February 15, 2019

Switching to Unreal Engine, Cornfox & Bros. is moving mobile gaming forward with Oceanhorn 2

By Daniel Kayser

For many, the concept of mobile gaming is restricted to rudimentary experiences that, while fun, fail to offer the interaction, engagement, and depth of a tradition PC or console game. As handheld hardware advances though, so to do the ambitions of aspiring developers looking to facilitate a future in which full-fledged gaming experiences exist in the palms of our hands.

One such developer is Cornfox & Bros. - a small but scrappy team of six based in Helsinki, Finland who has already earned accolades from the likes of Apple for its innovative mobile title Oceanhorn: Monsters of Uncharted Seas, which received numerous honors when it released in 2013.
Now, looking to improve upon its original offering with Oceanhorn 2: Knights of the Lost Realm, the team is leveraging its development experience and expanding on the game’s core concepts to take the series, and mobile gaming, to a whole new level. “What we try to do here is to develop a console-quality game for mobile,” said Lead programmer & Co-founder Jukka Viljamaa. “We try to provide an old-fashioned, full-fledged story-driven game as opposed to what you might expect from a mobile title.” 
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“We're currently just six people working in the heart of Helsinki and concentrating on making the best mobile game in the world,” said Creative Director & Co-founder Heikki Repo. “We started working on Oceanhorn and the first announcement of this project got a really good reception across the media. There was a demand for titles like this, so what that meant was two years of hard work. We released in 2013 on Apple platforms and it was selected as ‘Best Indie Game of the Year’ by the Apple App Store.”
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While development of the original Oceanhorn yielded great results, it also produced some learnings that the team has taken to heart. “Getting the first Oceanhorn game done with only three people was a huge task for us,” stated Lead programmer & Co-founder Antti Viljamaa. “We had our own engine and we did porting to various platforms and we came across all kinds of small and big problems.” 
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“When we moved into development of Oceanhorn 2, we didn't want to spend time developing our own engine,” stated Repo. “We wanted to jump into developing the game itself.”

So, with its highly-anticipated sequel that was much larger in scope, the studio selected Unreal Engine over its internal tech in order to maintain its momentum and focus on doing what they loved most - making games. “Unreal Engine has helped us focus on the game without having to worry too much about technical implementation; with a small team like us, that's of utmost importance,” said Jukka Viljamaa. “The engine for a game is like a camera for a filmmaker, so you don't have to start by building the camera. You can just focus on the content.”
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Of course, the decision to switch away from internal tech isn’t always easy. Adopting a new engine comes with concerns about the learning curve and ultimately the portability of the project - two areas where Cornfox found positive results when moving to UE.

“The learning curve was surprisingly low and we got some prototyping content running in a few days,” said Antti Viljamaa. “The number one thing that helps our work is the editor, which is really excellent and enables everything else. Level designers can make their own small puzzles and interactions with Blueprints and that helps a lot.”
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“Another aspect of using Unreal Engine is the portability of the project, to take it to all the platforms that we want to take it,” stated Jukka Viljamaa. “When you want to have different kinds of controls for different kinds of devices, for instance, even those issues are easier to solve so we can concentrate on how we want the game to be different for different devices.”

Finalizing its decision to switch to Unreal was the knowledge that source code access would serve the project best when hitting the inevitable challenges that await during shipping. “There's just six of us working with the game and we used to fiddle with our own engine during the release so we wanted to make sure that we have the access to source code, so these were one of the factors that weighted in when we choose Unreal Engine 4,” said Repo. “For any company, flexibility like that is a very important factor.”
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Through the team’s initial vision and determination, it’s use of the tools found in Unreal Engine, and the core belief that mobile gaming experiences can be akin to their console counterparts, Cornfox & Bros. is helping to usher in a new generation of mobile gaming. As Repo stated, “When the first smartphones came out, I was thinking that this is the moment when the mobile gaming space is finally nearing console quality and….we're really pushing towards that...with Unreal Engine, I feel like it's the same game on all devices.”