Critical Mass: The Power of Mass Effect 3

Electronic Arts’ BioWare studio has come a long way since first launching Mass Effect on the PC. What began as an epic single-player experience has expanded into a new cooperative gameplay mode with Mass Effect 3. Up to four players can engage in exclusive co-op firefights on top of the epic conclusion of the single player campaign. And speaking of Epic, that game studio’s Unreal Engine 3 technology continues to push the visuals and gameplay experience of the franchise thanks to BioWare’s many technical implementations over the years.

The man responsible for guiding this bestselling space role-playing game, executive producer Casey Hudson, talks about Commander Shepard’s final confrontation with the Reapers in this exclusive interview.

John Gaudiosi: What were your goals heading into Mass Effect 3?

Casey Hudson: As the third in the trilogy, this really is the main event for us. It’s the beginning and the end of all the biggest events in the Mass Effect universe. With Mass Effect 3, we’re really focusing on improving the action experience. Delivering really intense action is a big part of the game. You’re going to see Commander Shepard doing combat roles, leaping over cover while running. We’ve got a whole bunch of things where you’re falling and climbing. There’s lots of little cinematic action moments built right into gameplay.

We also have a new melee weapon called the Omni-Blade. It really works a lot with the new agility that Shepard has where you’re able to reach over cover and around cover and do these skewering brutal finishing moves. Essentially, it’s like a switchblade version of a hologram. You can have this whole new level of brutal attacks as Commander Shepard.

J.G.: How are you evolving the franchise’s rich RPG experience?

C.H.: We really focused on providing that deep RPG experience that players remember from Mass Effect 1 and maybe thought was missing from Mass Effect 2. We want to add a lot of the customization and a lot of the decision-making as you progress through the levels.

For example, you’re now able to throw your weapon down on a workbench, take some of the weapons accessories that you found or bought, actually start plugging them in and physically see your weapon change as you’re adding these different things. We’re also doing things in terms of customizing your powers. As you start getting toward the higher power levels, they become evolved powers. From there, every time you advance one of your powers, you’re actually making a choice about which version of the power you want and what flavor. Again, you’re making decisions about how you want to play. It’s a much deeper RPG experience.

J.G.: How are you pushing the story forward with this swan song experience?

C.H.: The big thing that everyone wants to make sure we do is to really end the series on a high note. We want to make sure that we take this story and create the biggest possible ending to the series.

We’ve been talking about the coming war against the Reapers. Mass Effect 3 is the story about war. It’s a great place for new players to enter for that reason because you start out as Commander Shepard. You’re a marine on the earth. From there, the story really blows out into a full-scale galactic war. That’s the story that we’re telling here. We’re taking the most intimate relationships that you’ve developed over the course of the game and using that to really tell the biggest possible story we can.

J.G.: How have fans impacted the direction of this third game?

C.H.: We always try to listen and understand the way people have played our games, the way they get feedback. A lot of that has contributed to a focus on really enriching the role-playing aspects of the game. It also ties in with things like understanding favorite characters, how people want to see characters return and what they’re hoping to see in the story as we’re developing it throughout the course of the series.

J.G.: What role will the different choices that fans have made in previous games play in the culmination of the trilogy?

C.H.: For new players of Mass Effect 3, and even for players who’ve played previous games, we want to bring them into the story in such a way that we remind you of what’s happened in the story before. Of course, there has been a story leading into 3, but from there it becomes a self-contained story.

For those people who have played Mass Effect 1 and 2, you can start Mass Effect 3 by pulling in your saved game and the game will instantly know all the things that you’ve done before. You start out as your character. You look the way you did previously. From there, it knows who lived and died. It knows who you had friendships and romances with. Those things will actually change the way that you experience the story in Mass Effect 3.

J.G.: Do you have a favorite new enemy that players will be fighting in Mass Effect 3?

C.H.: A lot of the different enemies are going to have amazing new behaviors that really tie in with how you need to fight them as a squad. One of the cool new enemies -- one of our bigger types -- is called the Atlas Infantry Fighting Exoskeleton. These mechs are probably 20 feet tall and they’re piloted by a Cerberus trooper. If you’re able to destroy the trooper before you destroy the vehicle, you can actually get in the Atlas and control that mech as a vehicle and really dominate the battlefield. It’s one of the tactical decisions that are pretty fun for the player. As you’re fighting through a level, if there’s an Atlas, he’s pretty devastating to you and your squad as a player. If you can figure out how to get in there, then you will definitely dominate the battlefield.

J.G.: How have you evolved your technology from the first game to this one, and how has that improved the gameplay experience?

C.H.: We’ve been working on this series for quite a few years now and so much has changed. When we started, the Xbox 360 hadn’t even come out yet, but we still had to design a game for it.

Now, looking back, we’ve been working with the Unreal Engine 3 for quite a few years. Even with Mass Effect 3, we’ve been able to find huge new improvements to the performance. That’s allowed us to do everything from much better additional acting with the characters, better storytelling methods, but also just the overall ground pics, the cinematics. Those things can be better. We’re also spending some of that performance toward making the game richer in terms of more enemies onscreen, a lot more stuff going on, more people for you to fight.

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Photo: masseffect.com

CES 2012: More Powerful PCs and New Ways to Game

It was a record year across the board for the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES). More than 150,000 people converged in Las Vegas to check out gadgets, computers and electronics from more than 3,100 exhibitors from around the globe. Plenty of new computer technology and games were spread across the 1.85 million net square feet of show floor in the Las Vegas Convention Center and neighboring hotels. And for good reason, consumer electronics are forecast to top $1 trillion in 2012 for the first time, including more than $202 billion in the U.S. alone.

Ultrabooks were everywhere during the show, opening up new gaming capabilities for those on the go. Dell debuted its XPS 13 ultrabook, an 11-inch ultrabook that’s only 6 millimeters at its thinnest and features a carbon fiber base, which means it weighs less than three pounds. Future ultrabook laptops will implement tablet features and have touch screens, voice recognition and longer battery life.

Innovation is always a key driver at CES, but this year there were plenty of leftover trends from the past few shows. 3D isn’t going away. In fact, there were more large-screen autostereoscopic (glasses-free) 3D devices than ever before from big companies like Sony, LG, Samsung and Panasonic.

Although it will still be years before price points on these devices come down for the mainstream, new laptops from Toshiba (Qosmio F755 3D) and new smartphones bring the third dimension to smaller screens at an affordable price. Stereoscopic 3D has seen price drops and larger, thinner screens. There is also continued support for 3D content, something that has been sorely lacking thus far, in the form of new Blu-ray 3D movies from Hollywood studios and new games for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

will evolve as well.

All photos: Getty Images

Get Chip’d: DIG Joins the Syndicate

Back in 1993, Syndicate was a hit PC strategy game from Electronic Arts set in the distant future. Come February 12, 2012, what’s old will be new again with Starbreeze Studios’ remake of the sci-fi classic. The new update runs on the latest proprietary Starbreeze game engine and transforms the story into a blend of action and strategy through a first-person shooter perspective.

Set in 2069, the game puts players in control of Miles Kilo, a prototype agent working for Eurocorp, one of three competing syndicates out to rule the world. Armed with the DART 6 bio-chip, gamers can breach, or hack, into enemies and do much more than just shoot up rooms. And there’s a four-player co-op mode that adds multiplayer breaching options to the shooter genre. Here, John Miles, art director of Syndicate at Electronic Arts, talks about developing the new game.

How did you go about updating the original for today’s PC gaming audience?

John Miles: Syndicate, as you know, is an original game from 1993. It’s something that, internally, EA has always been really passionate about recreating, and it’s been milling around as a concept for quite a long time. Eventually, we partnered with Starbreeze, who we thought would be a great company to work with because of their dark, Machiavellian-style worlds. We created a first-person shooter set within the world of Syndicate, which brings all of the action back and puts players in the first-person video of actually being an agent.

Can you talk about the setting of this game?

J.M.: You play in the future -- 2069 -- and the game is set in New York City and Los Angeles. It’s a world where the governments have fallen and corporations have taken over and control everybody. As a consequence, the industrial espionage that’s going on between these corporations is unparalleled. You play as an agent, Miles Kilo, and you’re doing missions for the Eurocorp corporation.

What have you added to the actual first-person shooter experience?

J.M.: It’s not just a simple first-person shooter. The whole thing with Syndicate is that, in the future, everyone has a chip inside their head. These chips connect them to the dataverse. As an agent, you have unparalleled access to other people’s chips. You can breach them and cause them to do things like commit suicide. You can also persuade them to fight alongside you or just do simple things like breach elements in the environment, like objects and doorways. You can also cause weapons to backfire and jam.

When it comes to the shooter genre, what are the challenges of creating something new?

J.M.: This is an incredibly competitive space, and we wanted to do something that felt like it was very true to the Syndicate world. Having the ability to breach -- and to use an IPA adrenaline conversion to slow down time and let you see through the dataverse and see their neural networks -- adds an additional layer of complexity and interest to the gameplay. You’re both firing the weapons but also kind of breaching characters.

What kind of online or multiplayer experience will you guys have for this title?

J.M.: We’re focusing on the single player, but also we’ve got a fantastic four-player co-op experience as well, where you get to play with three other friends in these exciting, interesting environments in this world.

What will the hardcore PC gamer like about this game?

J.M.: The cool thing with Syndicate is we’ve really tried to cater to the hardcore shooter fan. It’s not just a linear-driven game where you experience only cinematic moments. It’s a rich, challenging experience. With the layering on top of that, plus breaching and the chip technology, it just makes it a much richer and more engaging experience.

What role have the advances in technology played in allowing you to bring this much different experience to gamers?

J.M.: The big development over the last 20 years is that we can make a much more visceral first-person experience. We have a rich experience where the AI of the characters is very interesting and plays out in different ways. There’s much more than just shooting in this game. You get different opportunities presented just by the kind of AI the characters and the enemies employ.

Do you have a favorite strategy you employ in this game?

J.M.: One of the cool things in Syndicate is the ability to persuade characters to fight on your side. If you’re in a gunfight and you’re getting overwhelmed by the enemy, you can choose to slow down time, breach one of the other characters, turn them to your side, and then they start fighting the enemy for you. This allows you to build your allies, which helps you overcome these huge waves of people.

Image: ea.com

Getting Acquainted With the 3D Generation

High-definition gaming is on the cusp of a visual evolution. The past year’s introduction and slow proliferation of 3D-enabled games, displays and laptops suggests that the next major frontier is on the horizon.

Whether 3D moves beyond a stylistic evolution and becomes a revolution, though, has yet to be seen. As some developers and players note, the unique visual effect of 3D -- with the initial disorientation of viewing a scene with an illusion of depth and then continuing to direct the action -- can take some getting used to. However, the PC games that have made the jump to 3D run the gamut, including StarCraft II, Call of Duty: Black Ops, World of Warcraft and Duke Nukem Forever.

Leading graphics card manufacturers have released platforms that comprise cards, drivers and glasses that allow developers to optimize their games in 3D, or players to apply 3D to their existing games. Studies show that game ratings measurably increase as new effects such as 3D are added to a game. So now that 3D is here, adding it to a game may only help.

PC developers need to spend much less time tweaking the rendering effects in their games, as opposed to more than several months to rewrite a console game engine from the ground up to support 3D. And Mick Hocking, a vice president at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe and the head of the company’s 3D initiative, says that while some of the technology used to produce high-quality 3D displays has existed for a long time, it’s only recently become available at a consumer price point.

With these things in mind, what do developers who are interested in 3D need to know?

Getting the Basics

A common misconception is that 3D only works for certain genres of games, like shooters that require judgments in depth, or slow-moving games that afford players more time to enjoy the view. But it’s more about figuring out how the specific aspects of 3D can be best applied to a given game.

“It’s not just about adding depth to a game,” says Hocking. The basic principle of 3D is displaying two separate images: one for the left eye and one for the right eye.

Using a technique called full-frame dual-camera 3D, this means rendering two camera positions set a certain distance apart, seen through shutter glasses. Another technique called reprojection, 2D-to-3D conversion, or virtual 3D, creates the image by offsetting the pixels in the original game frame to the left and right.

Achieving a comfortable level of depth means setting the left and right images at the proper distances to achieve positive parallax (depth in the screen) and negative parallax (depth in front of the screen). In the real world, eyes are parallel when viewing an object at the horizon. Exceeding comfortable limits by placing distant images too far left and right can result in an image that goes beyond parallel with the eyes, asking them to look outward. Bringing an object too far out of the screen compels the player’s eyes to rotate inward. In terms of depth, a basic balance must be met between excitement and comfort.

“Mostly when we produce 3D, we have the main object of interest near the plane of the screen,” says Hocking. “We have a nice sense of depth going in the screen, which is typically how you’ll play most of the game.”


Moving Into the Next Dimension

PC monitors have an advantage over TVs in being able to display 3D at 1080p60. Although glasses-free monitors and televisions are emerging, and passive polarized glasses present a less bulky option, the current standard is set by combinations of active shutter glasses and 120Hz 3D displays.

Hocking says that glasses-free screens currently suffer from limited viewing angles, limited depth -- meaning that one needs to be sitting at a sweet spot for the effect to work -- and effects like shimmering or ghosting. There is still some debate about the level of eye strain caused by an active shutter setup. But passive 3D displays that use polarized glasses -- as in movie theaters -- cut the resolution in half, so games that rely on details such as text, maps and items will suffer from the more garbled image.

Anti-ghosting is another important consideration. A monitor with an insufficiently fast response time leaves a double image in the eye, a sort of shadow effect that stresses the player. According to developer Phil Nowell of Ready at Dawn Studios, ghosting is also much less prominent on passive displays compared to active displays. Considering that image resolution is especially important in many PC games, however, this may be a necessary tradeoff. Artistic decisions can also affect ghosting: Jim Van Verth, an engine programmer at Insomniac Games, found that ghosting occurs often when a bright section of the screen sits next to a very dark section.

3D as an Art Form

3D presents a number of creative challenges and questions, which will only increase as more developers use it. Convergence -- where the focal point of a scene is, determining its range of depth -- affects both gameplay and cut scenes. The specific camera implementation in a game -- whether it’s a fully controllable first-person camera, a third-person camera with a fixed distance to the avatar, or a static isometric camera -- naturally makes this more or less complicated.

Using negative parallax to suddenly bring an image out of the screen is perhaps the archetypal 3D effect. Hocking recommends restricting this to dramatic moments,as it isn’t comfortable to view for long; it may be ideal for cut scenes, where users can’t control the camera. Bringing HUD or other important UI elements just out of the screen can also be a simple but effective use of 3D.

Another basic principle is easing the player into various levels of depth with subtle transitions. “We found that when we did a camera cut from a really deep scene, we needed to just flatten everything and slowly let it expand,” says Nowell. “Otherwise people go, ‘Ah, that was a camera cut; I’m playing a game.’” Objects protruding out from the sides of the screen are also visually disruptive, as they call attention to the real-world borders of the image.

Poorly implemented 3D “feels horrible to view,” says Hocking. “It can have many problems. There can be uncomfortable depth to view, and there can be misalignment between the images. There could be a poor-quality screen that’s being used. It could be adding 3D where 3D doesn’t really need to be added to the experience.”

On the other hand, when used the right way, even intrinsic aspects of 3D can make the difference between a promising scenario and an immersive encounter. A greater sense of depth has a tangible benefit to the player in a baseball or tennis game, for example, while a clearer sense of scale can change how a massive building or boss creature is perceived.

It’s a common sentiment that 3D game development, as a creative approach, is in its very earliest stage. Experts and developers speculate on using 3D to deliver a true sense of vertigo by controlling the rate of change of convergence planes or amplifying its shock value in survival horror games. In one innovative use of 3D technology, Sony is experimenting with allowing active shutter wearers to play together on one screen by having one player view the 2D left image and one player view the right. When it comes to 3D development, the horizon’s the limit.

Photo Credit: @iStockphoto.com/domeniko

The Devil in the Details: Technical Artist Julian Love on Diablo III

Lead technical artist Julian Love is a nine-year Blizzard veteran. He’s been working on Diablo III almost as long as fans have been waiting for the game. We spoke to Love about the long-gestating project, Blizzard’s approach to making games and the role of the technical artist in development.

DIG: What has your role been in the development of Diablo III?

Julian Love: I lead the technical art team, which wears many hats and has a kind of broad effect across the entire game. We collaborate with pretty much every department, sometimes in a support role. For instance, we support the background artists in terms of being able to develop the backgrounds, and the character artists and the animators. We also work very collaboratively with the design team and programming departments in order to create the skills and skill system.

DIG: Can you describe the job of the technical artist?

J.L.: We’re a collection of artists that also have a better grasp on the technical side. We’re not afraid of programming or programmers. We understand how the engines work and can guide the programmers in terms of helping them understand what the artists need.

So in that sense, it’s a bridging role between art and programming. But in our team, it’s also a bridging role between art and design. We can see both sides of things -- the programming side and the art side. And sometimes that’s the view that you need to find out how to actually get where you want to go.

DIG: Is usability frequently part of the discussion? Does game design come into the equation for you?

J.L.: Sure. Combat is what we work on, and most of the effects in the game. Most of the role of effects in all games is to spell out the mechanics of the gameplay. That’s the first rule.

We’re not just there to make cool explosions and zombie barf. We do that. But the area that the zombie barf paints when it hits the ground is significant. It’s not just any zombie barf. Sure, I get to pick what kind of chunks I want to go in there. But, you know, it’s got to show, “This is what’s going to happen and it is in this big of an area.” And we have to serve the design first in order for it to feel right and be successful. So that isn’t going to happen unless we’re really big fans of game design. And that we’re really tied in and connected with that department to a high degree.

DIG: It must be tricky to make sense of all the stuff happening onscreen when you have multiple players and monsters all casting spells. Do you have a chart that says what kind of spell gets what kind of color?

J.L.: It’s actually a little more driven by concept. And the concept, in turn, does tend to allow us to have the kind of separation you’re talking about.

So when we sit down and design a class, we do talk at a really high level about what kind of themes we want to evoke with that class. And inevitably, there are certain color schemes that come out of that. And so we do end up with a little bit of a mental chart of colors that we would rather not have associated with a certain class. It’s kind of tough when you’re making runes -- like a 150-some-odd skills per class -- to avoid every color. But we do tend to exercise a certain amount of avoidance.

DIG: So the Witch Doctor is going to tend toward green or yellow.

J.L.: But because of his themes more so than anything else. He’s going to be throwing bugs and frogs and stuff like that at you. So that does kind of indicate a certain color thematic -- like acid cloud and those kinds of things. He’s got this big voodoo vibe, and so fire, poison and those kinds of things really feel like they belong strongly to him.

And when it came to something like the wizard, we are looking at it from a different angle -- this sort of cosmic magic theme. We wanted to make arcane feel ancient and powerful, so we kind of pick cosmic themes. And that led us to a lot of yellow and purple combinations. And blue lightning-type combinations. That allows us to get some separation both in terms of color and shape.

DIG: Is there a kind of flow between the teams where lessons are shared? How does that information exchange work?

J.L.: We look at games outside of Blizzard and lift things and we riff off of that stuff. It’s all good content. And we look at games inside Blizzard: World of Warcraft lifted a lot of stuff from Diablo in its design. And then they went and changed it and learned a bunch of lessons about it. And we look at that: “OK, what did you learn?” We borrow a little bit from that. There definitely is a lot of cross-team collaboration and discussion that goes on. And a lot of lessons learned that we can take advantage of.

DIG: I’m curious how that information flows through the company. Is there a meeting?

J.L.: There are those kinds of meetings. Within one discipline, the technical art leads and the technical artists meet on a regular basis to talk about what each of the teams are doing.

But I’ll tell you the way that it happens more often than that. We’re all huge fans of our own games. We all play the crap out of our own games. I play WoW. We all play it. And we all check out the cool stuff that they did. And we all get excited: “Oh, wow, they made this better. This feels cool. And I like how they treated the art in this area.” We get excited about it, and that stuff comes over to our team and vice versa.

We also have newsletters that go out once a month or once a week where we highlight what each of the teams are working on so we can kind of stay on top of new developments and even trade little secrets about technology or approaches.