Returnal Developers Discuss the Particle System Used in the Game's VFX

The talk covers volumetric fog driven by real-time fluid simulations and the usage of particle hierarchies for character effects.

At GDC, Housemarque, the developer of Returnal, a sci-fi third-person shooter roguelike game, talked about how they used their programmable particle system to create key VFX features in the game. Housemarque & Playstation Studios’ Risto Jankkila and Sharman Jagadeesan covered volumetric fog driven by real-time fluid simulations and usage of particle hierarchies for character effects such as tentacles.

Housemarque has been developing its own particle system since 2014, then the team used its own HMQ VFX engine as well. It was originally a GPU particle system for Alienation – a 2016 shooter-RPG. The company tried to focus on flexibility and performance, with all the effects running on GPU only.

By particle, Housemarque means a text file with some HLSL code in it. The engine doesn't distinguish between particles and emitters, so any particle can be an emitter. The HMQ VFX engine is a plug-in for Unreal Engine, which keeps particles alive.

Risto Jankkila then showed some code responsible for the particle system and how it works, as well as the footage that got fans talking about the possibility of Returnal coming to PC not so long ago. He also talked about how particles were used to create tentacle motions for enemies and even vegetation as it was performing really well.

Then, Sharman Jagadeesan discussed the work on fluid simulations and volumetric fog and how they moved according to the actions performed in the game. He then proceeds to talk in more detail about the volumes that constructed the whole worlds in Resogun and Nex Machina.

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