Peter Rizkalla goes undercover with the creators of mob masterpiece follow-up The Godfather II from Electronic Arts.
Creating a brand-new property is obviously a challenge in game development. You're basically at the birth of either a legacy or just another franchise that falls into mediocrity, and, whether it goes one way or the other, all the responsibility rests on the developers. Creating a new title where the property has already gained widespread fame is even harder. The reason why is because, as a developer, you are working on a title that fans already expect to be fantastic, so you can't afford to take the project lightly. A good example is The Godfather movies and the Godfather game that came years later.
The first Godfather game was released three years ago on the PS2 and the original Xbox and it turned out to be outstanding, even though not many people expected much from "just another movie game." It was so good, in fact, that Electronic Arts re-released it on PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii. About a year ago, EA announced that it would be releasing The Godfather II on current-gen consoles and so, naturally, everyone wanted to know what we could expect to see in this new Godfather game title. VFXWorld had a chance to talk with some of the developers that put The Godfather II together over at EA Redwood Shores. Erik Holden, the technical art director, and Joel Wade, the senior producer, provide some under the hood insight.
Holden says, "The vast majority of the work was done with Maya, Photoshop, ZBrush and Crazy Bump. For the world, we used Maya to create all the terrain, buildings, objects, etc. These components were assembled and organized with Neo, a world-building tool developed in-house that connects to Maya and serves as the hub for most of our authoring, scripting, tuning and organizational work. Most textures either came from photo reference, ZBrush or were painted in Photoshop." This answer is surprising; 3ds Max used to be the industry standard for 3D modeling in videogame development, but now it seems like devs are leaning more toward using Maya instead. Game devs have also been taking advantage of ZBrush in game development. Character modeling was done using a combination of Maya and ZBrush.
Holden continues, "A key aspect of our development effort has been to make tools which can connect directly to the PS3 or Xbox 360 and live-tune data. Live-tuning is absolutely critical for fast iteration. Fast iteration enables and encourages experimentation and eventually a quality result. For example, we can edit textures in Photoshop, save them and, with our material editing tool, live-update the shaders and see the result instantly in the game. We can also live-tune lighting and visual effects." This is a technique that was also used in the development of Killzone 2.
Holden says another key technique used in the development of GF2 was the use of deferred rendering as opposed to forward rendering. "The deferred renderer was also a fantastic addition to our toolset. The key strength of this system is that the lighting is extremely flexible and artist-friendly. Though you pay a high price of entry for deferred rendering, the freedom and flexibility the artists have to create interesting and dynamic lighting is unparalleled in our experience. One light, 10 lights, 100 lights? All moving, spawned from a particle system? No problem! The lighters had a great time on this project, and could make changes very quickly. I think deferred rendering is still a technique that is relatively uncommon, and people might be surprised that we have it in GF2."
Using deferred rendering will put an extremely heavy load on your system memory, which is not a big deal if you have exorbitant amounts of RAM but will even so completely hog your memory.
GF2 took advantage of a combination of MoCap and keyframe animation. "MoCap is fantastic," Holden continues, "but usually requires heavy modifications and love from the animation team -- especially if it's a commonly used mechanic like locomotion or hand-to-hand fighting. We have a proprietary tool which handles the creation and tuning of the complex animation states." Facial animation was also created via in-house tools. "We have some in-house tools that can take the first pass at converting audio files into facial animation for character conversations. This significantly reduces the amount of time animators need to spend animating the thousands and thousands of lines of NPC conversations." This is a common animation technique also found in such games as Prince of Persia and Resident Evil 5.
As to the larger direction and story of the game, Wade says, "Setting out to design the game, we wanted to retain all that great 'mobster' action gameplay of extortion and Blackhand combat, but also allow the player to really feel like he's a Don. In so many games you're just the 'lone wolf' -- one man against the world. We desperately wanted to break away from that traditional model, and so attacked the problem in several ways. First, we wanted to allow you to build your own family from the ground up. Over the course of the single-player campaign, you'll recruit all of your own Made Men, spend money on upgrading their skills, promote them, and even make them 'sleep with the fishes' if they aren't making the cut. You'll choose how and when to use your Made Men, either by commanding them directly in battle as part of your crew, or doing jobs for you in another part of the world. Finally, you'll manage your own criminal empire using the Don's View -- a 3D representation of all three cities showing the status of all the crime rings, all the battles in progress, and the locations of your jobs and contacts. You'll actively decide which crime rings to go after, hire guards for your critical rackets, deploy your Made Men and place hits on the rival families."
In the first Godfather, there was a good customization that the player could apply to the main character's looks and personality. Personalization goes even further in GF2. "There's lots of ways to customize Dominic's identity, from appearance, to investing in your RPG skills," Wade adds. "We have brought back a deep 'Mobface' that lets you change his appearance and clothing, and we've broadened the choices away from just Italian/American options. More importantly, you also get to build and customize your own family. This means you get to recruit men into your family, upgrade them, promote them, arm them and even change their clothing. No two families will be the same.
"We wanted the game to have a unique look that took full advantage of the great '60s atmosphere from the modern half of the film. We had a tremendous amount of fun trying to bring in the bright colors, fashions, architecture and cars from the era, as well as trying to give each of the three cities a unique feel. At the same time, we wanted to have a sense of grittiness to match the organized crime feeling of the license, so we tried to make sure nothing felt too clean... from the blood stains to the trash floating around the world."
In any large production there will always be collaboration from other studios to help move the project along, and The Godfather II is no different. Wade explains, "On a big project like Godfather there are always tons of groups around the company and around the world that help make it all come together. Our biggest internal partners were the artists at the new EA studio in Shanghai, who helped us on everything from world creation to characters, cars and animations. Of course, all of our MoCap data came from our own MoCap specialists at EAC in Vancouver. We also made some big, big changes in our engine, co-developing some fantastic new lighting and vfx code with our neighbors across the hall who worked on Dead Space."
The direction that these guys wanted to take GF2 is very different from the typical open-world action shooter. "In many ways the hardest part has been trying to get people to understand what we're trying to accomplish with the game -- that it's not simply another urban driving-heavy sandbox game. When people don't have an easy comparison to something else in the market, it can be confusing. It's an action game at its core, with strategic elements, and RPG-like upgrades for your family, but you can also have conversations with others in the world. It's kind of a crazy new hybrid -- we think it's a really new innovation in the genre -- but you almost need to see it in action to really get it," Wade says.
Last but not least, GF2 benefits from the return of Robert Duvall as the voice of Tom Hagen, the consigliore. Wade says, "Duvall was really a pleasure to work with -- he loves what he does -- and I think it was a lot of fun for him to step back into a role that really launched him as an actor. Having not grown up playing games, he was incredibly impressed by what he saw."
Peter Rizkalla is a life-long enthusiast of videogames and the videogame industry. He has worked in various videogame companies such as THQ, Namco/Bandai and 2K Games and avidly attends many game conferences and events. Peter can be reached at PRizkalla@gmail.com.