Hashbane Interactive's Courtney O’Neill shared how natural environments and dinosaurs were created for the studio's upcoming game, Instinction, told us about the core gameplay mechanics, and explained why Unreal Engine 5 was chosen for the title.
I’m Courtney O’Neill, Chief Operations Officer & Co-Founder of Hashbane Interactive. I’m entirely self-taught and worked on client projects worldwide providing visuals, interactive presentations, and animations for architectural projects, from high-rise developments through to hotels, airports, and government buildings. For ten years I’ve assembled and managed highly creative teams of skilled artists, designers, and programmers to develop digital media experiences for over 400 commercial clients and have been using Unreal Engine to facilitate some of these projects since 2015.
The Hashbane Team
New Zealand has incredible talent, but there is a massive shortage of it. So, we’ve always built a hybrid team environment, that includes local and outsourced studios or individuals in different parts of the world. Depending on a specific scope, our team size fluctuates, currently, we have a base team of 14, which increases in certain instances to double that. Some of our team members are getting immigration assistance from us, and a relocation stipend, and we’ve implemented an employee equity scheme as part of our expansion.
We finally found our ideal investor with Hillfarrance, a local early-stage VC firm, under the direction of its founder Rob Vickery, who is a massive gamer and amateur paleontologist and offers us a unique support system, it was just a great fit. This additional funding boost, however, will allow us to expand the great team we already have with more world-class game devs, artists, and animators.
As we are a relatively small studio we still wear many hats, so this expansion allows us to lessen the workload of some individuals, build a more impressive game and bring on more external expertise, which means improved and more efficient workflows and approaches, it’s a big deal!
We’ll be announcing another funding partnership from a local government-backed firm soon. We've declined more than thirty other investment offers because we strongly believe any partnership needs to align with our vision, work ethic, and expectations. We’ve been fortunate that we were never a struggling studio that desperately needed investment, so we had the luxury to choose who we engaged with.
With past experience in assembling teams, we find the most effective approach is a balance of potential new hires approaching us, and us reaching out to people we want to work with. When we consider anyone, their attitude is paramount, they have to not only have the prerequisite skills but they need to be great to work within a studio environment, that is, get along well with our existing team, our values align and they have something special to add.
As an example; Sanjay Singh recently joined us, the lead creature model & sculpt artist who worked on Prehistoric Planet among other huge titles, he adds value not only because of his skills, but he’s just awesome to get along with!
To provide a bit of color on some of our external team locations: Brazil, USA, Canada, UK, Luxembourg, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, and India.
One of Hashbanes’ co-founders and my business partner Jade had often mentioned creating a prehistoric action-adventure game, the first time I remember it being brought up was roughly ten years ago. We were working on quite a few architectural visualization projects and we had enough capital to fund and facilitate a small team of developers and artists to work on Instinction. It became a side project after our existing team put together an early prototype within a week. So near the end of 2020, we continued to work for commercial clients and in turn, were able to finance our game development.
We took to social media to see what interest there was before we invested a lot of time and money, then things took off real fast and we realized it was a project we could really sink our teeth into. Realistically, we had to put all of our efforts and focus into Instinction and that was an easy decision, so we transitioned from working on forty-two commercial projects concurrently to zero, and created Hashbane during that time, so in essence, we were running two separate studios for a number of months.
Finally, we were working on a project for us, not commercial clients, and we knew it was something special, a project that we would give our undivided love and attention to. Our roles didn't really change much, transforming our experience running a studio from one creative medium to another was a very natural progression. What we’ve learned running studios is that motivation gets you started, but good habits keep you going, by being exceptionally organized and a team that is complementary to each other with great attitudes keeps the motivation flowing.
From very early on we had interest and were approached by large investors, publishers, and strategic partners, we had never sent out pitch decks, attended gaming events in person, or spent a cent on marketing, arguably the attention we were getting early and to this day also stands as a motivator.
Gameplay Mechanics in Instinction
In Instinction, you can expect the first-person controls to be a mixture of campaign games we’re all familiar with to some extent; the mechanics are responsive, smooth, and engaging. The weapon handling, interaction, and parkour is intuitive, going from a crouch to a crawl under a low area is automatic for instance. We’re going to be sharing an early build in the coming months, a new gameplay trailer, and a few other interesting teasers that will better describe the gamut of mechanics.
Using Unreal Engine
In 2015 we saw what Epic was doing with UE4 and what could be done, it was a logical choice for us and what we needed to grow our studio offering to clients. We had until that point used DCCs such as 3ds Max and traditional biased and non-biased rendering solutions, but UE gave us a new landscape to operate in.
Prior to using UE, it had bothered us for years that we had to wait hours, days, and weeks for renders to complete with very little flexibility for iterations. After having invested a small fortune on local and cloud render farms and solutions, the possibilities that UE offered us as a commercial design firm were hard to not take advantage of. We had been made aware of UE, the UI had been refreshed and the offering from Epic was impossible to refuse.
Getting Epic MegaGrant
Getting a grant is not a fast process, but Epic Games is committed to helping solo creators and larger teams build something extraordinary, it's a great initiative and it certainly can be the jump start a small team might need to get to the next level, even massive teams, they want to help. The experience is not difficult, there's an easy application process, if you’ve caught Epic's eye, someone will reach out to you and clarify the use of funds long before you are approved. It's a process like any other, and there are various stages in that process.
We’d strongly recommend that anyone approaches the application process with a level of sensibility and planning, create a compelling reason for Epic to want to provide the grant, and ask yourself, "If someone was asking me for the grant and I had the money, is this something I could resist, if so what do I need to do to improve?".
The same approach should be applied in most instances, ensuring that you are and can be perceived as responsible for not abusing such an opportunity, no one is entitled to a grant without attaching it to a reasonable opportunity. The beauty of the Epic Megagrant is you can apply again after being turned down, that should be seen as an opportunity to sharpen your pencils and reassess your offering.
Production of Natural Environments
Specifically, with Instinction, we are well aware of the landscape and biomes we are creating, we’ve inundated ourselves with research on the various plant species, the types of rock, weather systems, and climate. Early in development and for testing purposes some placeholder assets are used and are eventually all replaced with customized assets, it's important to keep progressing the visuals and the realism of the 3D models, there is always "more" that can be done and in the spirit of productivity there has to be a cut-off point where something is good enough to move on. Much of our previous experience in visual storytelling persists, but there will always remain room for improvement, we take that very seriously.
We’ve worked on custom planting for years, our previous clients from Australia and New Zealand needed specific plants indigenous to these areas, not so long ago there were no viable 3D models sold on online marketplaces, so we had to create our own and over time became pretty competent in creating them with GrowFX and Speedtree.
Architectural visualization projects often are briefed with a landscape plan, which includes specific plant species that need to look real in visualizations, there came a point where we started selling our old models and competitors were buying them, this included our own photo scans that we no longer needed.
Game development does require a different approach to what we have done in the past, just a bit, but we use LODs for plant meshes that will deform and UE’s Nanite for meshes that won’t, that way we can really benefit from the flexibility of the engines technology. For instance, a photo scanned tree trunk can remain incredibly detailed and leveraged with Nanite, but the leaves and branches that blow and move in the wind need to be deformed so a traditional LOD approach is needed, the combination of both methods allows for us to get great performance and visual fidelity.
Recently, we’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with expert paleontologists from all over the world, while the previous dinosaurs used in our footage were good enough at that stage, we’re now taking them even closer to realism.
We care about making a game full of captivating experiences, the mechanics are important as a solid base on which to layer those experiences, and we want our images and videos to convey that intention.
Creation and Animation of Dinosaurs
Everything starts with a brief, made up of visual characteristics and multiple scientific papers and input from our paleontologists, we discuss the silhouette of the creature, its presence, behavior, and intended biome and experience. We have multiple feedback sessions, revisions, and iterations. While the previous dinosaurs used in some of our footage were good enough at that stage, we’re now taking them even closer to scientific realism.
Our 3D artists and animators provide input too and often cite scientific literature when discussing items as simple as a few scales, colors, and patterns through to intended behaviors.
As with audio, we are always looking to the natural world for inspiration, referencing a variety of current wildlife to make sure our animations are as lifelike as possible, we spend hours scrubbing through footage of existing animals, taking note of the animals' gait, weight transfer, and unique quirks. We even synthesize the electrical pulses from real plants that will be used in Instinction to create unique sounds for the game.
Hashbane's Future Plans
Right now the main focus is maintaining production progress, ensuring we are following a realistic set of goals in the most efficient manner, yet allowing for freedom of experimentation. This is equally important to us as the current new hires and we’ve spoken to hundreds of potentials over the last three months, ultimately ensuring we have a strong base before we agree on a publisher engagement. We’ll be announcing a slew of incredible new team members joining us over the coming months.
We’re working on six new dinosaurs at the moment, one is about to be revealed, and the others are in close succession, beyond that I can’t say too much just yet.
The game is planned for release in 2025. We post sneak peeks about Instinctions development on our socials and we have a development blog on our official website where we’ll be covering all aspects of our development and posting updates monthly.
You can also find us on Twitter, Instagram, Steam, and YouTube.
Courtney O’Neill, Chief Operations Officer & Co-Founder of Hashbane Interactive
Interview conducted by Arti Burton
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