Image courtesy of Skydance Interactive

The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners 2 continues to raise the VR bar

Brian Crecente
Peter Akemann is the Co-Founder and Chief Technologist of Skydance Interactive, a dedicated subsidiary of Skydance Media that creates and publishes original virtual reality experiences and video games. He provides strategic and technology vision for the group. Skydance Interactive was formed in April of 2016 when Skydance acquired leading game developer The Workshop Entertainment, of which Akemann was President and Co-Founder.

Akemann launched The Workshop in 2008 alongside the other original members of Treyarch, which sold to Activision in 2001 and now leads the Call of Duty franchise. He co-founded Treyarch in 1995, where he oversaw the development of the company's cross-platform graphics engine. Akemann has shipped over 20 titles across first, second, and next-generation platforms and built the Treyarch team from three to over 200 employees.
When it hit in 2020, The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners delivered a bracing virtual reality survival horror game tied to the beloved Robert Kirkman comic book series.

The first-person shooter featured a crafting system, the ability to scale buildings, and endless ways of dispatching the walking dead. IGN wrote that The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners was a nuanced, noteworthy step forward for VR gaming, "proving that a Deus Ex-like Action-RPG can feel right at home in a headset." And in its review, Destructoid said the game "cemented itself as one of the leading 'full' VR experiences to date."

About three years later, developer Skydance Interactive returned players to The Walking Dead universe in a sequel that takes place three months after the events of the original. The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners - Chapter 2: Retribution hit Meta Quest and Pico 4 in December 2022 and arrives on the PlayStation VR and PlayStation®VR2 this coming March, It drops players into New Orleans’ French Quarter in a game with an overhauled damage system, new night mode, deeper story interaction, and more.

We chatted with Skydance Interactive Chief Technologist Peter Akemann about the studio's work on virtual reality games, the lessons it learned from The Walking Dead Saints & Sinners, and how they were applied to its sequel. Akemann also explained how Unreal Engine helped the studio master its virtual reality skills and walked us through how it developed some of the big changes that came to the game including the ability to legitimately hide in the darkness or be exposed to enemies in the light.

Skydance Interactive created a number of games using Unreal Engine. What made the studio decide to use Unreal in the first place?

Peter Akemann, Chief Technologist at Skydance Interactive:
We've been working with Epic Games technology since the early days of Unreal Engine 3. It was the first legit piece of middleware that really let the dev team focus on the game from day one and let us build our company from the ground up. Our experience with the tech and having an excellent business partner with Epic Games made it an easy choice.

Released in 2017, Archangel: Hellfire was your first virtual reality game using Unreal. What was it like transitioning to VR using Unreal Engine?

Unreal Engine 4 gave us a solid foundation for VR, solving many of the core problems, such as managing the stereographic rendering pipeline, synchronizing the render pipe with head motion, abstractions for the motion controllers, and such.

Even so, as it was our first VR effort, we had plenty to do laying down VR foundations of our own - locomotion, control abstractions, aiming, UI Paradigms, camera movement, rules for comfort or nausea control, and getting used to the content constraints of high-resolution stereo 90 fps rendering.

From time to time, we were ahead of Epic on the details and had to improvise, but nearly always, by the time we got our next Unreal Engine update, the issues would be resolved.

To Epic's credit, they continued to support VR as it evolved, even though it wasn't playing a direct role in their games, adding support for new VR platforms, generally making it a great experience to create for all around.
Image courtesy of Skydance Interactive
The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners is considered by many to be a high-point for virtual reality games. What do you think helped you achieve that result, and what do you think about the game made it such a good experience in VR?

Preparation, experience, timing, and perseverance. It took everything we had as a studio.

Years of experience making console games with innovative physical control schemes, combined with partners and a company with deep storytelling DNA. We also had our first two VR games under our belt, so we went in feeling pretty confident. But only with multiple false starts and ultimately combining the efforts of two teams into one did we finally get it done after more than a two-year dev cycle.

In the end, the keys were: A massive investment in core mechanics, and a robust multi-layered game design that prioritized player freedom and creativity, all in a wildly popular fictional world perfectly suited to VR's strengths of the medium.

When did you start development on the second chapter of The Walking Dead Saints & Sinners?

July 2021. A total of 14 months of principal development.

What lessons did you learn in your work on S&S, and how is that being applied to the sequel?

The greatest lesson we took from TWD S&S is that players crave a deep, multi-layered game experience with an emphasis on player freedom.

To that end, we were determined that Chapter 2: Retribution would expand that freedom, as we built new systems such as the Exile Trade Network and Night Mode, which added exciting new dimensions to the game. Of course, we also expanded on the foundations of the original game with more weapons, crafting, new areas to explore, and a whole new story starting from the end of the first title.
Image courtesy of Skydance Interactive
The use of meaningful and hard-to-make choices in the original title brought an important level of gravitas to the game. How are you evolving choices in The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners - Chapter 2: Retribution?

It’s hard to be too specific without spoilers, but I think it's fair to say we've given the player choices of even greater consequence to the overall story in Chapter 2: Retribution.

Almost as important as the gameplay consequence is the quality of the character development. We have some really great new characters in the game, and I think the story leads to some powerful moments of player decision that we hope will really stick with you when the game is done.

Retribution's new setting – the French Quarter – seems like it gave your level designers and artists a chance to really flex their muscles. How are you making use of Unreal Engine to bring life (and undeath) to such an iconic location?

The French Quarter offers some of the most recognizable and beloved regions of New Orleans; we really wanted to raise the bar with these new areas and make them shine. With the new baseline raised from Quest 1 to Quest 2 and the new frontiers of PS VR2 opened up, this gave us the headroom and Unreal Engine gave us the toolkit to take advantage of it.

Specifically, we've been able to push the three-dimensional level design. Longer sightlines, more complex navigation, and deeper exploration than previously possible.

Can players expect to see a new look for your walking dead in Retribution? If so, how have the dead changed, and how has damaging them evolved with the sequel?

At first glance, the Walkers may look familiar, but beware, they've learned some new tricks since the last go-around. Furthermore, our new weapons give you a … unique view of what the Walkers look like on the inside.

To cut to the chase: Chapter 2: Retribution introduces the chainsaw and other weapons, showcasing a new, generalized damage model that lets you rip Walkers apart from literally any angle. It brings a new level of combat mayhem, and never-the-same-twice action that we hope makes a worthy expansion of the fantastic melee foundations of the first game.
Image courtesy of Skydance Interactive
A change made in the game will let you go through the world at night. How did that impact design and lighting, and how did Unreal Engine help make those changes come to life?

Night Mode - incredibly dangerous, but with legitimate Walkers sense and light/dark gameplay, including the player-controlled flashlight and flares, was a dimensional addition of stealth gameplay.

We created a nighttime environment for every level in the game, old and new. We also expanded dynamic lighting. Of course, you still have your trusty flashlight, but now we have added flares that give the player temporary control over the lighting of areas - reveal the path, distract the Walkers while you sneak the other way, and other cool uses I won't reveal here.

Note that this is not just cosmetic - we enforce light-based perception rules on the AI, so you can legitimately hide in darkness or be exposed in light. Cap that off with the fact there are no ringing bells at night, as there are during the day, so it's not time-limited, and night mode becomes a legit stealth and exploration game. It's a whole different way to play with a whole new set of secrets to discover.

We're super proud we were able to add such a meaningful feature in Chapter 2: Retribution.

Haptic feedback sounds like it plays a major role in The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners - Chapter 2: Retribution. Can you walk us through how you developed the feel of fighting the walking dead and what you think contributes to the experience?

That's a huge question, and we've spoken at length about it in other forums.

But in short, the physicality of The Walking Dead, both in combat and in the general handling of objects, is the hallmark of the franchise, and we believe it ought to be a standard for all VR.

The core challenge is to convey the illusion of weight, momentum, contact, and resistance that the player can't actually feel in real life. We rely extensively on controller haptics but also what we call “visual haptics,” animation and response to user action that visually conveys the same properties above.

The most basic principle: the virtual hands separated from the literal player hand with the delta will be perceived as force. In other words, heavy objects hang below or lag behind the player's movement, creating large deviations that are perceived as a greater intentional force.

We sometimes replace physical simulation with animation driven by player movement when we need to intend a precise result. The classic example is our signature progression of a knife blade being plunged into a walker's brain, but we use a similar technique for handling grapples.

The chainsaw really took haptics to the next level. Engine vibrations, running low on fuel, revving the engine, turnover when you try to start it and are out of gas. The whole cycle of cutting from the initial impact of the blade, the soft cutting through flesh, the slow, ragged chopping through deep interior bone, and the final lurch as the cut is completed. All of this is conveyed in haptics so clearly that you don't need to see to know what you're doing.
Image courtesy of Skydance Interactive
What challenges did you face as you started working on the sequel, and how did Unreal Engine help you overcome them?

When we began Chapter 2, we didn't know just how well Chapter 1 was going to do. So we had a small team, little time, facing ever-increasing expectations as Chapter 1 continued to succeed.

Also, we were now maintaining the game on all platforms, from Quest 2 to PS VR2.

As usual, Unreal Engine came through on many fronts, but it's worth highlighting how well it supports cross-platform development, from the powerful scalability system to the dual mobile and console render pipelines. It gave us a robust solution that allowed the team to deliver a great game on all targets.

Increasing enemy count in a virtual reality game (really any game) can be a technical challenge. How have you created the sense of overwhelming odds when a horde is unleashed on a player?

First, we raised the maximum number of characters from eight to 10 on screen for Chapter 2 since Chapter 1 was locked at Quest 1 levels (PC/Console builds are 20+)

Second, we have a system that allows many more Walkers to be in play but only burns cycles processing the most important ones. This is based on the Unreal Significance system, but essentially doing a weighted calculation of who's visible, who's close enough to interact with you, etc. We also added special logic to make sure characters always spawn off-screen and (almost) never blink out or in. The net result is a sense of a far greater horde than the number of active Walkers you see at any given moment.

Finally, The Walking Dead has the natural advantage that Walkers are opponents based on close-up melee fighting, so only a few of them that are close to you can affect you at a time. And it only takes a few up close to overwhelm the player.

A few right on you with a bunch more behind your back, and more in every direction you look is enough to scare the crap out of anyone.
Image courtesy of Skydance Interactive
What suggestions would you give to a developer approaching their first VR game using Unreal Engine?

Pay attention to comfort. Leave the player in control as much as you can. Don't be a slave to literal simulation. Don't hesitate to cheat to give the player what they want.

What are your thoughts on Unreal Engine 5? Are there any particular elements or features of the new update that you're most looking forward to?

Personally, I am most excited by the new physics, Epic's internally developed Chaos system, which I hope will give us a deeper ability to customize our physicality systems.

Of course, the host of modern lighting and visual techniques and ongoing support for new platforms as they emerge for the next several years, I'm pretty stoked about that too.

How difficult was it to bring the game to PS VR and PS VR2? What differences will players see between the game running on the two versions of PlayStation's hardware?

Chapter 1 ran on PS VR, and Chapter 2 benefits from the work we did to further optimize the game for Quest, so that's not a stretch.

On PS VR2, Epic is in close partnership with Sony to deliver a fully working framework for the PS VR2, even while still in development, so that's been indispensable.

From our PC game, we've always had higher fidelity assets available than the PS VR platform could handle. But even there, the PC assets are focused on baseline PCs, so that wouldn't be such a large upgrade.

But with the power of PS VR2, we are pulling out all stops to deliver one of the best versions of the game players can experience. Everything from resolution to material quality, dynamic lighting, scene complexity, and even spatial audio processing will be enhanced, and the results will be a generational leap forward for players.

Is there anything else you'd like to discuss about the game's development?

So many players want to play our games in order, that we've built a bridge allowing players to export their Chapter 1 save games into Chapter 2. You can start with all your unlocks, your resources, and even the customization of your base.

On top of that, our export system will be cross-platform so, for example, players who played Chapter 1 on PS VR could continue on Chapter 2 for PS VR2. Or Quest 2 → PS VR2…. or any other combination of platforms.

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