So, I think we can all agree that video games are great. Put on your plumber hat, charge up your arm cannon, strap your sword and shield to your back, and get out there. Travel through time! Stop the space pirates! Save the princess! A good video game sweeps you away, setting off your imagination and challenging your reflexes, problem solving abilities, and probably sending you into a never-ending spiral of sleep-deprivation and procrastination. A great game can pull your mind into exciting new territory, pushing not only your skills but your worldview, slotting itself neatly among the books, movies, and late-night conversations that have helped shape who you are.
But most of us don’t really know what goes into making a great game—kind of like we’ll never really know what goes into making a hot dog. Making games is hard work. Game development is a team sport, and it’s a daunting challenge to capture millions of fleeting attention spans in a massive, growing, changing market. The world of gaming is huge, exciting, and way bigger than we (or I, anyway) tend to realize when we turn on our consoles.
In celebration of all that crazy work and the people who do it, I present to you: Some cool things I wouldn’t have known about games if I hadn’t looked them up.
MOCAP IS THE THING THAT MAKES CHARACTERS EERILY LIFE-LIKE
First off, let’s talk about mocap (motion capture, derp), because mocap is really cool. The technology has been around since the 70s, but only entered the entertainment sphere around the mid 90s, right around the same time as pre-rendered full motion video. While there are dozens of different methods and implementations for mocap, most systems follow the same principle: markers of some kind are placed on an actor’s body, and as the actor moves, the positions of the markers are tracked at an absurdly high frame rate (at least double the desired final frame rate, and up to 10,000 fps in some setups). All that captured motion is then applied to a 3D model, and violà, you have a character.
When it comes to mocap in games, it’s always worth giving L.A. Noire a mention. Rockstar went all out with mocap on this one, calling on some fancy facial scanning technology from Australian company Depth Analysis. After recording scenes using full body mocap, the actor is put in hair and makeup and brought into a small chamber. The actor then delivers his lines while sitting nice and still, ringed with 32 HD cameras to capture every twitch. All that motion is recorded, applied to a scanned-in head, and popped onto the body, where it adopts the full body motion. While similar cinematic realism certainly wasn’t news at the time (hi, Heavy Rain fans!), L.A. Noire raised the bar considerably.
[via The Creators Project]
IT’S NOT REAL LIFE, BUT ALMOST
Max Payne 3 employs much of the same mocap technology as L.A. Noire, and was released on the same day as Diablo III, but that’s not important right now. What’s important is that most of that motion capture, stunt work, voice work, and an enormous amount of research was done on location in São Paulo, Brazil. The game’s setting deviates sharply from its predecessors’ (which were noire, incidentally), and Rockstar went to incredible lengths to ensure authenticity, all the way down to noting which gangs prefer which firearms. Rockstar’s account of the process reads like a film diary, and reveals an almost manic hunger for knowledge. For games set with any relation to the real world, designers must pay incredible care and attention to detail and accuracy—no decision is arbitrary.
Side-by-side comparison of the actual setting and gameplay setting in Max Payne 3.
Fallout 3’s artists ran into a similar issue of handling a real-world city, but with the added wrinkle of a game history that fractures with book-history in the 20th century. This left director Todd Howard with decisions to make about nearly every building being placed in the world:
“The fact that we kind of had an alternate history helped a lot. Because the Fallout universe splits around 1950, we could take great liberties with DC. So we have all these books on Washington DC, so the things that were pre- the time when we split, we’re careful about. After that, if a certain thing was built after that we try not even have it, or we’ll build it in a different way, in a way that we think suits the game better.”
[via Awesome Robo!]
There’s a ton more on Fallout 3’s research, design decisions, plus a couple of cool concept drawings here.
CREATING MUSIC FOR GAMES IS ALMOST A SUPER-HUMAN TASK
Sound design is a whole other can of worms, or more accurately, a whole other big, Costco-sized case of cans of worms. The primary question found in one can—score composition—should resonate for most musicians out there: how can I best immerse the player in the mood of a game? Unlike with film, however, games have a participant player, and that raises an even trickier question: how can I immerse the player without knowing the exact path a player will take? This consideration presents an immense challenge that can be overcome with clever use of loops, transitional pieces, and artfully-inserted silences. Whether the game you’re playing right now is tracked by 8-bit bloopity-bleeps or a live, swelling orchestra, you can be sure that its composition was the result of a huge number of carefully-considered choices. But don’t take it from me!
Michael Sweet, composer and sound designer extraordinaire, on immersion and transitions:
“We want the player to feel like he’s in the game world, and if we hear the music jump, it’s like seeing déjà vu in The Matrix. We realize that it’s not real, and it takes us out of the experience… I don’t want to hear the ‘physics’ of the audio when I’m playing the game, I want to be so into the game that I don’t even notice the score."
Sam Hulick, Mass Effect series composer, on initial direction for the first game:
“Once I was acquainted with the story and the musical style we were shooting for, enough info is given on each level or cinematic to give me a sense of context and mood/feel. I work best with ‘mood words.’ Gimme a plot run-down on what’s happening, and some words like ‘heroic, tinged with sadness, like it’s the last push’ and I can usually run with that.”
TALK AINT CHEAP: FAMILIAR VOICES ADD TO THE CINEMA OF A GAME
OK, next can of worms: voice acting. Want a big movie-type game? Better get big movie-type actors! In fact, the worlds of Hollywood and gamelandia have crossed more than a few times, and often where you’d least expect them. On one end of the spectrum, you have the screen/stage actor cameo—the Patrick Stewart’s and James Woods’ of the world—and on the other, actors like Nolan North, star of the Unchartered series, once tagged by The Guardian as “the nearest thing the games industry has to a bona fide leading man.”
Mark Hamill as Arkham’s Joker
Some fun tidbits, in no particular order:
- John DiMaggio, most readily known as Futurama’s shiny, metal jerk-machine Bender, has been in lots of stuff. Highlights include Juggernaut in X-Men Legends II and Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2, and Marcus Fenix throughout the entire Gears of War series.
- You know how Mark Hamill voiced the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series ? He also contributed his iconic laugh to both Arkham Asylum and Arkham City (which on a personal note, as a huge fan of The Animated Series, I appreciated).
- Ron Perlman—who, by the way, was also in The Animated Series as Clayface—has narrated every Fallout game.
- Mike Patton (Mr. Bungle, Fantomas, etc) voices the Darkness in The Darkness and its eponymous sequel.
- Everyone’s favorite serious-voiced guy, Samuel L. Jackson, was recruited to voice main baddy Officer Tenpenny in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
Basically, developing a coherent world and placing actors and atmosphere into it are all serious considerations. But let’s say we’ve pulled it off flawlessly and done exactly those things. What are these people going to say to each other? Put another way, just how much writing goes into a major title? Which brings us to our next point.
THE SCRIPT IS KING
The short answer is lots. Like, lots and lots. To take one recent example, let’s take a brief look at Diablo III. A decade-long development project that finally launched in May, the game is composed of a full cinematic storyline, plus five hero classes, countless non-player characters, merchants, and of course, monsters.
All told, it’s been estimated that the full script required between 13,000 and 16,000 lines of audio to be recorded.
[via Diablo III DVD extras]
To put this in context, Dune, as a film script, clocks in a hair under 25,000 words. That’s setting, blocking, dialog, everything. That means the writing and recording of Diablo III are on the same scale as Dune, if Dune were entirely made up of two-word lines, animated, and all the blocking were dialogue.
Another, even more extreme account comes from a writer of a game that was never released, resulting in the discarding of untold thousands of hours of writing:
“We (three people together) had written about 800 or 900 pages of pure fan fiction that was going to make up the bulk of the story for the game. We had written it to be as much of a true novel as we could, and to make it as much like the source material as possible. Once this ‘novel’ was complete, we began transforming it into quests, side-quests, player and non-player characters, and transforming ideas into game systems. Full told: over two years of work just for the story, not getting into all the work that was being done for art, graphics and what we thought were some truly ground-breaking, story-driven systems for delivering dialogue.
“But, large licenses cost lots of money, and [some] are especially time sensitive. Our window for ‘maximum profitability’ closed, and instead of continuing the work on it and putting it out late, the whole project was scrapped, entire teams split to other crunch projects, and what I consider still to be the best writing I have ever done in my life is hopefully still on a hard drive somewhere. The idea that it was completely deleted breaks my heart, and I refuse to believe it.”
Ouch. As you can imagine, volume outputs of concept artwork, designs, and code are similar in scale. All inevitable release date politics aside, there are very good reasons that big games take years to pull together.
It’s comforting to know that for all the brutal work of game development, there are always hungry, hungry gamers ready to seek out and fall in love with the next great game. As Kellee Santiago, founder of thatgamecompany and one of the founders of Indie Fund puts it:
“I think gaming culture, by definition, is a participatory culture. Game fans are the best possible fans, because when they love a game, they display it through active participation and advocacy in their communities… Combined with the egalitarian nature of digital distribution, in which you don’t need to have special connections to store owners or networks to promote your game, the culture allows for simply great games to stand out and get the attention they deserve. Of course, you have to first make that great game, which is really the hard part, anyways.”