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GDC 2008: New Tools, More Convergence and Outsourcing

Fred Galpern reports back from GDC 2008 on the launch of Havok Cloth and Destruction, Star Wars: The Forced Unleashed, realtime rendering and more.

Games, not consoles, took center stage at this year's Game Developers Conference. Unless noted, all images courtesy of GDC. 

This years Game Developers Conference, once again held in San Francisco at the Moscone Center, provided another glimpse last month into the future. Last years GDC saw many big, new ideas, so this year may have seemed like a down year to some. However, despite the lack of new consoles and innovative tools, there was much to look forward to, for both game developers and artists. This year saw games take center stage, getting the bulk of the attention, although there were many tool announcements too.

Starting off with the tools, Havok Cloth and Destruction were announced and look very solid, expanding the already impressive Havok line. Cloth will let developers create realistic clothing for characters, as well make the creation and implementation of game objects, such as wind blown flags, much easier for developers to implement, while making them function more like their real world counterparts. Destruction is Havoks answer to every first person shooter that requires objects that go boom. Developers use the tool to specify real world and not-so-real world materials for objects. Once set up, these objects can be destroyed in game in much more dynamic fashion. One of the demonstrations showed a wooden door breaking apart in a variety of ways, all of which were light years ahead of the old methods where artists would pre-break objects.

The biggest news for game fans and game developers, meanwhile, was announced at the Microsoft keynote, headlined by John Schappert. Much was unveiled in the hour, with the most significant news being that community created content would be made available on Xbox Live as well as the revelation of Zune community games. This nicely follows the previous announcement of the XNA toolkit and creators club. Credit goes to Microsoft for making this moment special by not only highlighting a handful of user created games in the keynote, but also making them available to all Xbox Live account holders following the show. The topping on the cake was when Schappert brought James Silva, lone creator of the super-fun Dishwasher game, out on stage. Silva was surprisingly humble for a guy who single handedly represented a significant slice of the future of Xbox Live. He seemed more interested in getting back to finishing his game than standing on stage in front of the game development legions. This great indie moment was downplayed for some when at the end of the keynote Epic wunderkind Cliff Bleszinski chainsawed his way from backstage, through a paper curtain, and announced the November 2008 release date for the very poorly kept secret -- Gears of War 2. As evidenced by the teaser trailer that Bleszinski introduced, the game is sure to be another leap forward in both gameplay and game graphics. For some, indie games hold more promise than the giant blockbusters, but, in the end, gamers will likely be the winners with much more to choose from.

LucasArts presentation of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed was a highlight of the conference. The audience was noticeably eager to see more of the game, which prior to the conference had only been teased online with some short videos. The presentation ranged from the glittery, crowd pleasing display to the more technical nuts and bolts heres how were building this thing conversation. The big idea is more than just a game. LucasArts is using this title to test out a whole new production paradigm, one that includes establishing a new office, a mostly new team and finally solid connections to the rest of the Lucasfilm corporation, encouraging more sharing of technology and assets than ever before.

The discussion started by taking the audience through the development of The Force Unleashed from the early days when the team were trying to define just what the game should be -- ideas included Han Solo-esque smuggling-based gameplay, dipping back into the hugely popular Knights of the Old Republic portion of the Star Wars universe and even some talk of resurrecting the infamous Darth Maul character from the first of the prequel films. The decision was made to focus on a game that gave players what they have always wanted from Star Wars: the ability to use the force to do just about whatever their Jedi dreaming imagination came up with. Flinging enemy soldiers around like toy puppets? Yup, its in there. Chaining those same enemies together and watching them shiver with fear while still trying to hold onto one another? Yup, once again, its in there. The great thing about all of this force powered gameplay is that the character performances are crafted so that players are more likely to be amused by them without feeling like they are tipping over into sadism.

Microsoft's John Schappert announced big news for game fans and developers: community created content would be made available on Xbox and there will be community games for Zune.

The game itself was still in an early stage, so some bugs were apparent. They were easily dismissed as the overall look of the game takes full advantage of next gen technology. There is a high level of detail on both characters and environments. In addition to utilizing the now common next gen toolsets that allow artists to create high density meshes and normal map textures LucasArts is using their new engine, called Ronin, to power the game. They have also integrated some third party technology to gain more features for the game in a shorter development cycle. These additional technologies include Havok Physics, which turns the game world into a physics playground of sorts -- essential for the convincing players that the force powers players they wield in the game are important and substantial. Another supplemental technology in use throughout the game is Digital Molecular Matter created by Pixelux. DMM makes destroying objects and environments in the game easier on the setup side for developers while giving players a better, more appealing, high energy result. Finally, euphoria, made by the team at NaturalMotion, lets animators craft AI driven character performances with a minimum of custom animation creation. The collection of supplemental tools is another trend as developers have to create more assets than ever before while meeting tighter deadlines. Another announcement at the show signaled that middleware is where the industry is heading. Autodesk, makers of the industry standard 3ds Max and Maya, acquired Kynogon, creators of the kynapse middleware. Terms of the transaction were not disclosed, but kynapse has been used to develop Alone in the Dark 5, Crackdown, Fable 2 and The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar. kynapse gives characters spatial awareness, enabling them to realistically navigate digital environments.

The remainder of The Force Unleashed talk was divided between sizzle video meant to get gamers excited and more behind the scenes of development. The crowd seemed to enjoy the display of force powers more than anything, especially when the live game demo showed how moving from force pushing enemy soldiers to pushing around much larger objects, like Tie Fighters, was part of the game. On the game development side, the creators showed how they would essentially prototype ideas by creating short films or animatics. These were created with both animators and programmers so that final in-game results could be discussed up front before implementation. The purpose of these animatics was for the team to agree early what the requirements were for any given piece of the game and then build just that piece, trying to avoid the curse of over implementation that plagues much of game development. The talk also touched on cinematics. The process here was more known, utilizing a great amount of full body MoCap but also some facial MoCap. In the end, the cinematics development benefited from a script that was locked down and plenty of revision cycles on completed work.

LucasArts whetted fans' appetite for the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Unleashed with a presentation that ranged from glittery, crowd pleasing display to a more technical nuts and bolts conversation. © LucasArts.

Realtime rendering was another hot topic. Kim Libreri, who spearheads Digital Domains new technology, addressed the Challenges of Creating Linear Content in a Game Engine with Jerry OFlaherty, videogame art director (Gears of War) and director of Warner Bros. upcoming animated feature, Thundercats. Bill Kroyer, the Oscar-nominated director and senior animation director at Rhythm & Hues, discussed The Future of Animation is Games. Kroyer is writer/director of Blockade Ent.s Sacred Road, the first 3D-animated series to be made with a game engine and videogame assets from the Brothers in Arms franchise from Gearbox Software. Kroyer was joined by Mark DeAngelis, VP of Programming & Development, Voom Networks HD. His network will distribute Sacred Road this summer via its GamePlay HD channel.

Sacred Road is about a squad of World War II infantrymen that stumbles onto the most demonic and dangerous plan ever conceived by the Nazi war machine. Beneath the rotted, mildewed, overgrown fortifications of the World War I battlefield of Verdun, lie the mangled, burned, gassed corpses of a million men. A German unit specializing in the occult plans to raise these dead to create an invincible army, and the only thing standing in its way are five young Americans.

Kroyer discussed with VFXWorld his excitement of making Sacred Road and his entry into gaming: In the feature business, you have lots of time and money to make perfection, whereas in the gaming business, its get it to look as good as you can within a certain limit. In a way, that describes the whole approach to the imagery. In gaming, we want it to look as good as it can be, but it has to run realtime, so its interesting how the two worlds are starting to merge.

With Sacred Road, we simply use the assets for Brothers in Arms that already exist. Its a World War II world with soldiers, weapons and environments. And then we created an original story. We built some new assets to augment the story. We have a world already -- its like a backlot. And, with the Unreal engine, you can create lighting and effects. All you have to do is create your animation files, and the amazing thing is after that, youre done! Theres no more waiting around for rendering and compositing. Ours takes one second per frame, so were not exactly realtime, but [its close]. First, we did a short and now were doing the pilot episode. Its not feature quality yet, but for HD and TV, its enough to tell the story and not distract the audience.

Kroyer is partnered with Blockade under the leadership of Co-Founder and CEO Brad Foxhoven, who recruited Rhythm & Hues for design, animation and directing talent.

Sacred Road, produced by Blockade Ent. in partnership with Rhythm & Hues, was spotlighted at GDC. The series is the first to be made with a game engine. © Blockade Ent., 2008.

While the conference did not present an official theme this year, there was an undercurrent. The subject of outsourcing was pervasive in conversations and sessions, sometimes as the main subject, although just as often alluded to during a discussion of a broader topic. One pair of sessions was hosted by Paul Steed, a long time game industry artist turned author and now game art outsourcing specialist. Steed and his panelists discussed both sides of the outsourcing equation sharing with the audience lessons on how to deal with development companies, publishers and individual contractors.

Massive Black and dSonic are two examples of the current style of successful domestic outsourcing companies in the game industry. dSonic was started eight years ago and is still run by brothers Kemal and Simon Amarasingham. The brothers have deep musical training and background, as well as connections and history in the game industry. Kemals audio work first appeared more than10 years ago in many of the titles developed by Looking Glass Studios, most notably the groundbreaking stealth series, Thief. The brothers run the company from offices in both Boston and San Francisco. Their clients run a wide range from major publishers to small developers. The past eight years has seen dSonic go from small audio outsourcing group, with most of the work done by the founders, to a larger organization that employs a team of sound designers, audio directors and musicians. These days the brothers oversee the business, caring for clients, employees and the future, all in a days work.

Massive Black, also with an office in San Francisco, is focused on high end art outsourcing for both games and film productions. Started by Jason Manley, who is also well known for the artist focused web forum, Massive Black offers all ranges of art assets from concept art up through complete, in-game high density models. Their team includes artists who specialize in drawing, painting, traditional sculpture, 3D modeling, texturing, skinning, animation and even a few production specialists, whom the rest of the team rely on for deadlines and such. Manley and his team are also picky about which projects they take on. This comes from experience and a solid understanding of his teams strengths, the state of the industry and a healthy bit of skepticism when it comes to promises made by clients. The greatest strength of the Massive Black team is the quality of their work and their management, which at the end of the day, are the main and essential ingredients for outsourcing company success.

One somewhat new trend that is cropping up in game industry outsourcing is the tendency for outsourcing firms to offer all parts of game creation to clients. Overseas companies, especially those located in China and India where labor is less costly, are offering the whole package -- code, art and even game design. This may be the way of the future, however, with language barriers and budgets being what they are this is still an uphill road. In addition to dealing with quality issues, overseas one stop shopping outsourcing companies will one day face increasing costs as well as increasing opportunities. The day when they have to decide whether to move from subcontract work to taking on full projects themselves is pivotal for both overseas and domestic outsourcing companies. While there is potentially a greater return for making the jump from subcontractor to main developer there is also greater risk. Many outsourcing companies are looking to small game projects to become accustomed to the difference between contract work and full development.

The Game Developers Conference 2008 was worthwhile for those in the business. With record breaking attendance, speculation has already begun on the future of the conference, with CMP publicly stating their consideration of a potentially smaller, more specialized show next year. They may be on to something with the idea. For every discussion of the particulars in an outsourcing contract, there was a line of fanboys waiting to catch a glimpse of their favorite star developer. This may be fun and exciting for folks looking to break in or new to the industry, but it is not what seasoned developers need from a conference of this kind. With the absence of the old style E3, it is not surprising that fans have looked to GDC for some of what they are missing. Keeping the conference alive and useful for the people that make the games shouldnt be forgotten. The organizers certainly have their work cut out for them.

Fred Galpern is currently the managing art director for Blue Fang Games, located just outside Boston. He is also a co-creator of the game development program at Bristol Community College. Since entering the digital art field more than 12 years ago, Galpern has held management positions in several game and entertainment companies, including Hasbro and Looking Glass Studios. He began his art career in comic books and also has interactive, print and web design experience.