Mark Ramshaw looks at the realtime 3D asset and coding trends in the U.K. videogames industry at the moment.
The last 18 months have been predictably turbulent for the U.K. gaming industry. In response to the worldwide trend of consolidation, many of the independent developers have either been bought out, closed shop or simply tried to hang on for dear life. Yet for every sob story, such as the demise of Rage and Kaboom!, theres been an equal or greater success. From Microsofts spectacular acquisition of Rare, to the successes of product such as The Getaway and Project Gotham Racing 2, theres been ample validation of the U.K. industry as a whole.
Now leaner, keener, and unquestionably more professionally minded, theres a sense that U.K. developers have an understanding of how to create globally desirable product. Idiosyncrasy, that legacy from the days of the industrious bedroom coder, may have been sacrificed. But then, as the U.K. film industry has proven, selling Britishness is a somewhat limited endeavor.
Nowhere is this new approach more evident than in the art content of the major titles in development right now. Sudeki from Climax is a case in point. Undoubtedly a flagship title for a developer now majoring in original product, it looks like something Squaresoft or another Japanese developer might have originated. Drawing on Manga, anime and Eastern RPGs, it couldnt look any less British.
Im not sure Climax is attempting to mask the fact that Sudeki is a British game, so much as adopt the convention of the genre, says Owain Bennallack, editor of the U.K.s leading industry trade magazine, Develop. Why should they not try to play with the big boys on a visual level? Production values of this caliber have too often been lacking in U.K. titles over the past few years, so Im all for it.
Rare is another studio adept at producing product boasting polish and stylized art that suggests non-U.K. development. Although not obviously Manga-indebted, Rares recent Xbox release Grabbed by the Ghoulies and upcoming Kameo: Elements of Power bear the visual hallmarks of Japanese-produced titles. This should come as no surprise. Sure, its now part of Microsoft, but Rare was previously part owned by Nintendo. Its an association that has colored the graphical output of numerous past Rare titles, and indeed gave it a clear edge over other U.K. studios for a number of years.
Perhaps the most celebrated British studio is Lionhead, home to the games guru Peter Molyneux. His games have always been groundbreaking in design terms, but never quite so visually accomplished. Tellingly, forthcoming titles The Movies and Black & White 2 take a new approach. The former features art assets to rival anything emerging from the U.S. studios, while the latter is a technical marvel -- blessed with complex physics and cutting edge realtime 3D techniques such as fur simulation.
I think Molyneux has realized that everything counts nowadays, the graphics, game design, the physics, the AI, the Internet, the lot, says Bennallack. You're marked on your lowest score, your weakest link. Think back to his Dungeon Keeper game. A great game with a muddy if innovative engine, it was maligned for not looking like cut glass.
Lionheads satellite studios Intrepid and Big Blue Box are also working on games notable for their level of graphical ambition. Intrepids B.C. is another fine indicator of how quickly character modeling is progressing, its menagerie of high poly, finely textured, bumpmap-enhanced dinosaurs really arent so far removed from those created at ILM for Spielbergs first Jurassic outing, while Big Blues Fable boasts stylish textures, fluid animation and innovative evolving character depictions, which have already netted a brace of awards well before its actual release.
Its perhaps this push for higher production values that most clearly marks out the new breed of U.K. product. In graphics generally, U.K. studios have often failed to match their rivals, offers Bennallack. Its often been down as much to poor or uninspiring character design or simply being too skimpy in the assets created.
Now, however, titles such as Burnout 2 and Project Gotham Racing 2 actually out-Hollywood most U.S.-developed titles, and have enjoyed strong International sales accordingly. (The U.K. seems to excel at slick racing titles, for some reason, with Codemasters and Reflections also regular delivering strong offerings.)
Sonys Cambridge and Camden dev teams also clearly understand the appeal of filmic themes and gloss. The formers Ghosthunter draws liberally from classic American horror, and even though the latters The Getaway utilizes the cockney gangster milieu, its one inspired by Guy Richies Hollywood filtered take on the theme. But perhaps the most adept at this particular game are Rockstar Scotland. With Grand Theft Auto 3, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and shamelessly grisly Manhunt, the superstar team has taken cinematic presentation to a whole new level.
Where the U.K. does arguably fall behind is in the 3D programming stakes, an area that remains a unique but vital discipline. There are some notable games already out there or soon to hit, which feature advanced lighting and shadow techniques, fur simulation, normal mapping, depth of field, motion blur, depth of field, refraction and other technologies that have only recently filtered down from the world of rendered vfx. But U.K. games general major on the quality of the 3D content rather than the raw power of the engine. As much as I admire U.K. studios you have to look to Carmack, the Epic guys and Valve for cutting-edge 3D coding, agrees Bennallack.
Yet, perversely, the U.K. dominates when it comes to off-the-shelf middleware engines. ID Software and Epic continue to license their game engine, but for games other than generic first person shooters, Criterions RenderWare is invariably the tool of choice. The software has its roots back in the days when it was competing for business against Reality Labs Rendermorphics, which was subsequently bought by Microsoft for use as the basis of the Direct X API.
I think this was when the true techie smarts of the U.K. did their work, pushing forward the idea of 3D libraries, and ironically, perhaps, sidelining the importance of coding trickery, says Bennallack. Since those early days, RenderWare has continually evolved (version 4 is due for launch imminently), along the way providing the backbone for games published by Activision, Electronic Arts, Acclaim and many others. Even the aforementioned Grand Theft Auto titles rely on the engine.
Middleware is here to stay, and its only going to become more important, continues Bennallack. I think the next big change is going to be the rise of off-the-shelf talent, such as 3D art production houses specializing in areas such as character design, and its a sea change that middleware is going to help facilitate.
In the main the U.K., with its newfound appreciation for the visual quality of the end product, seems well prepared for the transition period ahead. Already highly adept at modeling, texturing and animation work, U.K. studios look set to enjoy further success with the next generation of consoles and PC graphics card technology.
Already its clear that developers working toward PS2, Xbox 2 and Direct X9 standards are utilizing higher poly counts and increased processing power to create more finely nuanced and accurately rigged in-game characters, fill environments with more varied, higher resolution detail and utilize the myriad new tricks made possible by programmable vertex and pixel shading. Furthermore, both in the choice of 3D art tools (with Maya and XSI now used at many studios) and in the adoption of pipelines built in the manner of those used for the creation of visual effects, the U.K. studios are well prepared to handle the massive escalation of the graphical workload.
Quite what impact the associated escalation of game development costs will have on an increasingly conservative industry remains a worry. Art is the biggest consumer of programming budgets at the moment, and if you look at the trends it's only going to get worse, warns Bennallack. Having already sacrificed much of that British quirkiness, the U.K. games industry must remain careful not to completely shun risk-taking. Todays risky project is tomorrows genre leader, as both Black & White and Grand Theft Auto 3 have so handsomely shown. But, whatever the implications for gameplay, theres little doubt that the UK will continue to push those graphical boundaries to spectacular effect.
Mark Ramshaw is a freelance writer. He has worked as a computer game programmer and producer and a magazine editor, but now avoids grown-up office work by writing about the visual effects, video game and music industries. He is also contributing editor for 3D World and editor of Criterions gameSTATE magazine.