The Development of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

With over 11 million subscribers worldwide, Blizzard Entertainment keeps online gamers coming back for more World of Warcraft (WoW) by consistently adding to the virtual world of Azeroth. Cataclysm is the most ambitious expansion to date for the massively multiplayer online (MMO) fantasy role-playing game. While most of the attention has been focused on the new 3D facelift that the game has undergone, Cataclysm is pushing the linear aspect of interactive entertainment forward with its Hollywood-inspired, in-game cinematics.

Much has changed at Blizzard Entertainment in a short period of time. “In the early days we were a much smaller group that came through school studying film,” says Jeff Chamberlain, project director at Blizzard Entertainment. “As we’ve grown, we’ve brought in a lot of the Hollywood talent, and they’ve been able to bring their experiences from those studios. It’s created a melting pot of Hollywood studios and video game developers, which has been very beneficial for us.”

One such person who migrated from Hollywood to the game world is Terran Gregory, associate director of Cataclysm. Gregory says that films’ 100-year history, including its more recent venture into computer animation, has given the craft a large head-start over video game storytelling. But the team at Blizzard has learned a lot from those years of filmmaking. “I would say gaming has probably learned about storytelling from Hollywood, and maybe Hollywood has learned a little bit about technology from gaming,” says Gregory.

Creating Deathwing
0Blizzard’s biggest endeavor yet on the cinematic front was introducing Deathwing to the WoW faithful and establishing what has become a very important character in the game universe. Marc Messenger, director for cinematics at Blizzard, says the role of pre-rendered cinematics goes beyond just watching the mini movies.

“We want the player to remember the cinematics and how they inform the in-game destruction to give a truly epic sense of what it would be like to stand in the presence of a thousand-foot wave or see fire streak across the sky,” explains Messenger.

The process for bringing cinematics to life starts with brainstorming a vision and idea. In a nutshell, Messenger says it’s about finding a way to succinctly convey the character of the current expansion and make it as cool as possible. “We just sit down and roll through a bunch of ideas,” says Messenger. “On Cataclysm, in the first meeting, the game team had a strong idea of what the expansion was going to be and we were able to get in sync pretty quickly.”

“Once Marc and the crew had their idea down, we functioned as a normal Hollywood animation studio,” says Chamberlain. “We storyboard everything, have a fast iteration process and then go through a series of reviews and approval processes. Once we are locked down on something we like, we start working like a normal animation studio with animation, modeling and the typical artistic departments.”

“One technology that we developed for Cataclysm was a new camera approach where we could actually get our 3D world using a motion-recorded camera so the director could film his subject in real time,” explains Chamberlain. “That added a little bit of flavor to the experience and made it more like a Hollywood project.”

“New tools have helped us make things more cinematic in the game through the use of cameras, as well as the control and manipulation in real time of actors that we can work through,” says Gregory. “It’s a different world working with the game itself, instead of just 3D. Being able to walk around the environment as if you’re on a set with the actors, and really have a feel of the space as you move them around, was important. We even had people piloting the characters around so it was like working with talent, instead of just working with objects.”

These new advances have allowed the team to improve the visual fidelity of the characters in cinematics. Improved facial animation was just one element that brought more believable characters to life in the game. And Gregory says technology is constantly evolving, which means the next round of cinematics will push the bar even higher.

Cinematics Going Forward

The ultimate goal of Blizzard’s cinematic teams is to get the player emotionally involved with the characters they’re interacting with as the story unfolds. Technology plays a crucial role in helping the programmers, artists and effects wizards conjure more believable and higher-fidelity characters to which gamers can connect and identify.

“It’s fascinating that we are at this place in time where we can move people emotionally through a video game,” says Chamberlain. “I don’t know if that could have been said 20 years ago at the dawn of video games. Now it seems like that line between simple gameplay and embracing a story is getting increasingly blurred. They’re becoming one and the same thing.”

The other line that’s becoming more blurred in video games is the one between cinematics and the gameplay experience.

“For in-game cinematics, there’s always the challenge of making the cinematic presentation not exclude the player,” says Gregory. “Technology plays a lot into that as we try and look for more ways to make the transition a seamless experience. With StarCraft II and Cataclysm, we’ve started to include the player’s character in the cut scenes. We’re just getting into that now, and the future looks really bright with new technologies allowing us to achieve that.”

Image Source: http://us.battle.net/wow/en/media/wallpapers/

Watching Nations Fall

The MMORPG is a classic PC game genre, one with a long and nuanced history. The biggest and arguably greatest of them is World of Warcraft, an RPG born from real-time strategy beginnings.

In Trion’s forthcoming MMO, End of Nations, the goal is to get back to those roots and create the very first massively multiplayer online RTS game. It’s an ambitious goal, one backed up with some incredibly detailed visuals and a powerhouse engine.

DIG had the opportunity to talk to End of Nations’ executive producer David Luehmann about the game’s development and his hopes for the future.

DIG: What is End of Nations?

David Luehmann: In a nutshell, End of Nations is a massive online, persistent, real-time strategy game. The game is set in a near future in which society as we know it has continued on the downward spiral until ultimately it fails and billions of lives are lost in the chaos that follows the collapse. 

DIG: So how is the gameplay for an MMORTS going to work?

D.L.: Internally, we actually think of it as an RTSMMO. Our canon is that it’s a great RTS that utilizes MMO features in a manner that improves upon the core RTS gameplay.

So in most ways it will be familiar to RTS players. There are two playable factions that have different units and abilities. The user interface will also be quickly recognizable and familiar to RTS players. The gameplay is best described as more tactical in focus, and there will still be resources that need to be managed, but players won’t have to optimize around build-order queues.

However, unlike traditional RTS games, everything is online, always online and persistent. For example, much like MMOs, there really isn’t a simple single-player campaign. There is a campaign mode, but it is very PVE/co-op focused and players will be bound to see other users as they play through the campaigns.

We also utilize other beneficial design constructs from MMOs, like the concept of leveling. So as users go through missions, they will earn persistent resources that can be used to unlock technology trees, new unit types, and new abilities -- and customize their units uniquely for each faction -- which in turn can then be used in both campaign and massive PVP battles.

DIG: What are some of the challenges you have faced in developing a massively multiplayer real-time strategy game?

D.L.: At a high level, the challenges fit into two categories: gameplay and technology. From a gameplay perspective, we need to focus on large-scale, moment-to-moment gameplay and avoid big build-order-based gameplay, as that won’t be fun for 50-plus players online together. We also want to be cautious of not turning it into an RPG with full loot dropping and character paper-dolls. Again, it’s an RTS game and we don’t want to muddy that focus.

For the technology side, the challenges really revolve around the core network architecture common in RTS games, typically peer-to-peer based. In a peer-based system, you are playing on a local game that is networked to other peers who are all doing the same thing, and the world state is shared amongst all players.

End of Nations is a pure client-server-based technology. You aren’t playing the game on your home computer, you are playing the game on a server in a data center, and your computer is just the client that is interfaced into the server. Another way of saying this is that your computer is a window through which you are seeing the game. This type of architecture is common for MMO games, as it allows for much larger numbers of users and helps with a bunch of anti-cheat challenges as well.

DIG: What are some of the key features we can expect to see in the game?

D.L.: There are three big feature buckets:

1. Scale, large scale co-op and competitive battles like you have never seen in an RTS game before, with lots of ways to team up with friends.

2. Persistence. Everything you do counts, but in the campaign mode and in the larger meta-game battles for territory. There will be thousands of players fighting for control of the world, and if you are part of big assault or are keeping the base safe -- what you do will matter.

3. Customization. This is both aesthetically and gameplay changing. What choices you make in building out your army, equipping it and upgrading units and abilities will be a big part of the strategy found in this game.

DIG: How are you balancing the MMO aspects with the RTS aspects?

D.L.: We address balancing through a couple of methods. The first is via a smart matchmaking/rewards system that takes rank, skill, clan, group and other player preferences into account in the big competitive battles. The second is really about embracing the differences between newer and more veteran players and employing design concepts in which there is a symbiotic relationship between new players and veterans.

DIG: How do you see the world and mechanics developing past launch?

D.L.: That’s very difficult to predict. First we’ll listen to our customers. We think of this as a service and, if there are particular features or needs that our customers have, we’ll want to address those.

Beyond that, we’ll certainly introduce new units, mods, areas, missions and new stories. Getting wilder, we could potentially release new factions -- or even wilder still, persistent player bases and the like.

DIG: End of Nations packs some serious visual firepower. What technology did you use to develop it?

D.L.: Everything you see is born from propriety tech created by our development partner Petroglyph or by our platform team here at Trion.

DIG: Has it been difficult to scale End of Nations? Are there any specific things you have done or used to ensure the game will run on legacy machines?

D.L.: Yes and yes! It has been difficult and there are many things we’ve done to keep the barrier to entry as low as possible. Technically we have a really solid rendering engine that can scale the complexity of all the visuals down to different levels of detail appropriate for older machines, and we’ve made design and platform decisions that will offload many of the logic needs to server. In this model the clients don’t need the entire world state in memory and/or have to calculate all the math, which really lowers the overhead on CPU and RAM.

DIG: When all is said and done, what is the one core thing you hope to accomplish with End of Nations
D.L.:
There’s a bunch of little goals all tied into this, but at the core I want to see us deliver a game that finds fans who think it simply kicks ass!

Dust 514 Brings MMO EVE Online Into the FPS Market

The upcoming game Dust 514,  an exclusive PlayStation 3 first-person shooter, will dramatically interact with the world of the MMORPG Eve. DIG sat down with producer Tom Farrer  to discuss PlayStation 3 exclusivity and some of the technical challenges of integrating a PS3 game into the PC game experience.

DIG: Why was it decided not to make Dust a PS3 exclusive, instead of bringing it to PC?

T.F.: For us, this was about bringing the universe of EVE to a new market, to a new kind of player. EVE is a fantastic game, but even we’ll admit it is quite complicated and has a very steep learning curve.
We want to be able to offer this incredible universe to people that perhaps don’t have the time to be able to sit down and learn all of these complex mechanics. We often hear a lot of people are very interested in our universe, but they simply don’t have the time to be able to sit down and really get into a hugely complex MMO. We thought the console platform would allow us to expand our audience.

DIG: So will Dust still speak to EVE players? Is there a common narrative thread, or sensibility, that they can pick up on?

T.F.: Absolutely. Both games are running on the same server, in the same universe, in real time. You can be orbiting a planet within the EVE client, and you’ll see the icons and markers that are representing battles that are going on on that surface at that particular moment in time.

As a corporation, you can also provide support. The connection isn’t just a meta-game connection; it’s a literal connection. The players within the EVE clients and the Dust clients on the PlayStation 3 can talk to each other on the local chat, and be in the same corporation. The equivalent in other games would be a guild. If you create one within Dust, it’s the same as creating one within EVE.

DIG: How much more work would you say is left before Dust is completed?

T.F.: Around the end of the year, we’ll be starting with the private, behind-closed-doors trials where we’ll start to test things and build things up, and we’ll continue to add more content. Around summer next year, we’ll release the game. And once we’ve released it, we’ll continue developing it, adding more and more content and features.

In a sense it’ll never be finished -- for a developer, in some ways, it’s fantastic because it means you never really have to cut anything. You just have to wait until ultimately you get to implement it. But then I suppose it’s also, “Ah! We’ll never be finished!”

DIG: Do you have a sense of some of the ways Dust will evolve over time, perhaps after a year or two from the release?

T.F.: I do. There are always so many ideas kicking around the company. When you’ve got that many creative people, you’re always going to have 101 million ideas. It’s always difficult to pick from them.

There are things that we want to do, and things we’re really interested in developing. But it comes down to seeing what the players do with the tools that we’ve given them. When we release the game and we start to see how players play, and how players use the tools we’ve thrown in a sandbox, it’s going to be that that influences where we take the game.

It would be arrogant for us to assume we would just know what the players would do, or what the players would want. We’ve been proved wrong before; we’ve been surprised before. As a company, that’s what we’re about: empowering the players and letting them drive the direction for the game.

DIG: How might the integration of Dust players into the world eventually change the feel of the EVE universe?

T.F.: I don’t know if it’s going to change the feel of the universe so much as just increase the depth and the complexity of the universe. For the longest time now, it’s been flying in space. And now, all of a sudden, there’s this new element.

I would see the games becoming more and more integrated with one another, to the point where we’re literally able to walk up and meet one another, rather than just talk on voice or communicate over text chat. I would hope it’s going to spur on a lot of exciting and dangerous conflict within the universe.

I would like to see interesting and unusual types of gameplay coming to the fore, with sabotage and infiltration of rival corporations. This isn’t something that you typically see within the shooter genre, and I think that bringing this type of gameplay into the universe of EVE is going to produce some really interesting results.

DIG: What kinds of technical challenges had to be solved in order to seamlessly integrate the console and PC experiences?

T.F.: Obviously we’ve got quite a bit of experience with networking, given EVE Online. Getting both games up and running on Tranquility, which is our supercomputer that we’re using to run both games -- some people would say it wasn’t as tricky as we expected it to be. But it was certainly tricky.

Really, we were expecting it to be harder than it was, in terms of linking the PlayStation 3 and the PC together. That was one of the reasons why we wanted to have a partnership with the platform holder, because of the things that we needed to do to be able to link the console network with our PC network. We needed to bend a few rules, break a few rules -- which traditionally you can’t when you’re working with a console platform. That partnership’s been very beneficial for us.

DIG: How exactly have you been playing around with the rules?

T.F.: It’s kind of all over the place. For example, something that’s very important within an MMO like EVE is that your identity is essentially a secret. Typically within a console game, your identity is broadcast to all players. Your console’s identity is your in-game identity. That’s not something that we want within our universe, because -- it may sound silly or even nasty -- but it’s important that you can backstab your friends, if you want to. It’s these kinds of behaviors that will actually create interesting and meaningful social interactions.

Screenshot: http://dust514.org/

A War on Two Fronts: MMO EVE Online Expands Into the FPS Market

EVE Online, perhaps the most notorious -- if not the most popular -- MMORPG, is no stranger to drama. Widely reported conflicts -- such as one group’s hostile infiltration of corporate assets, or a corporate leader’s expensive defection to a rival player group -- have established EVE as a genuine frontier where just about anything goes.

But for this reason, and as a high-end reworking of PC classic Elite, it is also one of the least accessible and most intimidating games being played. That may change with the upcoming expansion Dust 514, which is unorthodox in every sense. It’s a first-person shooter that takes place on the planets, and around the planetary installations, of EVE’s New Eden universe -- and it’s exclusive to the PlayStation 3. EVE and Dust players will be able to collaborate as ship owners and their hired mercenaries, respectively. The idea, according to CCP, is to open the floodgates to an entirely new audience.

DIG spoke to Tom Farrer, producer at CCP, about the goals and promise of the upcoming game, which is due out next summer. In this first part, Farrer discusses the basics of Dust and the goals CCP has in mind during its development.

DIG: What is the new game about? Do you think of it as an expansion, a parallel game, or both as part of a larger work?

Tom Farrer: One of the mantras that we have is, “One universe, one war.” Dust is a persistent shooter for PlayStation 3, and it’s quite literally set within the universe of the PC MMO EVE Online. They’re not just connected -- Dust literally is in that universe of New Eden. That’s the universe that’s already populated with hundreds of thousands of players, and has been alive for seven or eight years now.

If we look at how CCP works as a company, we don’t just fire and forget. It’s about continuous development with continuous support for our player base. If we look at all of the many expansions that we’ve had for EVE Online, we’ll see with the Dominion expansion, we worked with all of the planet shaders and we started to make the planets look more beautiful. You couldn’t do anything with them; they just looked better. After a little while came Tyrannis, and suddenly you could interact with those planets. You could create infrastructure on the surface. That was it -- there was no conflict involved. It’s that conflict over the planets that Dust brings to the universe.

DIG: What does the title, Dust 514, refer to?

T.F.: That’s actually something we don’t talk about. That’s a secret. It’s been a lot of fun watching the various posts and discussions that have been going on online.

DIG: What are the main goals of the game for the player?

T.F.: I suppose the player has myriad goals. This isn’t something you pick up and play for a week and then stop. Ultimately you’ll begin in high-security space, where you’re reasonably safe and you can learn the ropes -- right up until you can develop your character and your skills that you train, your gear, and your role on the battlefield. You’ll meet friends, form a corporation.

It’s at this point that you’re earning enough currency within the game, ISK, to be able to start looking at planetary domination, trying to get a foothold on a planet. Maybe you’ll start fighting other planets and start developing infrastructure on those planets that you’ll need to protect. You’ll start recruiting people to your corporation. Your corporation grows larger, you start to conquer more territory, but now it’s getting too large. It’s harder to manage, so you become part of an alliance of corporations.

And this is where it starts to get bigger and bigger. Because to gain the maximum benefits from controlling a planet, you’ll also need to have control of the orbit of a planet, so you’ll want to start working with pilots in EVE, being part of the same corporations and the same alliances.

Ultimately the work that you’re doing will impact a mechanic called sovereignty, which means that you can start to not only take control of the planets, but also entire systems within the universe.

Our goal was to create a gaming experience that had more meaning. As players ourselves, we really wanted to play a shooter where it was about more than abstract reward mechanics, just bumping up and down a leaderboard and maybe unlocking some gear.

DIG: What about the decision to go with this particular genre -- a first-person shooter?

T.F.: For us, the first-person shooter, when you’re on the surface of planets, provides a very visceral and exciting experience: putting yourself within the body of the mercenary you’re fighting. When you’re not in battle, we actually switch out to third person. When you’re within your mercenary quarters, in your space station or in the war barge orbiting your planet, that’s where you’ll be able to interact with other characters. In the battlefield, we wanted you inside your character’s helmet, really feeling the excitement of the battlefield, and feeling like you were a part of it.

Dust514 Screenshot: http://dust514.org/

Transformational Force Meets Threaded Objects

There’s a revolution going on, and the good guys are winning. They’re not setting up barricades of burning tires, so don’t be alarmed. They aren’t after your stash of survival seeds, either. All they want to do is democratize interactive 3D technology across every major device and market. And they apparently won’t stop until every entrepreneur who has an idea for a cool new game or application has downloaded the Unity Engine and put it to the test.

Millions of Internet users have already interfaced with the Unity Web Player to experience a netbook app or play a game on a handheld device. Paying customers for the Unity Engine include Coca-Cola, Microsoft and NASA, while hundreds of thousands of individuals have hooked up for the free individual license.

The Unity Engine is also good enough to attract top studios -- such as Electronic Arts (EA), publisher of Tiger Woods Online -- and flexible enough to support Web browsers, smartphones, netbooks, laptops, desktops and more. The same code base can compile across multiple markets, yielding potentially lucrative hits and relatively inexpensive misses.

Based in San Francisco, Unity has experienced tremendous growth since its founding in 2006. By September 2010, Unity 3.0 had debuted to wide acclaim among its enthusiastic user base.

A Transformational Force
Unity 3.0 was a major step forward for users, with built-in Beast lightmapping and occlusion culling, a debugger, a full editor overhaul, and stunning performance gains. Unity optimized the graphics pipeline and achieved a performance increase on the order of 40 to 60 percent across the board. They added dozens of new features and more than 100 enhancements.

The release was celebrated in the growing user community, as revealed on the Unity discussion boards. It was almost a statement as much as a release: “With Unity 3, we’re demonstrating that we can move faster than any other middleware company,” says Steffen Toksvig, the development director at Unity Technologies.

The release brought so many new features and upgraded technologies to bear that it moved the needle on application building in general. Toksvig says it showed a fundamental commitment to the industry and the customer: “We’re serious about the long term, because high technology made simple is a transformational force.”

“With Unity 3, we spent a lot of time refactoring our code to make it easy to add new platforms that we can publish to while keeping a single authoring environment. We split up the runtime code in such a way that we can do platform-specific optimizations and make sure that Unity runs optimally everywhere,” says Toksvig.

The Hits Keep Coming
Unity 3.1 appeared in late 2010 and regular, predictable updates are guaranteed to follow. That cadence has fueled tremendous growth in the company. “We’ve been seeing hypergrowth,” says Toksvig. “We’re now nearing 300,000 developers and 40 million installs of our player.”

The flagship feature of Unity 3.1 is the Unity Asset Store. Accessed directly within Unity, it is the way developers get assets for their games. The store launched with around 70 existing packages included, and from now on, it’ll be the prime repository for art, tutorials, scripts and libraries.

What’s Your Idea?
“We had great dreams when we started Unity,” says Joachim Ante, one of Unity’s founders and its chief technology officer. “We had the vision of democratizing game development and enabling everyone to create rich, interactive 3D.” Ante and his co-founders, David Helgason and Nicholas Francis, knew such a powerful tool could completely disrupt the game engine market, but that was part of the idea.

Unity is still growing. User downloads happen continually, 24-7, because that entrepreneurial spirit is a powerful global dream. Create the right app, and you could laugh your way to the bank. Figure out what the market needs before it knows what to look for, and you can guide a new industry. It used to be called the “American Dream,” but now it’s gone viral. Racing, golf, puzzles, bird identification or volcano snooping -- there’s no way to predict the next killer app.

“We have a remarkable community of developers,” says Ante. “They range from 14-year-old kids creating amazing content to the EAs of the world creating super-polished products. This is what continues to blow my mind -- that it is actually possible to create a platform that supports such a wide range of users.”

Photo Credit: http://unity3d.com/