Art & Graphics
We wanted to still have the EQ flavor in the game, but obviously not just look like EQ1. We wanted to raise the bar and I think that through some of the newer hardware out there we've been able to do that. We've done a lot in the way of motion captured animations. There are a little more than 1,000 animations for the character, which is pretty intense. To give you a perspective of how much work we're talking here, the smallest animation generally takes from half a day to a day to do. There's a lot of motion capture and a lot of hand animated stuff as well. Obviously we're a Heroic game. Fantasy characters tend to be able to do things that are humanly impossible. Because of this we had to do a lot of special custom animations. We used the motion capture mostly as a reference, and then we would go in and animate it. A lot of the stuff we couldn't find specific actors for, or specifically trained peopleto do it. Some of the motion capture work that we did involved the guys from Smashcut. Smashcut is a stunt company in Hollywood that has worked on over 90 movies, including The Matrix, Fight Club and the Batman movies. They've also worked on over 50 TV shows including such hits as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. The actors they sent us knew their styles and their forms very well, but it was also very homogenous. We wanted to make things a little less obvious, so for some of the moves they were perfect, but for others the animators had to go in and adjust and just use that as a very basic reference. This way the animators could see what was involved in a specific motion and then go in and put their own special touch on it.
There's a flavor of motion capture in almost everything in the game, but in the end product there is actually very little raw motion capture. Most of it has been edited or manipulated in some manner. Also the combat system that we have helps facilitate some points in space for blocking, for connecting, being deflected and all of that. The motion capture is a little bit more vague than that. We would then edit it to get within the vicinity of a certain point that was needed to animate a block or deflection or whatever. Also when you're motion capturing you aren't going to say "This is for the flinch animation" and then hit the guy in the head with a bat. Things like that, the connection shots and the blows landing etc, aren't really as feasible in motion capture and are custom animations. In general the art has probably taken a lot longer than any comparable game just because of the sheer amount of polygons.
With the new technology there's a lot of new information that's going in there. Compared to the regular polygon and textures there are new maps and such that are being put in. Like a cave for instance, we could do it with just one texture wrapped around the interior of the cave, but we have 4 or 5 different shaders and textures in a lot of cases. The top is different from the bottom and those from the sides, etc. This way we can make it look like the path on the floor is worn down or whatever. All in all it's six or seven times the work, because now there is so much more detail that can be included.
I think it's a lot easier to do this kind of stuff for a live action movie, because in that industry they've had something like 40 years to perfect their technology. In the gaming world though the graphics technology changes every nine months or so. It's really hard to keep up as a game developer sometimes. In the beginning we were like "Are you sure we want this many polygons over here?" and we just decided to do it, just put in the polygons, put in the shaders and we'll be ok.
The one thing right now that the fanbase can see is the character creation disk that recently shipped. There has been a lot of very passionate and vocal criticism in that the characters look very doll-like and plastic, and also the hair looks like it is made of playdoh.
This game has been in development for 4, almost 5 years, ever since right after Kunark. It's been in development for a long time, there's a lot of legacy things we've had to do. I think of the original team, out of the 100 or so people on the EQ2 team only 16 or 17 have been here for the duration. We've seen a lot of turnover in not only the members of the team but also the approach to how certain things are done and even the idea of what we were going to do with the product. Because of a lot of that as we've gotten closer to wanting to produce the game we've had to prioritize what is important and what is not. So for example the skin, we've done a lot of work on that at the expense of the hair because people are going to see more skin than hair.
There are some ways and techniques that these guys have planned to redo the hair; they're very excited about getting some time and some cycles to spend on it, but for the time being it's not a priority. We've had to make some compromises to get the game done. I just wanted to frame that, because there are some things that we know are lacking and we know we can do them better. And we will continue to improve on them over time; they're just not a priority for launching the game.
It's a give and take thing. Some of the skin, in the early shots, I was in the same boat. When I came onto the project I took one look at it and said "OMG we have to fix this..." We have a MUCH better skin shader now as most of you saw when you were playing this morning. One of the guys on the forefront of the art team toiled over it, he's got a bad back from spending so long bent over his computer redoing it. So I definitely feel that you'll see a big improvement in the skin look of the characters.
The hair... Hair is a tricky monster. One of the things we were really going for on the hair, hair has a sort of sheen to it. Light sort of travels across it and we really wanted to capture that. We developed some technology to facilitate that. So for example if you choose the braided hair, particularly in the red, it's kind of a burgundy and shows off the effects really well; it's kinda tight and pulled back. But one of the disadvantages was when it was developed how it affected the Alpha of the hair. If you don't know the Alpha is the fading or transparency of an item, the wispiness of hair, etc. I will say that it is in progress, the comments have been heard and they're not something we want to be blind to. I can't say when it'll be done, but it is something we have addressed and are working on.
I guess what I'm getting at, what my major concern is, is the upgradeability of it. I understand you have to prioritize everything and you really have to get this game out, because everybody is so keen on getting a good game, but what's it going to take down the road for the upgrade, is it doable, etc?
It all goes back to the modularity of it. We've built everything to be upgradeable. We've built everything in the game with the forethought so that we could improve on it at a later date. When we get the opportunities to do that we'll do it. For the time being though, for better or for worse, we feel that a lot of people are going to be putting helmets on. There's a "showhood" command in there so you can pull it on or off depending if you want to show off or hide your hair.
We have a particle system we could use for the hair. It looks like real hair, moves like real hair, flows when you move everything. The problem with using it right now though is the framerate would take a huge hit. So it's definitely something we're working on, and as we have time, as it makes sense we'll improve and modify it. We'd all like to do the absolute best job, but if we all tried to get everything perfect you'd never get the game.
Can we talk a little more about particles?
Well spells are the first thing most people think of when you say particle effects. It also includes parts of the environment, parts of the combat animations, campfires, smoke etc. I was talking to someone on EQ1 just the other day and was reminded of how limited they are. There are only a couple places they can emit from and only a few animations to pull from etc. On our system we're not limited in those fashions. Basically anything in the game we can incorporate into a spell. We've gotten a little team of people built up now to do the particles. Even though you look at the calendar and you'd think that all this stuff must be worked out and ironed out by now, we're still coming up with new things. For example just the other day one of the new members on the team tried this one thing which we had assumed would NEVER work, and of course it did. She made this really cool energy effect, which we're going to put somewhere. We don't know where yet, but now that we have it we're going to use it. We can incorporate not only the level of the spell but also the level of the caster and several other attributes when creating the visual. All this information is passed to the particle system. This way they could make conditional particle effects based on your level or other attributes.
But on the other hand another thing we're trying not to do is, just because a spell is getting more powerful we don't want just keep adding particles to it. We could make it brighter or something along those lines. We don't want people to turn them off, we don't want them tin interfere in the player's gameplay in such a manner that they'd rather not have them on at all. You can use the slider and remove the lesser important parts of the visual. Basically rather than just being able to have them on or off as in most games you could choose the level you want to view them at. We'd much prefer people just turn them down some if their machine can't handle the full visual effect or if they're about to be in some huge battle than to turn them completely off. That's one of the things again that we've had to make in terms of compromise, especially with the art. Having been through EQ, a lot of us played it before we got here, were big fans of it, but there were a lot of things you had to turn off, a lot of things you had to eliminate because of how opulent they were. One of the things we wanted to make sure of was that there were some settings that maintained the framerate, where performance was key but still managing to maintain the graphical detail. Sure, we could just put it out cranked all the way up and the framerate would drop to 0 for most people. We wanted to make sure there were some playable options for those folks who don't have the high end machines. But down the road when they do get them they can just kick the settings up a notch and get a payoff for it.
I think as a team we're incredibly happy with it. As you saw in the game room we have a good number of people playing on a high end machine with the 6800 Ultra and the widescreen monitor and sometimes I find myself just sitting there in wonder, looking at the environment or casting a spell and watching the visuals.
Can you talk a little bit about environmental lighting? All the different areas of it, the sun, moon phases, etc?
As far as the lighting goes it's all done in real time. It responds to a lot of different things. We can make it flicker; we can have lights that are actual fog volumes, etc. There are dynamic shadows that also happen in real time. The shadows are definitely one of the high points, particularly in some of the interiors. They make it really creepy, especially in some of the dungeons. We have had to make some compromises as far as time goes, but we're overall pretty happy with where we are at with the level of detail. Just to give you a perspective on it, I got a chuckle when I picked up Doom 3 this week and one of the big marketing hooks on the box was "Over 25 hours of gameplay". And that took four years? It's just a lot of work, across the board. With all these new art technologies come new hurdles to jump through. With Doom 3 for example, most of the time there are very few characters on the screen, they're very high detail, gorgeous, the lighting is awesome, and everything is great. But in our type of game we don't have a set path everyone is going to go down so we can't optimize for that, we have to make everything that incredible and stunning. We have to make sure that ANYBODY that gets ANYWHERE with 25 other people can still maintain a framerate. So in addition to tackling all these issues the team has really stepped up and made it work well, which is incredible.
Also as far as the day/night cycle goes, each zone has its own colors and atmosphere to kinda set the mood. For example Qeynos is much brighter, much friendlier where as Freeport and the Commonlands are much more evil. So there are clouds which are much more prevalent throughout the day. We can set the cloud levels, obviously the brightness and all of that, so we can create some really cool effects. We're trying to do this in some of the spookier areas like the graveyard or bog. There's something not quite right about the lighting in areas like this, were trying to create effects that aren't quite typical or expected. We have rain and snow and for other areas we might have other effects that are flying down at you, like falling ash around the volcanoes for example. Your breath with be visible in cold air, stuff like that can definitely be expected. The light from the sun and moons are both calculated as well. The celestial sphere is completely accurate so there will be things like eclipses, different seasons and star patterns and such. Based on where the moon is the light is coming from the appropriate direction. And we have the different colors coming from each. Also since the moon and the sun are on different cycles sometimes there's no moon, or sometimes it's visible in the daytime. If there's no moon at night it might be realistic in that it is slightly darker than if the moon were up there. Things like the sunrays shining through the windows like in some screenshots you've seen, those are looking at the clock, they're positioned by the time of day and will move with the sun. Their color and intensity also is naturally affected by the time of day. The flames on torches and campfires actually put off heat distortion. If you were to get close enough and look you'll actually be able to see the waves of heat coming off the flames and distorting your vision.
Are the boss mobs going to be unique? Or just larger versions of whatever they're the boss of?
Yes, we have a lot of unique boss mobs. Some of the ones at the lower levels might be less dramatically unique that the higher end ones, but there are a lot of tools we have at our disposal to make them more unique. There are also a LOT of custom particle effects on the list solely for the bosses.
The designers have the ability to change the content on the fly. Basically as simple as it is for you to add and remove furniture to your player house, they can do the same in entire zones. So down the road updating content in existing areas will be very easy.
Some of the more interesting features about the quest system are the Access quests which will grant you access to the instanced areas. Then once you finish that quest you'll have access to that instanced area at whatever rate it can be accessed, be it a weekly spawn or every three days, whatever.
Another very interesting set of quests are the Heritage quests. A lot of these will be fairly difficult but they will give you some Heritage items, some things that you'll remember from EQ1. They will be useful but probably won't do the same things that you may remember them doing in EQ1. One good example of one of the items you can quest for is the Mana Stone. Basically if it's ever been one of the "Top 10 EQ1 Items" then you can probably expect to find a Heritage quest for it.
Also worth noting is the Betrayal quests are almost fully implemented now. We are probably going to make them more and more and more difficult. We want it to be very painful and difficult to betray your city. So when you see that Dark Elf Paladin in Qeynos you're going to know that he went through a lot of trouble to get where he is. Part of it you'll have to have a group for, they don't all have to be doing the betrayal quest though, they're just there to help you get through it. It will also be restricted in how many people can do it in one day. Also as a good teaser this would be one of the few places you get to talk to Antonia or Lucan.
There are also things like, just to tease a little, some of the class quests are actually really cool. They're not your typical collect and fetch type of things. One of the Rogue quests for example, I had to sneak in, get some plans and sneak out. It wasn't about combat at all. It was really difficult, there were callouts from the guards like "What was that?" and I'd have to freeze and avoid being found. It has an almost Metal Gear Solid feel to it. There are a lot of these quests like this that aren't what you've come to expect as your typical fair for quests. There are times where we don't want you, where you're not meant to fight your way out of things. Sometimes you'll be forced to stealth or think it through, use that grey matter for something other than holding your ears apart. If you try to fight your way through these situations you will die.
There are a LOT of quests in the game. To give you an example, my wife is playing the beta, and she got really into doing the quests. By level 9 I think she had completed like 56 quests and had 64 pending. And she was still going. The main focus of our quests is content and the item rewards. And then we have other new quest types also. For example you have the Slayer quests. If you want to earn the Orc-Slayer title you have to go out and kill a certain number of Orcs. There are many different types of Slayer quests and you can gain several Slayer titles. Or the exploration quests for example. There are also item quests, you might kill some random mob and it'll drop an item which might start a quest for you. There are a ton of different quests in the game and it's not about quantity, it's about variety, we want to provide as many different options for you to spend your time ingame as we can.
Well there you have it, roughly 5 hours of recorded discussions and interviews; I hope you enjoyed it all. And if you made it all the way through it then I must be doing something right with my writing style. :) There are many other things about the trip that I could talk about, but I figured that the pertinent info about the game was most important. As for the details about the trip to Mexico and the other partying, there are some things you're just better off not knowing about, consider yourself safer that way. ;)