Saturday, 29 February 2020

Sets a Decade in the Making

I've been playing through more RPGs recently (digital game rentals: looking to get people subscribing for a long time so going after quite large games) and having not played a Final Fantasy game in a long time, FF XV sure was something. A game announced in 2006, rebooted with new leadership sometime 2012-2014, and released in 2016 (for consoles; 2018 for Windows where I played it; 2019 Stadia).

However the exact preproduction/production split worked out, you can see from a lot of earlier trailers that the world they released was, in some form, being assembled for quite some time. The gameplay systems you see in trailers exist in the final game but not in the places they are shown & some of the CG footage apparently ended up in a movie rather than the game (which makes where it is cut into the game all the more disjointed). It's not actually the longest of RPG, assuming you don't try and eke out every inch of side-quest content & after-credits end-game. But it's an example of AAA games that seemed to be built first before being rebooted (under a new producer) into the actual final game, taking which pieces they could because after spending $100m on building assets, you can't just throw them away even if you end up making a very different game with them.


This is far from the only time we've seen that pattern. As the sets on which games are placed have become more and more extravagant (chasing the potential returns from matching the over 125 million sales of GTA V, a massive world for both a long campaign & countless multiplayer experiences) then the total you can sink into building them is only going to have grown. At the same time the speed of technical progress has allowed assets created to be viable for a AAA game for longer - something made for a game four years ago is not automatically now useless, even if you've not kept pace with the latest ideas (not even every major release today uses physically based rendering, an asset creation transition already well underway 7 years ago). You can go against the norm and play up a style you're going for rather than keeping pace with expectations because even HL2 (16 years old) has the basics of making something competent - you can even deploy that style at the 11th hour, as the original Borderlands did.

Quite a lot is known about the 2014-2016 era of FF XV's development, as some public progress reports exist to reassure people who originally started waiting for a game called Final Fantasy Versus XIII in 2006 that this new numbered entry was definitely coming soon. We also have reporting from people inside Bungie on the way those Destiny games have been radically rebuilt for new stories. The way Destiny feels as you walk between info-dump dialogue and wait for timers to count down in levels that seem repurposed from possibly earlier designs is probably not reading too much into what actually happened. We know that Overwatch is a setting originally designed for an MMO that does not exist. Blizzard presumably made a lot of content for that MMO to feel out the design & throwing it all away was not the best option.

Some of how the BioWare process has been documented, making a game that doesn't work until it all comes together in the final months, doesn't sound dissimilar to a process of making assets for a game and world you may not yet understand only to wait for someone to take final charge in the last moments & make a new game out of it. Not to say that this isn't on the edge of how a lot of games have been made over the years but the length of the "preproduction" (a term that seems to mean a million different things but generally just "not literally the entire team was working full-time on the project") and how much of the asset production is being done before the final decision is made on how to use those sets - it's something else (FF XV trailers show significant divergence as late as 2013 but the very different plot & action sections are clearly being done with assets that are there in the final game).

As the next generation comes along with a mainstream target of 4K60 & an upper realm of 120fps, real-time ray tracing for lighting and reflections (using dedicated hardware to accelerate), then we may see asset fidelity continue to slowly tick up but driven by the dynamic rendering options (see ray tracing shader hacks in older games for how the same old assets can look fresh & new with a bit of effort - if you're already making PBR assets then changing your rendering equations to relight your scenes can make a huge generational difference without rebuilding your assets).

It'll be interesting to see what happens for constructing the worlds in which we play vs making the games. It'll be a while before they're capable of being unlinked but we're going in that direction. The CG production world and the game development world are overlapping more and more so why wouldn't you rapidly assemble your world using Quixel etc assets, effectively offloading a lot of your asset pipeline to external libraries. Location scouting is something you can analogise to knowing where to go for the right assets well beyond things like SpeedTree, because larger and larger pools of assets are being assembled so that you may need someone who can know where to go for your virtual set. Sometimes your corporate overlords already also own two petabytes of data that is your starting point. Ubisoft are specialists in creating massive worlds using a lot of teams around the world and their current struggles are more about ensuring each product has a clearer identity from the pasting of a game onto each of those underlying worlds - too few ideas being handed out by a central gameplay brain trust at the top.

We live in interesting times, going forward and looking back at how recent game projects have managed to see the light of day after extremely long and turbulent production cycles.

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