Image courtesy of Jackto Studios

Learn how a team of two are developing indie sensation Night of the Dead

Jinyoung Choi
Jackto Studios is a team of two – CEO Lee Min-gyu focuses on art while CTO Jeong-Hyun Ha handles programming. Founded in July 2020, Jackto Studios aims to develop a challenging experience with a touch of strategic gameplay. In August 2020, the developer released Night of the Dead into Early Access.
Indie game and Epic MegaGrant recipient Night of the Dead swept the popular new release and top seller charts on Steam within the first week of its Early Access launch and has quickly received over 3,000 reviews that amount to a “very positive” reception. This achievement is all the more impressive when you consider that developer Jackto Studios, based in South Korea, is composed of only two developers who launched the game in under two years. With the title being praised for its fusion of strategy, crafting, and survival elements, we caught up with Jackto Studios CEO Lee Min-gyu to learn more about the game’s development.
Image courtesy of Jackto Studios
How was Jackto Studios formed?

Jackto Studios CEO Lee Min-gyu:
Jackto Studios is a team of two devs with one focusing on programming and the other taking charge of art and game design. When we previously worked together, we formed an Unreal Engine study group in order to hone our development skills. We studied and worked on personal projects, taking advantage of numerous learning resources and samples offered by Epic Games. We eventually gained confidence that we could create our own game, and that led us to officially pursue this path. 

Night of the Dead quickly became one of Steam's popular new releases and top sellers. Users’ responses have also been very positive as well. Given your small team and relatively short development time, what do you attribute the positive results to? 

I think a straightforward concept that clearly communicates the design intent of the game and focusing the development on raising the quality of that design were contributing factors. In addition, the versatility of indie games and various experimental content offered in Early Access mixed well and allowed us to gain positive results.

During the early stages of development, we analyzed a number of references and knew that users would be receptive to a fun game. We then solely focused on development with the goal of launching on Steam as quickly as possible, without relying on networking, PR, or marketing.

The reason we were able to focus on game design is because of Unreal Engine, which enabled us to achieve a consistent graphics quality. Also, since we were using Unreal Engine's game framework out of the box, we let the engine take care of the game’s structure and completely directed our attention on developing the game based on our design goals.
Image courtesy of Jackto Studios
How would you describe Night of the Dead

Night of the Dead is a multiplayer game where you fight to survive against zombies. The game has elements of strategy by allowing you to collect and manage resources to create buildings and traps. In order to create defense facilities, players collect a wide range of resources spread across the fields but the presence of zombies won’t make this easy. The game is a mixture of survival, resource-gathering, strategy, and defense genres where players must efficiently collect resources during limited times while managing various defenses.

What motivated you to combine so many different genre elements into Night of the Dead

Games that inspired me most were The Forest and They Are Billions. I gained the biggest inspiration from the movie I Am Legend. The most interesting elements here were the ambiance and emotion.

The starting point for ​​combining genres was based on how defense games are played. In most tower defense games, players first place the best building possible with their given resources, then watch how the game plays out. Players are often given god-like abilities and perspectives. However, we thought adding limitations to players’ ability and viewpoint by making them gather and build structures would increase the satisfaction of the defense gameplay. Thus, Night of the Dead was created.

In general, games with swarms of zombies are usually played by eliminating them using firearms. Night of the Dead, on the other hand, focuses on strategic gameplay where players utilize different traps and terrain rather than engaging in direct combat. This means players must explore the vast world and engage in various battles to gather resources. One interesting aspect of our game is that zombie encounters are designed around melee weapons like swords, spears, and hammers instead of firearms.
Image courtesy of Jackto Studios
Why was Unreal Engine a good fit for Night of the Dead?

As I mentioned earlier, when I wanted to study the overall game production pipeline, a myriad of Unreal Engine guides and information were available. This allowed me to naturally start the project with Unreal Engine. Looking back, with hands-on experience developing the project in UE, we believe the engine was the right choice for our team of two because the source code is readily available. This allowed us to take the most advanced game engine apart and use the source code in a variety of ways. Unreal Engine offers a wide range of powerful game development features. Especially in Night of the Dead, a large-scale level is key to tower-defense gameplay. This allows players to build and defend against hordes of zombies after strategically selecting their base according to the terrain or the type of resources they want to gather. Unreal Engine helped us effectively develop the features we needed. 

You mentioned that a large environment was key. Were there any ways in which Unreal Engine helped you achieve this? 

Unreal Engine's level streaming, world composition, and open-world tools were really useful here. Above all, the availability of Unreal Engine’s source code was a major advantage and we were able to modify the code to adapt it to our goals.

For example, when level visibility evaluation was added on the listen server, we added visibility offset, which was specifically developed for the project in order to prevent loading that can occur when moving around the level streaming boundary. This way, we were able to make the world composition work as intended on the listen server without any additional configuration changes.
Image courtesy of Jackto Studios
(Left) Before engine modification: Levels are loaded in each client based on local visibility. (Right) After engine modification: Levels required in both the server and the client are loaded.
Also, we were able to reference how the various UE features are implemented through direct access to the source code and developed a procedural generation and placement tool as well as an optimization automation tool so that our small team could fill the necessary elements within the expansive map.
Image courtesy of Jackto Studios
Our procedural generation and placement tool.
In the case of foliage, Unreal Engine's procedural foliage feature enabled us to easily place large amounts of foliage on the map. In keeping with our game design goals, we developed the foliage to be interactive. To do so, we swapped instances of procedurally placed foliage with interactive actors. We also used the level streaming feature to specify the level bounds the way we intended and divided the levels to be streamed separately. For example, the foliage level was evenly divided into similar sizes in order to lessen the load when deleting or changing instances, and levels that contained items were divided into various sizes depending on the density so that a large number of actors aren’t loaded at the same time.
Image courtesy of Jackto Studios
Dividing up the level.
I developed and used an additional development tool to effectively control various streaming levels. The editor utility widget, which was updated in version 4.22, was also very useful here since it is structured to write the editor UI and integrates it with native code. This allowed us to work on various editor UI needed for the project without C++. We were also able to easily write and use the Unreal Widget Editor like the widgets used in-game.

Were there any other ways Unreal Engine helped you develop the game? 

Unreal Engine offered many useful tools for developing Night of the Dead, but, in my opinion, the most intuitive and robust feature was the animation system. For example, Night of the Dead’s battle system uses an animation-based hitbox method, which utilizes Animation Montage and Anim Notify. All combat in the game was done with Animation Montages, and in each animation, Anim Notify are used to determine when the character goes into attack mode, when the weapon's hit collision is determined, whether movement is allowed during battle and more. Since the animation system supports most of the features required for the game, a programmer can easily and single-handedly configure and apply all necessary animations.
Image courtesy of Jackto Studios
Developing the hitbox-evaluation method with a sword-wielding animation using Anim Notify.
Image courtesy of Jackto Studios
An animation configuration Blueprint.
Unreal Engine's network system is also robust. We were able to benefit from the fact that Unreal Engine’s game framework alone can easily facilitate multiplayer game development. The tricky network configurations are set up by default, which can be a massive time-saver. We wouldn’t have thought about creating a multiplayer game with our small team of two if it weren’t for Unreal Engine. 

Do you have anything to share with other small indie developers?

There is a perception that Unreal Engine is too comprehensive for indie developers to use, but that essentially means the features are very powerful. This has worked to our advantage as a small developer. I think the main takeaway is that If you are able to utilize Unreal Engine’s pipeline, you can achieve high-quality results, even with a small team.

In addition, the Unreal Marketplace provides high-quality assets, so you can easily find ready-to-use content. We also used Marketplace assets for art, save systems, and more. All in all, I think Unreal Engine helps small teams deliver fantastic results, even with limited resources and budget.
We wouldn’t have thought about creating a multiplayer game with our small team of two if it weren’t for Unreal Engine. "
- Lee Min-gyu, Jackto Studios CEO
Thanks for your time. What else can we expect from Night of the Dead and where can we learn more about the game’s future updates? 

We’re focusing development on Night of the Dead and are targeting Q4 for the official launch of the game. We would like to take in feedback from the community and apply it to our game, delivering a higher level of freedom and additional content. Hopefully, our story can serve as a real example of how Unreal Engine allowed a small team of two to develop a high-quality game within a relatively short time. You can learn more about us on the Jackto Studios website or on Steam.

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