Who Was There: Taking part in this panel were a number of game developers currently working on projects exclusive to the Xbox 360 (in terms of console exclusivity; a few of these games are appearing on the PC as well). From Ubisoft was Splinter Cell: Conviction producer Alex Parizeau, Left 4 Dead 2 writer Chet Faliszek of Valve, Mass Effect 2 project director Casey Hudson of BioWare, Bungie design director Paul Bertone (currently overseeing Halo 3: ODST), and Epic design director Cliff Bleszinski (most recently of Gears of War 2).
What They Talked About: A pessimist would summarize this panel in two sentences: “How awesome is it developing for Xbox 360? So awesome.” Part of that has to do with the fact that the panel was moderated by Microsoft’s own Larry “Major Nelson” Hryb, so, of course the discussion is going to keep the Xbox maker in a positive light. But at the same time, it managed to be a pretty interesting panel because of some of the insights into the development process offered by all these developers.
When asked what they enjoy most about developing for Xbox 360, most of the panel mentioned Microsoft’s extensive usability department. If you weren’t aware, Microsoft maintains a pretty huge user testing department complete with two-way mirrors so they can study the reactions players have to games down to the most minute eye movements as a way of gauging what they like and dislike about specific parts of games. For developers, this sort of research and feedback comes in very handy when making important decisions on which parts of their games need to be kept, altered, or done away with altogether.
Another interesting question dealt with the difference between developing for the Xbox 360 versus the original Xbox. The short answer is that it requires much bigger teams and much more resources. Casey Hudson mentioned the increased workload going from characters made of 2,000 polygons to millions of them. Parizeau said it forced artists and engineers to become even more specialized and narrowly focused because of how much more detail goes into the graphics. Bleszinski mentioned cost as a huge factor, saying it now takes six to eight weeks to complete a new character. That becomes a huge concern if a writer wants to add a minor character to the story that might not justify the two month’s salary it would cost someone to make him or her.
Hryb then asked the group about the work that goes into balancing technology and art. Paul Bertone said it’s critical to maintain open communication between artists and engineers so that neither team is forcing the other into doing something they can’t, such as an artist making characters with too many polygons, which forces the rest of the team to put fewer people in a scene than they wanted because of memory limitations. Alex Parizeau said when it comes to art in games, even small ideas can have huge effects, offering an example of a Ubisoft staffer who happened to see the movie Man on Fire on TV one day and how that inspired the projection-based visual style of Splinter Cell: Conviction.
They finished the main discussion by talking about what sort of fan feedback they receive. Bleszinksi mentioned he loves reading things about his games on the Internet, even the terrible comments, because it means people are playing the games and care about them. Bertone said there’s a fan that routinely sends cake to the Bungie offices and managed to scare some of the other panelists when he admitted that they eat this mystery cake and it’s actually really good. Chet Faliszek said he responds to every e-mail he receives (including the mountain of fan e-mail forwarded to him by Valve managing director Gabe Newell), though he’s not always the fastest about doing so. He says he’s up to early June on his fan correspondence right now.
Best Audience Question: One audience member, claiming he represents the small minority of left-handed gamers, asked when we’re finally going to see fully customizable controls on consoles. In other words, the ability to completely remap every button on the controller. Bertone admitted that’s always an idea they have at the beginning of a development cycle, but eventually, they find a way to “cop out” because of how context sensitive their controls have become, requiring various forms of tapping, double-tapping, holding, and so on.
Worst Audience Question: There were no really bad audience questions during this panel. No one managed to make a fool of themselves as you tend to see at least once in most panels. In terms of least informative questions, one guest asked Casey Hudson how many elevators are in Mass Effect 2, to which he replied, “We now have the fastest elevators in gaming history,” but that was actually pretty funny.
The Takeaway: There are certainly advantages to developing games exclusively for the Xbox 360. But at the same time, BioWare, Ubisoft, and Epic are all making or have recently made games for the PlayStation 3, so a lot of what was said during this panel had to be taken with a grain of salt. Still, it was an engaging discussion on game design as a whole and managed to produce a lot of interesting information and anecdotes. It’s rare to see so many high-profile development studios represented in a single panel, which made this one a real treat.