The Walking Dead Onslaught is Survios’ biggest VR game yet

Image courtesy of AMC | Survios
By Jimmy Thang |
October 2, 2020

Founded in 2013, Survios is an industry-leading virtual reality (VR) studio dedicated to premium software development, game publishing, and location-based entertainment (LBE) initiatives. At Survios, we build connected, immersive VR experiences with emergent interactivity and visceral play designed to expand the human experience and unlock our creative potential. 
Survios is one of the most prominent VR game developers in the industry. The Los Angeles-based studio first made headlines when it released the standout title Raw Data, and continued to make waves in the industry by releasing other excellent VR titles like Sprint Vector, Creed: Rise to Glory, and Westworld: Awakening. Survios’ latest release, The Walking Dead Onslaught, is based on the AMC’s popular television show and is the company’s biggest title to date. To see how the developer pulled it off, we interviewed Game Director Andrew Abedian, Art Director Tate Mosesian, and CTO Alex Silkin.
 
The trio shares how they passionately aimed to make players feel like they were stepping inside an episode of The Walking Dead by modeling and texturing assets from the show. They also elaborate on what it was like collaborating with producers and actors from the hit television series. On the technical side, they explain how they designed the game’s weapons and pushed the boundaries of VR physicality. They also share how they used specific Unreal Engine tools to optimize the game to get up to 30 walkers on-screen simultaneously in VR while maintaining performance.
What was the relationship and workflow like between Survios and the writers and producers from The Walking Dead show?

Game Director Andrew Abedian: Working with the AMC team and having access to producers, writers, and even talent from the show has been great. This level of collaboration was key to replicating the tone of AMC’s The Walking Dead and injecting it into our game. The reason the characters feel authentic and speak and sound like themselves is a direct result of the power of that collaboration. Throughout the entire development of this project, AMC has been included in every conversation along the way, and we have strived to facilitate a healthy dialog between both teams.
 
Considering specific areas, like Alexandria, from the television series are recreated in the game, how much research went into recreating the look of the show within The Walking Dead Onslaught?
 
Abedian: From the beginning, we wanted the world to feel like it belonged in an episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead. We spent an enormous amount of time harvesting footage and shots from the show to use as reference material for Onslaught’s environments. In the case of Alexandria, we took a look at satellite imagery of the actual on-set location of the town and charted that against reference images we gathered from its expansion in season nine. We made sure to use the same types of materials and allow the construction of the same buildings, but we went even further by extracting the metrics of the town and using them as a starting point when we began grey boxing the level. This made the space feel “correct” right off the bat, and any minor changes we made for user experience or technical reasons weren’t large enough to detract from that genuine Alexandria feel.
 
Art Director Tate Mosesian: A considerable amount of research went into the visual design of Alexandria. There were specific game design requirements that had to be considered, as well. However, when establishing the look of Alexandria for the game, the overriding goal was to make it feel like you are actually in Alexandria and that you are safe. In order to faithfully achieve that, I watched the Alexandria episodes over and over until I felt like I knew what it was like to live there and what the objectives and motivations were when Survivors began developing it as their own. All of the assets in the level are modeled and textured faithfully to the show. 
How did you approach paying tribute to what the show had established with designing levels tailor-made for the game?
 
Abedian: On the team, we all have our own favorite episodes from the show, and in those episodes, there are specific environmental beats that stuck with us throughout development. We wanted to give glimpses of those beats through our levels, whether it sent you running through a calm forest, across a crowded highway, or into the guts of a repurposed city. 
 
Watching the show, there really is a lot of variety in the types of environments the characters travel through while dealing with walkers. Some of my favorite show moments are simple: Rick and the gang move through buildings in a city or through stores in a town. The feeling of large stretches constricting into tight claustrophobic spaces with the ominous threat of walkers around any corner — it not only makes for entertaining television but also gives an ebb and flow to level design. Our scavenger side of the game is modeled directly after those moments, where a tense but steady supply run breaks into a deadly, chaotic frenzy.
 
Fan-favorite character Daryl Dixon, played by Norman Reedus, is one of the protagonists in the title. What was it like working with stars from the show for the game?
 
Abedian: We are so grateful to have the opportunity to work with acting talents such as Norman Reedus (Daryl), Melissa McBride (Carol), and Josh McDermitt (Eugene). Having the actual actors from the show reprise their roles not only took our writing to the next level but it also immediately made the game feel like AMC’s The Walking Dead. Norman is particularly a champ for allowing us an additional recording session in the middle of a pandemic. There were a lot of logistics to work out, and of course, the session was done remotely, but just having access to him at that moment made all the difference in the world for us. Here’s a video of Norman’s makeshift basement VO setup. 
 
TWDO CharacterShowcase
 
How does The Walking Dead Onslaught handle VR locomotion (movement), and were there any learnings derived here from past VR titles?
 
CTO Alex Silkin: We strived to offer lots of player choice in order to satisfy the wide range of player preferences and VR comfort. The game is fully playable with three different locomotion styles: teleport, fluid (arm strides), and smooth (joystick). The implementation of these systems is an evolution from our experiments in the past titles. When using teleport, players have the choice for instant transition for the highest VR comfort, but they may also choose to enable a fast interpolated transition option that is based on the teleshift locomotion in Raw Data. The fluid locomotion in Onslaught is a further simplified implementation of the movement that initially debuted in the blazing-fast Sprint Vector and adapted to the slower-paced Westworld Awakening. Lastly, we benefited from our experience in Raw Data and Westworld Awakening when tuning smooth locomotion for player comfort, since this is a scheme that typically requires strong VR legs. Similarly, we are providing four different turning options: snap, swift, smooth, and disabled. Swift turn has a quick transition like all our previous titles. Snap turn is a version that is instantaneous without a transition, which was added based on feedback from some of our players, who felt discomfort when using swift turn in our past titles.
 
Being a pioneer in the VR-development space, were there any other VR titles Survios was able to build upon for The Walking Dead Onslaught?
 
Silkin: The Walking Dead Onslaught was naturally developed based on the internal tech and knowledge from our previous titles, such as Creed: Rise to Glory and Raw Data. However, we give credit to all the other pioneers in the VR space. It feels like we’ve been working together to define the standards and best practices for this new medium. It is impossible to discuss zombie VR games without first mentioning Arizona Sunshine. This is the game that really set the standard for a linear story zombie VR shooter. Another important early pioneer that was an inspiration for us is Blade & Sorcery. This was one of the first great examples of melee weapon physicality we saw on the market.
Considering The Walking Dead Onslaught aims to push VR physicality forward with its melee restraint and progressive dismemberment systems. Can you explain how these mechanics work and elaborate on what they bring to the table?
 
Abedian: When we initially set out to create The Walking Dead Onslaught, we approached it in the same way we started Sprint Vector, trying to solve a large problem by making it the core of the game. When we imagined translating the show into video game format, we thought about the physical nature of the combat between the survivors and the walkers. Pushing, choking, throwing, everything was very hands-on. We had tackled melee challenges before with our titles such as Raw Data and Creed: Rise to Glory, but we developed entirely new systems to facilitate all the different ways a player could meaningfully interact with a walker. This was a big interaction problem we wanted to solve because we saw deep value in creating technology to express meaningful differences between using a bat, katana, and axe. 
 
Progressive dismemberment came up as a necessary concept in trying to maintain the authenticity of the walker experience presented in the show, namely the carnage that The Walking Dead team consistently manages to hit out of the park. We invested in ways to bruise, carve, and dismantle walkers so that an Onslaught combat scene could match a shot from the show. We allow the player to experience the progression in these levels of walker destruction as they grow their arsenal over the course of the game. Additionally, a huge benefit of progressive dismemberment is to provide a vehicle of deeply satisfying feedback for the melee systems discussed above. 
 
CarolArmory Watermarked
 
The Walking Dead Onslaught features dozens of weapons, from baseball bats to shotguns and more. How did the team approach adding an arsenal of armaments that felt varied, realistic, and satisfying?

Abedian: Every weapon present in the game is something that has been seen on the show, excluding our special magazine-fed, lever-action raider shotgun, which has an actual real-life counterpart. It was easy to pick the iconic weapons from the main cast to add to the game as a form of wish fulfillment, but we also looked to the larger zombie genre as a whole for inspiration. We wanted each weapon to fill a particular thematic archetype and have its own space in combat. We provide variety through main weapon types, but also through weapon sizes, giving you blunt weapon options in the form of hammers, bats, and shovels. There is also similar thought placed on the ranged weapons in the game, with each firearm functioning optimally at different combat ranges and getting a different evolution through weapon upgrades. Every weapon in the game has been tuned to feel different; each has unique effects and can deal different levels of damage to walkers. We have strived to keep things functionally realistic, but we also have interpreted combat with these weapons through a more empowering action-based lens, preferring a smooth user experience over frustrating simulator-style mechanics. 
 
The team has stated that up to 30 walkers may be on-screen simultaneously, which is a staggering amount in VR. How did the team do that while keeping performance in check?
 
Silkin: We certainly benefited from the tech and experience shipping previous VR titles. However, there was still a considerable effort in optimizing existing and new systems. Our goal was to provide physics-driven combat with a large number of dismember-able enemies. This proved to be taxing on the CPU, particularly with regards to physics, AI, and particles. Walking Dead Onslaught was the first project we were shipping with Unreal Engine 4.23, so we were, fortunately, able to use the new Unreal Insights profiler to quickly identify our bottlenecks on the CPU. Insights' visual interface makes it very easy to see the relative cost of different systems and identify idle time across the different threads. This allowed us to identify bottlenecks and opportunities for multithreading faster than it was possible with the previous Unreal Engine profiler. Consequently, with this title, we took advantage of Unreal’s TaskGraph system by parallelizing more systems than we did in the past. The other pieces of Unreal tech that was particularly relevant for our game were the animation budgeting and significance systems. These two systems allowed us to spend fewer cycles updating and animating walkers that are far and out of view, without sacrificing quality for what is directly in front of the player.
Because the game takes place in the apocalypse where artificial light is scarce, Survios has previously spoken out about the challenges of lighting most of the game using natural light. How did the team approach overcoming this challenge? 
 
Mosesian: Lighting the game was challenging, considering we were limited to using only natural light for the majority of it. A lot of the game takes place during the day, and the player is traversing through bright exteriors then into dark shadowy interiors, while constantly looking out for walkers. This creates a nice balance of well-lit open spaces and tight creepy spaces, which motivates a pervasive tension and adds to the sense of terror and urgency as the player is completing missions.
 
Why was Unreal Engine a good fit for the game?
 
Abedian: I honestly couldn’t imagine using another engine to develop The Walking Dead Onslaught. No other engine provides the sheer amount or quality of tools like Unreal does. Our game utilizes so many different components of Unreal Engine. If we didn’t have easy access to these tools, we wouldn’t have been able to make the game with the feature set we did.
 
Silkin: Unreal Engine has the best of both worlds. On the one hand, Unreal Engine provides cutting-edge AAA tools. On the other hand, developers have access to the source code, which gives them the freedom to push the envelope and innovate beyond the [standard] capabilities of the engine. 
Earlier in development, The Walking Dead Onslaught was going to feature a co-op campaign, but Survios eventually decided to focus on making a more refined single-player experience. Why was this the right move for the title?
 
Abedian: This was, honestly, one of the most difficult and painful decisions in the project, and it took months of analyzing where we were at and what we were trying to achieve to finally pull the trigger to reallocate resources towards additional single-player features of the game. The combined vision and level of polish that we were targeting effectively cut out multiplayer features due to time and quality concerns. It was the right call because we absolutely did not want to deliver a game to players that checked a box for a feature on paper, but translated to a frustrating or broken experience in practice. If we had committed to push multiplayer through, not only would it have been flawed, but the resources it would have taken to maintain it across development would have hurt the quality of the rest of the game. Many players do not realize how large an investment multiplayer can be to an average product, but stacking that burden on top of all of the experimental features that we were developing was a recipe for disaster. 
 
Ultimately, we found confidence in the decision by focusing on what we identified to be important: faithfully representing the brand of The Walking Dead, providing fun, freeform combat in a way no one else has, and giving players more value by allowing them to experience different layers of progression through Alexandria, their evolving arsenal, and the alternating pace of our campaign and scavenger modes.
 
Considering Survios has developed so many VR games over the years, do you have any advice for aspiring VR developers?
 
Abedian: Nothing is fully figured out; there is so much more to discover. Be fearless, but be smart. Test your hypothesis and learn from your mistakes. Look to the community, and see how each person/group/studio is working the medium in different directions. 
 
The challenge of VR is one of excitement and frustration; we push it forward because we can’t help but feel the endless potential and inevitability of mass adoption. Those who believe these technologies are the future can see the way they integrate into the human experience to the extent that smartphones have over the last several years.
 
Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about The Walking Dead Onslaught?
 
The Walking Dead Onslaught is available now for Steam VR, Oculus Home, and PlayStation VR. You can buy the game right now at TWDOnslaught.com/BUY
 
Stay up to date with the latest news by following us on social @Survios, or by joining our Discord community.  

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