Designing a modern game is no easy task (as we discovered!).
To unearth how these marvels are made we travelled half way around the world to one of most reputed development studios in the business.
Read about our Epic journey…
When it comes to gaming, most of us, (and we include ourselves), are a very choosy bunch. We wait for a title for ages, and after getting our paws on a copy, and spending an hour playing the game, we’re either with a grin on our faces...or not. In event of the latter, the game is proclaimed a failure and dismissed. What is also forgotten, however, is the sheer volume of sweat and human perseverance that went in from inception to completion of the game, and the labour of love that developers put in throughout its development.
The idea to visit a game studio to find out exactly what goes on there, began sometime in mid-March. We decided to visit Epic Games (of Unreal Tournament fame) headquartered in the tiny, picturesque, and very green township of Cary—which itself is a suburb of the much larger City of Oaks a.k.a. Raleigh, North Carolina. Connected by flight via the Raleigh-Durham airport. Cary at first glance seems a quaint place with a miniscule populace—a conducive atmosphere for game development in our opinion.
After a hearty American-style breakfast, it was time to behold the lair of Epic itself. The first impression, (and one that lasts), given off by the surroundings, the building and the people themselves, is of a very casual, and laid back atmosphere underlining a very professional outfit. The grounds, complete with open lawn and a basketball court at the rear of the building and parking at the front that shows off some amazing gardening skills, add to the effect that the management at Epic wanted to create, “a place that’s soothing to the soul.”
Inside the building, a quick look at the work area shows a very fresh and different look to each office’s décor and colour. Senior management have individual offices, otherwise two or three other employees may share a room, albeit with excellent desk segregation. This is done to aid concentration, and maintain human contact throughout work hours. Throughout the tour of the building, we saw many examples of a home-like environment, from the do-it-yourself fully stocked kitchen, to the lounge, replete with pool and table tennis tables, chairs, large screen TV, and arcade games. Equally cool, was their gaming den, a large hall-like room with some 16 gaming setups. Each setup consisted of an Xbox 360, a PS3 and an SLI-configured HP Blackbird PC complete with quad core processor and 4 GB of memory! By now, you’re thinking “Wow! Wouldn’t I like to work there”. Don’t berate yourself up for any disloyal thoughts. You aren’t the first to consider such possibilities (shhhh!).
After a brief tour that included a peek at their fully equipped gym, the guys at Epic were ready to talk about something we all love—games. But first, a little background lesson. Tim Sweeney, CEO and founder (1991), of Epic Games, has been designing games from his college days and is a die-hard gamer in his free time. Epic games (then called Epic MegaGames) itself kicked off with Jill of the Jungle way back in 1992. Their first huge title, (and one we all remember and relate to), was Unreal (1998), was possible due to the teaming up of Epic with two gifted individuals—Cliff Bleszinski and James Schmalz.
Once inside their conference room, we settled into comfy sofas. The walls were liberally plastered with art work and renders from Epic’s upcoming title Gears Of War 2 (GOW 2). There were soft drinks, burgers and other snacks, well within arms reach, throughout the session. The current focus of Epic is very obviously on GOW 2. For those who don’t know, the original GOW (released in November 2006) was one of the best X360 titles till date. In fact, GOW alone accounted for a noticeable hike in the sales of the console after its release. Although the sequel is set for November this year, we’re told that the game is ready, and testing and fine tuning gameplay is currently in progress. The team has been at work on this prequel, the original. For us, GOW was one of the best efforts at a third-person shooter on any console, simply because of the amazing player control and camera angles. In fact, we fondly remember the happy hours spent at GOW, and quite a few of our team got hooked on the game. In short, GOW came close to delivering a PC-like third person experience. But as Cliff Bleszinski (“Cliffy B” to everyone) says, “the best is yet to come”. The team is candid about the shortcomings of the first title, and it’s obvious they won’t repeat the same mistakes with GOW 2. It’s clear that their work is their passion, and everybody seems thrilled to be asked about the game itself. Even silly questions we put forward are answered patiently and accurately.
Having played GOW so much, we put forward the obvious—How is GOW 2 better? Epic answers “In every way”. We want specifics particularly of the eye-candy variety. Mike Capps, President of Epic Games gives it a shot—“The answer is the Unreal 3 engine”. But that was used for the original game too, our plaintive protest. What’s new? “You want it, you got it!”—with those ominous words hanging in the air Mike rattles off about the various technical aspects of GOW 2. Here are the words straight from the man’s mouth:
1. Ambient Occlusion / Post-Processing Filter: Unreal Engine 3 (UE3)’s ambient occlusion technology renders an approximation of global illumination by calculating the accessibility of each pixel. The result is increased perception of geometric shape for the entire scene, including dynamic characters. The effect is scene-independent and operates with constant memory and performance overhead with no pre-processing.
2. Advanced Character Lighting: Improvements to the UE3 character lighting system enable the engine to more accurately synthesise complex light environments. Fill lighting is added using the increased accuracy to maintain the contrast of character details. Character shadowing accuracy has also been enhanced.
3. High-density Crowds: UE3’s new crowd system with flocking technology can simulate in real-time hundreds of characters within a scene. Battling the Locust Horde in the original Gears Of War often involved attacking five or six enemies at once, and it’s now possible to have masses of enemies onscreen at once.
4. Dynamic Fluid Surfaces: The water technology in UE3 breathes life into liquid surfaces. Sophisticated water physics combined with realistic specular and environment reflections produce a realistic, liquid-like feel. Characters have dynamic interactions with the water and this adds a layer of realism.
5. Matinee improvements: Matinee is used to build real-time cinematics that play back in-engine. This UE3 system has been substantially improved to give artists movie director-class control over all of the objects in a scene, as well as cameras and cuts, plus we have added an in-engine, real-time preview feature that plays back all the visual effects of a cinematic.
6. Soft body physics: Through the incorporation of Aegia’s soft body physics simulation technology, UE3 can realistically simulate elastic and deformable objects, and thus produce more organic game worlds. Players can interact with flexible objects, and gelatinous surfaces can exhibit sticky properties.
7. Destructible environments: UE3’s new fracturing tool and, enable developers to take virtually any existing mesh, slice it up into as many fragments as desired, and destroy structures. This structural analysis tool produces far more realistic, destructible environments.
He continues: “Many gamers still consider the original Gears of War to be the technical bar for next-generation gaming—and that was our first Unreal Engine 3 title. We’ve been working on the technology for two years, so of course, there are tons of great new features. It’s also been greatly optimised, which helps us to make Gears of War 2 even bigger and badder than the first game”.
After that rather lengthy description and a look at some of the screenshots, and in game footage of GOW 2, it is time for a little break, hosted by Cliffy B, as we’re led through the corridors of the building for the second time. We’re at the front lobby now and the time is around 1 pm. Several employees are just entering the building. Cliff reiterates the casual work timings, “They leave late, (incidentally, 7 pm is late for them!), so they’re in late as well. The core working hours are 1.30 pm to 5.30 pm, and we try to ensure our presence during these hours, otherwise it’s mostly cool”. The back of the building has a rather large open-air veranda with a few chairs and tables spread around. Someone asks what is perhaps the most clichéd question ever—what are the three best things about working here?
Cliffy replies: “One, the people... I work with the most intelligent and talented people in entertainment, and every day is filled with challenges and surprises that keep me on my toes. Two, the environment... our office feels professional, yet cosy. There are no cubicles, and food is provided during the busier times, and everyone’s got action figure and lastly creative freedom. Lastly, Epic builds our own universes, and thus, we have enough wiggle room to dream big”.
A couple of questions more about Epic’s prosperity after their recent success with GOW and the just released Unreal Tournament 3 had Cliffy joking “Our car park has been upgraded quite a lot over the past two years, with many faster, more expensive cars”. We share a moment of mirth and head back inside. En route their press room, we make a quick stop at Cliff’s office. His desk itself is huge, strewn with magazines, odds and ends, and to top it all, a multitude of action figures—Cliffy is a proud collector of more than 150 such action figures. A pretty impressive looking PC with a large monitor dominates one side of the desk and the action figures take up another third, along with tons of images depicting concept art from titles he’s worked on, including Unreal Tournament 2003, UT 2004, and Gears of War. His desk is his den, and obviously the heart of his productive soul.
After a little more talk about GOW 2, and the technical aspects of the Unreal 3 engine, we went for a late lunch. During the healthy yet sumptuous meal, we got talking again:
Does game development follow a particular procedure? Are there any stages to the procedure? If so, what are they?
Mike Capps: There most certainly are procedures and stages to the process. It’s like creating any other product. There’s a lot of hard work, and most of us put in very late hours, but since we all love what we do, we have loads of fun too. Game development is a complex and expensive process. Most ideas never become reality because today’s top-tier games cost tens of millions of dollars (and years!) to develop, and the respective marketing budgets are just as costly.
OK, so what about those stages?
Capps: Ah yes! For us, the first stage is the pitch. Epic continuously canvasses its employees for fun and original game concepts, and these ideas require extensive evaluation. These concepts are narrowed down through discussions, in which everyone is allowed to participate. The submissions are then presented for a more formal evaluation for key stakeholders. If the concept is scrapped at this stage, we start from scratch and the process mentioned above is repeated. If a concept is greenlit, or approved for production, the game-to-be moves into pre-production. Everyone has to be totally committed to a concept before it gets greenlit for production.
During pre-production, (Stage 2, in-case you were counting!), producers and designers create design documents and technical specifications based on the development timeline. It’s essential for large teams to assess the myriad needs during these early phases in order to maintain quality and keep games on schedule.
At this point, we start getting the idea that game development isn’t all fun and (pardon the pun!) games, and there seems to be a whole lot of work involved, with close teamwork and coordination between teams. We questioned Mike a bit more on what a design document is.
Capps: Design Documents are sort of a wish list for components and essential elements that the game should contain or implement or include. Technical specifications include the nature of the engine, the special effects, physics and other specifics like shading, lighting and damage models to be used.
The next stage involves game production. Full-on game production involves implementing features described in the design document, and it’s a constantly evolving process as features may be added, dropped or modified depending on time or technological constraints. The production stage can be broken down into phases called alpha, the first playable version of a game, and beta, the playable version complete with features and assets.
Capps adds that Epic’s motto is polish, polish and polish. To further quote him “When a game reaches beta, it may contain bugs or gameplay balancing issues, so we spend a lot of time tweaking gameplay and optimising levels to satisfy internal expectations and standards. Quality assurance testing is a challenging process that can last six months or more. Our testers bang on our games, time and again to ensure that we have explored every possible decision and taken every path in-game to ensure a smooth and exciting user experience”. This is an important stage for a thoroughly professional outfit like Epic, especially considering the scale of the games they work on, and even a single overlooked aspect could cause a lot of problems. We’ve all played games, which have certain levels beyond which progress is impossible due to a bug, or a game crash, or a part of a level that may be inaccessible, and we know how annoying that can be.
Whew! Is that all? We ask hopefully. Not quite, Mike quips—there’s Post Production which wraps up with the end of QA testing, submission to console certification when appropriate, and approval for manufacturing. Once this transpires, the game is sent to the manufacturer for replication, and packaging materials are printed as well. Components are then assembled, packed, sealed and shipped to retailers.
Then there’re a lot of other concurrent processes in addition to game development. While making a game, there are teams of external marketers, retailers, buyers, distributors, hardware vendors, and other specialists in the channel, working to guarantee a successful product launch.
The amount of work involved in actually creating a game, let alone promoting, circulating and distributing it, seems mind boggling. Considering that the development cycle for a single game could be as long as four years there’s a huge timeframe involved in each of these stages. Loads of work and sleepless nights are expected, even for a team that is as gifted as Epic’s team of programmers, designers and testers.
It was now quarter to three in the afternoon, and we were shown into a large darkened hall. This, according to Cliffy is where all the parties and frag fests occur. There were four rows of desks, each with five chairs neatly arranged. Each seat had an X360 hooked up to a small 22-inch LCD TV, and (surprise!) GOW 2 was running on each of these systems. It seems the Epic team had arranged for us to go head-to-head, and there were four five-man teams organised, most of the players were of course Epic and Microsoft employees, who from the looks of it, had spent several hundred hours apiece on the original game. The prize for the winning team—an X360 Elite console system for each player—wow! A few sniper headshots and gory chainsaw melees later, it was clear that our team sucked. However, the forgiving nature of Epic’s team and GOW 2, allowed us to improve somewhat and our team managed to reach the finals where we lost spectacularly to a five man squad solely from Epic. Their role in the company—game testers—damn!
After this three-hour session, a few people stayed behind, to play the game some more. Although this isn’t really a preview, our impression is Gears Of War 2 seems a lot more polished and balanced than the original. There’ve been minor tweaks done to map visibility around the character. The player-controlled character’s body movements themselves have been subtly reworked. There’re a couple of new weapons including a well done (pun intended) flame thrower, and each weapon gets a new, gorier finishing animation. There’re also a couple of new map styles for the multi-player components. The single player campaign is equally robust, and we’re told, more movie-like in terms of plot twists.
By around 6:30 pm we were done, after which we had a quick snack and a Coke with Epic, discussing our impressions of the game and exchanging opinions. Another half hour later, we were aboard a bus to our hotel room. Thus, concluded a tour, which has left many good impressions firmly entrenched in our noggins. Firstly, games aren’t easy-to-design (a gross understatement this). Secondly, Epic’s working environs totally rock! Thirdly, GOW 2 seems the real deal, and all set to make an even bigger splash than it’s predecessor did back in 2006. Lastly, November can’t get here soon enough!
The Indian Angle: Trine Studios, Mumbai
So what’s the game development scene in India like? We spoke to Somil Gupta, Managing Director, Trine Animation Studios Ltd, Mumbai about their organisation, gaming in general, and upcoming titles.
Trine consists of a team that is 80 members strong. 70 of these are developers and animation artists. Sangam Gupta, Somil’s brother and Trine’s CEO tells us that their strategy is to attack the international market with localised content, somewhat like what the Japanese have done with ninjas and samurais in their games.
The stages involved in game development according to Somil are Conceptual design, preproduction, production, alpha, beta, gold.
When asked about game titles, Somil is all about the Indian angle to gaming. He feels Indian folklore, locations, and even mythical events all have enough subject matter to capture the interest of the Indian gamer. We seem to agree that an Indian flavour to such games is certain to attract a larger audience in India, especially, those completely new to the world of games. From a marketing standpoint, this strategy could well work in Trine’s favour, and succeed where other Indian developers have failed.
Trine’s current flagship is called Legends of Great India and is an RTS game based around mythical and religious characters like Hanuman, Ganesha, Rama and Arjuna. The goal of this game is to save India from all evil including Ravana and his minions. Get set to use a fantastic array of powers and control armies of hundreds of troops. Although the plot may seem simple, it’s the implementation that we’re interested to see when this game is finally out. Somil tells us they use cutting edge graphics in their titles and this game is based around DX 9 SM3, and even DX 10 implementations are being experimented with.
The other two titles in development are Streets of Mumbai, which is an NFS Carbon-like game based around the streets of Mumbai, as we know, which are home to many (sometimes) illegal races. In this game, you can upgrade and mod your car with cash you acquire by winning street races. There are as many as 20 cars to choose from and a variety of eye-candy mods like rims, paint jobs, lights, hoods, side skirts and bumpers to choose from.
Wings of Control the other game Trine is working on, is an aerial combat based game focussed on tactical dogfights. You can choose from between seven models of fighter planes, and the game is based around an alternate world scenario where you fight for aerial domination. This title promises to be a LAN gamers delight.
With some rather unique titles in the pipe, we’re really interested to see where Trine takes this bold initiative. For us gamers, more game studios in India can only be a good thing, as competition will lead to improved content, and gameplay. All we can tell Trine is to “bring em on”.