Copyright 2018-2022 Herobeat Studios, SL. All Rights Reserved.

How Unreal Engine’s robust support helped give life to Endling’s skulk of foxes

Brian Crecente |
May 20, 2022
Javier Ramello Marchioni specializes in Unreal Engine / C++ Gameplay programming but enjoys tackling any problem placed in front of him. For the last few years, he has been settled in Barcelona, working for several national and international video game companies. More recently, he co-founded Herobeat Studios, where he is developing Endling, an amazing PC/console project that will be published by HandyGames, and he finds himself very comfortable in performing tasks that involve management and production.
Prepare to care. To care about the environment wrecked by a careless humanity. To care about a vixen and her pups, the last surviving skulk of foxes on the planet. About a journey through from den to den, in hopes of survival.

Formed in 2017 in Barcelona, Spain, Herobeat Studios was founded by a group of developers from an eclectic mix of studios from around the world. At the studio’s heart is a passionate belief in the importance of environmentalism and animal rights.

So it’s no surprise that the studio’s first game is a deeply evocative tale about the last foxes on Earth and the struggle of a mother fox to protect her litter as she explores a ravaged dystopian future created by humanity.

Endling is a highly stylized 3D sidescroller designed to drop players into a “cauldron of emotions” by asking them to traverse and feel part of a dying world while controlling an innocent mother fox with no special abilities.

Studio founder Javier Ramello Marchioni spoke with us about how the studio hopes to achieve that deep emotional connection with players, as well as why the studio’s founding principles are so important to the developers working on Endling.
 

What inspired you to create a studio that addresses environmental issues and animal welfare?

Javier Ramello Marchioni, CEO:
After developing video games for years, we felt we had the opportunity to deliver a meaningful message using video games as a medium to reach young audiences that, just like us, are worried about climate crisis, animal welfare, and social impact issues, and how the next generations will have to deal with the consequences of the present. With HandyGames, we even found a publishing partner that shares our mindset there and strengthens our belief in the studio’s vision.

How have those shared concerns impacted the games you make and will make?

Ramello:
Endling, and our upcoming titles, are designed around our company vision statement and we always seek for the gameplay to highlight its pillars as much as we can. We try hard to leave behind anything that is not reinforcing the message we want to deliver and instead, focus on things that matter.
Copyright 2018-2022 Herobeat Studios, SL. All Rights Reserved.
How did you come up with the concept for Endling?

Ramello:
One of the main ideas for Endling was to make the player feel part of a dying world, and to be a spectator of how everything is degrading day after day. For that reason, we added a few ingredients to the “cauldron of emotions,” each one of them bolstering the sense of belonging.

First off, you are a mother fox whose motivation is to feed and keep her litter safe from predators. Our protagonist is authentic. She can’t do anything that a fox wouldn’t do, and she can't reason like a human, so she is one hundred percent pure innocence.

Then we have the exploration, which is not linear but happens around lairs where you can stay safe. This encourages players to create a bond with the environment, which soon enough starts getting destroyed by human action. You can do nothing to avoid it, but feel pity about what we are doing to our world and will reflect about our actions.

How did the original concepts for the game and its gameplay mechanics evolve over time?

Ramello:
Endling’s first prototype was a linear side-scrolling game. However, we realized that anything you leave behind as you moved right didn’t matter anymore. We were preventing the player from getting emotional about their surroundings and that’s not ideal for a game that revolves around the degradation of nature.

We wanted players to be able to revisit the same places and see how everything was changing as time passed, and feel attached to the continuously growing cubs as they learn new skills. The stronger the bond with those elements was, the deeper was the sense of loss when things start to go wrong for the player.

For this reason, we thought about creating a sandbox map, but then our ideas for environmental storytelling were losing strength. So, we decided to mix both worlds and that’s how the sandbox side-scrolling concept of Endling was born. Move right and left, and interact with the background or foreground elements to switch lanes and explore a fully 3D level.
Copyright 2018-2022 Herobeat Studios, SL. All Rights Reserved.
How do you balance the desire to educate, inform, and perhaps sway, with the need to create a fun game with a memorable story and fun gameplay mechanics?

Ramello:
We believe that the more immersed you are into the narrative, the more committed you are when it comes time to reflect on the questions we raise through the game. We don't want to break this immersion with value judgments about players’ decisions. Instead of moralizing, we want people to focus on enjoying the gameplay mechanics and the message will eventually hit the player.

Why do you think video games have the ability to change minds or educate? Do you think they are more powerful tools for raising awareness than traditional methods like ads, books, and television?

Ramello:
We are not making a documentary nor a serious game, I think we are not targeting the same audience and still there are a lot of people eager to play a touching entertainment product and get sensitized by the story we tell.

Indeed, video games are a powerful tool due to the fact that the player takes an active role in the development of the story, so you can feel responsible for whatever happens during the adventure.

What is the message you hope players will take away from playing your game?

Ramello:
Our goal with Endling is to show how things can be in the future, to let the player go through the experience of living in such a world, and invite them to decide if that's what they want to shape our world into.

What made you decide to create the game using Unreal Engine?

Ramello:
We’ve been using Unreal Engine since forever, and we’ve seen it evolve during the years, supporting other developers in the forums sometimes, and getting a lot of help from them as well. Not to mention the invaluable aid we’ve received from the MegaGrants team and Unreal Evangelists.

For us, Unreal Engine is the way to go since it provides basic tools that allow a small team to create prototypes quickly and cheaply, as well as advanced tools to convert that prototype into a top-notch commercial product.
Copyright 2018-2022 Herobeat Studios, SL. All Rights Reserved.
Herobeat Studios received an Epic MegaGrant in 2019 for Endling, what impact did that have on the game's development and the studio?

Ramello:
Back in 2018, we had to quit our jobs to dedicate full-time to Endling, started hiring freelancers, and invested all our savings into this project. Our families were skeptical about how it would turn out considering we were rookies in the business of entrepreneurship.

We knew eventually we would run out of money and if we wanted to succeed, we needed to deliver a vertical slice in a limited time. However, we also knew that one of the worst things you can do is to underestimate the conception phase of video game development; that moment when you lay the foundational stone upon which all other efforts must be based and developed, and we just did not have enough money to do this properly.

At a perfect time, we received the mail from the MegaGrants team and everything changed. Epic filled our fuel tank so we could keep improving Endling's concept and get the best out of the idea. Thanks to that financial boost, Herobeat Studios officially became a company (something surprisingly very expensive in Spain), so we could finally apply for government grants. We were able to hire full-time devs, joined GameBCN—a video game incubation program—finished the vertical slice, and finally met the HandyGames' team that helped us to focus on finishing the best game we could develop.

How has Unreal Engine helped you to achieve the goals you have for the game?

Ramello:
Apart from the already mentioned financial and technical support, using an engine as widespread as UE, with its great plugin compatibility, has proven to be crucial for us, since Endling will be released simultaneously on PC, PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch, and it makes our life easier.

In addition, developing a game with Unreal Engine is a safety net for many investors who would consider an added risk to rely on a custom engine, so it's a wise option for indie studios.

Are there any design challenges you overcame that you’d like to walk us through?

Ramello:
One of the biggest challenges was to find authenticity in the game mechanics— even if they sometimes seem slightly implausible, it is important that they do not break the fantasy. For example, foxes can hunt, hide, bark, pick up objects, but never pull levers or solve complex puzzles.

We have also developed mechanics such as scent tracking, which make use of magical realism, because they are based on real abilities that animals possess, such as the recreation of spaces by the scent left by other individuals. However, representing these capabilities visually requires accepting the fact that we must take certain liberties.

How do you think Unreal Engine 5 might change the way you develop games?

Ramello:
One may think that being able to develop photorealistic games with the latest technological advances such as Nanite or Lumen and its fully dynamic global illumination is already great. I mean, to develop better-looking games and all that is awesome, but as an indie developer, what really makes me drool just thinking about Unreal Engine 5, is the fact that even if you don't use those awesome features, we can now create content way faster. Reducing the time it takes to create a video game without clipping the wings of creativity will open a wide range of possibilities for indie studios, which couldn't explore more options just because before they were off-budget.
Copyright 2018-2022 Herobeat Studios, SL. All Rights Reserved.
Are there any particular advancements in Unreal Engine that you’re looking forward to?

Ramello:
One of my favorite features is the new World Partition system, due to its improvement compared to the current level streaming. Not needing to subdivide the world into countless sublevels sounds great, and the fact that it works both in the Editor and at runtime will save a lot of time for developers when building a huge world.

Thanks for taking the time to chat, where can people find out more about Endling and your studio Herobeat Studios?

Ramello:
If you want to stay up-to-date on the development of Endling, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram or our publisher HandyGames on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. The publisher also has a monthly newsletter.

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