Developing a Medieval Co-Op Horror With Unreal Engine 5

Haenir Studio's Mads Broni has told us about the development process and idea behind Blight: Survival, explained why Unreal Engine 5 was chosen for the game, and spoke about the upcoming game's gameplay and co-op mechanics.

Introduction

My name is Mads Broni, and I’m the Co-Founder at Haenir Studio. The story of Haenir Studio starts as any other love story, that is, by some sly devil sliding into the DM’s of some poor unbeknownst individual. In this case, me, reaching out to Ulrik (Co-Founder) after having seen his flipping fantastic locomotion of a medieval knight.

We got chatting and quickly realized that we had a lot of things in common and both wanted to push the potential game in the same direction. It also quickly dawned on us that there weren't, and still aren’t, any gritty grounded PvE medieval co-op games out there – shocking. Being avid gamers ourselves, we figured that if we ever wanted a grounded horror medieval co-op game without magic, we probably had to make it ourselves.. so that's what we’re doing.

I come from a background in the commercial animation industry and am still in the process of crossing over to Unreal Engine which is, while still complex, a smooth transition. As a visual learner, I’m happy with how intuitive and iterative Unreal Engine, and real-time rendering in general, is compared to offline rendering. It's a game changer – no pun intended.  

Ulrik has roughly a decade of experience with Unreal Engine and has worked both as a 3D Modeler as well as a Gameplay Animator. He has both an artistic flair as well as technical skills, which makes him a tremendous asset, especially in a small agile indie team like ours.

Between the two of us, we cover most bases and both have a strong vision for what the gameplay and tone of Blight: Survival needs to be. On that– we’re currently looking for the last wheel to our game development tricycle of doom, a Lead Programmer, avid in C++ and Blueprints. If that’s you, feel free to reach out so that we may set up a call.

Haenir Studio and Blight: Survival

I’d like to lead into this by clarifying that Haenir Studio never intends to grow into a massive studio, and for that reason, we’re very focused on smaller, yet extremely enjoyable, core gameplay loops. Quality over quantity.

There is no way we’d ever attempt to create a large open world, as that is simply not something we have the bandwidth for. Even AAA developers struggle to retain the quality bar on such a large scale, and we appreciate that it is out of our reach. We know we’re pushing the boundaries of what visual quality a small indie developer can deliver, so we try to stay smart about making the game the best it can be, with the least amount of resources.

Scope creep is the largest pitfall you face as a developer, and we’re committed to keeping a small and agile team, which is why we are so laser-focused on having a small and tight core gameplay loop. We are creating a hand-crafted world that has a ton of replay value (semi-procedural elements such as weather systems, choke-points, spawn-points, enemy patterns, roaming deadly fungi spores, time of day, seasons, etc.) ensuring that we can push the quality bar – across the board – as far as possible.

As for the medieval setting, I briefly touched upon it earlier, but it’s worth emphasizing just how few medieval melee co-op games are actually out there (those already out there are great!) and we’d love to contribute to that limited pool.

Choosing Unreal Engine 5

Unreal Engine 5 looks amazing right out of the box, and once you start turning the knobs, you can fairly easily obtain impressive next-gen graphics. Now that we’re aiming for the best quality possible, it was a no-brainer to opt for Unreal Engine. We also get to take advantage of all of their amazing assets, such as Quixel’s library.

As an indie developer our budget is limited, so getting free access to high-quality assets is a huge win. Unreal Engine also only takes a 5% royalty once you earn more than 1 million USD, which is also a very attractive benefit.

Art Direction

The art direction is very important to us, as we’re not just creating an entertaining game, with enjoyable mechanics. We’re creating a believable world. For that reason, it's paramount that we set a strong tone and mood from the very beginning. We want to make the world feel grounded even with its mysterious, and supernatural elements. The tone we’re trying to set needs to reflect the time period, even if it plays out in an alternative 14th century. Dangerous, cold, and with a dash of mystery to it.

We’re drawing inspiration from titles such as Hunt: Showdown, while in a different time period, they seem to have nailed that dark and moody branding that perfectly matches what their game is all about. It’s also worth mentioning Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, where I’m fairly certain you can tell what our favorite area might be.

We also are massive fans of The Last of Us, and while set in a different time period, you can’t help but be massively inspired by that game, in particular their animation and believable environments. It’s a masterpiece from beginning to end. We can only hope to achieve a fraction of that quality, and we’d be making one hell of a game.

Gameplay

Blight is a medieval co-op action-horror roguelike, pitting you and up to three other players against men and monsters in a desperate attempt to reach and destroy the source of the Blight. At its core, it is a simple gameplay loop. Get in – get out. However, each playthrough will be different than the last, as we’re deploying semi-procedural elements, affecting the weather, choke points, spawn points, patrol patterns, time of day, time of year, and so on.

You are free to pick and choose whatever route you fancy, as the game doesn’t have a linear design and you can roam freely. To further this, deadly fungi spores gradually move around the map, effectively turning it into an ever-changing living maze thereby forcing you to adapt to the circumstances.

You start the game with poor equipment, and have to kill, loot, and explore your way to the spoils of war. Should you die, you’ll lose everything upon death (although knowledge will carry to the next character in your bloodline) – so it may be advised to return to camp, upgrade, enhance, store and customize your equipment to stand a better chance next run. This in itself, and the deep customization we have planned will make for a lot of fun and challenging experiences.

Once we have locked down the formula and have a solid core gameplay loop, we’d be expanding with new biomes, items, modes, and enemies to keep you coming back for more.

Co-op Mechanics

We’re building and balancing the game with a 4-player co-op in mind, even though we’ll also allow players to play as fewer players, and even completely alone. In terms of balancing co-op, the trick is to not be able to stun-lock, cheese, or otherwise break the moveset of enemies, or other encounters. It’s a hard balance to get right, as each playstyle, new weapon, item, and map changes can easily break the game.

Hopefully, by the nature of this not being a competitive game, removing the option to grief one another, we’ve probably bought ourselves a little wiggle room for our players not trying too hard to break it. With that said, it’s something we’re monitoring very carefully as we’re building the game. There will most likely be tactics being developed that weren't intended from a design standpoint, but that may actually be something we don’t want to patch. Say, using the attack set of one enemy to defeat another.

But to clarify, the best way to balance the game is to playtest – playtest a lot.

Advantages of Using UE5

I’m going to try and avoid feeding into the echo chamber that is Nanite and Lumen. While those are some cutting-edge features, it is not necessarily that useful for Blight: Survival, which features heavy foliage. For that, I’m really looking forward to Nanite support for WPO, something that is rumored to be in the works. Aside from that, World Partition and One File Per Actor (OFPA) are fantastic when working on a large map. MetaHuman is also something that we’re taking advantage of for our characters, which is a huge timesaver.

Conclusion

While I can’t share any specific dates, we’re currently working on an uncut gameplay showcase, which will go live in the near future. We’ll then be sending out our pitch deck and a playable build in the following weeks to selected publishers and investors.

In the meantime, you’re more than welcome to keep a tab on the project through any of our socials.

Mads Broni, Co-Founder at Haenir Studio

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

This content is brought to you by 80 Level in collaboration with Unreal Engine. We strive to highlight the best stories in the gamedev and art industries. You can read more Unreal Engine interviews with developers here.

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