Who was there: Frank Kitson, Crytek senior art director.
What they talked about: The panel, "Catastrophic Beauty: The Art and Styling of Crysis 2," was a look behind the design curtain of the upcoming shooter sequel. It could just as easily have been titled "how lighting can make or break your game." The talk began with an explanation of the need for visual evolution in line with the location changes from the first to the second Crysis games--trading actual jungle for one made of steel and glass. The biggest design hurdle was giving the game the appropriate New York City feel, but doing so with a fresh and unique vibe. Kitson explained that using such an iconic location conjures all manner of preconceived notions about the city in the player's mind, particularly around which landmarks should appear and where. The design team made a conscious effort to avoid the cliches associated with playing to the simplest options, skipping the low-hanging fruit of turning Times Square or the Statue of Liberty into a state of crumbling disrepair.
The answer to this freshness conundrum was, in Kitson's words, to "respect the city" and its heritage, avoiding the path of demolishing real-world locations simply because they could do so in digital form. A handful of basic design principles were observed: dappled light, materials, spore, silhouettes, time of day, colour grading, and elements. Dappled light represents the shafts of sunlight that penetrate the canopy overhead, and while it's simple enough to achieve with jungle vegetation forming a natural lattice, reproducing it in an urban environment was significantly harder work. Destructible environments play the role of leaves in New York City, and while foliage isn't completely done away with, it's certainly not as prominent as the trees and shrubs that played light deflector in the first game. Kitson showed off concept drawings and in-game examples of lighting achieved using the scattering technique, and giving each scene the natural look missing from many of its competitors.
Materials are important for providing both scene dressing and variety, drawing the eye to different textures as glass windows meet the cold gray of cement, and cloth and mood lighting contrast with the muted colour palettes of abandoned buildings. Kitson stressed the importance of using these elements to dress sets, while fire, water, and smoke give players "wow" moments. He went on to explain the importance of using the materials to obscure and highlight environmental features. Thick smoke plumes make an otherwise wide landscape shot an intimate experience, while the burning embers of a fire in progress draw the eye to certain parts of the frame.
Colour grading--a process prominently featured in television and film production--shows how easily lighting can alter the mood of a scene. Examples shown included the same section of gameplay through the eyes of several different-coloured presets. While it was explained that the feature isn't exclusive to the CryEngine, the differing looks under tweaked colour correction drastically altered the feel of the area and the combat.
Quote: "Visual direction is more about speaking a visual language than just trying to balance colours."
Takeaway: While many developers get wrapped up in the nitty-gritty of textures and explosions, at times ignoring creating realistic lighting, today's look inside Crytek and its processes provided clear evidence as to why the studio is recognised for raising the bar of visual fidelity in its shooters.