Courtesy of Avalanche Software & Warner Bros. Games

Why Avalanche worked to deliver a Hogwarts game with soul

Brian Crecente |
August 8, 2023
Established in 1995 in Salt Lake City, Avalanche Software has been creating interactive experiences for fans of the world’s largest franchises for over two decades.
Hogwarts Legacy was breaking records even before it launched, becoming the most watched single-player game of all time on Twitch and hitting the second highest concurrent player peak for a single-player game on Steam during Early Access.

Once the game hit PC on February 10, those numbers only got better, almost doubling its concurrent player record during the release weekend.

Most reviews for the action role-playing game set in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter™, called out the title’s level of detail, rich atmosphere, and visual fidelity.

We sat down with some of Avalanche Software’s development team to find out how they applied the lessons they learned working on games as diverse as Disney Infinity and 25 to Life to create such a vast open world explorable on foot and broom.

The team also talked about its decision to set the game in the late 1800s, predating much of the known Wizarding World fiction, how they set about trying to deliver “a game with soul,” and why Avalanche decided to shift from its in-house game engine to Unreal Engine.
 

Avalanche Software has a long history creating intriguing titles that redefine what open world play can mean. What lessons did you learn from these and other projects that you applied to Hogwarts Legacy?

Kelly Murphy, Hogwarts Legacy Lead Designer:
When we went away from more linear, level-based experiences, we went with a philosophy of giving players multiple overlapping goals. This helped us fill our game worlds with distractions and gameplay as the player explores the world. In doing this, we identified motivations the player would have in the game, and devised systemic means for them achieving those motivations. This means interweaving dependencies between systems.

For instance, in Hogwarts Legacy, the player can only hold so much gear before they need to sell or destroy it. Therefore, a motivation for the player is to increase the size of their inventory. This can be done by completing Merlin Trials, which litter the Highlands. But, to complete Merlin Trials, the player will need enough Mallowsweet on them, which they can grow in the Room of Requirement, or purchase. They will also need the correct spell unlocked for the specific Trial they are trying to complete.

We found that identifying what the player will need or want, then giving them means by which they can chase those motivations gives us the opportunity to fill the world with gameplay not only invests the player, but allows us to focus on the right amount of pulls or distractions in the world as we build it. We wanted a pull to occur at least every 30 seconds of running in the world to keep players engaged.

There’s so much world building and lore in the Wizarding World. How did you go about deciding when to set the game and what storyline it would follow?

Murphy:
The most important pillars for the team were that we felt like an authentic Wizarding World product and that the player could role play as the Witch or Wizard they desire in this time and setting, as they are the hero.

Therefore, we wanted a time period that didn’t overlap with other competing heroes in the franchise, but wasn’t so far back in history that it wasn’t relatable. This landed us in the time period in the game, the 1890s. We felt this time period brought with it interesting technology, fashion, and was recent enough that we could utilize past events, characters, and surnames familiar to fans of the books and movies, nodding to them.

Finally, we wanted to not only showcase the various spells, potions, plants, and tools players are familiar with from the books and films, but give them something new that they have a special relationship to. This is where Ancient Magic comes in. It is mentioned in lore, but never really developed. So, developing this gave us an opportunity to be both innovative while staying authentic.
Courtesy of Avalanche Software & Warner Bros. Games
The Hogwarts setting seems rife with possibility when it comes to interactive environments and potential Easter eggs. How did you tap into that potential with Hogwarts Legacy?

Murphy:
Authenticity was one of the pillars for the team. This meant that we needed to create a Hogwarts that met fan expectations, and that was dripping with references to lore. To this end, the team scoured the books, films, internet, and utilized the author’s team to make sure we were portraying the school and surrounding world in the most authentic way possible.

The game is littered with Easter eggs because first and foremost, the team is made up of fans. At Avalanche, it’s always been important to deliver a game with soul, which you get when you allow peoples’ passions to see their way into what they’re creating.

By the time the game shipped, I had played through it multiple times, and was still discovering new details I hadn’t noticed during development. Since the game has launched I’ve watched multiple videos and am pleasantly surprised at how many little secrets made their way into the game that I wasn’t aware of.
Courtesy of Avalanche Software & Warner Bros. Games
The game presents a rich and explorable take on Hogwarts. What do you think helped you deliver such an expansive recreation of so important a setting?

Murphy:
In short, a team who is bought in and a team who cares. At Avalanche, we’ve always felt that if someone has a passion for some aspect of the game, it’s important we help feed that passion. We’ve found in the past that more often than not, the results are worth it, as we get happier people doing things they care about. The people working on Hogwarts itself were some of the most passionate Potter fans on the team, and fought like hell to make a version of the school that represented the labyrinthine hallways, secret rooms, hidden corridors, and charming personality of the school.

Players can use brooms for traversal and race. How did the mechanics for broom flight evolve over time?

Mike Snow, Hogwarts Legacy Advanced Game Designer:
The main considerations when taking on broom flight from a tech perspective are performance (framerate) and streaming. We knew we wanted broom flight in our open world, but we also knew that it would bring with it technical hurdles due to giving the player views of the world we might not have intended while on foot, and allowing them to move faster than they can run, stressing how fast we can stream in the world. Therefore, when it came to broom flight speeds and progression of upgrading brooms, we had to get clever. Tricks with camera, audio, and VFX help sell the player going faster than they actually are. Instead of the traditional pull the camera back when boosting method, we pull it in for more of an exciting, cinematic feel.

In addition, we wanted the player to have a relationship to all of the gameplay on the ground while flying on their broom. Implementing a Turbo meter that depletes unless the player is flying closer to the ground helps pull the player to gameplay on the ground. Controls were an issue that we needed to iterate throughout development. Finding a way to combine controls for hover mode vs. forward flight was tricky. Hover mode tries to match on ground controls with left stick, but needed a way to seamlessly switch to forward flight without changing the controls too much.

Therefore, we ended up with dual stick steering (right stick controls ascend/descend while left stick still steers left/right). As the controls became more refined, and the team spent more and more time playing with flying, we decided it was important that the player could get on and off their broom seamlessly and quickly. So, we added features like in-air mount to help save the player from falling to their death, as well as allowing the player to take off from water to improve some of the friction with having to get out of water to start flying.
Courtesy of Avalanche Software & Warner Bros. Games
Hogwarts Legacy also has tameable and mountable magical beasts. There are a lot of creatures to choose from, how did you go about selecting what would be in the game and then designing them to match player expectations?

Mekenzy Toner, Hogwarts Legacy Systems Designer:
Selecting which beasts to include was all about balancing fantasy, expectation, and cost. The beasts in the Wizarding World are magical, whimsical, and complex, which also means they can be quite complex to rig and animate. We wanted to balance what felt the most magical with what we could feasibly create in time. We also wanted to have a large variety of beasts—from the cool to the cute to the slimy—that would hopefully resonate with players and their personal tastes.

Some beasts we always knew we wanted to include due to their significance in lore, such as Thestrals and Nifflers. Others were a fun challenge to bring to life. For example, when designing the Puffskein, we weren't sure how it should move, since it has no limbs to walk on. We ultimately decided it was charming to have it roll about, like a big fluffy ball, which additionally gave it a sort of silly quality that felt characteristic of that beast. We wanted each species to have their own personality and style, which would come through in the various interactions you could have with them. It was important to us that the beasts felt magical and fun and a significant part of the world, reinforcing that it's not just wizards who are at stake in this story.

Why was Unreal Engine a good fit for Hogwarts Legacy?

Jose Villeta, Hogwarts Legacy Director of Software Engineering:
Avalanche used to make games based on our own proprietary engine but when we were planning for the Hogwarts Legacy game, we decided to move to Unreal Engine. The primary reasons for it were a combination of great editor tools but also being able to leverage the work done by Epic on open worlds and rendering technologies. We also knew that there were key technologies in development like Niagara VFX systems and Chaos Physics modules that will allow us to raise the bar on AAA game delivery.

We were able to focus on the game creation and less about the core engine development leveraging all Epic resources. Also, the flexible engine plugin system allowed us to expand and add special, unique systems needed for our game. Since we also get full source code access with Unreal Engine, we were able to optimize and/or expand areas that were critical for Hogwarts Legacy’s success.
Courtesy of Avalanche Software & Warner Bros. Games
How did Unreal Engine help you breathe life into Hogwarts, in particular the way the surroundings of the castle change with seasons?

Villeta:
We leveraged not only the Editor tools to build great art and script exciting gameplay moments, but we leverage all the world composition tools to stream in and out all the sections of the world as needed. We can not only walk but also fly on a broom and traverse all the great surroundings around Hogwarts. Depending on our game schedules and missions, we changed our seasons to convey a sense of time change. As you move around the castle, you will see lots of lively objects and animated paintings, which will complement and bring life to Hogwarts.

Were there any particular challenges that Unreal Engine helped you overcome? If so, what were they and how did you overcome them?

Villeta:
To achieve great combat and spell casting, we decided early on to leverage new Unreal Engine Niagara Visual Effects system. We adopted early on and worked very closely with Epic to achieve not only our technical requirements but raise the visual bar as well.

We were able to leverage and reuse a library of visual effects across all our spells, combat encounters and cinematics. Moreover, we decided to move to Chaos Physics as well to add a layer of geometry destruction, character ragdoll, and cloth dynamics. The combination of Chaos Physics and Niagara VFX systems allowed us to deliver state of the art visual effects and realistic character movement with real-time cloth.
Courtesy of Avalanche Software & Warner Bros. Games
Hogwarts Legacy is coming to a wide cross-selection of platforms. How did Unreal Engine help you maintain the quality across such a diverse spectrum of specs? Does the team have any thoughts about Unreal Engine 5 and the new features it’s bringing to development?

Villeta:
Unreal Engine has the concept of scalability settings that allowed us to tuned assets from Ultra to Low quality settings. These settings not only help the PC platform but also allow you to tune a given platform without the need to duplicating assets. When needed, we were able to reduce complexity on geometry or visual effects without affecting the game we have created.

We are looking forward to Unreal Engine 5 for future projects knowing that we have a great foundation in place already. We integrated two of the great pillars in UE5 already, Niagara VFX Systems, and Chaos Physics, but we are looking forward to the new developments across platform technologies, remote work improvements, rendering technologies, virtual production tools for cinematics, and character development among others.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Where can people find out more about Hogwarts Legacy and Avalanche Software?

Murphy:
You can find us on Twitter and on our website.

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