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Lushfoil Photography Sim: Developing a Photorealistic Game in UE5

3D Artist and Game Developer Matt Newell shared his artistic journey, discussed the development process behind Lushfoil Photography Sim, spoke about the game's environments and mechanics, and explained why he partnered up with Annapurna Interactive.

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My name is Matt, I'm a recent engineering graduate from Western Australia. My experience in Unreal Engine wasn't related to my education, but the 'Lushfoil' project is an eventuation of the various freelance projects and Unreal Engine work that I was doing alongside study over the last few years.

All of my experience in graphics and Unreal Engine grew purely out of interest, and I heavily relied on YouTube tutorials and UE forums when starting out. From the very beginning, I was watching all the "getting started" live streams provided by Epic. I also followed this tutorial series very closely, it's a short lighting course made by one of the ex-developers at Dice.

First Steps & Early Projects

My first projects were purely for cinematic purposes and didn't have any gameplay mechanics. I used free UE assets to experiment with making forests and recreating real locations from memory. I eventually started incorporating some barebones first-person mechanics using the UE-provided template and thought it made for an enjoyable, unique way to experience what I'd made. I was inspired by some of the walking simulator genre games at the time.

One of my first projects:

For me, it wasn't necessarily game development that pulled me in. During the first few years, I was more focused on creating a portfolio and experimenting with my own visual style, as well as learning more about UE and real-time graphics. I never intended to become a game developer. I guess it's something I just fell into with this project.

After putting my work out there, I found some luck with local and international clients offering various freelance UE jobs, which is how a lot of the "Lushfoil" environments were created. I had released these environments as free standalone games on Steam, which gained some popularity, but it was still the client work that was getting me paid and allowing me to commit more time to UE.

The Nuances of Solo Game Development

There are definitely ups and downs associated with committing to a project on your own. In the beginning, I was motivated by the fact that having a one-person team definitely reduces a lot of the baggage that comes with team communication and back and forth. Being able to control every aspect of the design and style is empowering and allows for a far more specific experience reminiscent of how movies are made with one director.

On the other hand, and on a more obvious note, it's a lot of work. There are many aspects of design that I first overlooked because I simply didn't have a second opinion while working. I would recommend starting a solo project if (and ONLY if) you're realistic with what you want to achieve and utilizing any tricks at your disposal to save time and get work done efficiently.

Choosing Unreal Engine

Most developers are faced with the choice of Unreal Engine or Unity, but since I was looking to use a renderer for artistic/cinematic purposes, I was considering learning software from the likes of Cinema 4D, Blender, Maya, Octane, Houdini, and Redshift.

I decided on UE because while the visual quality was slightly below par, I was really intrigued by what was possible in real-time, and I had a feeling that it would eventually catch up to the other cinematic renderers. I had considered Unity as well, but I had the impression that UE was far more geared toward visual fidelity and had many more advanced features and lighting techniques.

Getting Started With Lushfoil Photography Sim

Lushfoil was created because I simply wanted to provide a way for people to experience my work as an Environment Artist. Instead of being an "always wanted to make this" type of project, I see it as a very open-ended kind of experience, where I can add just about anything if it makes sense and it's fun to work on. I definitely drew a lot of influence from walking simulator games like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Firewatch, as well as contextless, open-ended games like Inside, Journey, and Minecraft.

I sourced around 90% of assets from the UE Marketplace, Megascans, and libraries like Turbosquid to create the game's environments. When assembling a project, I would dump a whole lot of assets into a project, compare them in a scene, and mix and match suitable models while looking at reference photos of what I wanted to create. Changing assets for their intended purpose often involved a lot of material re-working and optimization to incorporate color changes and to make sure everything blended together.

Game Mechanics

I would consider the game's foundation to be the photography mechanics that I've worked on to allow for as much customizability and creative freedom as possible. The current camera system includes an abundance of adjustments, including Aperture, ISO, shutter speed, lens type, exposure comp, contrast, white balance, filters, tilt, sharpen, vignette, aspect ratio, output image size, and the option for burst shooting. I was recently able to achieve a realistic long exposure effect for the camera, which really ties all the settings together quite well. I've also extended customizability to anything within the environment, such as sun angle, light bounce, wind, snow, rain, fog, etc.

A feature I haven't talked much about before is the custom image importer, which lets you import transparent images of your own subjects to shoot in-game. There are also a wealth of progression mechanics and discoverable items, which I'd prefer not to talk about just yet!

Teaming Up With Annapurna Interactive

To me, Annapurna seemed like the perfect fit for this kind of game, I'm really appreciative of my partnership with them. I was considering self-publishing as well, but I knew I had to take this opportunity. I believe the context of being a part of their catalog will drastically improve how people perceive this type of game.

With their support, I've been able to learn a lot about how to release a game properly, and the game itself has become a much more well-rounded product, so it was definitely the right move. Also, I don't think the indie game scene is in a particularly good spot right now with self-published games, without the support of a big company, a lot of games tend to fly under everyone's radar. I hope this changes in the future, considering that not many developers are able to land publishing deals despite how many good ideas are out there.

Getting Noticed on Social Media

Social media is such a mixed bag. I hate being subject to creating content for algorithms that were never really favorable, to begin with. That being said, you'll definitely be rewarded by learning each platform's algorithm and how to create the most optimal types of posts. In general, I believe social media is a long-term game, and the more posts you make, the better, even if they aren't of the highest quality. Hopefully, someday we can be treated with an algorithm that doesn't depend on us constantly spewing out content and one that rewards us for posting only our best work.

The Roadmap

Right now, I'm practically finished. At the moment, I'm just focusing on extra tasks such as QA, translations, and console ports. Because it's my first time tackling this kind of stuff, release timing is still a bit unclear. But I'll definitely be posting news as soon as I have it! To keep in touch please follow me on everything and wishlist LPS on Steam.

Matt Newell, 3D Artist and Game Developer

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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