Students from The Animation Workshop (TAW) in Viborg, Denmark, developed the sci-fi game Burning Daylight. The title currently has a “very positive” rating on Steam and was nominated for several Danish Game Awards in categories such as Best Debut Game, Best Visual Design, Best Audio, and Best Narrative. This is even more impressive considering this was their first game and none of them had any substantial game development experience coming into the project.
To gain insight into how they leveraged their education from a school primarily known for animation to develop Burning Daylight, we interviewed Game Director Frederik Overgaard Jeppesen and Technical Art Director Ole Josefsen. Both graduated from The Animation Workshop and are now professional game developers at Ghostship Games and Tarsier Studios, respectively.
What school/university did you attend, which program did you sign up for, and what were your goals after graduation?
Game Director Frederik Overgaard Jeppesen: I graduated from The Animation Workshop in Viborg, Denmark, and now hold a bachelor's degree in animation. After graduating, I worked independently for a while doing ArchViz projects before I started my current job at Ghostship Games in Copenhagen as a fulltime CG artist working on Deep Rock Galactic.
Technical Art Director Ole Josefsen: I was in the same class as Frederik, and after graduation, I got a job at Tarsier Studios in Malmö, Sweden, where we are currently working on Little Nightmares 2.
Can you tell us about your work and what your goals were coming into the project?
Jeppesen: Way back in the first year of school, myself, Ole, and our CG Generalist Simon Furbo had early discussions about making a game over the course of the year. We started working together on very small productions. We chose Unreal Engine because of the Blueprint system and the quality of its real-time rendering. We never got very far because of how busy we were during our first year of school, but we learned a few tricks and established a very early pipeline.
We pitched Burning Daylight as a proof of concept. We saw it as a chance to create a product that could be developed into a bigger project, which could eventually lead to funding and then production. Later, however, after half a year working on the game, we decided to turn it into a finished product since we had invested so much into learning how to make it.
When the pitch was made, the role of director fell to me, since I wrote a lot of the story, and had a strong vision for its production. The role of technical art director fell to Ole because of his engagement with Unreal Engine and overall technical and artistic expertise.
No one on the team had ever made a game before. Therefore, I think everyone’s main goal was to get as much experience collaborating inside Unreal Engine to figure out how a game is assembled. Looking back on the final product, I’d say we met our goals.
My work on the game was to ensure that our vision was kept and made sure that the production was being pushed ahead, but I also worked as a CG artist handling my share of concept art, along with modeling and texturing work on Burning Daylight.
Did you work with a team of students? If so, what were their names and everyone’s roles?
Jeppesen: Our team consisted of:
Frederik Overgaard Jeppesen: Director, CG generalist
Ole Josefsen: Technical art director, pipeline manager, CG generalist
Bernar Aganchyan: Art director, CG generalist
Matilde Vinther: Production manager, CG generalist
David Schmidt: Lead animator
Anja Sloth: CG generalist
Simon Furbo: CG generalist
Marcus Richter: CG and VFX generalist
Thorbjørn Harders: CG generalist
Tobias Dahl Nielsen: Audio and music
Natascha Caja: Part-time animator
Mario Stefan Grosu: Part-time animator
We were a very large team, so every morning we would have stand-up meetings, which took approximately 10 minutes and were often followed by working on the game or meetings with consultants or meetings amongst leads. A thing I tried to cultivate as much as possible, being director, was open and clear communication. I wanted everyone to feel like they could speak their mind openly and freely and take discussions and challenges when they arose and not let stuff bottle up inside.
The team was very organized, and because of our stand-up meetings every morning, the production managers always knew where the game was going and were able to plan accordingly. We created milestones throughout the months and stuck to our plan the best we could.
The size of the game was always a huge concern, but the team really stepped up as a whole to show what was possible. We decided to streamline the game’s scope by making drastic cuts to content. This actually made everything a lot clearer and tighter. To ensure the content we had in the game was good, we went by the motto, “only killers, no fillers.”
How did your school empower you to create your project?
Jeppesen: At The Animation Workshop, everyone knows how to draw. So, right from the get-go, everyone at the school has a common language. This is a major plus when working in teams, and teamwork is a key aspect that the school promotes. The Animation Workshop has a huge catalog of guest teachers that are all industry professionals. For example, one of my favorite teachers, Leigh Russell, is a former ILM employee. We had Technical Artist Samat Algozhin come and help us out with learning basic Blueprints and setting up Perforce.
At TAW, the way educational projects are set up is through small film productions where everyone is assigned a role so that the work mimics the real world as much as possible. We treated game production similarly to movie production and even storyboarded certain sequences.
For The Animation Workshop’s computer graphics course, we were taught the full 3D pipeline along with various compositing tools, such as After Effects and Nuke. Learning Unreal Engine was, at that point, something we did on our own time. However, there was no doubt in our minds that Unreal Engine represented the future because of how powerful real-time rendering is versus sitting and waiting between five and 15 minutes on a render.
The cool thing about The Animation Workshop is that even though creating and publishing a game using Unreal Engine had never been done before, the school was very supportive of our endeavor. I think this was due to the school being run by a staff that is very supportive of people who think differently.
What did you learn about development while working on your project?
Jeppesen: I learned that “teamwork makes the dream work.” It’s really corny, but if you are working on a complex project, you can't do everything alone. You need other people around to challenge ideas or to build upon already existing ones. It's about making the person next to you look better and having each other’s backs if things go south.
I also learned that, at some point, you gotta leave the game alone. I'm a perfectionist, and a game project is essentially a large string of flaws, failures, and regrets that you develop under a deadline. For instance, when I play Burning Daylight, I see all the things I wish we could have done better or differently. And one of the biggest things I take away from this experience is that, at some point, you gotta leave it alone and let the game have its own life.
Josefsen: I learned that there’s a lot more to game development than I initially thought about. Mostly from the technical side, I had never really thought about how exactly save-games work, for example. How are UI elements built? How do you make builds of your games, and what does that even mean? These were all things I learned while working on the project.
In addition, I learned that making tools that you could leverage to repeat tasks is really important. Even if a task only takes 30 seconds to do, it can build up over time. This includes writing good documentation for these tools, so you don’t have to continually explain how they work.
Finally, I learned that setting a proper scope for your game and making sure the scope stays realistic throughout the project is critical.
How much Unreal experience did you have going into your project?
Jeppesen: I did not have a lot of Unreal experience going into the project. I made one project where I modeled and rigged a robot that I textured in Substance Painter, and I set it up in Unreal with some animation and texture maps. So, I had very rudimentary Unreal Engine knowledge.
Fortunately, there is a lot of really awesome documentation and video tutorials out there for anyone wanting to get started making a game using Unreal.
Josefsen: I started using Unreal Engine during my first year at The Animation Workshop after I had made a car model and wanted to make it interactive. I looked at different game engines and ended up choosing Unreal due to its easy-to-use Blueprints system. I used the vehicle template to start with. From there, it grew little by little. I started asking myself: How do I make headlights? How do I add sound? What about implementing animations? Through the next two years of school, I had made a couple of different prototypes—everything from a first-person shooter, vehicle-based combat game, to third-person Pokémon clones. By the beginning of our bachelor year, I had a little experience, but nothing that would compare to the amount of work we were going into.
What was the most challenging aspect of development, and how did you attempt to solve it?
Jeppesen: Scope was definitely one of our biggest challenges. You have to be realistic with what you are creating. It's super cool to be ambitious about your game, and you can get very far on ambition, but at some point, you are battling the clock, and when the deadline approaches, you have to make some bold decisions to kill aspects you may love.
Another big hurdle we faced was that we were a very large group coupled with the fact that we had a lot of consultants. A large group breeds many ideas and opinions, and sometimes knowing the correct course of action was difficult as a result. We overcame this issue by allowing the leads to make decisions, and we would then adjust the scope accordingly.
The biggest hurdle of all was probably the fact that we had no programmers. Ole had some knowledge of Blueprints coming into the project but had to pretty much learn everything at the same time as we were developing the game. Since he was the technical person with the most extensive Blueprint knowledge, it was important that we tried as much as possible to prevent him from becoming a bottleneck. We managed to alleviate this by making user-friendly Blueprints that most of the team could easily use.
Going back into your project with the knowledge you have now, are there things you would have done differently?
Jeppesen: Yeah, I guess I would spend a lot more time on how the game feels to play and less on how it looks. At some point late in pre-production, a game stops being conceptual and starts becoming a real product, and I think, regarding storytelling, you can reach that point faster by going into Unreal earlier to do your conceptual work there instead of drawing or writing everything out.
I would make the scope of the game smaller and focus on making something more polished rather than big. I might have tried doing more prototypes in the beginning to find something that was really fun to play. I would have also put in more time towards the end for general bug fixing, optimization, and polishing, as that would have benefitted us a lot.
What tips would you give other students who are starting out with Unreal?
Jeppesen: Be confident with your gut feeling about your game, but try not to be too cocky. Be realistic about what is doable. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel on your first project. Find a game that you think is cool and try to analyze what makes that game cool and then build on top of that. All great art is always built on what came before it. When it comes to Unreal, it’s awesome and easy to get started with. There is also a lot of really good learning material on YouTube to help get you started. The most important thing to remember is to have fun with your project!
Josefsen: Be curious about everything. Start small and gradually work your way up towards more advanced stuff. Try to make a box move around, then add a flashlight to that box, add some sounds to it, and then maybe a menu that allows you to start the game. Figure out how save-games work and how to make a build of your game. If you separate your projects into smaller sized chunks, it becomes much more straightforward. There’s so many tutorials for Unreal Engine now, so you should be able to find anything that you are looking for. Also, read through the official documentation. Seriously, it has so many small tips and tricks throughout that are invaluable.
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