Fred Galpern gazes into the future to see what is on the horizon of cutting-edge visual content in gaming.
2005 is already shaping up to be a breakthrough year for games and for game developers. With the introduction of the Sony PSP this spring, the industry has taken the plunge and aimed squarely for the mass market. Sony premiered the PSP much like it would a Hollywood blockbuster: lavish premiere parties, television, print and online advertising and, believe it or not, some excellent games too. Developers have long craved this kind of attention and now its here. Are we up to the scrutiny? One way or another well likely know by this fall. Thats when the next generation of home console game systems will begin hitting store shelves, with Xbox 2 the first to launch. The expectations for these next gen systems are high, not only for gamers, but for developers as well. Case in point: the discussions heard during the 2005 Game Developers Conference. The show this year was abuzz with talk of the next gen systems, centering particularly on the daunting production realities implied. I spoke with several industry leaders at the conference. The mood was generally mixed. Some folks seem to think were at the dawn of a new golden age for game development while others fear production costs will hurt us more than the new technology will help.
At the moment game developers have the luxury of years of experience working with a fairly robust set of tools for both console and PC development. There are numerous middleware solutions, taking much pain out of engine development, although none are guaranteed perfect solutions. On the art side, there are some excellent tools, both mature and new. The recent introduction of normal mapping techniques, HDRI lighting, and some creative implementations have pushed the visual content in games to something reasonably competitive with Hollywood. The software required to generate next gen content is likely to be the same software the industry is using today, with a few new additions. Standard low poly modeling and hand animation now compete for development dollars with MoCap and normal map generation. Eventually, the industry will find its rhythm but at the moment things seem to be very much up in the air.
While there havent been any major breakthroughs in polygonal modeling for some time, there is a new tool that is on every next gen game artists must have list. Zbrush stands out for its normal map generation. There are other methods of generating detailed normal maps but none as slick, straightforward and, frankly, as fun as Zbrush. This app is excellent but is not an all in one solution. In order to use Zbrush effectively, most developers need to pair it with a strong modeler, usually 3ds max or Maya. An alternative to these veteran apps is the fairly new modo, currently receiving nearly unanimous rave reviews. Luxology, the developer of modo, is interested in luring game developers, a group that is traditionally slow to accept new tools due to their ever decreasing production cycles. modo is worth consideration for its ease of use and flexibility. Zbrush is certainly a sexier app, creating ultra detailed high res meshes, but modo also handles high res meshes and even excels in low poly modeling chores. Dion Burgoyne, one of many modo developers demonstrating the app at GDC, touts ease of revision as one of modos greatest strengths. He also believes UV mapping is more flexible in modo than in some of the other more popular game art apps. Export scripts are written in PERL for modo and therefore much more straightforward and accessible than Maxscript or MEL. Burgoyne agrees that apps such as Zbrush reside comfortably alongside a strong low poly modeler such as modo. While he appreciates Zbrush for its normal mapping specialty, he suggests the models are not as practical as modos.
Autodesk and Alias seem to be waiting to evolve their flagship apps, 3ds max and Maya, for the moment at least. My hunch is that these big players want to see what truly comes of the next gen consoles before committing too many new tools to their apps. Its a safe bet that in less than two years well see 3ds max and Maya bundled with their own high res modeling tools. This strategy may hurt them, as Zbrush and other strong modelers, such as modo, take more and more of the market share.
Artists will always want and need new tools, but one thing that will never change is the need for skilled artists and animators. With MoCap becoming less expensive, animation is poised to benefit from some new thinking much as modeling and texturing have in recent years. I spoke with several game developers and asked them where they think game art and animation development are headed in the near future.
Gene Endrody, technical art lead at Radical Ent., believes that MoCap is going to focus much more on capturing improvisational moments. Endrody sees actors suiting up in MoCap suits and then improvising their way through a scene much like the actors on Saturday Night Live work through a live, improv scene. Endrody is interested in utilizing local actors, many of whom, he expects, will work inexpensively. Along with newer low cost MoCap equipment, this plan sounds feasible and may produce excellent results.
Shawn Robertson, lead artist for Irrational Games, talked about the future of game animation being more focused on realism. His prediction is that next gen games will call for very specific animation cycles that interact with the world rather than the more generic animation we see used today. Robertson used the example of a character running, becoming tripped up, attempting to stop the fall, utilizing rag doll physics to actually fall and then concluding with a canned rise animation. He believes that integrating physics with more special case animation cycles is necessary in creating convincing characters. His desire is not to get more realistic performances out of characters but getting more of a characters nature across in how they move, in as much of the animation as possible. Much like his colleagues, Robertson is concerned about the additional time and budget needed for this sort of animation solution.
Ryan Lesser, art director for Harmonix Music Systems, and a frequent VFXWorld contributor, has begrudgingly started using more MoCap in order to meet the demands of console game development. Lesser agrees that MoCap is very good at recreating reality, and sees its strength for applications such as sports games. However, for the arcade game style Harmonix usually pursues, Lesser prefers the results a trained, talented animator achieves. Especially frustrating to him is the misuse of high priced, highly skilled animators in cleaning up MoCap work. Lesser and his team have had to bow to budget and time pressures and use MoCap to get titles complete on time. In his opinion, higher quality animation would result, and, more importantly, be appreciated by the audience, if skilled animators were given the time needed for keyframe animation. These realities are nothing new to the industry but are being felt more these days as expectations rise and budgets remain stagnant, and in some cases are even lower than before. Yet Lesser remains confident of his team. He believes that an artist is an artist first and a technical expert far second. Lesser prefers to hire talented traditional artists, whether or not they have computer skills.
Eugene Evans, vp marketing for Mythic Ent., thinks that as the quality of art and animation goes up, so does the price, and the overall cost of development. Evans says this is an especially important issue for online games such as Mythics Dark Age of Camelot and their upcoming Imperator. Evans recognizes that the visuals are the pull for most consumers and believes the industry must respond by creating more beautiful, detailed content. Evans sees larger art teams and even companies looking to Eastern Europe and Asia for content development. In Evans opinion, this outsourcing is as inevitable as Hollywood moving much of its production north of the border.
Rob McNaughton, lead technical artist for Blizzard Ent., spoke about developing huge AAA titles with development teams that are four times the size of previous teams. McNaughton thinks that along with the additional content comes extended pre-production, larger teams and more specialized artists. He sees game development following the movie industry in visual effects as being somewhat unfortunate but also inevitable. Rather than outsourcing aspects of a production McNaughton is in favor of employing large teams that are shifted around from project to project. This approach clearly requires much more high level, long term planning than what is traditional in game development. McNaughton cites EA as an example of this kind of developmental approach. He is excited about the advent of shaders for game development. Next gen systems, and certainly PC games, will utilize shader languages to generate more detailed, realistic content. The key to this content is that it will be developed by an artist rather than a programmer. Shaders can be very powerful. When combined with realtime gameplay the possibilities are inspirational.
There are a number of new tools and techniques for game artists to employ in their quest for more stylized, unique, realistic and ultimately beautiful worlds. The biggest issue facing these creators is the freedom to perform their jobs. Without more time, which we all know translates into more money, game artists will be hindered. Maybe some forward thinking company will fund a next gen project and allow an exceptional art team to show off their full abilities. It will happen, but probably not before a sleeper hit gets there on sheer will power.
Fred Galpern is the art manager for Blue Fang Games in Waltham, Massachusetts. Since entering the videogame field more than six years ago, Galpern has held management positions in several game and entertainment companies, including Hasbro and Looking Glass Studios. He began his art career as a comicbook creator and also has professional graphic design experience. He has created characters and developed stories for numerous childrens television series. Galpern has satisfied his long-standing interest in education by teaching at several New England colleges. He is also an adjunct instructor at Bristol Community College, where he co-created the associates degree gaming curriculum.