Courtesy of Arctic Hazard

Norse is a tactical Viking game that taps into many aspects of Unreal Engine 5’s ecosystem

Mike Williams |
June 26, 2023
A tale of blood and revenge starts at the dawn of the Viking Age. Norse is the story of a young warrior named Gunnar, left without a father and his people by treachery. Through grit, guile, and a little glory, Gunnar will establish a new settlement, forge a mighty army, and take his bloody revenge on the man who killed his father, Steinarr Far-Spear.

Developer Arctic Hazard is crafting a turn-based tactics game aimed at letting players feel every swing and thrust of Viking warfare. Located in Norway, the studio looks to local history to fill out the world of Norse, alongside a love of classic strategy games. The story that surrounds the tactical combat is crafted with the help of author Giles Kristian, known for his best-selling Raven saga.

The game received an Epic MegaGrant, and the studio is utilizing Unreal Engine 5 to bring Norse to life, alongside features like Nanite, Lumen, and MetaHuman. We talked with developers from the studio about Norse’s inspirations, presenting Norway’s rich history with authenticity, and how Unreal Engine 5 helped them bring that history alive.
 

Can you tell us about your studio, Arctic Hazard?

Terje Lundberg, Creative Director:
Arctic Hazard AS is an independent game developer which focuses on producing top quality Games for Windows, Xbox, and PlayStation platforms.​

The company was founded in 2010 by Terje Lundberg and Mats Tveita, who at the time had been in the industry for over a decade. Arctic Hazard’s team comprises some of the finest talent and most experienced developers in Norway.

For Arctic Hazard, it’s all about making games, not tech, and most of our technology is licensed from third-party vendors. We then integrate this into our projects, ensuring that the team has the best engine and tools as a base for production, so that we can focus on creating exciting gameplay.

Can you explain what Norse is about?

Lundberg:
Norse is a turn-based tactics game for PC and console. Set at the dawn of the Viking Age, we follow a young warrior named Gunnar on a journey of revenge throughout Norway. Our goal: to build up our own settlement, to make allies, and grow strong. And, ultimately, to wreak vengeance on the traitor Steinarr Far-Spear, who betrayed Gunnar’s father Jarl Gripr and butchered his people.
 
Written by award-winning and Sunday Times bestselling author Giles Kristian, Norse is set in 9th century Norway, at the dawn of the Viking Age. It’s a game driven by a compelling narrative thread, and brimming with memorable characters.
Courtesy of Arctic Hazard
Considering Arctic Hazard is based in Norway, how much does the studio’s setting influence the nature of the game?

Lundberg:
Well, obviously Norway has a rich Viking history and the legacy of the Vikings is all around. In Oslo, we have the Viking Ship Museum, one of the best places in Norway to get up close and personal with real, life-size Viking vessels, together with treasures and burial artifacts.

On the western banks of the Outer Oslofjord, not far from our office, we have the Borre National Park, home to the Midgard Historical Centre and the Historical Borre Mounds. 

We also have Kaupang nearby, an archaeological site of a former Viking town that dates to AD 800. There’s the village of Gudvangen on the Nærøyfjord, a popular living museum modeled as a bustling Viking town. Set against breath-taking mountain scenery and the narrow fjord, it gives a wonderful idea of the life and landscape of 9th century Norway.

Up north, at Lofoten, we have the Lofotr Viking Museum, which we visited last year. It has the largest Viking longhouse in the world, recreated on top of the original longhouse that was excavated back in 1981. At 83 meters long and 12 meters wide, it’s an amazing sight to behold. In Tønsberg—the oldest Norwegian town—we have a Viking festival every year, including a Viking market, which reflects the town’s past as a thriving trade hub. 

Throughout Norway, there are numerous such festivals and re-created Viking settlements, and we have taken Arctic Hazard “work trips” to many of these places to inspire everyone and to research the everyday life and objects of the Viking world. And, of course, some of those working on Norse—I’m talking about the U.K. guys—are inspired by the legacy of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of Viking activity!

I think Arctic Hazard’s location, close to three natural harbors and so much Viking history, gives us a pretty unique insight and credibility when it comes to making a Viking game.
Courtesy of Arctic Hazard
What inspired the team to develop a turn-based strategy game?

Lundberg:
I’ve never been much of a “fanboy” when it comes to games or other things in life, but Mythos Games and MicroProse and their games in the X-COM series in the nineties were a revelation. And when Firaxis Games followed up with XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012) and XCOM 2 (2016), I knew this genre had so much to give the players. 

Luckily, my co-founders of Arctic Hazard felt the same way, hence we started our journey with Norse, inspired by those games. Norse stands on its own though, and is more narrative-driven, as well as being heavier on the management part of gameplay. It’s filled with features that we feel have been lacking in turn-based tactics games over the years. Still, without the X-COM series, Norse would probably never have happened.

Norse’s story is written by award-winning author Giles Kristian. How has working with him helped flesh out the world of Norse and the stories of the lead characters, Gunnar and Sigrid?

Lundberg:
Giles Kristian is the author of two bestselling Viking trilogies—the Raven saga and The Rise of Sigurd series—and has sold well over a million copies. His experience of writing immersive stories and compelling characters set in the Viking Age has helped us build an authentic-feeling world populated by characters whom we hope players will want to spend time with. 

One thing Giles’s readers love about his Viking novels is the humor, and he has brought this to Norse with fantastic characters such as Torsten the Blacksmith and Holti the farmer. Just recording the cutscenes with the actors who play these characters was hilarious! As for the lead characters, Gunnar and Sigrid, their motivation is revenge, so you can expect some darker scenes in Norse too. This is, after all, a world of raiding and blood-feuds, of violence and ambition.

Teamed up with fellow writer and brilliant narrative director Philip Stevens, Giles is pulling the game together with a narrative thread that will make Norse stand out from games where characterization and story aren’t so prevalent.

Can you talk about the process of making each chosen member of your personal army feel unique, with their own motivations and backgrounds?

Giles Kristian, Author:
If writing adventure novels has taught me anything, it’s that people are interested in people. The characters are not simply as important as the story. They are the story.  For me, the adventure itself and the characters experiencing it must be inextricably, intimately connected. Without the adventure, the characters have nothing to overcome. Without compelling characters, we don’t care if they make it or not. 

Making a game with a strong narrative thread, it was important to us to create a colorful and varied cast of characters with unique personalities and rich backstories. The detail that we bring to these warriors and tradespeople then informs our artists and designers, and ultimately our actors, who can portray fully-formed, three-dimensional characters. Characters with whom players will want to spend time. Hopefully!
Courtesy of Arctic Hazard
Is there permadeath in the game?

Fredrik Ulvmoen, Game Designer:
Yes! The non-hero characters who make up most of your war band will die permanently. However, reaching zero health points does not necessarily equate to death. Once a unit reaches zero health, they are "At the Gates of Valhalla," their fates now in the hands of the gods. While in this state, units push beyond their normal limits to continue fighting at great risk of injury or even death.

Hero characters can also enter this state, but in the unfortunate case that they die, the current mission will have to be restarted, as you will not be able to continue the story without them. If a unit survives a mission after having entered this state, they receive an injury. Injuries range from debilitating effects that reduce their effectiveness in combat to severe injuries that take them out of commission for a duration and may leave permanent disfigurements that give the unit new traits.

Allowing units to fight on with an increasing chance of death with every incoming hit adds an additional layer of risk and reward, as well as giving the player some leeway when it comes to character deaths. A situation is still salvageable even if mission-critical or favorite characters end up in a tough spot.

In-between combat and exploration, players will return to their settlement, where they can govern and interact with key facets of your village, like the local blacksmith. What does this additional mechanic add to the experience of Norse?

Ulvmoen:
The player settlement serves as a hub where players manage their warriors and commission new equipment and upgrades. Interacting with the workers in the settlement is how players gain new equipment. These interactions with craftsmen such as Torsten the Blacksmith take place through an interface that combines dialogue and crafting. While queuing the weapons and equipment they want crafted, players will get to know the characters of the village, gain insight into their thoughts on the state of their world, and the player’s own progress through the game.

This creates a sense of community in which players can build up from a single farmhouse to the thriving settlement their favorite characters call home. Our dynamic characters will comment on the outcome of the last raid, lament the loss of fallen warriors, complain about their workload, or perhaps even be unavailable due to being drunk or otherwise indisposed. 

Furthermore, combining these elements with seasonal ceremonies, disputes among inhabitants, and settlement-wide decrees which impact various aspects of the game, we aim to create a hub that not only provides a respite between missions, but also stands as an exciting feature in its own right, one that players will eagerly look forward to returning to.

One of the interesting facets of combat is the use of Glima, a type of Nordic folk wrestling. Why did the team decide to include this unique combat style? 

Ulvmoen:
Because we focus largely on melee combat, we felt Glima would make a great addition, not only visually and mechanically because of its unique abilities, but it also gives the game an aspect of a less widely represented piece of Nordic culture. We've been through several iterations of Glima, experimenting with how best to represent the wrestling style within our combat system, ranging from overly complicated minigames, to simpler abilities. In its current form, it lands somewhere in-between, being simple and easy to understand, whilst still adding an additional layer of strategy to consider when using abilities.

When activated, Glima abilities have an initial success chance and allow the player to spend action points to make additional attempts with increasing chances of success. These abilities can have effects at the start, during attempts, on failure, and on success; it gives us a lot of flexibility to simulate the wrestling style. This design approach not only allows us to capture the essence of Glima, but also provides an engaging gameplay mechanic. One which both internal testing and initial user feedback has deemed an exciting addition to Norse.
Courtesy of Arctic Hazard
How did the team land on the realistic art style used for the characters and environments in Norse?

Mike Kiessling, World Director:
The narrative and world design of Norse is deeply rooted in real-world history, so it was a natural next step to match the art style with that same level of authenticity. The early concepts of houses, environments, and clothing were often based on real locations and archaeological discoveries. In Norway, we have a wealth of resources and inspiration to draw upon, from the historical record to the practical, hands-on experience of living history events. We have used these as a baseline for such things as armor, clothing, and weapons, and then have elaborated further with the art style.

Choosing realism also speeds up asset creation enormously, as we can rely more on photographic references for our world, props, and characters, and it allows our concept artists to focus on the areas that matter the most. The direction we are going in should be very exciting for the players, as we are creating a “truer” representation of Norway in the Viking era than is seen in many other games

Can you talk about your team’s experience using Quixel Megascans?

Kiessling:
It used to be that striving for realistic visuals was the domain of large studios with equally large budgets. Smaller teams and indie studios often stuck to simplified and stylized graphics. Having Quixel Megascans assets at our disposal bridged that gap and allowed us, even as a small team, to create levels at a pace and quality far beyond that previously possible.
 
The Quixel library has a consistent quality, so we don’t have to spend extra effort making multiple asset packs consistent. We also create some highly detailed sculpts in zBrush much faster than before by utilizing the displacement maps from the large library of Quixel Surfaces. Our artists can focus on the unique elements for our game, while a lot of the “filler items” have already been created for us.

How did receiving an Epic MegaGrant help the development of Norse?

Lundberg:
The grant itself helped us financially in the early stage of planning Norse. But more importantly, being recognized by Epic opened doors to other investment opportunities. It’s a great boost for any team to receive an Epic MegaGrant.
Courtesy of Arctic Hazard
What has it been like jumping headfirst into Unreal Engine 5 development?

Jens Bjarne Myhre, CTO:
It was exciting to experiment with Nanite and what that would enable us to do, finding out how it works and how it would change our development process. But it was also a bit of a let-down when features we previously relied on no longer worked when using Nanite.

We decided then to fully embrace the new paradigm introduced by Nanite and replace all our old meshes with new ones that followed the guidelines we developed during the preproduction phase. This did set us back a few months—time we used to produce new assets to replace what was already made, making use of the Quixel library whenever we could. This was a somewhat painful period where we would work for months just to be back where we were before, but now at a much higher quality level, and experienced in a much more future-proof workflow.

It was a bit scary during the Early Access period since there were issues that kept popping up and we would not know when, or even if, the issue would get fixed. Luckily most of the major issues got resolved with the release of 5.0 and with each release more of the features we were missing got added to Nanite. Like in the latest 5.2 release, there is now support for stencil buffers which is quite a relief as we would need to rethink our approach for integrating UI elements into the world if this didn’t get supported as we approach the release of our game.

So, it has been challenging for us to know whether to look for alternatives when things aren’t working or just concentrate on other matters and assume things will get fixed eventually. We have usually chosen the latter and it has served us well up to now.

Was there anything that surprised you about UE5?

Kiessling:
Maybe “surprised” isn’t the right word, but it’s been exciting to follow the development of Unreal Engine 5 so closely while working on Norse. We jumped on UE5 soon after the preview versions became available, and every minor or major release along the way has elicited some form of “Awesome, that’s just what we needed!” response from the team. That, and Nanite is pure magic…

Myhre: As others have said, the seamless transition from Unreal Engine 4 was quite remarkable.

Also, with how well Nanite, Lumen, and Virtual Shadow Maps works, you grow accustomed to watching these super dense models with nice, detailed shadowing. Like it’s nothing special. Oftentimes, it’s hard to see any significant difference between the Path Tracer, which is essentially using “brute force” offline rendering techniques. You often don’t realize just how high fidelity it all is until you fire up some other game and notice all the details missing, and jagged shadows, etc. It may not be as performant as it was in UE4, but for what you are getting, it is surprisingly performant.
Courtesy of Arctic Hazard
All the characters in Norse were built using MetaHuman. How does the tool aid you in creating realistic and believable characters?

Mats Tveita, Art Director:
MetaHuman has been a great asset to the team. It’s now much faster to create believable characters and achieve greater results in the quality and variety. We still do 3D scans on key characters, and since MetaHuman included the possibility to add our own meshes, it’s all gone hand in hand. 

The setup in MetaHuman allows for brilliantly varied facial expressions, and it all being tied to Live Link makes it a fun pipeline to work with. Results are fast to achieve and, importantly, fast to tweak. The most important thing is always the end result, and MetaHuman is a great tool to get us there.

Myhre: At first, using MetaHuman was a compromise we had to make to get the excellent animation, at the cost of flexibility with the character’s facial features. We found it difficult to make the character’s faces look as we wanted using the MetaHuman Creator. We ended up making a tool which allows us to replace the head model with our own version of the model that we have altered in Zbrush. This way, we can shape our characters accordingly. The tool had its limitations and was fairly crude, as it only moved the vertices on the model, so we had to be careful not to stray too far away from the original model, because that would cause misalignment with the rig.

However, after the release of the MetaHuman Plugin for Unreal Engine, the whole problem went away, as that tool is excellent. You just make the character the way you want and get all the benefits of the animation rig in mere minutes of work! Maybe there are other tools that can do this, but MetaHuman is the only tool I know of that can do it at this level of quality and ease of use.

Were there any other Unreal Engine tools that were helped in the creation of Norse?

Myhre:
There is a plethora of tools available in Unreal Engine and probably many we underutilize just from a lack of knowledge. However, I will shout out a few that I’ve found helpful during our development: Editor Utilities, which we have used to create custom context menu options to run our own custom scripts, doing operations on all kinds of assets for automating tasks and processing of various kinds. Unreal Insights is also excellent when you need to dig deep and discover bottlenecks. We probably don’t use it enough, as our game still has some way to go in terms of optimizations.

Great, powerful tools are something that can really accelerate development, so we are interested in learning more about what Unreal Engine can provide. For example, the Procedural Content Generation Framework that was demonstrated during GDC 2023 is something we are very interested in and should be quite helpful in detailing the vegetation in our levels.

And since our approach for making models was modified to take advantage of Nanite by building much smaller pieces that we combine, it may fit well together with this framework. It could be used to build procedural assemblies of objects, rather than just manually building them and storing them as Blueprint actors as we have been doing thus far. This would allow for greater variation, as no two assemblies would be identical.
Courtesy of Arctic Hazard
What has the team learned in the process of developing the game?

Kiessling:
It’s a lot of small things for me, and I still learn or adapt to new developments every day. I think the biggest take-away so far has been that, if you play into the strengths of your team, it’s now more than ever possible to create content at a scale and quality that would have been impossible to do with a small team only a few years ago.

What tips do you have for other indie developers or aspiring game developers?

Kiessling:
Focus on the things that you can control. First and foremost, make the game(s) you want to create and play yourself, and do it with the people you want to create them with.

Myhre: Try to avoid falling into the factory line mentality of just sticking to a single method of doing things the way you already know how. Instead, take your time to learn about the tools and options available to you, as there are often many ways to achieve your goal, and having a broad understanding of the possibilities allows you in many cases to pick better methods for the job. The extra time spent familiarizing yourself with all the possibilities is saved in the long run by making better decisions during development.

And anyone who architects their game using Blueprints should really consider getting their feet wet in C++, as it opens up so many more options. Even for just making more specific Blueprint classes, there are many metadata specifiers such as EditInlineNew, DynamicOutputParam, ExpandEnumAsExecs, and GetOptions, which open up for very powerful data structures and function nodes, expanding the possibilities for your game. So, if you don’t do any C++ work on your project, you will be seriously missing out. You don’t need to go far with C++ in Unreal to get great benefits from it.

Thanks for your time, where can people learn more about Norse?

Lundberg:
It was our pleasure, thank you. We have several channels that we will promote Norse through the coming year with much more frequent updates, so stay tuned:

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