Image courtesy of Instinction Game / Hashbane Interactive limited

Instinction: From architectural visualization to a Dino Crisis spiritual successor using Unreal Engine 5

Brian Crecente
For 10 years, Hashbane chief operations officer and co-founder Courtney O’Neill assembled and managed highly creative teams of skilled artists, designers and programmers to develop digital media experiences.

Located in Auckland, New Zealand, Hashbane is an independent game development studio currently developing its first title, Instinction, a prehistoric action-adventure game.
A colony of bats silently winging their way through the moonlit foliage of a primordial jungle. The ivy-covered stone slabs of some lost-to-time building, its open doorway a welcoming glow of orange in the blanket of green that surrounds it. The stalking gait of a dinosaur, its shadows slipping through a copse of trees.

When they startid releasing  in 2021, the trailers for Instinction were described as gorgeous, stunning, spectacular, and the game they showed off likened to Capcom’s classic survival horror action-adventure game Dino Crisis.

All the more amazing is that Instinction is the first creation of Hashbane Interactive, a video game studio spun-up by New Zealand design firm Dane Design. We chatted with Hashbane COO and co-founder Courtney O’Neill about how the company went from architectural visualization to game design, how Unreal Engine empowered both fields of work for the companies,  how much of a Dino Crisis spiritual successor fans should expect Instinction to be, and how a game about dinosaurs lead to a grant to support palaeontology.

Hashbane Interactive was formed by employees of the New Zealand design firm Dane Design. How did the founders decide to make the jump from more traditional design to video games and why?

Courtney O’Neill, Hashbane co-founder and chief operations officer:
We’ve actually been slowly building up to being a fully-fledged game development studio. Collectively we’ve been involved in 3D for more than two decades, completing hundreds of commercial Archviz projects and we’ve been using Unreal Engine since 2015 for interactive projects, there came a time when we decided we were going to do a project for ourselves, one we felt passionately about.

Our commercial projects funded our early game development and R&D for most of last year, and now that we have an incredible investor, we have stepped up development and the general skill set of our team.

There seems to be a shift of a number of traditional media firms to game design, and it offers an extension to existing creativity and experience, transferring skills such as camera operation, scene composition, animation, color theory, and storytelling into a medium with immediate visual feedback and ultimately a more interactive experience for the audience, it’s captivating. Ember Lab is a great example of this transition into game development, but there are many others.
Image courtesy of Instinction Game / Hashbane Interactive limited
What first got the group interested in using Unreal Engine for design work?

In 2015, we saw what Epic was doing with UE4 and what could be done. We had until that point used DCCs such as 3DS Max and traditional biased and non-biased rendering solutions, but UE gave us a new landscape to operate in.

Prior to using UE, it had bothered us for years that we had to wait hours, days, and weeks for renders to complete with very little flexibility for iterations. After having invested a small fortune on local and remote render farms and solutions, the possibilities that UE offered us as a commercial design firm were hard to not take advantage of. We had been aware of UE but at that stage, the whole UI was different and the offering from Epic was impossible to refuse.

How hard was it to make the leap from using Unreal Engine for design work to using it to create a video game?

Any new endeavour has its challenges, but we had a solid foundation using UE for more than six years, wherever possible, we brought in experienced technical talent and collectively, we continue to improve where necessary. We didn’t jump into game development blind and had reached out to a number of established game studios and industry experts that we have great respect for, we wanted feedback from people that had already been there and done it themselves and could steer us in the right direction. Fortunately, we received a lot of great advice, but there comes a time when you have to jump in with both feet, and the best lessons we’ve learned are first-hand.
Image courtesy of Instinction Game / Hashbane Interactive limited
How has Unreal Engine helped with that transition?

Design is usually an iterative process from brief to final pixel, what UE allows all artists and developers is immediate feedback, so the iterative process is more flexible and the time saved allows for more ideas to be explored, so in many ways, [it] allows for more creativity. Even if we had continued with design work, UE would have been part of our toolkit. We’re also transitioning away from typical 3D animation and will be utilizing more of what is available in engine.

Coming from an Archviz background, we had experience using Megascans before it was part of the Epic ecosystem. We’ve done our own photoscanning for years and now that Sketchfab and RealityCapture are becoming more integrated, it feels like more of what we were already familiar with from back in the day is being exposed in our current workflows.

Our game is foliage rich, and we’ve modelled, animated, used and sold realistic 3D plants for years, now Pivot Painter quickly allows us to make our new models truly interactive inside UE.

Don’t even get us started on what LiveLink and Metahumans do for our workflow...

Besides what the engine can do, we’ve had some incredible support from the team at Epic, facilitating introductions and collaborations.
Image courtesy of Instinction Game / Hashbane Interactive limited
Where did the idea for Instinction come from?

One of our co-founders, Jade, had always been talking to me about creating a prehistoric action-adventure game for modern times, the first time he mentioned it was roughly ten years ago and from what I’m told many years longer than that and Jade has played Instinction many times in his head since then. We spoke about it in the studio and we created an early prototype within a week, remember back then no one was a seasoned developer, and the possibilities were so compelling we knew this is what we were destined to do, no more commercial projects, we were doing this one for ourselves.

How aware were the group of earlier adventure dinosaur games like Dino Crisis before you got started on the game and how did those works influence your design?

Many of us are old enough that Dino Crisis was part of our childhood, some of us remember seeing the first Jurassic Park in the cinemas. We were all huge fans of the Dino Crisis 1&2, Turok, and Trespasser growing up, all of which further introduced us to dinosaur experiences in a new and exciting way.

We’re not trying to replace anything that came before but it’s definitely fair to say the feeling those games and movies gave us has been a major influence. We’d like to think a new generation of players will experience Instinction and have similar feelings as to what we had playing back in the day.

When and why did you decide to develop the game using Unreal Engine 5?

This was discussed in detail internally for quite some time, the question persisted, when do we take the leap? We’ve been testing UE5 from Early Access and only a few months ago after talking with Kim Libreri and other great people at Epic did we truly commit to UE5. There were way too many compelling reasons for us to delay the switch to UE5 any longer. Ultimately, Instinction deserves the visual fidelity that UE5 offers, done deal.
Image courtesy of Instinction Game / Hashbane Interactive limited
What particular features or elements of Unreal Engine 5 are you leaning into for the game’s development?

Lumen and Nanite are top of the list, and we’re looking forward to seeing more features and updates to take advantage of.

While not strictly UE5, we’re transitioning to use more of Control Rig on our dinosaurs and ultimately all animation will be done in engine as well as utilizing other experimental tools, and our audio engineer is becoming more acquainted with Metasounds alongside his current toolset.

The images and videos from the game have been absolutely stunning, how were you able to so realistically capture the look of the game’s dinosaurs and the lush environment?

Well, UE and Megascans can certainly take part of the blame there. We look back at imagery and videos from just a few months ago and know how much better we can make them today. It’s important to keep progressing the visuals and the realism of the 3D models. There is always “more” that can be done and in the spirit of productivity, there has to be a cut-off point where something is good enough to move on. Much of our previous experience in visual storytelling persists, but there will always remain room for improvement, we take that very seriously.

Recently, we’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with expert palaeontologists from all over the world, while the previous dinosaurs used in our footage were good enough at that stage, we’re now taking them even closer to realism.

We care about making a game full of captivating experiences, the mechanics are important as a solid base on which to layer those experiences, and we want our images and videos to convey that intention.
Image courtesy of Instinction Game / Hashbane Interactive limited
How has the game’s design evolved over the course of development?

Essentially, the design language remains intact, but as our team continues to grow, we inherit more talent, opinion, and input.

Fortunately, Hillfarrance, a local investor that loves games and dinosaurs (in fact, the founder had planned to be a palaeontologist) invested in us back in April, and we now have the opportunity to expand our team even further. We’re talking to some true veterans of the game industry and can’t wait to have them part of the team in the coming months.

It’s so important for us to make educated decisions for the success of the game, and there is no algorithm for experience.

While a lot of attention has been given to the game’s graphical fidelity, I know the team is working just as hard on the audio side of the game. What are you doing to ensure the game’s sound palette is just as vibrant as the game’s looks?

The audio is as important as the visuals for storytelling, they are not mutually exclusive, and complement each other from emotionally stimulating events through to every seemingly unimportant pick-up. Being an action-adventure, we knew we wanted a cinematic soundtrack to accentuate the narrative from the beginning and so designed our initial sound palette very early on taking into consideration the location where the game takes place, looking at what instruments are native to those mesoamerican regions. We felt it was important that the sound be organic but very much unique to the story we’re telling. After some early demos putting the palette into practice, we knew we had the tone of Instinction.

How are you creating the vocalizations of the dinosaurs in the game?

This is a really fun process! As with the game's underscore, we’ve taken a very organic approach to our creature vocalizations, looking to the natural world for inspiration. Modern-day animals and birds have been fantastic source material to bring our creatures to life and we’ve been steadily building up our own library of recordings from various locations in the UK, South America, and New Zealand.

Once you begin to pair together these recordings and manipulate them in different ways, you’re left with some very authentic, animalistic results.
Image courtesy of Instinction Game / Hashbane Interactive limited
Earlier this year, you posted a blog discussing the importance and perception of realism when it comes to a dinosaur game. What direction are you taking in creating the game’s dinosaurs in terms of realism?

So, it had been a topic of hot discussion within the team for a while, everything we’ve released more than six months ago is being completely revamped. We had a number of questions to ask, do you create dinosaurs the way most people believe them to be, “theme park monsters,” or do you step away from that and lean towards scientific accuracy? Everyone on the team has a passion for dinosaurs, but how important is it to the community as a whole? Well, we learned real fast how passionate they are about realism too. While some may just be interested in a cool dinosaur game, realism is just more powerful and fulfilling, and more difficult.

Of course, we still maintain some artistic license and there will be some choices that are made to best suit the narrative, for the most part, our intention is to recreate how these creatures would have truly looked, acted, and sounded based on some of the best speculative reconstruction and scientific data available today.

How are you coming up with designs and animation for the creatures that match your intent?

Everything starts with a brief, made up of visual characteristics and multiple scientific papers and input from our palaeontologists, we discuss the silhouette of the creature, its presence, behavior, and intended biome. We have multiple feedback sessions, revisions, and iterations.

Our 3D artists and animators provide input too and often cite scientific literature when discussing items as simple as a few scales to colors and patterns.

As with audio, we are always looking to the natural world for inspiration, referencing a variety of current wildlife to make sure our animations are as lifelike as possible, we spend hours scrubbing through footage of existing animals, taking not of the animals' gait, weight transfer, and unique quirks.
Image courtesy of Instinction Game / Hashbane Interactive limited
I was surprised to see that, along with investment group Hillfarrance, you launched a grant to support paleo-related activities. How did the Instinction Fund come about and what do you hope comes of it?

Palaeontology is massively underfunded and an area of expertise we really care about. We’re making a game about dinosaurs and received so much support from the community so we wanted to give something back.

The topic came up in conversation with our investor and the founder of Hillfarrance, Rob Vickery, who graciously offered to fund the grant, which is in place to assist palaeontology projects that include scientific research, papers, dig sites, restorations, exhibitions, paleo art(digital and traditional), anthropology, paleoecology, and geology, etc. The application form and more details are available on our website.

With single-player and a cooperative mode, it would be easy to view this game as something like Dino Crisis or even an early Tomb Raider game. How far off the mark is that, and how would you describe Instinction?

In a nutshell, it is a narrative-driven action-adventure with extinct creatures, so that certainly allows for those comparisons. Instinction is not a replacement or clone of anything, while inspiration may come from great IPs that have gone before, the commonalities really don't stem much further than the theme of dinosaurs or the action-adventure elements. The narrative is quite involved and the experiences are intended to be unique and authentic, our approach to each aspect of the game is that it needs to be an experience, like being involved in an interactive movie.
Image courtesy of Instinction Game / Hashbane Interactive limited
Are there any particular challenges you’ve overcome in Instinction’s development that you’d like to walk us through?

Probably the most challenging would be finding ideal staff locally, we operate a remote-hybrid model with team members in New Zealand and across the globe. Fortunately, in the coming months, we’ll have even more experienced team members joining us in New Zealand as part of a relocation package.

Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. Where can people learn more about Hashbane Interactive and Instinction?

We post sneak-peaks about Instinction’s development on our socials and we have a development blog on our official website, where we’ll be covering all aspects of our development and posting updates monthly.

You can also find us on Twitter, Instagram, Steam, and YouTube.

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