Storming mobile with Unreal Engine 4: How Rodeo Games stepped up to triple-A

We speak to the studio's co-founder Ben Murch about creating one of the first mobile games to use Epic's latest engine
Author:
Publish date:
warhammer deathwatch.jpg

There is a growing number of developers pursuing what has come to be known as 'console-quality' on mobile games, with mixed results.

A key pillar in bringing a more traditional, triple-A experience to titles is the visuals, something that often depends on the engine ticking away behind the game. UK studio Rodeo Games attempted to achieve triple-A graphics and gameplay on mobile devices by developing its latest game – Warhammer 40,000: Deathwatch - Tyranids Invasion – in Unreal Engine 4.

As one of the first mobile titles to use Epic Games' latest engine, the pressure is on for Deathwatch to prove the tech's capabilities on smartphones and tablets. We spoke to Rodeo co-founder Ben Murch (pictured) to find out more about the game's development.

Image placeholder title
Image placeholder title

How does Warhammer 40,000: Deathwatch differ from previous Rodeo Games?
The biggest difference can be seen as soon as you boot up the game: we've gone full 3D. As a studio, we knew we wanted to make the leap – Warhammer Quest had 3D characters with 2D environments – so we looked at a few engines. Unreal 4 turned out to be the best choice.

Aside from the beauty, it's also a much bigger game. The campaign weighs in at around 15 hours, bigger than all our other games combined. Mechanically though, we really see this as a spiritual successor to our Hunters series. 

Why choose Unreal Engine 4 for a mobile title?
We wanted something that would last more than a few titles, so it made sense to use the latest version. A lot of the decision wasn't connected just to mobile though. Launching on other platforms was also a factor, something we had to outsource with our other games. Unreal makes that leap a lot smoother. We were also one of the first studios to adopt UE4 on mobile and, well, a challenge is always good. 

What were the most useful features? What did it enable you to do that other mobile game engines wouldn’t?
Working with Epic, we got to extend their engine, including features like Gamecenter integration. Using other engines wouldn't have put us into that position. The main feature though – and I know I sound shallow saying this – it really came down to looks. Unreal just looks better than it's competitors. We're interested in creating triple-A products on mobile, so it wasn't too hard a decision. 

Image placeholder title

Working with Epic, we got to extend their engine, including features like Gamecenter integration. Using other engines wouldn't have put us into that position.

What restrictions did you face? Was there anything you weren’t quite able to accomplish given the mobile format, and what did you do about this?
Unfortunately, there are always restrictions. Money, time, processing power – the list goes on. Some of the more advanced UE4 features just aren't practical for the lower-end devices. Ambient occlusion and dynamic lights spring to mind.

The biggest restriction is that of the mobile format itself. It's still a platform that a lot of people see as a diversion: "I'll play some of that whilst I'm waiting for The Witcher to load", that sort of thing. That stigma leaks through the press as well, so trying to get noticed can be extremely tough. The only thing you can do about it is to keep on trying, get the title in-front as many people as possible to try and change their minds.

UE4 is known for it’s triple-A style visuals. Is there much demand for triple-A style games on smart devices?
There is and there isn't. Think back to when Unreal first pounced onto people's phones. Epic Citadel had users coo-ing all over the place. Then Infinity Blade took the world by storm. You could argue that wasn't because of it's gameplay, but it's visuals. People like to have something they can boot up and say "Look at this".

However, that doesn't necessarily mean a super pretty game will automatically be a mega hit. I think players are always into triple-A quality gameplay, no matter the platform. 

What do devs have to bear in mind when attempting to develop a triple-A style game on smart devices? What restrictions do they face?
Live to your means. Seriously. Triple-A games cost a lot of money to make. Your budget can evaporate very quickly if you're not careful.

Constantly ask yourself "Does the game really need this feature"? Smoke and mirror as much as you can. Avoid feature creep as much as possible. Game-making is a very organic process so naturally the design will change over time. However, when you're six months out from launch and suggestions come in for "Oh, wouldn't it be nice if.....", focus on the end product and remember you have a limited window to make your title.

Image placeholder title

Don't let anyone fool you: launching a mobile game is one of the toughest ways to make money these days. For every hit, you have thousands not doing anything. Literally.

Given how visually intensive the engine can be, what did you do to ensure it ran smoothly on mobile devices and minimised battery drain?
We frequently did optimisation, which really helped with framerate on lower end devices and battery drain. Certain lower-end devices had to have certain features taken out – physically-based rendering materials, for example.

Most focus of mobile games coverage is on the competition in the free-to-play space, but how tough is the competition in the premium space? How do you approach this market?
It's all really, really, really tough. Don't let anyone fool you: launching a mobile game is one of the toughest ways to make money these days. For every hit, you have thousands not doing anything. Literally.

We had a couple of advantages right from the start. Having a recognisable IP helps a lot. Depending on the size of the IP, that's quite a lot of potential customers already. Previous titles also help. We have three other turn-based strategy games in that market, which has attained us a certain following. They help.

How do you convince mobile gamers to fork over $5 when there are so many free titles available?
Haha, good question! No idea. Quality? Promise of a great experience? It's such a weird subject.

Even the way you phrase your question with "fork over $5", like I'm handing over my life savings or something. A beer costs $5. A sandwich, not far off. Yet, I barely feel the touch of my card on the reader when paying for those.

What price would you place on a game that holds a metacritic of 86% and lasts for well over 15 hours? We humans tend to view entertainment purchases differently. Will I hate myself for forking over my hard-earned cash for this potentially pleasurable experience? Will that turn my free time good or bad? 

How has the response to the game been so far?
It's our best reviewed title so far. We're not particularly allowed to share sale figures. However, I'm pretty sure I can say it's been successful.

Related