Earthfall's Aliens Messed with the Wrong Planet
Meteor strikes have decimated the planet, collapsing entire nations and leaving Earth ripe for the hordes of alien invaders swarming over the landscape. This is the end of the world, and it's up to you and your friends to stop it. No pressure.
Earthfall is a cooperative shooter for up to four players about humankind's last stand against an alien invasion. Over the course of a story-based campaign, players will have to work together to survive against a variety of hostile aliens and uncover the secrets behind the cataclysmic events.
With the recent launch on Steam Early Access, we spoke to Holospark CEO Russell Williams about Earthfall's premise, why the studio chose Unreal Engine 4, and what they have in store for the future.
Tell us a little about Holospark as a studio.
We started Holospark in July of 2015 with a group of 18 and we’ve since doubled in size to 36. We’re focused on co-op games such as Earthfall, our new cooperative shooter, and we also have a small group building amazing VR experiences.
Earthfall is a drastic departure from your previous release, The Impossible Travel Agency. What inspired this change in direction?
We actually built the studio around the idea of creating Earthfall and started working on it from day one. However, when we got to try out the shipping versions of Oculus Rift and Vive we fell in love with them and started a small group to explore VR. Our VR team's first project was Impossible Travel Agency and while it couldn’t be more different from Earthfall if you tried, they’re both projects we love.
Tell us about the premise of Earthfall and where the players come into the picture.
Earthfall takes place in 2032, a year after a meteor strike brought hostile aliens to our planet and devastated all major population centers. These aliens have been swarming the countryside and killing everything they can find. You’re one of the everyday civilians who has taken up arms to stand between the last remnants of humanity and a ravenous alien horde.
What pulled you toward creating a cooperative PvE experience versus PvP?
There are tons of great PvP games on the market and we play a lot of them. But, we also love the teamwork you get from co-op PvE games like Left 4 Dead and Payday, and there just aren't that many around. We thought we could really make our mark as a new studio by innovating in that gameplay style, which we know a lot of gamers love. Plus, when you get tired of being shot in the face repeatedly in PvP, it's awesome to grab your friends and go be a badass fighting an alien horde instead.
What kinds of aliens will players go up against and how will players have to adapt?
There are hordes of aliens called Drones that swarm the player, and fighting them is all about situational awareness. You need to always pay attention to every direction, lest they come at you from a blind spot and overwhelm you. There are also Heavy Drones, which are a lot bigger and tougher and require you to change up your tactics when they show up.
There are disgusting Sappers that explode on you, throwing out an acid cloud and killing anything nearby. You need to watch out for them at a distance and pick them off as soon as possible, so you’ll want to have a ranged weapon for these guys. Or, if you have a flame thrower, the fire will give you a clean kill with no lingering acid cloud.
There are also two special hunters called the Thresher and the Whiplash. The Thresher will sneak up on you and pin you into place, ripping at your guts with its claws. The Whiplash grabs a player (you’ll have to see this in action to really appreciate it!) and runs off with them to devour at its leisure. If you miss it coming in, you’ll have to track it down to rescue your friend while still fending off the rest of the aliens.
We also have a gigantic creature called the Beast. He’ll chase you down and beat you to a pulp, and he can also fire plasma bursts at players to knock them down. You’ll need to focus everyone’s attention on him to take him down and just drown him in bullets and grenades. He’s weaker on the back than in the front and if you lure him near a propane tank, you can shoot it to blow it up and do mega damage. Like the Big Daddies in BioShock, the Beast is a drop-everything fight to the finish – and you still have to manage the drones coming at you too!
Those are the creatures in the first Early Access release. We’ve just started work on our next type of alien which will introduce some more new tactics to our combat.
As a PvE game, how do you keep the gameplay fresh for repeat playthroughs?
Our enemies are spawned dynamically based on how the players are doing. There’s a general consistency to how the levels progress, but sometimes you might get an extra Beast you weren’t expecting, sometimes a heavily contested point is empty, etc. We also have variable weapon placement, so sometimes you’ll find extra guns and ammo, sometimes not so much.
All of this variability means the levels are familiar as you play, but they can still really surprise you. As you may expect, we’ve been playing the game a lot as we’ve been getting ready for Early Access and each playthrough really does feel unique.
In the future we’ll be building additional modes that are even more focused on repeatable gameplay, such as Survival maps.
What sorts of tools and weapons will players have available to fight back the swarms?
We start off with the classic weapons, such as pistols, shotguns, rifles, grenades, etc. as well as some more spectacular ones, such as flame throwers and miniguns. However, we have a story that progresses through our levels and one aspect of that story is humankind’s response to the aliens. The players will see more advanced weapons as they’re being prototyped and eventually they’ll be part of the player’s arsenal. You’ll see some of this happening in campaign 2 later in Early Access.
In addition to the weapons themselves, we also have 3D printers which allow players to print their own weapons and health items. Not all of the levels have these, but in the ones that do, they’re really valuable.
Finally, we also have defenses that the players can set up such as fences and turrets. You can pick these up and put them down most anywhere that you want, blocking off movement for the aliens and adding to your firepower. The aliens can tear these down, so you’ll want to keep an eye on them to make sure that your flank doesn’t suddenly collapse and you’re knee deep in drones!
Speaking of weapons, Earthfall has some eye-catching FX going on, from explosions to splattering bits of alien goo. Why was this such a big emphasis?
There are a couple of reasons. First, Earthfall is a frenetic, challenging game with a lot going on visually. One of the challenges is situational awareness and those big, gorgeous explosions make it feel even more chaotic and crazy. We’re particularly excited about how these are going to look in HDR with its wider color range and the new TVs that can do deep blacks and super bright color. We have a number of dark levels, and watching our explosions burst in front of you is going to look amazing on those sets.
As for the splattering bits, we really wanted to make sure that the fundamental moment-to-moment action of our game is always fun and compelling. Delivering on that required a ton of work in tuning the weapons, how they move with each shot, the reloads, etc., but the other part is the impact of the shot. It’s super satisfying when you blow aliens apart so we worked to make sure the effects sell that moment and make the player feel powerful.
Did you have prior experience developing with Unreal Engine, and why did you choose Unreal Engine 4 to help create Earthfall?
We worked with UE4 back at our previous studio. We learned a lot about the engine and how efficient it made us. When we started Earthfall, we knew we wanted to ship frequently on multiple platforms with the best graphics support in the world. The only engine that can check all of those boxes is Unreal.
Are there any features of UE4 that have stood out as being particularly beneficial to this project?
Blueprint is great for doing fast prototyping and lets designers try out ideas before we need to get developer support. The pipeline for artists has been pretty seamless, which lets us focus on making great art from day one instead of fighting through pipeline issues. Finally, Unreal has robust multiplayer support built-in, so there was very little work required to get multiplayer gameplay going.
You've been extremely active with regular livestreams and event appearances. What sort of impact has the community had on the development of Earthfall?
We’re a pretty small company for what we’re doing, so it’s extremely useful for us to get feedback from public events like the PAX shows and see how people respond to the game. When we went to our first PAX, we had barely shown it to anyone externally, so it was extremely useful to see how people did with the difficulty, how they liked the art, what they thought was needed, and just feedback in general.
We’ve made a number of tuning and design changes from that feedback, such as allowing defenses to be placed anywhere, changes to the level layout for navigability, difficulty changes, and so on. We also recruited local playtesters from the Seattle gaming community to come into our offices and play the game. We've done a bunch of those sessions and these gamers have really pounded at our builds and discovered bugs and design issues we could then fix.
We also read all the comments on our forums and chat with our users during our streams. We want to create a place where players are comfortable giving us feedback. That's what Early Access is all about! We have a ton of ideas for what we want to build, but we also want to be responsive to the community and make sure we’re delivering what they want.
What's next for Earthfall and where can people learn more?
The Early Access release is out now on Steam, and we’re already working on our first content patch. Beyond that, we’ll be working on performance optimization, a new playable character, new levels, new enemies, new weapons, and the PS4 and Xbox One versions. We have a lot in the hopper, and we’re planning to keep on expanding Earthfall into the future.