11.2.2015

Empowering designers to do what they do best: A Discussion with Caged Element on GRIP

By Brian Sharon

When the Rollcage series of games burst onto the scene at the turn of the century, most players wouldn’t have described the games as classically artistic. Showcasing high-intensity vehicular gameplay, the focus was as much on carnage as it was racing to the finish line. These monster cars could use their massive wheels to drive across all manner of terrain, as players launched havoc-causing projectiles at one another. Yet, for many, this high-octane, adrenaline-fueled experience was music to their ears, performing in harmony as a sort of chaotic symphony.

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Rollcage pushed the limits in more ways than one: the game explored new vehicle mechanics that imagined cars as flat, flippable vessels, adding a whole new dimension to the gameplay. Moreover, the game’s impressive graphics and explosive nature put the PlayStation’s hardware to the test -- one that it struggled to beat.

Now, more than a decade since a Rollcage game last left its charred mark, a group of inspired developers are looking not only to revive the franchise’s hostile take on the racing genre, but are deadset on perfecting it.

Officially Greenlit and headed for Early Access, GRIP is a game that wears its inspiration proudly. Developed by Caged Element, the game is built upon speed, intensity, and frantic moment-to-moment action. Just as Rollcage pushed the limits of what was possible during its time, Caged Element are looking to do the same with GRIP.

We spoke with Caged Element to find out how Unreal Engine 4 is helping them push their extreme game, to the extreme.

GRIP has been successfully approved through the Greenlight process on Steam, and is planned for a release on Early Access. Given the involved nature of Early Access, how has Unreal Engine 4 allowed you to implement real-time changes based on user feedback?

Chris Mallinson: We're not on Steam yet, but it's already apparent that Unreal Engine 4 will help greatly in efficiently creating frequent iterations of GRIP to pump out to our fanbase. It's one of the reasons we're excited for Steam’s Early Access; because we know how smooth a development process it will be. One thing in particular that has been extremely helpful is the use of ‘splines’ to map out track designs quickly. 

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Our dedicated fans will no doubt love playing our various base layouts we release, and then are able to give feedback on mechanics and flow. But overall it's just really easy to plug in new versions of assets into the engine and then tweak them within seconds, seeing those changes immediately, in real time. We received incredible feedback from our community, and that feedback is converted to constructive changes in no time.

David Perryman: It’s practically instant, isn’t it? Unreal Engine 4 allows us to not only rapidly prototype, which is an absolute must these days, but it takes it that one step further and makes polishing the game to completion possible, too. Marrying those two things is what is key for us as developers. We can plug any feedback into the game as we go, evaluate it and get it looking good quickly. 

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UE4 is the perfect match for Steam Early Access. As Chris said, we’ll be arriving on Early Access at the end of November this year and we’re gearing up for the whole process: Right now we’re scheduling dedicated time so we can get the best out of evaluating user feedback with UE4, and because everyone can easily use UE4 it means we can be flexible; one person won’t be tied up. Dedicating that time to UE4 and the players feedback is, I guess, like we’re nurturing another member of the team, giving it space to perform to capacity. Well, actually, it’s like nurturing a whole department of the team!

GRIP is a white-knuckled and abstract racing game, with an immediately noticeable visual punch. What were some elements of Unreal Engine 4 that allowed you to create this vibrant aesthetic?

David: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. I’ll let the others go into detail on this, but as I said earlier having UE4 on your team means rapid prototyping, of course, but more importantly, polish. As I think we’ve demonstrated, it means a small Indie team can put together a ‘AAA’ quality looking game rapidly. It helps with scope, too.

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Chris: It was really quick getting a basic prototype up and running, which was huge for us. Of course, GRIP, and it’s spiritual predecessor Rollcage, contain vehicle designs so unique that we needed to build the car from the ground up, and UE4 alleviated most of the potential pains elsewhere. Rob had weapons up and running pretty quickly, and I was working on particle effects just as fast. I'd never built a particle system before, but I had very few problems creating some cool stuff in a short amount of time. 

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I'm a pretty good example to use in reference to the ease of UE4 development, since I've only used UE 2.0 prior to this, yet I picked up UE4's systems much quicker than I expected. Obviously, art experience and common sense help, but if the software isn't on point to begin with, you'll have a hard time getting off the line.

Robert Baker: Chris is right, UE4’s Cascade is a really powerful tool in developing some real ‘AAA’ effects, but it’s not the only one. The materials system is also a very impressive feature that puts more control into the hands of the artists, which is always welcome. Once purely the domain of programmers using complicated measures such as High-Level Shading Language (HLSL) for DirectX, it’s now a much more visual process, just as it should be, using easily understood constructs within an artist-friendly editor. 

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Programmers can still do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of math and algorithms to push the envelope where necessary, but artists can then easily take control and add that final flair that brings the best out of your game.

Despite years of experience, Caged Element is, by your own admission, a relatively small development team. How have productivity tools such as Blueprints allowed you to create content more efficiently, and how has it changed your overall development process?

Chris: As primarily an artist, I don't code and I'd never used a node system in software before. I didn't think I'd enjoy making Blueprints at all, but damn, I'm telling ya [sic], it's fun. It sounds ridiculous, but I could sit in the Unreal Engine 4’s Blueprint editor and experiment with different nodes all day. I think the most useful thing is that UE4 usually tells you what's wrong in your setup. 

You've got this giant Blueprint and are eager to see the results of plugging in 10 more nodes, and when you go to compile, whatever information regarding your screw up (usually many) is spelled out for you. And if you're hitting a wall, it's usually temporary because the Unreal community is so large and passionate that 9 times out of 10, someone has come to your aid and posted a fix to your problem online. The Blueprint system is simple in a way, but also deeply, deeply complex. I know I've only scratched the surface, and that's fine, because it's a fun enough system that I have no problem diving in and learning more.

Rob: By far the biggest blessing that Blueprints bring is time. The amount of time we used to waste recompiling code and trying the game again with new numbers, then reiterating, almost ad-infinitum, was just immense. Blueprints positively encourages you to expose configurations as much as possible, as doing so is simply carefree. Once exposed, configurations can be changed by any staff on the team, but especially the designers whose hands are best for this kind of thing. 

Actors can be crafted and polished within the game far more quickly than any project I’ve ever worked on before, and the results often much closer to your vision than ever before simply because the process of getting there is so much easier. Blueprints allows the designers to do more of what they do best, design, where in the past programmers sometimes dominated.

Of course, Blueprints are not just used for configurations, but also for producing logic, which alleviates quite a burden on the programmers as a lot of tedious glue code can now be avoided.

Blueprints are also great for bridging things in the game and performing discrete pieces of logic that used to bedevil the lives of programmers. They can now concentrate on the bigger tasks, such as artificial intelligence, without the constant distraction of having to join things together just to make the game function. And let’s be honest, even when programmers have to write some of this stuff using Blueprints, it’s a damn sight more interesting and interactive doing it in a visual way, within a Blueprint editor, rather than the dreary edit/compile/run cycle that we’ve been so used to before now. High five to Epic for that one!

David: Simply put, it means that once we’ve got the Blueprint, or any content, in the game, anyone can tweak it. It frees designers to adjust things and try them out without taking time away from the coder who implemented it. This is absolutely essential in a small team where all of us have to wear different hats. It means those best suited to a job are able to do the job, and that relates back to raising the quality bar.

In the past you’ve been quite transparent as a studio about the difficulties of game development, especially when creating a game that pushes the existing boundaries of its genre. How has Unreal Engine 4 eased the development process in comparison to your experience on previous projects, and how has it allowed you to further polish other aspects of GRIP?

Rob: We’ve already talked about Blueprints, which of course save massive amounts of time in development. A large chunk of the logic in GRIP -- the majority in fact -- is still C++ code, however. But that isn’t the impediment it might once have been, thanks to Unreal Engine 4. While Epic have done a great job in implementing Blueprints, they’ve done an equally great job in the hot-loading of your game code within the Editor. The amount of time this saves cannot be overstated.

The whole process of using Unreal Engine is just strewn with time-saving elements that make game development such a joy compared to how it was just a handful of years ago. Even as a programmer, you really do feel like you’re sculpting a game rather than relentlessly battling with hard-core engineering issues. I think it’s fair to say that without UE4, I don’t think I’d have the patience to work on large titles like GRIP nowadays.

Instead, all that time you’ve saved by not sweating the details can be reinvested in completing the other tasks as fully as you would like to, but are rarely given the time to. For example, right now I’m working on artificial intelligence for vehicles. I remember when working on Rollcage this process could take a single programmer the entire duration of the game’s development to get written well. They did a great job, of course, and it certainly performed, especially given the period in which it was released. But we can do better now, and we are raising the bar in GRIP to better the artificial intelligence that we initially sported in Rollcage. It’s not just that it’s possible, it’s the time in which it’s possible that is the real hitter. Instead of spending well over a year working on the AI as we did in Rollcage, I’ll be spending just a couple of months. That kind of productivity is exceptionally powerful, and if you’ll forgive the gratuitous use of the pun, it’s a real game-changer.

GRIP is scheduled to enter Steam Early Access in November 2015. For more information, check out Caged Element on Facebook and Twitter.

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