Though the casual gamer probably isn't too interested in discussing the differences between hand-crafted gameplay and simulation gameplay, material simulators, and biomechanical artificial intelligence, throw in the phrase "Star Wars" and ears will perk up.
During a strict no-cameras-allowed presentation titled "True Next Generation Gameplay in Service of Story & Character," LucasArts executive producer Haden Blackman's main point to game developers was how sophisticated, tech-heavy game engines can be used to have a major impact on one of the oldest crafts known to man--storytelling.
A good, well-rounded game needs to feature the latest technology, draw the player in with a compelling storyline and engaging characters, and not be overly complicated. However, these features are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and can actually help each other out. Blackman is incorporating all those aspects into his upcoming game Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, which is due out in 2008 on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
With the Force Unleashed, LucasArts is angling heavily towards simulation-based gameplay rather than what Blackman says is "realism." Sim-based gameplay re-creates a world that looks and interacts as a real environment should rather than what simply looks like a real environment. By using simulation, the cost of developing games is reduced, the environments are more interactive, characters come to life, and there's an innate sense of freedom, unpredictability, and surprise--no two experiences will be alike.
The main mechanic of the new Star Wars game is the use of The Force, which allows players to lift, throw, and push objects of all sizes around the environments. With all the Stormtrooper flinging that will be going on, a game engine heavy on physics will be necessary to really immerse the player.
Blackman demonstrated two key components of the game's innards--digital molecular matter (DMM), a "true material simulation," and Euphoria, a biomechanical artificial intelligence that was made in conjunction with character-animation specialists NaturalMotion.
Real-time physics simulations are always a blast to watch in action, but for Star Wars fans, they're doubly enjoyable when the unfortunate character being tortured is a Stormtrooper.
Blackman began the technical part of the session with DMM. The proprietary tool is being used to create many of the objects of the games, from walls and structures to alien foliage.
In a live demo, LucasArts staff launched limp characters at walls, wood, and glass, all the while adjusting the characteristics (including density and weight) of each surface for different results. The team also showed the behind-closed-doors demo from last year's E3, which featured R2 units being hurled at Felutian foliage and Jar Jar Binks where he rightfully belongs--encased in Carbonite.
Next, Blackman showed off Euphoria, the tool that will create the animations in The Force Unleashed. As evidenced by the demo, Euphoria's benefits will be especially evident while messing with Stormtroopers.
The LucasArts team repeatedly dropped Stormtroopers on a pile of boxes, adjusting their positions each time, and the results were much more than just the next evolution of rag doll physics. Stormtroopers bent and rolled as they would in the real world, whether they fell on their backs or directly on their heads.
"There's no end to the fun of torturing Stormtroopers on a daily basis," quipped Blackman to the envious crowd.
Euphoria also gives the characters something that is missing in many games--the illusion that they actually don't want to die. Blackman dropped several Stormtroopers on an incline, and as they slid down, they scrambled to get a grasp on anything, before hanging on to the edge for dear life. One Stormtrooper even managed to grab onto a comrade's leg to avoid falling--but the relief was only temporary as his weight dragged both of them to their doom. Again, none of the animations were predrawn--it was all real-time.
Another demonstration of Euphoria's character animation involved Stormtroopers on a plane that shook back and forth. The white-clad soldiers stumbled about trying to keep their balance, prompting Blackman to say that LucasArts "has drunk Stormtroopers down."
While these tools certainly make everything look pretty, Blackman wants them to stir things inside the player. He wants the unique events experienced in The Force Unleashed by gamers to be the subject of the stories they tell each other.
By focusing on simulation-based gameplay, LucasArts is empowering the player with the ability to explore and interact with the environments at their whim. In short, if it looks like it should be able to done, it should be able to be done. The result is a world that brightens the characters and story of a game.
For more on Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, read GameSpot's preview from GDC.