The big story at the huge E3 video game conference earlier this month was the new console war brewing between Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4. But what does new hardware really mean for video games? With the increase in power, developers worldwide are creating new game engines that feature improved graphics and surprising capabilities. We spoke to game creators about what they are able to do now and what innovations are coming to games. Here are the trends that emerged.
These new video game consoles are the first to be built with the social internet in mind, allowing for unprecedented levels of sharing. Sony has even included a Share button on its new controller. Microsoft’s Xbox One has an OS made for multitasking, including video chatting and social networking in a sidebar while you play, allowing for the instant spread of screenshots or video as you play.
Craig Sullivan, creative director on Need for Speed Rivals, says, “Driving cars around in excess of 200 MPH, there is only a certain amount we can design. Ultimately it’s about those moments where there’s two cars in the right place and right time and they have a spectacular crash. On next generation machines you can easily share videos of these moments that we didn’t design specifically.”
Microsoft’s own driving game Forza 5 has another kind of sharing–your play style. So others can play against you, even if you aren’t actually playing. Microsoft calls it Drivetars. “Every time I drive, every behavior that I do, every tendency I have, is going to be pushed up into the cloud. If I understeer, if I oversteer. If I brake early, if I brake late. If I bump, if I cut corners. All of these behaviors get sent up with my telemetry and my times, all of this gets sent up into the cloud,” says Design Director Bill Giese. “It’s going to go out to your friends games, your family’s games, the entire world. If you don’t have enough players in multiplayer, we fill them out with Drivetars. They are going to inhabit every mode in the game. And then you get to have your experience with your friends, ‘Last night, I know you weren’t on, but you were in my race and you cut me off!'”
But sharing isn’t the only benefit the web brings to these new consoles. Developers are using the fact that the systems were created for an always-on internet connection to create new kinds of multiplayer. In Watch Dogs, players will be playing their normal single player game as a vigilante hacker and then can be hacked by other players trying to steal their data, or helped by other hackers helping you to get away from the cops.
Need for Speed Rivals has a similar feature, what publisher Electronic Arts is called All Drive. With this, a single player race can suddenly become multiplayer, new players instantly dropping in, taking over as other racers or as the police cars chasing them. Sullivan says, “The game is always open, allowing your friends to come into and out of the game, if and as they choose. There is no waiting. There is no lobby. Things are nice and seamless.”
There are even games that are MMO-like, such as Bungie’s Destiny and Massive’s The Division, where you are playing a single player game or even multiplayer coop mission with friends, but you may wander into without warning huge multiplayer events you play with dozens of strangers. Harold Ryan, President of Bungie, says, “We are creating a game that you can play with others, meet new people, where you can socialize and share. The goal is to provide gamers with entertainment at their pace, at their scale, that matches their mood.”
A more connected console also means connections to the mobile ecosystem of smart phones and tablets. Companies are designing games for both the new PS4 and XB1 that uses companion apps to extend the experiences. The fore-mentioned Watch Dogs multiplayer is an example, and The Division allows a tablet-player to control drones to bomb the infection-plagued city. In Capcom’s zombie action game Dead Rising 3, players can bonuses only usable through Xbox’s SmartGlass app.
Mike Jones, producer of Dead Rising 3, says, “If you’ve been completing SmartGlass missions, you get codes. You can spend those codes on assists, in this case, we can call in an airstrike. And you can see on SmartGlass that it’s targeting, and an indicator, and then explosions soften up the area.” Watching a crowd of a few dozen zombies getting leveled, you realize this bonus from the companion app could save a player’s game.
The Xbox One’s SmartGlass app will allow a variety of gameplay on a tablet, from simple maps or inventory management, to complex systems of comparing friends progress in games and getting their tips or video walkthroughs of how they finished levels, such as in Ryse: Son of Rome. James Goddard, senior designer on Ryse, says, “There would be a video that shows me a contextual kill that my friend Justin has done. SmartGlass would prompt me and say there’s something that Justin did ahead. I could preview it and then I can go and try to do it too.”
No talk about next-generation consoles can avoid a conversation on next-generation graphics. In previous consoles, 720p resolution was the norm, but now 1080p resolution, a 50% increase in pixels, will become standard. But new graphics engines allow for more realism beyond that simple number. Improved draw distances, better lighting, more objects on screen, all with far more complexity means better worlds to play in.
The Division takes place in a New York that has collapsed after a plague. The Division‘s producer Fredrik Rundqvist says, “We pushed the graphics to have dynamic global illumination. We can push more objects than we could do before on the screen because of the engine’s architecture. We are doing procedural destruction, which means that when you shoot at the windows, they actually break where you shoot, you shoot tires, they blow out. We do complex AI, to make a living world, to make it feel true.”
Larger more detailed locations also means less restrictions on the kinds of worlds and games that are possible. CD Projekt Red is making the Witcher 3, a dark roleplaying game, which features a world 35 times bigger than Witcher 2 setting. Witcher 3‘s producer Marek Ziemak says, “The world can be much bigger right now, much denser. We can squeeze much more content into the game, which makes me the development on one hand easier, because we don’t have to care about the amount of data we can have, but on the other hand it is more difficult because we have to deliver this more content.”
Improved graphics also translates to more realism. Simulations of all sorts, from graphics to physics to systems, means realistic possibilities. The the AI traffic systems in Watch Dogs or the complex weather systems of Assassin’s Creed 4. AC4‘s lead writer Darby McDevitt says, “My favorite thing is the volumetric smoke and fog. When we started putting in the volumetric smoke, two ships were going at it, and the smoke was filling the screen, we got a bug report saying it’s too hard to see. Nope, that’s by design. On the next gen you get this insane immersion that adds to the experience to being in the close quarters of naval battle. The next gen rain and fog will make it more interesting to find enemies.”
For Forza 5, the developers really evaluated how to design the cars from the ground up. “To make something perfect, you have to make it imperfect. And that lead us to build a physically based material system. You can apply a material to any object in the game, and it will take and reflect light like it would in the real world,” says Giese. “Our car paint has three layers, a base cote, a metal flake, and a clear cote. Each of those separate layers takes and reflects light differently. So you can see the bumps by the way light bounces off of it. With the metal flake, if you apply the light in a certain direction, you can go from something like orange peel to something like candy apple. We applied those to every single object in the game: the car, the cement, the brick, the wood on the track.”
Developers have realized better graphics doesn’t just mean throwing more artists at a game, it means designing systems that result in realistic interactions. Dead Rising 3 uses such power for more realistic location filled with more zombies. “We have never been able to push sightlines so far and actually have zombies go off so far, and so tightly packed, and then stream toward you,” says Jones. “Zombies see and hear with more advanced AI, but they are still do dumb zombies. We did invest in their ability to scream out and other zombies will hear and they will gather. So we have a horde AI system going, more so than ever before.”
These all add-up to games with never-before-seen combinations of graphics and gameplay that result in impressive experiences. Mark Rubin, executive producer of the latest title in the bestselling Call of Duty franchise, says, “We have a Call of Duty that you’ve never seen before, with new engine, new tech, new story, new subplot. It’s going to be the best Call of Duty you’ve seen. It’s going to be the best looking Call of Duty you’ve seen ever, by far. It’s the title that if players are going to buy a new console, they are going to buy Call of Duty: Ghosts.”
And this is just the beginning, as more developers create next gen games and the new hardware is really put through the paces. Sullivan says, “Next generation has a lot of horsepower to do great visuals, but it’s not just about visuals. It’s about what’s the next gen thinking behind the game. It’s going to be interesting to see which teams around the world are embracing the next generation way of designing a game. What’s that next generation experience? That’s what people are expecting.”
[Images courtesy of their respective publishers]