Electronic Arts Expands Medal of Honor Franchise With Warfighter

Electronic Arts used the Game Developers Conference this month to offer an initial look at its first-person shooter sequel, Medal of Honor Warfighter. Danger Close Games, its developer, is expanding the fight against terror by taking its Tier 1 Operators on a contemporary globe-trotting adventure to such exotic locales as the Philippines and the Somali coast. The game also features new vehicles on players’ new missions, like an on-rails boat ride through a monsoon-stricken city.

Here, Rich Farley, creative director at Danger Close Games, talks about what’s in store for PC gamers and gives his take on the move to modern warfare in this exclusive interview from GDC 2012.

What were your goals heading into this game?

Rich Farley: We were really happy with our transition out of World War II and into the modern arena. We wanted to take our guys out of that microcosm that was just Afghanistan and then take it to where the fight is now. We wanted to focus in more on the Tier 1 Operators and how they work around the world right now dealing with these terror networks.

How did you work with actual soldiers in the development of this sequel?

R.F.: We had a lot of guys from that community on the last game helping us out. When we shipped the game, a lot of guys went, “Wow, these guys at Danger Close really got it right.” They brought more guys that were interested in talking to us and helping us portray their community in the right way, and in a way that more accurately depicts what kind of people they are. It’s really helped us having these guys available, almost daily, to be able to come in and assist with things like mo-cap, equipment, weapons, how they talk to each other, the settings and the storylines.

Can you explain how the multiplayer combat now encompasses more than just U.S. Special Forces?

R.F.: With our multiplayer, we’re honoring the international Tier 1 groups, just as we honored the American ones in the last game. Gamers will be able to play as different groups from around the world. We have 12 units from 10 countries, including the Australia Special Air Service Regiment, the Special Air Service from the U.K., the Polish GROM (Operational Mobile Reaction Group) and the German KSK (Special Forces Command), to name a few. We’re introducing multinational “blue vs. blue” team play, where the world’s best-of-the-best warriors go head-to-head in online competition.

How are you connecting the fiction of this game’s story to the real world?

R.F.: Everything in our game has a dotted line to something that actually happened, or to some story that was told to us by one of our consultants, or a combination of those things. It really lends a feeling of authenticity, and it paints a picture of what the current fight is for these guys right now.

Can you give an example of a “ripped from the headlines” mission that players will encounter?

R.F.: If you read up on that region of the Southern Philippines, Basilan and Sulu Islands, there’s a group called Abu Sayyaf. It’s a bunch of very bad people that over time kidnapped a lot of people, aid workers and such. And in some cases, executed them or captured them for ransom to further whatever their causes are. It’s a very real thing that’s happening down there that people don’t hear a lot about, and Tier 1 guys are there helping the military from that country deal with that threat. That’s what the hostage rescue level in the game was about.

What’s new in the gameplay department for Warfighter?

R.F.: We’re rolling out a few different things. We have a new door breach mechanic whereby players can enter and breach a room, just like Tier 1 guys would. They’re going to approach a door, assess it and see what’s going on with it. Is it locked? Is it not locked? What’s behind that door? They’ll be able to choose their method of entry, whether they want to kick that door down, breach it in some other way with an explosive, or throw a flash bang in or a grenade. It’s really going to change what happens on the other side of the door when they go inside.

How are you utilizing the Frostbite 2 engine to enhance the PC experience?

R.F.: It’s been great working with that tech. Just the visual fidelity of the stuff that we’re doing has increased so much. The lighting is amazing. The ability to have the amount of destruction that we featured in the demo; it’s not that it wasn’t possible before, but it’s made it so much easier. That’s what the techs built around for us to be able to dial in to: this micro-destruction. It’s just a beautiful engine, and the scale that we can represent in that engine is really well-suited to what we’re doing.

In developing the last game, you guys worked the single-player experience in Los Angeles and the multiplayer at EA’s Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment in Sweden. What’s it like having everyone together working together in Los Angeles this time?

R.F.: It’s amazing. You create the game with a really singular vision. It’s easier for us, as developers, to really keep track of it all and make sure it’s all on point in terms of parity on features, and making sure that it feels like one game and not a bunch of disparate parts.

Read more about game development from our sponsor.

Building the Old Republic: The Technology Behind BioWare’s First MMO

Electronic Arts-owned BioWare Austin has been working on the epic massively multiplayer online (MMO) game Star Wars: The Old Republic for more than four years. The game developer is familiar with the Star Wars universe, having created Knights of the Old Republic for PC gamers back in November 2003.

Set 400 years after the last Knights of the Old Republic game and 3,000 years before the rise of Darth Vader, The Old Republic allows players to choose a side (light or dark) and then embark on an epic journey into the mythology that George Lucas created in a galaxy far, far away. Here, Emmanuel Lusinchi, associate lead designer on the MMO at BioWare, talks about the role technology has played in bringing this massive world to life and the experience PC gamers will get when they explore the 19 planets in this online universe:

Digital Innovation Gazette: How did you utilize technology to push the MMO space forward with this game?

Emmanuel Lusinchi: Our engineers are always trying to squeeze more and more performances out of the game engine and, as they are doing so, they are coming up with a clearer understanding of exactly what the creative folks can get away with. During that phase, we get new rules on just how many creatures, or visual effects, or anything, really, we can have in any given area. The key is to be ready to be adaptable.

We have a full story, full cinematics, high-quality professional voice-acting and everything you’d expect in a single-player game, but with hundreds and hundreds of hours of story per class. Really, it’s the biggest role-playing game ever created. And you can play it with all your friends.

DIG: What’s the coolest technology in this game?

E.L.: We have 800,000 lines of dialogue in this game, which is the equivalent of 60 Star Wars novels. We created a fully voiced-over dialogue system to utilize real actors. Fortunately, we’ve had plenty of experience with voice-over at BioWare, so we were able to rely on well-established processes and technologies like lip-synching.

It is truly a monumental task, dealing with a quantity of assets rarely seen in game development and with a very rigid production pipeline -- after all, you need to schedule around real actors, some of them in foreign countries. This tech, even though it is not particularly new or particularly complex to code, really brings a sense of immersion to the game.

What we’ve found, and what all players know, is that an uninteresting dialogue is still uninteresting with full voice-over. So that’s a place where the technology is an enabler, but the creative part is still what really matters in the end. We want people to really enjoy the personal stories of their characters and see what it does to their way of playing. Hopefully, they’re going to really care about what’s happening to their characters.

DIG: How has this dialogue technology opened up a new variety of experiences?

E.L.: We have our class stories. There are eight different classes and each one has their own unique story that takes them from the beginning of the game all the way to the end, and they each feel very different. The Smuggler is an action-comedy. The Bounty Hunter is more of a Western. You’ve got the big drama of the Sith and the noble things of the Jedi. It really takes it in different directions.

We’ve added a lot more Heroic Quests, which are just normal quests on the ground, but you need a full party for them. It really helps with socializing, getting people together, and really getting them trained for what they’re going to need later for both the Flash Points and the Raids.

DIG: What will players experience in the Flash Points and Raids in this game?

E.L.: Flash Points are the Old Republic’s take on dungeons. That’s where you take your one party, go in and have some of the most amazing cinematic stories. You make huge choices that can destroy worlds and propel the story in different directions. It makes for some of the game’s most amazing moments.

Raids are about multiple teams of people, whether they’re eight-player or 16-player missions, all trying to work together for one common goal. It’s really about coordination and keeping people together to take on the biggest and baddest bosses. They’re probably our most story-light stuff, but they still have a lot of good story and a lot of good context to it. Raids are a way for us to reward players who have achieved tons of power through their story progression. One of the things you can do is participate in the operations, which are really challenging quests that you play with other players at the same time.

DIG: What are some of the activities your BioWare engine technology has opened up?

E.L.: Every player has their own ship. You can use your ship as transport to travel from place to place and go all over the galaxy. Once you get your ship, the galaxy is open and it’s yours. It’s also your base of operations for your crew skills, which is our take on crafting. Your companions all live on the ship; that’s where they do their crafting. They’re going to build stuff and make armor and do whatever it is that you like to do.

There’s also the War Zone, where you fight other players in PVP (player versus player) matches. These matches are brutal, fast and very entertaining. That’s something players can start encountering around Level 10. They can just push a button and get queued up and go play. It’s a really fun distraction and a great way to learn how to play your class. Instead of fighting the AI, which is not as smart sometimes, you fight other players. You really have to be on top of your game. It captures a lot of the best things we’ve seen in other games’ PVP and it put a little story twist on it. You know why you’re fighting, and you know what the battles are about. It’s just good fun.

DIG: What impact do you hope this game has on the MMO genre once it’s released?

E.L.: At the very least, it’s going to create a new subgenre of the MMO type. The inclusion of story does change the way you play, and it changes something about the game. It’s its own category that we hope will be successful.

At the best, this game will move the entire MMO industry toward [story-based gameplay]. Once you play it and you go to play another game, you’re asking things like, “Who’s my character? Why is he here?” We’ll see whether it just creates a subgenre or whether it changes the genre itself -- but it should have an impact.

Photo: SWTOR.com

The Best of BlizzCon 2011

By the time the Foo Fighters concert had stopped ringing in the ears of the thousands of PC gamers packed inside the Anaheim Convention Center, there was a lot of good news that emerged from BlizzCon 2011. The annual fan celebration for PC games like World of Warcraft, StarCraft II and the upcoming Diablo III painted a very bright picture for those blockbuster titles.

World of Warcraft gamers won’t need to seek out Diablo III, which will launch in early 2012. Blizzard is giving all current WoW players who subscribe to its new Annual Pass a free digital copy of Diablo III, which was playable at BlizzCon for attendees. The developer is taking advantage of the latest PC processing power to bring the new role-playing game to life.

“If you think back to Diablo II, that was a game that was mostly based on sprite technology,” says Julian Love, lead technical artist for Diablo III. “To be able to revisit the idea of doing a Diablo world, but having the opportunity to do it with 3D graphics -- that was pretty big. It seems like it’s old hat that we’re talking about 3D technology. But for this particular franchise, it’s actually a big deal. The other thing that we have available to us is physics and things like cloth simulations that allow us to provide a deeper sense of reality and a visceral impact to the world. Rather than just killing a monster, you can kill a monster and then send him flying across the screen.”

Blizzard is introducing new ways to fight enemies in the upcoming expansion pack for WoW: Mists of Pandaria. The world of Pandaria features some of the most stunning landscapes ever seen in the franchise, especially for those who have the latest PCs. The world is filled with lush, Asian-inspired environments that are home to the kung-fu fighting monks that were originally introduced in World of WarCraft III.

“We’ve been excited about bringing this to life for a long time,” says Dave Kosak, lead quest designer for World of Warcraft. “We’ve waited until now. We’ve really brought them to life with a whole continent and a whole world. The Pandaren people are just cool. They’re just really interesting and fun to play with. They embrace life to the fullest. They eat hard, drink hard, play hard and fight hard. It’s a really fun culture to explore and find out more about.”

In addition to expanding the world of Azeroth, Blizzard is pushing forward with the story of StarCraft II. Heart of the Swarm is the first expansion pack in the popular real-time strategy game franchise that has taken the pro gaming world by storm and become a huge hit with PC gamers of all skill levels.

StarCraft II is adding things across the board,” says Chris Sigaty, lead producer. “We feel like there’s lots of different customers for StarCraft II. There are the players that are into it for the campaign. There are the players that are in there for the super-competitive multiplayer gaming experience. Then a whole group of players in there for custom games and the experience around things like DotA-style games, Tower Defense games, or the Star Jewel game that we released ourselves.”

The development team has added new units and tactics to the game based on feedback from fans. They’ve also revamped how custom games and surface content are seen by players. Rather than having to sift through multiple menus to find content, the new update streamlines the process so fans can quickly find new content and games to play.

“From a features standpoint, we’re adding reviews and rating systems,” says Sigaty. “There’s a five-star system that can help people find quality content. There are lots of different ways to get into games now. We’ve also added a bunch of tools for mod makers so they can make higher-quality content as they move forward.”

The big theme at BlizzCon seemed to be progression. As well as these PC stalwarts do sales-wise once they’re released, Blizzard is always looking ahead to expand and improve upon its game franchises. In a way, BlizzCon offers a great test market for new games like Diablo III and also allows the game developers to connect one-on-one with fans to help steer the direction of new content.

Back to the Borderlands

At Gamescom 2011 in Cologne, Germany, Gearbox Studios unveiled the follow-up to its critically acclaimed first-person shooter, Borderlands. Running on Unreal Engine 3, the 2012 PC game is adding more depth to the story and improved visuals and gameplay to the open world experience.

Set once again on the borderland planet of Pandora, the new game picks up five years after the events of the first game. There’s a new bad guy, Handsome Jack, who runs the Hyperion Corporation, ruining the fun. It’s up to the player to change that. We talked to Anthony Burch, the writer of Borderlands 2 at Gearbox Software, about what’s in store for PC gamers in this 2012 action adventure.

DIG: What was your goal heading into Borderlands 2?

Anthony Burch: It was to take every system that people liked in the first game and improve on it even further. The mission system is completely overhauled so that the story and the missions can actually be even more in sync with one another, so that appearances can change on the fly. The story is a very, very big focus for us. The environment now includes the arctic tundra and lush green grasslands areas. We’re going to have much more than just the sort of dusty, sandy areas of the original. The entire world is much bigger this time around. You’ll never hit that invisible wall.

DIG: How did you interact with PC gamers in deciding what you’re adding to this sequel?

A.B.: Basically, if they asked for something hard enough and long enough and it seemed like something that enhanced the game, we’re putting it in. The mini map that’s now at the top right of the screen -- which makes it easy to find objectives quickly and spend more time actually playing the game -- was a fan request.

Also, fans loved the fact that the game has 87 bazillion guns, but they wanted the guns to have more variety. We listened to that and now the assault rifles that we’re showing off are ridiculously different from one another and super-cool. All the rest of the guns will be as well, and that is just four manufacturers in just the assault rifles. The gun system has been completely overhauled.

DIG: What improvements have you made to the gameplay?

A.B.: We’ve added new action skills. In the first game we had these skills called the Game Changers. If you played as Lilith, you could point to the Phoenix skill and then when you killed something close to them they would get set on fire. This changed the way you played. We have even more of those in this game.

Salvador has a skill called “overheat,” where the longer you hold down the fire button, the faster your firing is. So you could actually use this skill best by getting a bunch of guns that have really high ammo capacity or really high firing range just to empty your clips really quickly and go nuts.

DIG: How have you made the enemies more challenging this time around?

A.B.: Enemy AI has been completely overhauled, so when you find bandits they’ll now call out plays and be like everybody else. They’ll use grenades, fall back, take cover and even flank you. The Hyperion gun-loaders we have, who are the grunts of the Hyperion army, can have their limbs blown off to slow them down or remove a weapon from them. But then these little probe bots called the surveyors come in and heal them. They can reconstruct their arms.

This type of behavior forces the player to prioritize their targets. It opens up these really dynamic emergent experiences. The fighting is much deeper than it was in the first game.

DIG: How are you guys using Unreal Engine 3 technology to push the visuals of what already was a unique cel-shaded game experience?

A.B.: Borderlands has a really cool, distinctive art style and we’re keeping that, but we’re adding to that. When you enter an environment, there’s a lot going on now. The world’s more alive. In the first game, if you lost your shield you heard a beeping noise, which you might have missed completely. In this game when your shield is depleted, it shatters in front of you, and you can see the pieces fall in front of you. It adds a real sense of panic when you’re on the battlefield with chaos exploding around you.

Players will learn information about everything from weapons to enemies through visual cues this time around, like the loaders asking for repairs in the midst of battle. We’re going to have a lot of feedback to show players all of the mechanics that exist, which should enhance the gameplay experience.

DIG: What’s the most exciting thing for fans of this franchise that you’re doing with this sequel?

A.B.: It’s the story integration and making it feel more like a cohesive adventure in this immersive world. The world we’ve got now feels so much more alive. There are things constantly happening around you. We have all of these different bandit factions and clans fighting against one another. And the environment tells all these stories and it tends to make it a more immersive experience than the first game. I’m really excited about that -- but I’m the writer, so I’m biased.

Photo Credit: http://www.borderlands2.com

The Future Is Solid: Solid-state Drives Revolutionize Gaming

Solid-state drives (SSDs) are revolutionizing storage performance on desktop and laptop PCs, delivering dramatically faster load times than hard disk drives (HDDs). When SSDs are used as boot drives, operating systems initialize faster, applications (including games and compilers) launch more quickly, and projects typically load in seconds rather than minutes.

For gamers, this leap in storage performance also delivers a visibly better gaming experience. For game developers, SSDs accelerate iterations, improving operational efficiency and increasing ROI. Developers can also dramatically increase streaming requirements and utilize high-resolution assets more frequently, resulting in more immersive game play.

Blazing Launch Speeds and Better Game Play

Tests show that SSDs can improve load times by up to 78 percent, compared with a Western Digital VelociRaptor 10,000 RPM HDD. A single SSD can also significantly outperform two 10,000 RPM HDDs in RAID 0. Tests also show that SSDs can speed up the game-installation process.

Other lab tests showed some SSDs improved frame-to-frame coherency during game play. Serious gamers play games at their maximum settings driving HD monitors. Whenever they experience low visual fidelity, they may blame the graphics processor, but the effects could in fact be caused by storage I/O bottlenecks.

Games typically load content in the background as the player traverses a level or progresses through a scene. When that happens, the game has to request data from the storage media. The longer this takes and the more the OS has to intervene, the greater the likelihood is that the user will notice and lose their sense of immersion. The game may appear choppy or contain frames that appear discontinuous as the rendering engine tries to keep up with the actual game-world clock. The game may stall if assets are not already loaded into graphics memory -- phenomena developers call it a “hitch.”

Hitches occur whenever 0.1 percent or less of total display pixels change for a duration of at least five frames. By measuring hitch density in conjunction with I/O traces during game runtime, it was determined that hitches are the result of storage I/O bottlenecks caused by the HDD. The tests revealed that the SSD responded with zero hitching, while the HDD yielded hitching 7 percent of the time

Hitch-free game play results in a better experience. Graphic transitions are smoother and, because there are no stalls during the game, players using SSDs enjoy a distinct competitive advantage over their opponents. SSD-enabled gamers will be able to arrive at their intended destination, pick up new weapons and be ready for action, but their less-fortunate rivals (the players using HDDs) will lose valuable seconds while waiting for the game engine to recover from a hitch.

Delivering More Immersive Gaming Experiences
Most games today were developed with HDDs in mind, and tests revealed that game engines aren’t optimized to exploit SSD performance. Games typically utilize only a fraction of an SSD’s full bandwidth.

Tapping into the full bandwidth and reduced latency offered by SSDs allows developers to add more detailed texture maps, higher resolution geometry and more assets within the field of view -- all while knowing that players will still experience fluid, hitch-free game play. Streaming more content at higher resolutions when SSDs are installed will result in more immersive game play.

Enhancing Developer Productivity and Creativity
Recognizing that SSDs represented an opportunity to boost operational efficiency, Digital Extremes, co-creators of Epic Games’ Unreal hit series of video games, replaced the 250 GB 7200 RPM hard drives in their programmers’ and artists’ workstations with 160 GB SSDs.

Digital Extremes found that deploying SSDs accelerated Xbox 360 build times by 47 percent, layout optimizations by 3.5 times, editor launch by 5.6 times, and uncompressed level loads by five times. These gains manifested in doubling the frequency of design iterations, giving artists and programmers opportunities to explore additional creative options, and enabled them to add features and make the game more fun.

Game developers are under pressure to contain production costs and meet incredibly demanding production schedules, while tightly managing their available resources. By enhancing operational efficiency, SSDs have had a direct, positive effect on Digital Extreme’s bottom line. Says Peter Alau, Digital Extremes’ vice president of business development: “If we can save a programmer a few minutes each time source code is compiled, we can save thousands of dollars every year.”

Screenshot: http://www.unrealtournament.com