Callisto Protocol dev explains the technology behind the game’s gory details

When it comes to creating a new game, a significant development choice is deciding between using an in-house proprietary engine or one of the established and well-supported game development platforms. In the case of Striking Distance Studios and its upcoming game The Callisto Protocol, the team chose the latter — specifically Unreal Engine version 4.27.

I had a chance to discuss the business and development side of creating a new game with Striking Distance Studios chief technical officer Mark James, why and how Unreal helped, and some of the bespoke improvements the team made to the engine.

IGN: With the immense challenge of setting up a new studio and team, how has using Unreal Engine been an enabler in your three-year schedule?

Mark James, CTO, Striking Distance Studios: Starting with an engine that has shipped hundreds of games is a huge advantage. The workflows and tools are widely understood and the experience of using the business engine makes hiring easy. You will always want to make some changes to the base engine depending on the needs of the product, and at an early stage we decided on the key areas we wanted to grow. Not that we did it differently, we communicated with Epic regularly on these changes to make integration easier. When you start a project you want to keep taking the engine drops over the development cycle and consult with Epic to make their changes a lot easier on subsequent integrations.

You use Unreal’s Simple Demolition System and have it optimized for the Callisto Protocol. What are some of these customizations, and do they extend to the dismemberment system in the game?

This was an area we built from scratch. We knew we wanted a gore system that affected all the components of a great horror game. Our gore system blends blood splatter, chunk creation and disintegration to create the most realistic system. We wanted the gore to have a diagetic health bar for each enemy representing realistic flesh, muscle, and skeletal wounds. Not only was it used on enemies, but we also used it to represent the death of a bloody player. Losing in Callisto Protocol is also a visual feast!

The game uses ray tracing for some of its visual elements. Can you share whether these are light and shadow-based elements from Unreal Engine 5 or have you gone in another direction?

It was important for us to get a physically consistent light and shadow model in the game. Contrast and occlusion create great horror.

Using our corridor-based scale of about 20 meters, we found that about eight lights could affect the surface of the environment. Unfortunately, we found that the UE4 was limited to four shadow-producing lights, so first we worked on modifying the engine so that we could support a higher number of lights at a lower cost per light.

We looked at the UE4 ray tracing solution at the time and found that we needed to create our own solution for the amount of shadows we wanted to create. So instead we created a hybrid ray traced shadow solution that applies ray traced shadow detail to areas of the screen that matter to overall visual quality.

The UE5 took a very different approach to lighting with lumens that didn’t fit the interior corridor model we wanted for the game, but I’ve been very impressed with the quality of the UE5 demo so far.

Callisto Protocol – State of Play 2022 Official Screen

With this being a cross-generation game, how has the team managed to transition to the PS5, Series X and S based on the previous generation?

We built TCP with the new generation of consoles in mind. We wanted to focus on the advanced hardware features these consoles offered. We’ve adopted technologies like positional audio, lighting-fast storage, and of course, ray tracing-capable GPUs as part of the design.

That said, we have always maintained a scalable content creation approach to guarantee that we are able to deliver a great looking and great game, no matter what generation you play on.

Have the previous generation versions presented any significant hurdles to overcome?

The biggest change in the new console was the speed of the storage device. With the SSD in these new consoles we can do seamless loading throughout the game.

The biggest design challenge was to make it work back in the slower HDDs of the previous generation. We needed to figure out where to put loading volumes and in some cases loading screens where we don’t need them on the current gen.

Are you planning on expanding the console and/or PC versions with ray tracing, loading and possibly any other tech boosts beyond framerates. For example do you have denser geometry or is it for current generation machines?

As a team we want to make the most of any hardware device that is offered to us. We represented much more material detail, geometry density and lighting than in our previous projects. One of the initial goals of the project was “every step was different.” We wanted to represent a world that lived and showcased in the practical design of the space prison. This meant investment in kit-based geometry and a complex material system to represent the variety.

You mentioned that you included Unreal Engine 5 elements in your already laid out motivation of UE 4.27. Can you please share any details on these?

As we worked to phase out TCP on UE4, we saw areas of UE5 that we thought would be useful for both the development iteration and new console features. Epic also helped us bring some of these features back to our custom-built version of the engine. There isn’t one major component that stands out but instead there are a lot of small customizations and workflow improvements that have helped over the past few months.

The character models, post effects and general visual rendering of characters, faces and movement are above almost all other games, with main character Jacob (Josh Duhamel) actually looking like a live actor on video at points. What are some of the major technological improvements here it is providing?

The aim of photo-realistic characters begins with capturing the model and material with the correct light response. We have invested heavily in a capture verification system that enables us to switch from photograph setup to easy review of technique and authoring status. Using this approach we focused technical investments in areas that differed from photo references and character renders. For example, one of the key areas of technology investment for us was the correct delivery of transparency. This is shown in simple areas such as how light is represented behind a character’s ear, but also in our enemies rendering translucent membranes on the skin.

The panic and tension really comes to the fore in the demo. How much work has your sound team done with gameplay and rendering technology to enhance this and are they using any new technology with new hardware, such as Tempest 3D Audio?

Audio is such an important part of delivering horror that we want to give it as much technical development as the rendering. We tend to think of audio like it’s a game feature.

Our goal was a physically based audio model that represents both directional audio and audio interactions with geometry and material. Traditionally these models have been too CPU-intensive for real-time gaming to be able to do quickly. With new dedicated audio hardware in the new console, we now have the power to do just that.

Sound alone gives us an overwhelming sense of space, even without the visual component. Getting this right creates more immersion in the game. Whenever possible we use sound to create fear and tension.

What is one major area of ​​the game that you are most proud of, be it gameplay, technology or others?

I am very proud of the game we have played. Be it our lighting technology, the immersive audio or our combat gameplay, it’s hard to pick a favorite. The team is what I am most proud of. We have built a studio and new IP in a global pandemic without compromising on quality. It takes true passion.

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