Epic Games’ Cliff Bleszinski Gets Unreal

Epic Games put on quite a show at this year’s Game Developers Conference. Every day, designers and publishers checked out the technology behind the new Unreal Engine 4 game development framework. Meanwhile, journalists watched demos of games powered by Unreal Engine 3, including the new Infinity Blade: Dungeons and the pumped-up version of Mortal Kombat. Not to mention that some of the most popular games at GDC 2012 were running on Unreal Engine 3, including Hawken, the free-to-play PC shooter, and TERA, the massively multiplayer online action fantasy game.

Cliff Bleszinski, the company’s design director, is at the heart of Epic’s new game development. DIG caught up with him before he went on to host the 2012 Game Developers Choice Awards.

Can you explain what it is that you are doing now that you’re involved in so many different projects at Epic?

Cliff Bleszinski: I’m trying to maintain productivity while having my fingers in many different pies. As a person who’s slightly ADD, that can be tricky at times. Thankfully, I have a good management staff to help keep me focused.

What I do the majority of the time is I bust out work on Fortnite. I have a lot of meetings, but I also try and make time for free play. So if Donald Mustard -- the co-founder and creative director at ChAIR Entertainment, Epic Games’ award-winning studio -- comes to town with a new Infinity Blade idea or proposal, I can make time to see his stuff as well. And hopefully sprinkle a little bit of that fun magic on top of it.

What excites you about the game industry today?

C.B.: The fact that if you’re a 17-year-old kid right now and you have an Internet connection and you’re somewhat dev-savvy, you can go get something like Unreal Development Kit and you could be the next overnight sensation if you are smart and play your cards right. Now, with a fully connected Internet and developers checking out indie games and the Independent Games Festival going on next door, the chance for visibility is higher than ever. I always say the brass ring is there, and it’s up to you as a young gamer to seize it.

Speaking of the Independent Games Festival, what opportunities does it offer to developers?

C.B.: There’s actually a real-world instance where a game, which years ago was called Narbacular Drop, got picked up by Valve. I think Kim Swift, now chief creative officer at Airtight Games, was one of the developers. That game ultimately evolved into Portal, which of course is now the beloved global sensation that we all adore.

I’m going to be there Tweeting about games that I think are cool. I’m going to be spreading the word to my 150,000 followers, and maybe somebody else who’s a developer is over there talking to his followers. This is such an organic world where the good stuff can rise up more than ever and the bad stuff sinks away. It wasn’t like that 20 years ago. You had to really fight, kick and claw your way to the top of the heap back then.

What role does the Unreal Development Kit play in this new gaming ecosystem?

C.B.: Well, UDK is the toolset for a young developer to really get cracking. I’ve told many people before that if I could go back in time and have UDK when I was 17, I would have killed for it. One thing Tim Sweeney (the founder of Epic Games) realized very, very early on is that by empowering creatives who may not necessarily be that tech-savvy, he can get a lot of great results and also have developers be more efficient. That’s something that’s carried out through Unreal technology all the way through Unreal Engine 4.

Photo: @Getty.com/Mark Davis

What Lies Beneath the Sea: Shooting in Stereo 3D

Scott Cassell and Dave Faires are on a mission. Cassell is a wildlife filmmaker and underwater explorer. Faires is his director of photography. Together, they’re out to help marine researchers, educators, students and “citizen scientists” discover and safeguard what lies beneath the ocean. As Cassell puts it: “People are motivated to preserve and protect the things they understand and appreciate.”

To accomplish this, the duo has been documenting Cassell’s underwater adventures using cutting-edge digital video technology. So when Cassell attempted to break a world record by swimming underwater from Catalina Island to the California coast -- a dive of 30 miles -- they assembled a support crew and armed them with an array of 2D and S3D video cameras, which included Sony XDCAMs, Sony HXR-NX3D1Us, Panasonic AG-3DA1s, a Panasonic HDC-Z10000 and multiple GoPro 3D Hero rigs. In addition, they used Canon EOS 7D Digital SLRs to shoot both 2D still pictures and HD video. Their documentary, 30-Mile-Dive, is currently in production.

“We decided to complement traditional 2D video with stereoscopic 3D (S3D) footage because it has such a powerful effect on audiences,” says Faires. “We had cameras everywhere you looked. A Sony XDCAM caught the action above water from the deck of our boat. On the tow sled, we had 2D and S3D cameras covering Scott. The support divers used helmet cams.”

Underwater Shooting in S3D: The Challenges

files for digital projection in theaters with RealD S3D technology. “Our goal has always been to produce, shoot, edit and finish 30-Mile-Dive in 2D and S3D for broadcast and theatrical release using cameras and lenses characteristically not designed for the cinema,” says Faires.

“We feel we have a compelling documentary on the declining state of the ocean and how we need to pay attention to her,” he adds. “If her health goes away, so do we.”

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Tapping Into the Power: Graphics Performance Analyzers

Creative enthusiasts working with entertainment media such as HD video need highly responsive tools that sustain the creative flow. After all, waiting for an effect to render or suffering through herky-jerky video playback are sure ways to squelch inspiration.

So tapping into the full performance potential of today’s desktops, laptops, tablet PCs and mobile computing architectures -- and eliminating latency-inducing bottlenecks -- is essential for media application developers. These are typically daunting time- and resource-intensive tasks.

Fortunately, a number of powerful developer tools can help streamline the process of analyzing and optimizing media and other graphics-intensive applications. For example, Graphics Performance Analyzers (GPA) allow developers to increase the parallelization of their code, readily identify and eliminate hotspots and bottlenecks and accelerate media encoding, decoding, preprocessing and transcoding operations across a variety of platforms, including legacy and the current second-generation processor family.

Making an Impact With Performance
Optimization is a critical part of the product development workflow, especially for media application developers. For example, ArcSoft -- a leading developer of video editing, conversion and application sharing -- devotes 50 percent of its development cycle to the optimization process. Why is optimization so important? It all boils down to performance.

“Today’s users don’t want to wait for effects to render or videos to load,” says Yanlong Sun, ArcSoft’s deputy general manager of video and home entertainment. “Tapping into the performance of processor architecture through fine-tuning and optimization means that users don’t need to wait.”

Optimization is also a top priority for Corel, one of the world’s top software companies. “Platform optimization is fundamental to our development,” explains Jan Piros, senior strategic product manager at Corel. “A significant amount of our effort goes into this because the gains made can be felt throughout many of our features. It’s an effort whose impact is multiplied throughout the software and is of great benefit to the user.”

With each new generation of processor, more cores are added to a single piece of silicon. To make use of all that processing power, software developers tune and optimize their code for multicore, multithreaded operations. This allows the software to utilize all available cores and threads on a system, helping boost performance in the process.

Getting the Numbers
Zeroing in on the exact cause of any particular latency -- when hundreds of modules and millions of lines of code are involved -- is like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack. Discovering bottlenecks and analyzing CPU and graphics workloads at the system, task and intra-frame levels can help save developers a significant amount of time during optimization and development of their application.

GPA provides developers with a suite of analysis tools for visualizing and optimizing applications efficiently from the system level all the way down to individual elements, such as draw calls within a single video frame. In addition, GPA lets developers experiment and actually see performance opportunities from optimizations without making source code changes with a standalone GPA Frame Analyzer tool.

Case Study: ArcSoft
ArcSoft -- a leading developer of multimedia imaging technologies and applications for desktop and embedded platforms -- creates software for smartphones, feature phones, tablets, PCs, smart TVs and cameras. They know that optimization is a crucial portion of their development cycle.

GPA was instrumental in allowing ArcSoft to parallelize the core engine used in both ShowBiz and MediaConverter. “Parallel tasking gives our users the ability to simultaneously output finished content to, say, YouTube and a handheld device format,” says Sun. “GPA gave us a frame-by-frame GPU analysis to help us improve our decode and encode pipelines. Multicore, multithreaded processor technology significantly reduces the conversion time. The user can now convert four or more files concurrently while leaving the processor free for other tasks.”

Case Study: Corel
Corel, one of the world’s top software companies with more than 100 million active users in more than 75 countries, develops innovative products that are easy to learn and use. Corel VideoStudio Pro X4, its flagship video-editing software, offers video makers of all skill levels a comprehensive set of video-editing tools, along with plug-ins for rock-steady video stabilization and broadcast-quality titles, animations and graphics.

In developing VideoStudio Pro X4, Corel engineers used GPA to achieve optimal load balancing between CPU and GPU media-processing pipelines. “The decode/encode functions allowed us to achieve very fast transcoding speed, as well as fast read-back between video and system memory,” says Chung-Tao Chu, director of development at Corel.

GPA helped Corel engineers identify bottlenecks and hot spots by analyzing modules related to a single feature or feature set instead of having to look at the entire VideoStudio Pro code base. Once identified, bottlenecks were eliminated, resulting in code optimized for performance and multicore scalability. “It lets us deliver a video editor with a smooth and responsive creative experience that really wasn’t possible with previous-generation chips,” says Piros.

Corel’s new MotionStudio 3D is an easy-to-use 3D and motion-graphics application that makes titles and graphics for video. “MotionStudio is very graphics-intensive,” says Chung-Tao. “Looking ahead to future releases, we can absolutely see where GPA will help optimize our very complex and computing-intensive graphics.”

Image: corel.com

The Crossroads of Art and Technology: Creating The Creators Project

Technology has revolutionized social interaction, giving individuals unprecedented access to global distribution channels. Thanks to incredible advances in content creation technologies and multithreaded processors, today’s artists, musicians, filmmakers and designers are reshaping the boundaries of creative expression.

The Start

The Creators Project, founded in part by Vice Media, was started to showcase innovative artists and enable them to realize new artwork. “The Creators Project celebrates the connection between art and technology,” says David Haroldsen, a creative director for the project. “We set out to give people who use computers every day a look at artistic experiences that are only possible because of technology.”

“The Creators Project is about cultivating artists from around the world and exploring the boundaries of creativity as well as the role technology plays in the process,” adds Hosi Simon, general manager at Vice Media. With offices in more than 30 countries, Vice is uniquely positioned to draw from its relationship among the global art community and identify cutting-edge interdisciplinary artists.

When The Creators Project launched in 2010, Vice used a variety of media -- including television, print, online and mobile outlets -- to document the work of more than 100 creators to date, hailing mostly from seven countries (Brazil, China, France, Germany, South Korea, United Kingdom and United States). “In 2011, we pushed that concept forward by showcasing their work at events around the world, and by getting involved with the creators, their future and their creative process,” says Simon. “But we wanted to go beyond telling their stories. We wanted to help them take their work to the next level.”

The Studio

The Studio, an ongoing arts initiative supported by The Creators Project, was created to do just that. “Think of The Studio as an art foundation,” says Simon. “It offers creators the means to realize their artistic visions. We foster interdisciplinary collaborations and give them access to the latest technology. Then we disseminate the work using a number of media channels and an event series.”

The event series kicked off at Milk Studios in New York City and then moved to London, Sao Paulo and Seoul, culminating in a three-day exposition in Beijing. “We learned a lot in those first events,” says Simon. “They were all-day, all-night affairs with everything from a film festival to panel discussions where creators explained how they do what they do. We had some of the best bands -- amazing bands -- playing. In New York City, we had MIA, Interpol, Mark Ronson -- and we had incredible art installations -- all in one building. Frankly, it was too much to experience in a single day. That led us to planning multiday events.”

Coachella

In 2011, The Creators Project was the first-ever creative partner for Coachella -- one of the world’s premier music and arts festivals -- and reimagined the event by creating groundbreaking visual experiences. The project collaborated with acts such as Arcade Fire and Interpol to enhance their performances. It also unveiled a series of original, large-scale artworks, including United Visual Artists’ reinvention of Coachella’s main stage and Muti Randolph’s Sahara Tent installation. For the first time, The Creators Project billed international bands from China, Korea and Brazil and also showcased interactive works by Mark Essen, Lumpens, Feng Mengbo and Hojun Song in The Creators Project tent.

The original artworks created for Coachella were unveiled as the first series of projects from The Studio. For example, J. Spaceman (from Spiritualized, a U.K.-based space rock band) and Jonathan Glazer (director of Radiohead’s OK Computer video and the film Sexy Beast) created a light and sound installation. The installation was a physical manifestation of Spiritualized’s iconic track “Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space,” and was presented in a cathedral-like space designed by the architecture firm Undisclosable. 

“I had an interesting conversation with Jonathan Glazer,” says Simon. “He was amazed that, despite the technical difficulties, the finished project was exactly what he had envisioned. So often, projects end up being only a third as good as the original idea. Vice and The Creators Project stood behind Glazer’s and Spaceman’s idea 100 percent.”

Joining Up

To become part of The Creators Project and The Studio, check out the application process on The Creators Project website. Notes Haroldson: “We are enabling artists all over the world to build new things with the caveat that they need to push technology.”

“Visual experience is our top-level brief,” says Simon. “It’s not enough that someone be a great electronic musician. There also has to be a visual element. And it’s essential that the Creators want to be involved because this only works if the Creators are enthusiastic. We’re not paying them to be part of the project.”

“We have a mix of emerging artists and leading artists,” continues Simon. “There has to be some aspirational aspect to The Creators Project for emerging artists to get included in the program and feel like, ‘Wow, I’m hitting the big leagues.’”

Globally, that approach helps artists who are well-established in their home countries to gain exposure abroad. “We can help a Chinese artist get recognized in the U.K., for example,” says Simon. “The same goes for someone like Diplo, who’s arguably quite famous in the States -- but by being featured on The Creators Project website, his profile gets a couple million hits in China.”

The Creators Project is a balance between passion for the arts and an intimate connection with technology, as well as the culture surrounding the two. By supporting and showcasing emerging and established Creators and their work, Vice hopes to demonstrate that the status quo is simply not good enough.

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