 and 2!

Where did the narrative—the idea of an arctic passage, the treacherous enemy Thralls, blood magic, and cannibalism come from?

The narrative is loosely based on a real-world event called The Franklin Expedition—one of the great mysteries of the 19th century. Two ships set sail from England to chart the Northwest Passages and became trapped in ice. We know that the crew was forced to abandon their ships and that all of them died, but the specifics of their demise are unclear. First-hand accounts point to cannibalism, but the Royal Navy spent a long time denying it. The story seemed like a great opportunity to add our own spin, which we do by hinting at a presence in the Arctic that is slowly warping the minds of the sailors during their journey and pitting them against their crewmates.

While Dread Hunger has a compelling backstory and vivid graphics to underscore it, it feels like the players are what really help bring the experience to life. How do you, as developers, help to inspire the game’s players to invest in the experience and make it more fun for everyone involved?

We're always looking for mechanics that force players to work together and trust one another, while also providing options for a saboteur to create chaos and paranoia. A great example of this is the stew—a highly nutritious food item that players must band together to cook. If they succeed, it will keep them fed for days, but if a Thrall puts even a single piece of poisoned meat in the stew, the entire batch gets poisoned, and consuming it can be lethal.
Image courtesy of Digital Confectioners
The game has been in Early Access for a while now. What made you decide to launch the game in Early Access when you did, and how did that impact the game’s development?

Back in 2019, we had a small team fleshing out the game in its early stages. Right before Early Access, we decided to do a closed beta period where we invited players to play the game for free in weekly scheduled playtests. We joined in on the fun and had a great time playing matches with the community. We also learned a lot that helped inform a lot of lingering decisions we wanted to make around design before we took the game fully public. By late April this year, we were confident enough with the respawn system and the general state of the game to set sail into Early Access!

How has the game evolved and changed over the course of Early Access?

Over early access, we’ve had a few leaks spring in our boat that we had to patch up in order to continue on our journey. Early Access gave us the opportunity to involve the players during development, which was key. It showed us the importance of moderation tools and while we had prepared for development/design issues, we weren’t expecting to change our focus suddenly to moderation. 

We also began with a few PVP options, but over time this really drained on the social deception element of the game. As a key element, it was important to center the game around it. So we pulled away from PVP further into Early Access to stay true to the deceptive nature of Dread Hunger at its core.
Image courtesy of Digital Confectioners
Why are you doing a full launch of the game when you are?

We’re releasing late this year because we wanted enough time to establish and listen to a passionate core community within Early Access. Just under a year felt like the right amount of time to consider and implement that feedback to ensure we have the best game possible before introducing it to everyone.

What sort of updates and support do you plan to provide for the game once it goes live and over time?

We’re just taking things as they come. The game is ever-evolving and things are still in the early stage. The end of Early Access is really just the beginning of the expedition.

What made you decide to develop your games in Unreal?

Simply because they’re the tools we know best. Almost everyone on the team was already familiar with Unreal Engine and enjoyed its versatility. Working in Unreal meant that we could do our best work efficiently and with confidence.

Are there any particular elements of Unreal Engine that you found particularly useful in bringing your vision for Dread Hunger to life?

Out-of-the-box networking made getting multiplayer testing up and running really quick. The Marketplace was great for prototype assets, which allowed us to continue development without waiting on art that was still in progress.
Image courtesy of Digital Confectioners
What do you think about the upcoming advances coming to Unreal Engine 5 and how might you use them in future games?

We’re keen on trying them out in the future—currently, we’re pretty heads down working to finish Dread Hunger. The new lighting system, Lumen, is something we’re particularly interested in. We’d like to play around with voxel terrain and a changeable world, so having Lumen handle global illumination will help us. Once we have more time on our hands, we’d also like to explore Nanite so we can have really high poly assets in real time.
Image courtesy of Digital Confectioners
Are there any particular challenges you overcame in developing the game that you’d like to walk us through?

From early playtests, proximity VOIP seemed like something that was absolutely a requirement. We went with a third-party provider for this and it has been a challenge to adapt to.

We’re currently in the process of switching to Epic Online Services for our in-game voice chat. This is so that we can better diagnose and solve VOIP issues, as well as hopefully have more stability.

How can people find out more about Digital Confectioners and Dread Hunger?

We’re very lucky to have an amazing community hanging out in the Dread Hunger Discord. You can also check out our website for more info. To find out more about Digital Confectioners, you can visit its website.

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