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Racing to the Finish Line: Chris Southall Talks 'Total War' and 'Sonic'

SEGA’s video-game production output for 2010 was winning, to say the least. It included the latest titles in some long-running popular franchises, such as Napoleon: Total War, Sonic Free Riders and Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing. I talked to Chris Southall, technical director at SEGA, about how Formula 1 and other racing games started his engine and got him interested in game development. He also tells us how the latest technology helps speed the workflow and bring games to life faster and better than it did when he entered the business in 1995.

By John Gaudiosi

SEGA’s video-game production output for 2010 was winning, to say the least. It included the latest titles in some long-running popular franchises, such as Napoleon: Total War , Sonic Free Riders  and Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing. I talked to Chris Southall, technical director at SEGA, about how Formula 1 and other racing games started his engine and got him interested in game development. He also tells us how the latest technology helps speed the workflow and bring games to life faster and better than it did when he entered the business in 1995.

John Gaudiosi: Was there an early video game you played that inspired you to become a game developer?

Chris Southall:

There was a game called REVS by Geoff Crammond, who went on to create other racing games like F1 GP . I opened REVS one Christmas and played it constantly for months and months. It was a Formula 3 game, and I got to know the racetracks so well that I still know them today like the back of my hand. Even back in those days, it was such an authentic experience that I knew the video game industry was something I wanted to get into.

J.G.: What was your first job in the game industry?

C.S.:

I studied math and computer science at Bristol University. A lot of my friends went into banking after graduating. It was 1995, and I saw a job in The Guardian newspaper for game designers at Codemasters in the Midlands in the U.K. I had played a couple of their video games, so I ended up applying for a job on what would become Colin McRae Rally . Even though I didn’t have much programming experience, I didn’t have a problem getting that job. And this was before the days when engineers were working on games. I was hired to work on the physics in the game. I think I got the job because I was able to create good maps. And that goes back to all of the time I spent playing REVS. It was my enthusiasm for racing games that really got me the job.

J.G.: How different is it to develop and produce games today compared with back then?

C.S.:

When I started in games, there was no email, so the technology landscape has changed quite a bit. We were developing games for the SEGA Mega Drive, or Master System for North America. I remember back in 1998 when they started selling 1-gigahertz processors. In terms of technology, things were unrecognizable compared with the level of computing power that we have now. But having said that, a lot of nuts and bolts of the different disciplines you need to bring together a collective game design are the same today. It’s just now with technology you have teams of over 100 people working on these huge games.

J.G.: Can you talk about how the advances in technology affected your game design workflow at SEGA?

C.S.:

Now it's an absolute minimum for engineering teams in each studio to have a workflow that stands up and works on day one. There are good debugging tools all the way through the environment in terms of the back end, when you get games running. Things like TVB are incredibly useful when we get into multithreaded programming. With the amount of power we have now and the sophistication of the tools that we have to help us do the optimization and debugging, we're definitely focusing more on some of the creative aspects of game development rather than fighting with the hardware.

J.G.: One of SEGA’s next big PC games is Creative Assembly’s Shogun II: Total War . How will that title make use of multithreading technology?

C.S.:

The Total War engine has been evolving with each new game. Back in 2008 for Empire: Total War , the game initially didn’t have any multithreading at all. We did a lot of work with SEGA's internal technology group as well as Creative Assembly to get multithreading into that engine through a patch. Once we did, that gave us big advantages in pushing the graphics and game experience forward. One of the big things with Shogun II is that land battles are now merged with sea battles. A lot of the procedural effects are running and have been enhanced because of the multithreading. We’re also able to create the most advanced AI to date with multithreading. We’re really starting to see big advantages of what we can do getting code across some or many hardware floats. The Total War franchise has always been at the cutting edge of both gameplay and technology. And multithreading is where it's at now in terms of getting more performance out of our engine.

J.G.: For a PC game to be successful today, it also needs to play on less powerful netbooks, laptops and desktops. How does SEGA optimize performance for gamers across the low end of processing power?

C.S.:

As much as we like to push technology to the bleeding edge of what’s possible on the latest desktop PCs with the most powerful processors, the fact of the matter is that a large section of our market is playing games on lower-end PCs, laptops and netbooks. During the early stages of designing a game, we make sure that certain features that we are going to utilize on the high-end PCs can be scaled back with reduced resolution to play on lower-end devices. It becomes a big change from a design perspective where we have multiplayer games such as Shogun II and PC gamers playing across different platforms. We strive to keep the AI consistent and the core gameplay the same -- while differing the graphical treatment based on the device.

J.G.: What advice would you give to an inspiring game developer?

C.S.:

The advice is quite simple: Do your research. Know what the different disciplines in game development are and choose the one you’re interested in. The game industry is looking for people who play video games, so it’s important to have a passion for gaming. To actually succeed in the game industry, you really need a deep understanding of what makes a good video game.

John Gaudiosi has been covering video games for the past 17 years for media outlets such as The Washington Post, CNET, Wired magazine and CBS.com. He is editor in chief of GamerLive.tv and a game columnist for Reuters and RhMinions.com.

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