Cyborn is a game production studio based in Antwerp, Belgium, with a multi-talented team of developers, artists, animators and engineers. Founded in 1998 by owner and CEO Ives Agemans, Cyborn started out as a 3D animation company. After many years of experience, the scope of our work broadened and evolved towards all sorts of game, film, VR, AR, 3D and mobile app projects. Today, our main focus lies both on providing game services to clients, as well as producing games of our own, such as our VR action-adventure game Hubris.
Belgian developer Cyborn B.V. has a long history as a 3D animation company. After gaining experience in animation, the studio expanded into creating licensed apps and games for major companies like Disney and local broadcaster Ketnet. That expansion eventually led Cyborn B.V. to push forward into new mediums like virtual reality and augmented reality.
All of that effort has culminated in the release of Hubris, a VR first-person shooter that establishes a whole new universe of storytelling. Hubris is an amazing visual experience with A-A-A-level graphics in VR. The game has won awards since launch, including Upload VR’s Favorite New PC VR Game for 2022.
We talked to several members of the studio to understand how they pivoted from animation into game development, what the Belgian development community is like, and what inspired the creation of Hubris. The studio also provides several VR development tips.
What can you tell us about Cyborn B.V.?
Producer Koen Van den Steen: Cyborn is a game production company specialized in high-end motion-captured animation and graphics. With our history in 3D animated movie productions, we have a very good understanding of how to push realistic graphics and looks in a 3D environment. We co-produced two 3D feature animation films published worldwide. The most recent one, Firedrake the Silverdragon, was bought by Netflix. More recently, we published the Sci-Fi VR action adventure game Hubris.
Considering Cyborn B.V. is based out of Belgium, can you share what the Belgian game development community is currently like?
Koen: The development community in Belgium is growing steadily. Although we don’t have that many big AAA studios yet, we do have some indie studios who also are working on several interesting projects. This growth is also pushed further because of Digital Arts and Entertainment in Kortrijk, a bachelor-level educator that has won multiple awards worldwide. Because of this, the Belgium game community has access to a big pool of local talent.
With Cyborn B.V. having a history of working on mobile games, what drove the studio to develop a VR game as its next title?
Koen: The reason we wanted to create a VR title mostly comes from our history of film production, where we used VR for pre-visualization of our motion capture and scenes. This convinced us of the power and immersion VR offers to the player.
However, our previous experience in mobile development gave us a good understanding of how to optimize and push graphics on limited hardware. This was very important for the game as VR truly pushes your GPU; rendering at 90+ FPS on +/- 2k per eye really limits you in a lot of ways.
Can you tell us what Hubris is about?
CEO & Game Director Ives Agemans: Hubris is a VR action-adventure game set in a unique and colorful Sci-Fi universe, with immersive movement options, including swimming, climbing, and jumping. Players will have to gather resources, craft food, and upgrade their weapons to fight off alien wildlife, droids, and humanoid enemies.
What inspired you to develop Hubris?
Ives: Fascinated by unique and expansive Sci-Fi worlds and characters, I mainly was inspired by film series like Star Wars and Aliens, and writers like Iain Banks. I started to develop Hubris more than eight years ago as a film or series project.
So when, years later, we decided to produce the game, our team had at its disposal a lot of colorful concept designs and descriptions of worlds and characters to choose from. Our first game only shows a tiny part of the Hubris Universe.
Hubris is Cyborn B.V.’s first full VR game. What did you learn in the process of developing the game?
Koen: Testing VR games takes a lot of time, but is incredibly important to do extensively. The full freedom that players get while playing the game gives an exponential growth of the amount of bugs that get introduced. Every solution has to be thought about three times over and needs enough time in the oven before it really works. Getting the game out as a closed beta, so more players can test it on different headsets and hardware so they can provide feedback on top of in-house feedback, is advisable.
You have to make sure the pipeline and build tools are properly set up. A fault is often harder to discover or only occurs on certain headsets. You need to create multiple builds in quick succession to iterate on different setups. You also need to make sure to reduce build, packaging, and cooking times as much as possible. Setting up build servers and distributed light builds were indispensable for this production.
Train your entire team to work with a VR headset. This way everything that is produced can be checked not only in-editor, but also straight in VR, as a 2D preview does not give the same sense of depth.
As a VR action-adventure game, Hubris is focused heavily on physical traversal, including climbing and swimming. Why did these traversal methods make sense for Hubris?
Koen: When we started development of Hubris a few years ago, the most used VR traversal mode was teleportation. We were looking for alternative movement methods while not inducing any form of motion sickness. The first thing we came up with was swimming around; by moving your hands for movement, we reduced motion sickness.
Next, we came up with the climbing mechanic as another way to move the character around with an actual physical gesture. Using the physical movement of your hands for movement in VR also ensures that the player will be further immersed and more convinced that they themselves are actually the hero of the story.
Likewise, there is a great deal of jumping and platforming in Hubris. How was this aspect of the game tuned to feel good in VR?
Koen: Bringing jumping into VR was quite a big step for us. When we started experimenting with it, other games had only just started to push free types of movement in VR further. Games like Boneworks showed you could really push these mechanics quite far and still find enough players that were able to stomach it.
We chose a less physically-based form of jumping to avoid motion sickness and to allow the player to have more control. It started from a pretty simple jump movement. Later, we added more control. Now, you can slightly adjust your jump direction and intensity in the air. Coyote time was added and buffering up height position even if you didn't quite make the jump made for the most smooth experience while jumping.
Players have to explore the environment to gather materials needed to craft upgrades. Can you talk about how these systems enhance the feeling of exploration and survival in Hubris?
Koen: We wanted to give the player the feeling that they start as a simple recruit with a base weapon, and then while playing the game, they will grow stronger by upgrading their gun and getting more experienced in combat. This way the player will become more immersed in the fact that they have to work themselves up in the rankings of the Order of Objectivity.
A crafting system with salvageable materials spread all over the game world then further enhances this feeling. Exploration is rewarded by discovering more rare materials or higher quantities in hidden rooms or corners. If a player spends more time on exploration, they will have an easier time later on when the encounters start to get more challenging.
There are some sections of Hubris where players drive a high-speed speeder bike. Can you talk about the highlights and challenges of developing these sections of the game?
Koen: In a very early design stage of Hubris, we concepted a hoverbike that looked really cool. Back then, we thought about how cool it would be to navigate with the vehicle around the world and to actually control it in VR. However, it was quite discouraging to drive vehicles in VR as this was something that might cause nauseousness. So we had to find a way to move this vehicle in a way that was not too heavy for the player, but still challenging and immersive.
We applied multiple fixes to reduce motion sickness. The level is long and straight, and does not require the player to look a lot to their sides. This way they can focus on a further point towards the horizon to reduce sickness. Then we also put the field-of-view of the player slightly lower, so a large part of your view is the hood of the bike. This way your eyes also have an easy focus point and you see less of the movement nearby. We also made it so that you don’t have to brake or speed up abruptly, as applying abrupt velocities is not good either.
From the art side, it was also a challenge to make the tunnel interesting, but not too distracting, as it's hard to look for the right direction while driving around. So there was a fair bit of balance between set dressing and game design on that end. An additional challenge was optimizing the level and getting a good light bake. That level is actually very big compared to other ones. Luckily, we were able to solve these problems and we are really proud of the result.
Players are saying Hubris is one of the most beautiful looking VR games made to date. Can you explain how the team executed on the game’s graphics?
Koen: A design starts with an idea from Ives. He tries to guide the concept team as much as possible. The concept team starts with rough sketches and eventually goes from these sketches to 3D blockouts. These blockouts are then further overpainted to apply more details onto them.
After this pass we send the concept over to our modeling team, who then translate each blockout into a game-ready model. This model then gets textured by the texturing team, who then places the asset into UE. Then the model gets reviewed in VR and feedback is applied until we reach the quality we want. By using a lot of smart materials and advanced shaders, we then further push the quality of this model in the engine itself. The final step is finding the perfect mood and lighting setup to truly highlight an object into the game world.
Every department is encouraged to speak out during this process and meet with the art department earlier to further brainstorm how we can get the next level out of the art. We do not think of the status quo as good enough, we push every step to make the difference.
One of the things Hubris does very well is having these grand vistas that provide a sense of scale to the world and break up the action. The environments are also quite varied and diverse. Can you talk about your approach to designing the game’s world?
Ives: For me, it was important that every object and every building in the game is uniquely designed and part of the bigger Hubris universe. All objects and buildings need to have a connection with one of the many factions, worlds, and styles within the universe. Every object has to look real and may not be a copy of an object known on Earth.
To make that happen, we counted on our very talented in-house team of three concept designers to design every object/environment before it is turned into a final game-ready model. Although every object and building is uniquely-modeled, to create the exterior environments we partly used the Quixel library.
Hubris lighting and character models have also been praised. Can you share your approach to executing on these aspects of the game’s visuals?
Ives: For me, it was important to translate our experience in cinematic lighting into game production. Every scene needed to have a unique color scheme that accentuated the specific environment. As VR lighting is much more real and impactful compared to a non-VR game, every section needed to be well-lit. Everywhere you look should have the same graphical and cinematic quality.
All the character bodies are uniquely designed and modeled from concept designs. The way we designed the human faces evolved during the production. Tyrim is entirely modeled without using scans and the face is animated using the in-house Cyborn rigging system. Later, we started to scan real people as a basis to work on, like the character Cyana. We also partly implemented MetaHumans into our facial pipeline.
Lighting Supervisor Frederik Sallaerts: We did a lot of testing with the lighting and it took quite some time to get it where we wanted it to be. Techniques that work for playing on a monitor didn't translate well into VR. It's a completely different experience once you put a headset on and you are literally thrown into the game world.
Auto-exposure is one of the main things we experimented with. We noticed that constant changes between looking at the brighter or darker parts of the image would be quite jarring to the eyes and it also didn't "feel" right. That's not how you experience lighting in real life; our eyes do adjust, but you don't really notice it. In VR, the effect was too extreme and taxing on the eyes, even with custom exposure curves. We settled on using set exposure values for specific areas and slowly ramping up or down between values.
Another big one was adjusting the default ACES S-curve. It's great if you want to go for that "shot on film" look, but the contrast was too much and we wanted a more true-to-life "neutral" looking image.
There were a lot of iterations, small adjustments that would completely change how you experience the lighting inside of a headset. At first, we tried to soften the contrast through lighting, but that didn't really work, it would still feel "off" and we ended up with extreme lighting ratios that didn't make sense. Most of the lighting is baked, relying on lightmaps and volumetric lightprobes. Other techniques just weren't feasible to get the performance where it needed to be.
We did manage to get a stationary sun in there for our exteriors, and our hero characters make use of a limited amount of dynamic lights on occasion. Those were put on lighting channels to minimize the performance impact and helped a lot to make them shine.
For better integrations of interactable objects into the baked environments, distance field indirect shadows (DFIS) were used. Our characters also relied on capsule shadows, which made them look more grounded instead of floating in the environment.
Facial and motion capture add life to Hubris’ supporting cast. Did the studio leverage MetaHumans at all for this? If so, what was that process like?
Koen: MetaHuman rolled out after the start of the production of Hubris, so our first few characters did not rely on it at all. Once the beta version of MetaHuman was released, we noticed that working with MetaHumans increased our iteration and eventual delivery times tremendously, while not lowering the high graphical quality bar we set for the game. Because we used UE4, we were not able to use custom scans to create MetaHumans yet, so we had to convert our facial scans to a MetaHuman manually in the editor.
For the bodies, we created our own designs, which we then skinned on the MetaHuman rig. For animations, we used Faceware to add facial animation onto the MetaHuman rig. For the body animations, we used our in-house Vicon motion capture system.
Why was Unreal Engine a good fit for Hubris?
Koen: Unreal Engine gives us the opportunity to make really high-end games. The engine has the most complete toolset out there and can scale easily for big teams, big environments, and complex logic. Since our company shines in high-end and immersive environments, the engine was the perfect match. We knew that by using UE, we would be able to make the world we all dreamed of.
As an added benefit, having full access to the source code was very important. Because VR is more demanding than regular desktop games, we could adjust more niche rendering techniques to further push the quality of our environments compared to competing options with other game engines.
Were there any Unreal Engine tools that were particularly helpful during development?
Engine Engineer Wouter Beert: In general, the asset management tools Unreal Engine offers are critical for maintaining a good project structure. These are things like Size Maps and Reference Viewers. Furthermore, Insights was a big improvement over older profiling tools and helped us a lot to stabilize frame rate. Automation tools are widely used for building installed engines, making packages, and building light & HLODs on our server farms, thus speeding up production and QA.
Technical Artist Daan Meysman: The automatic LOD & HLOD Generation was particularly useful for optimizing our models and environments. The matter of just clicking a single button instead of having an artist spend entire days creating LODs or merging pieces of the map together to save drawcalls was life saving.
We made extensive use of the switches, parameters, and functions found in the material system to prevent us from having to create tons of materials with similar functionality. Thus, we only required a couple of slightly bigger materials, making it easier to do more global changes without having to edit all of them separately.
Thank you for your time. Where can folks learn more about Cyborn B.V. and Hubris?