From mod to Squad: Creating a veteran gaming experience

Known for its realistic environments, rabid fanbase, and highly cooperative gameplay, Squad strives to establish a culture of camaraderie that is unparalleled in competitive multiplayer shooters.

Built from the ground up in Unreal Engine 4 by Offworld Industries, Squad pits teams of up to 50 people against each other in an intense, team-based military combat experience. But how exactly did Squad go from a humble mod project to a fully-realised game, complete with tactical maneuvers driven by performance capture?

“We had been looking for a motion capture solution since almost the very beginning,” says Alastair Sew Hoy, Lead Animator at Offworld Industries. “In 2017, we contacted Animatrik. Our studios were undergoing a major animation system overhaul, and we wanted to plug in a whole bunch of realistically-captured animation while at it. Having already worked on a number of modern-day warfare titles, Animatrik was perfectly positioned to help us achieve convincing combat cinematics, especially in terms of full-body capture.”

True-to-life militant motion

Animatrik’s motion capture facilities benefited Squad in a number of ways, one of which was that it allowed them to bring in a military advisor to coordinate stunt work. Ex-U.S. Marine and Squad Game Designer Dustin Ross took the mocap performers through their paces on the Animatrik sound stage, observing and correcting movements firsthand with multiple, fast-paced takes.

A range of movements – such as climbing and vaulting over walls – were covered alongside complex weapon routines. The performers in question ranged from army professionals to total amateurs, reflecting the kind of authentic battlefield situation that Offworld sought to recreate.

“We wanted to capture amateurish movements as well as veteran skills for the sake of realism,” explains Sew Hoy. “These are the soldiers without any training, who had literally just picked up a gun and decided to fight, which is often the case with local militias or freedom fighters. We needed to capture that difference to produce a realistic wartime scenario.”

The biggest hurdle for Offworld Industries was transforming this raw capture data into a format usable within the game engine: making sure bones attached to avatar skeletons correctly and that characters faced in the right direction, along with other essential tweaks. To streamline these process, Animatrik was commissioned for further work in a post-production capacity.

“Post-production becomes extremely complex when dealing with Squad’s level of realism,” says Sew Hoy, “Even generating loop cycles – usually a simple task – was a challenge. Thankfully, Animatrik was able to tackle most of the animation processing on our behalf, saving Offworld about 95% of the work so we could focus on other elements of gameplay.”

Engaging a fanatical fanbase

As with most video games these days – whether AAA or independent – Squad boasts a very loyal and vocal fanbase. However, rather than cater to the typical young adult market, Offworld Industries has carved out a niche for itself with military professionals. With such a passionate following building up around the game, Squad’s developers try to interact with fans as much as possible, often via motion capture sneak peeks and events.

In partnership with Animatrik and Stack Up, a veteran charity organization, Offworld Industries organised a unique performance capture experience to help engage fans. Gamers were invited to share their most incredible military stories for the chance to win a trip to Animatrik’s Vancouver-based facilities, which contain the largest independent motion capture stage in North America. Winning veterans would then be entered into the game engine itself. A staggering 150 applications were received.

“After much searching, we narrowed it down to two candidates based on their experiences with the army and what they most enjoyed about Squad. From there, we got them suited into motion capture gear at Animatrik and surrounded by cameras,” Sew Hoy exclaims It was an action-packed day, running through everything from dance moves to mock combat, all now immortalised within Squad.”

Keeping local business alive

As an independent studio, Offworld Industries prioritises building grassroots relationships with vendors and technology suppliers. Working with Animatrik – a local Vancouver studio, albeit one that provides motion capture services to Marvel, Microsoft, and more – the Squad development team could effectively punch above their weight whilst still supporting a local business.“Getting to work with Animatrik was fantastic,” confirms Sew Hoy. “The only game I’ve ever worked on has been Squad, so in some ways, I lack experience. I thought; ‘Oh God, I’m working with guys that did stuff for big AAA games and billion-dollar budget movies!’ It’s a little unnerving at first, but that faded pretty quickly… They were extremely accommodating and would always answer any questions that we had.”