LGF: Animation out, simulation in

LucasArts' Chris Williams explains how movie-effects studio Industrial Light & Magic is helping to change the way we'll play our next-generation games.


LONDON--We're all familiar by now with the concept of next-generation games. After all, we've been watching the Xbox 360 story unfold for almost a year now--great graphics, bigger concepts, more gaming genres intertwined. In all, it's about a more-sophisticated gaming experience.

But LucasArts might disagree about just what a next-generation gaming experience really is. In a talk titled "Unlearn What You Have Learned," Chris Williams, lead producer on the forthcoming and as-yet-untitled Indiana Jones game, outlined just how the next-gen gaming experience should be fundamentally different even from what we're seeing now.

The basis of this experience stems from a George Lucas vision and the bringing together of LucasArts and movie-effects studio Industrial Light & Magic, responsible for the stunning visuals in films such as War of the Worlds. The two companies have been working for the past 18 months on a piece of technology called Zed, a toolset for creating content for next-generation platforms.

The combination of the two sets of experience is, according to Williams, having a very positive impact on working practices. "ILM can achieve this impossibly beautiful, incredibly graphically advanced look, but it can take forever to achieve, like on Pirates of the Caribbean when it can take hours, if not days, to render out a single frame. What we're finding in working with them is that, because they have this level of knowledge, we can work back from that to something that will run at 60 frames per second on the PlayStation 3."

As well as learning from the way that films are made, for example the progress being made in facial animation, it is giving LucasArts the capability to leverage ILM-like effects within games.

But while this can lead on the one hand to games that are pretty to look at, LucasArts wants to go a significant step further. Since the beginning of the development cycle for its next-gen games, the people at LucasArts have been working with a mandate. This sets out a vision to revolutionise the character and story elements within games, to fundamentally change the way we play games, and to invest in the technology to make it all possible.

The result of that work is the deemphasis on animation in games, by far and away the most common way that games are designed today, and which, in Williams' eyes, constrains the gamer far too much into an 'on rails' experience.

Instead, LucasArts is developing a simulation system of development, in which the physics around a gaming world is fully developed, and the characters are given individual sets of motivations, detailing how to act in certain environments and situations.

This leads to a more 'on the fly' approach to playing through games, because there are no really scripted situations, and even short sections of gameplay will never execute in quite the same way twice.

In some video demonstrations shown in the session, we saw the way this can manifest itself. One sequence, taking place in the forthcoming Indiana Jones game, had our hero fighting bad guys atop a cable car. In the demo, the only scripted event was the motion of the cable car itself--the actions of the bad guys, who were driving up in trucks and jumping on to the cable car roof, were all simulated instead.

This means that, although the situation in any two versions of the sequence would be the same--Indy fighting bad guys on the roof of a cable car--the way in which the action plays out never is. In fact, Williams was happy to pronounce that, although he'd seen this particular set of events played out a thousand times already, one thing happened that even he'd never seen before--a thug was about to jump across from the back of a truck when a cable car coming the other way smashed into the truck, taking away his platform and thus his momentum. He jumped just in time to avoid the oncoming cable car, but with no leverage, he didn't have the legs to make it to Indy's.

Making that kind of feeling possible requires more research and development into establishing a realistic physics model, and as a result, LucasArts has partnered with a number of companies to make this possible, including Havok, Natural Motion (with whom it has developed new technology called 'Euphoria'), and Pixelux Entertainment.

Further demonstrations displayed the effects on what's called digital molecular matter, a rather technical name for simulating the destruction of various types of material. At the moment, when an object is broken, there are two versions of that object that exist. The original object and the 'broken' one--when you drive a car into a fence, for example, the initial object is replaced quickly with the broken one, which fractures in exactly the same way every time.

Williams demonstrated the new focus on realistic material, showing how this physics allows for materials to splinter like wood, dent like soft metal, crumble like stone, or shatter like glass--or even a combination of them.

Combining the simulation of characters and resulting variety of artificial intelligence responses, with the truly destructible environments that are enabled by DMM, is what leads to this new style of gameplay that LucasArts is chasing.

The first results of this work should be evident in the upcoming Indiana Jones game, although no release date has yet been announced. We'll bring you more on that and how the gameplay is shaping up as it becomes available.

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