The Unreal Forest: step 22 – beta 1

More than five years after the crowdsourcing campaign we’re happy to announce that the remake of The Endless Forest is finally complete! It has taken us a lot longer than expected to recreate in its entirety the multiplayer game in Unreal Engine. But the first beta release is ready for all backers to be downloaded and tested. And we’re already looking forward to continue expanding the forest -after the necessary bug fixing, of course.

If you have backed the project and you have not received an email with a download link, please let us know!

If still you want to support the project, play the beta and acquire some of the perks, please do so now because the campaign will be closed soon. The donation page is here.

The work on the remake began in earnest early 2017. The Endless Forest had been the first game we released, in 2005. At that time we had not fully developed a system for archiving data. On top of that, the old engine, Quest3D, used file formats for 3D models and textures that had become obsolete. And to make matters worse, the file server on which most files were stored had crashed and we had to painstakingly restore the files hidden on it.

Both Unreal Engine and Quest3D have visual interfaces to programming. This is essential for us, visual artists, to be creative with expressing logic. The paradigms of both engines, however, are extremely different. So more than translating the logic into another language, a lot of it had to be rethought within the new framework.

Since The Endless Forest is a multiplayer game, one of the first things we had to figure out was how to program networking in the new engine. Unreal Engine is set up quite well for match-based networked play with a limited amount of players of whom one acts as the server. This model, however, is unsuitable for a massively multiplayer game like The Endless Forest. We needed a server to be available at all times and no limitation the the amount of players that could log on. Sadly, the process of creating such a thing, is quite cumbersome in Unreal Engine and not very well documented. After a lot of trial and error that involved compiling Unreal from source code and converting our game to C++ we figured out how to do it. But it remains a complicated task, each time we want to release an update. Add to this the limited ways in which networking logic can be tested within the editor, requiring that this tedious compilation process must be followed simply for testing and debugging many network-related issues.

That being said, Unreal’s visual programming system, called Blueprints, is a joy to work with. And the editor contains wonderful tools, paradigms and interfaces to make many tasks easier to do, once one figures out how to use them.

In this early stage, we also implemented the endlessness of The Endless Forest, which means that the game world wraps around itself. This is quite tricky, especially in a multiplayer context. Unable to re-use the logic from the old game, we came up with a new system that works quite well.

Next we implemented controls so we could actually play the game. That was encouraging. Followed by new activities and animations of the avatar.

The Endless Forest, while extremely important, was not the only thing that we did in our artistic lives. We were also invited for art residencies in Poland and Rome, during which we worked on other projects. This of course slowed down the work on the remake.

But by the end of 2017 we did manage to add Forest Magic to the remake, a major feature by which players can change each other’s avatars’ appearance. This feature was finished when we came back home in early 2018

In 2018, work was interrupted several times by an invitation to present at the Freeplay festival in Melbourne, by participation in the Videogames exhibition in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, by the presentation of our VR theater Cricoterie in Warsaw, by an award at Indiecade in Paris and a panel presentation about The Endless Forest in Dundee.

Nevertheless, in the summer we made a spectacular step forward simply by adding the floor model and textures of the first phase of the game. Suddenly the remake started looking a lot more like The Endless Forest! So far we had been working on flat floors with symbolic colors. It was nice to feel that forest atmosphere a little.

By the end of 2018 (in October, November and December) we had implemented the buttons and animations for emotions and activities such as dancing, the trees and bushes and flowers of Phase One and the elements that make up the area of the ruin. And as a crowning achievement, we managed to compile a server for the game so that we were able to release a first playable version of the remake as a Christmas gift to all backers.

In January 2019, we finished the first phase of the Endless Forest, the area around the ruin and in February we implemented weather changes. In March, then, the new game was connected to the database of the old game which allowed players to login with their own accounts. Thanks to this, we were able to hand out the first perks to the backers in an Easter release that included a whole new outfit to celebrate the ten year anniversary of the game that triggered the crowdsourcing campaign for a Second Decade of the game.

After this, work gets interrupted again by presentations of Cricoterie in the Foksal gallery in Warsaw (our first solo gallery show!), the Tinguely Museum in Basel and the Game Happens festival in Genova. Simultaneously, we also organized our move from Belgium to Italy, which was accompanied by a lot of hard work and stress.

Once settled in a little in Rome, at the end of 2019, we added the second phase of The Endless Forest, the area with the pond, which we continue working on in the beginning of 2020. In February, after finishing Phase Two, we release another playable build for the backers.

After this I started working on a completely new project, a VR piece called Compassie, that I had been fortunate enough to get funding for in Belgium. By this time, the money from the crowdsourcing campaign had completely run out and we needed other sources of income.

The work on this new project was interrupted for adding the third phase of the forest environment and many of the elements that bring it to life. After adding the Drinkplaats, we felt that the remake was sufficiently complete to release a first alpha build to our backers in October 2020.

I then returned to Compassie and continued to work on it until its release in April 2021.

After this break, I dove back into the Forest, so that in the summer of 2021 we were able to release a second alpha build of the remake that includes the fawn character for beginning players and lots of interface additions.

To support ourselves further, I accepted a commission from an old client for an interactive museum exhibit. This project dominated the second half of 2021.

In early 2022, I implemented a lot of the Abiogenesis systems that we use for doing live performances in the game. And even though the results of this are not immediately visible to the players, we did release a third alpha build, in order to test these features on the network.

I dedicated the lent period of 2022 to the remake of The Endless Forest. In an effort to release a first beta version of the game (meaning the game is complete except for bugs) by Easter, the day of the Resurrection, I removed all other activities from my agenda. So in the meditative atmosphere of a life of fasting, with no Italian lessons nor playing music, I managed to stick to the schedule almost perfectly. Backers can now download and play the first beta of the remake of The Endless Forest! While this is a major milestone, it doesn’t mean that the project is finished. There’s lots of known bugs that still need to be fixed and undoubtedly many new problems will come up during this testing phase. But the finish is in sight!

Thank you for your support and patience!

Michael Samyn.