With the title of 'Next Generation GamePlay in Service of Story and Characters', LucasArts had a lot of ground to cover Thursday morning. Their new technologies have been well received, and the developers and journalists in the room were anticipating details on the over-the-top effects we've seen from The Force Unleashed. From a technical standpoint, Haden Blackman's talk fully delivered. Read on for my notes from this fascinating look at the point where storytelling and physics meet.The next-gen focus for LucasArts is on simulation-based gameplay, how that feeds into character. Environments and characters, events and systems built around physics and objects rather than scripts and hand-crafted events. They're doing this to make it a foundation for more cost- effective development. There's a greater emphasis on surprise and novelty with this route, because every time you play it's going to be different. Authenticity is the aim: the world behaves the way you'd expect given what you know about the setting.
The other goal is to revolutionize story and character. LucasFilm is an obvious example within the company. Their goal, then is to bring new life to stories, telling them in different ways. They're always looking to tell stories in new ways, both in and out of the game. The 'out of game story' is the player's story: what the player did to overcome obstacles. Their goal is to make every player story unique: I beat the game slightly differently than you did. They're aiming for relatable, authentic characters. Characters that behave how you'd expect in animations, AI, and physically.
Once they'd gotten rallied around those concepts, they began working on Force Unleashed's game's core concepts. "The Force = The galaxy's best simulation catalyst." It's an interactive power that allows you to manipulate your environment. They really wanted to push the boundaries with the Force. Their goal is to amp up, over the top showcase Jedi powers. They began doing imagery, and then a pre-visualization video, with the goal of grasping just how powerful they wanted the Force to be.
They show the pre-viz video, which is something we've all seen previously on YouTube. Blackman says "After that I had the most terrifying moment of my career." He had to go show the video to Lucas, and convince him it was the right direction. He said "That's great, go do it." Blackman was even more afraid then, because they didn't have the tech to do it.
He then outlines some of the elements of the game, which is available in more depth in IGN's preview of the game. The best part of this slide: "What is the core gameplay: Kicking someone's ass with the Force."
At that point they had a game in search of technology. Design drives everything, so they didn't start with the tech, they started with the story/concept. They began building their team that began building the 'Ronin' engine, integrating Havok and Digital Molecular Matter. They partnered up with ILM for elements like cloth and fur, too.
The ILM partnership has been very fruitful. They are utilizing Zeno, their digital editor, originally made for film. LucasArts adopted it for games, and now they have a common pipeline for assets, VFX, and other elements. They're working on likeness captures and facial motion capture technologies, to get really accurate performances. ILM is one of the forefront workers in fluid dynamics, and so they're hoping to utilize that as well with true water simulation. They're sharing engineers across the company, leveraging the expertise of both companies to produce more powerful results. ILM is getting something out of it too. They'll be using some of LucasArts' tech to do pre-visualiation on films; using the Ronin engine to make animatics for big-budget Hollywood flicks.
He then shows an 'ILM Sizzle' piece, showing some of their incredibly impressive work on the Poseidon movie. Lots of fluid dynamics elements, tons of special effects elements. "There was no boat, there was no ocean." They also show a number of scenes from Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest, using much of the same sizzle footage in the online piece we have previously discussed here on the site.
Blackman then moves on to the two techs they're incorporating into the game. Digital Molecular Matter allows them to translate real materials into their titles; wood breaks like wood, glass breaks like glass. DMM saves on art time, increases the authenticity of the environment, and encourages experimentation. "What happens when I throw the Stormtrooper through that hut?" It provides surprising payoffs, and it's different every time. "Soft bodies are cool." Soft bodies are game elements that bend or sway instead of breaking. (Denting metal, bending girders.) This all results in more exciting and immersive stories. It begs players to share stories. "I made a bridge to cross the lava." Character interactions are also more varied; creatures moving through a forest force plants and trees out of the way.
They then show off the DMM tech, using much of the same elements as the much-watched YouTube video we've probably all seen before. He goes further, though, editing the properties of elements in the room he's in. Glass in the ceiling can be edited to be flexible and fragile; when he resets the room the glass breaks under its own weight. He demonstrates again with a brick wall, which can be made to collapse and sag depending on the properties he sets. The goal is to get authentic experiences, but also ones that are fun, and this is what a lot of their designers spend their time doing.
Euphoria is the next subject up, and is "true bio-mechanical AI". Characters have a central nervous system, muscles, and a brain. NPCs then, have reflexes. They grab onto things in the environment to save themselves, do their best to stay alive. It's not about replacing animators; it's about making sure animators are working on important things (character performances) rather than gross physical movements. "Barrel of Stormtroopers - How many Stormtroopers can we get to latch on to each other when held over a pit?" This results in a different story every time, improves the immersive experience, and gives characters somewhat of a sense of self. It also leads to comedy. Comedy is a big part of Star Wars, and torturing Stormtroopers is something that they do on a daily basis at the company.
They boot up a demo, and show off some of the 'best ways to exploit Euphoria'. They start with the Stormtrooper drop. It's different every time, with the poor guy getting slammed into the ground again and again. They use a pile of boxes to show how the objects and character, based on orientation and speed, scatter and flip. The next demo is the Balancing Act, which has a surface with a trooper on it. As they shift and jump the surface, the little man tries to keep his balance and stay upright. GrabNGo shows the hanging physics: a trooper slides down the slope, and tries to grab onto the ledge before he falls. The next uses animated legs (the trooper is running forward) and a euphoria upper body. By tossing boxes at the trooper, they show how he tires to deflect incoming objects. The final demo shows actual force effects in use, knocking troopers off a ledge with a box, force chocking and light sabering a trooper.
They're in full production on all levels, now working on motion capture and art, higher level elements.
So, the keys here are that these simulations are really hard to get right. It took a lot of work, and several brand new techs. Designers had to learn to deal with fear; get over the possibility of doing something 'wrong'. Iterating and experimentation has been key to getting the 'feel' of these systems right. Consistency is king; if you do it in one level you have to make sure that you can do it every time. Don't be constrained by realism; if the force of their 'Force Push' was applied to a real human they'd probably be ripped in half. Go for fun, not for reality. They are trying to encourage and reward experimentation, breaking the player's conditioning, and pull them fully into the game.