Steve Powell - Project Manager (Rage - Warrington Studio)
Q. As DID, the Warrington Studio was traditionally thought of as a flight simulation developer. What changed when joining Rage?
A. Everyone assumes you have to be an expert in a type of game before you can make a good game in that particular genre. This is not strictly true, although a pedigree does help convince the public that you know what you are doing. The studio's first major flight simulation - EF2000 - was a big success. What really counts is the team's ability to meet new challenges. Like other Rage teams, the Warrington Studio is lucky in having a blend of experienced hands and very new talent. That way you get fresh new ideas balanced with knowledge of what works and what doesn't. Rage saw this quality in the team and put a lot of faith in them to deliver the goods.
The flight simulation genre is technically one of the most demanding in 3D graphics, and it gave this ex-DID team a fabulous grounding in ways to create convincing terrain and environments, model physics and handle complex AI: some of the most important ingredients for a successful driving title. In addition, developing for PC meant coping with a constantly-changing set of technology; moving to PS2 was just another such challenge… except of course that this time the platform the team started with is the same they finished with! That never happened on the PC. Working on consoles is refreshing and rewarding and Rage believed the team could do it well.
Markets change over time as products go in and out of fashion. As the computer and video game market has matured, so fashions have changed. Flight simulations have become specialized: they have one of the most demanding audiences, while also being one of the most expensive genres to develop for. To survive and thrive, development teams naturally have to adapt to the changing market conditions, which the team perceived during their latter days as DID. They convinced Rage that their pedigree as a developer would enable them to produce quality titles on the next generation of video game console, and luckily Rage backed them all the way.
Q. It's a crowded genre. What makes GTC Africa different from any other driving game out there?
A. Principally, the team knew that to make any impact, GTC Africa had to look like a next-generation title. When you pay good money for new technology, you want software that supports that decision. It was also clear that a great many people would be investing in GT3, so any product had to complement that experience in some way; i.e. provide driving fun was not necessarily present in GT3 and which was immediate. The team chose an unusual blend of circuit based racing with an all-terrain challenge. The cars are rally-prepared, yet they compete directly against one another… not just the clock! In addition, all 19 circuits are quite short but with very demanding features. That said, there are 11 additional tracks in the challenge mode that include long rally-style point-to-point challenges amongst others.
There are just a few really good driving games. To make an impression, the team had to look long and hard at what was out there, at what people were developing… then decide what they could offer that was different. It was a typical approach for some of the team during their flight simulation days, and they knew it had to look and feel like a next generation product, as well as offering a different style of driving. GTC Africa has got short circuits, but they cover all-terrains in a major continent, and the racing is with six vehicles at a time… hence the name Global Touring Challenge. One publication asked whether GTC is a real race. That would be a breakthrough… a developer controlling an event license!
To sum it up, GTC Africa is all-terrain track racing. In the absence of a licensed event, the team had to learn a lot about what type of racing people enjoy. The studio's PC title E-Racer helped. It featured all-terrain racing, but with quirky environments like factory interiors, chemical plants and so on. GTC was to have the driving fun of E-Racer, but wrapped up in a more believable event that would catch the attention of seasoned and new console players alike. GTC Africa is actually a very large game featuring 19 circuits and 15 challenge tracks. The championship aspect of the game has three stages, each getting progressively harder, with more skilled AI drivers and less time to complete the laps. And of course, GTC Africa features fully licensed cars, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
Q. What is special about the technology of GTC Africa?
A. It's important for developers to approach new generation platforms with a new mindset. That's why the new wave of products is so important for Sony and the PS2 customer. GTC Africa uses exciting technology that lifts the lid off what the PS2 can do, and which shows the way ahead.
Steve Powell's Warrington team started with a clean sheet of paper, and GTC Africa was born out of a technology ideally suited to the PS2's tremendous processing power coupled with just 32MB of memory. Now it's possible to draw massive landscapes by using 'Bezier patches' - a shorthand way of describing and storing complex geometry with a small amount of data. In GTC Africa, landscapes are built from a quilt of patches: just 16 points are stored for each patch, and once these are loaded, processors fill-in the complex geometry dynamically as needed according to view distance. Previously, every point to be drawn would be stored and to cope with memory limits, unconvincing 2D visual backdrops and dense distance fogging would be employed. Now, in GTC Africa, you will see a mountain 30 miles away and it's a real 3D mountain in all its glory - not a theatrical 2D backdrop. As you drive closer to features, they seamlessly become more detailed without hiding behind dense fogging; as a result, GTC Africa scenes look so much more convincing. For the first time, long natural-looking camera shots are possible.
Many graphical effects complement 'patch' landscapes, including specular reflection. To a player this is visible as glinting metal, which looks superb at middle and long-ranges and tells the eye that there is a solid metal object there - even from half-a-mile away! Add to this the smooth and prolific dust-effects, motion blur, environment mapping on the car bodies and real-time shadow projections. Steve's team has also virtually eliminated artifacts that shatter the illusion of reality; e.g. pop-up where objects in the far distance suddenly appear or 'pop-up' as you approach them. 'It's an ugly artifact that has no place in a next-generation product', says GTC Africa programmer Phil Owen.
GTC Africa is also news because it is the first PS2 game to feature the Sensaura sound system. This technology that not only saves development time by providing an off-the-shelf audio system, it allows creation of rich soundscapes using sophisticated 3D positional effects.
One look at GTC will tell you that something is different, and it's in the graphics where much of the innovation lies. According to Project Manager Steve Powell, the scenes have a tremendous draw distance: gone are the track-in-a-groove environments of early-generation driving games. GTC Africa draws everything out to the horizon, allowing for natural parallax and dramatic distance lighting. This offers better-looking scenery that is ideally suited to the 'Big Country' feel of Africa. 'We looked at photographs and paintings of African landscapes and wanted to capture the scale and grandeur of it all' says Steve. 'We looked for a technology that would let us model plains and forests, roads winding along the coast and into the mountains, and from sea level up to the highest mountain peak - and I think we have the best-looking trees ever seen in a racing game!'.
The technology that Steve chose replaced the traditional approach of storing all the points needed to draw a scene, and replaced it with one that allowed massive convoluted landscapes to be stored in just a few bytes, yet drawn in tremendous detail with dynamic scaling of detail. 'The PS2 can draw a fabulous number of polygons - the building blocks of the scene - but offers just 32MB to house data being fed through to run the game' Steve explained. 'We describe a complex surface in terms of 'patches. If you imagine a bed quilt, you are already visualizing what the basics look like. Now imagine that instead of storing all the curve data between the four corners of each patch we only need to store the corner points. We let the PS2 fill in the detail once the corner points have been passed to its processors. The result is a little data to describe a massive and complex world!
As we were developing our graphics engine, the Sensaura company was already creating a sophisticated 3D positional sound system to complement the visual power of the PS2. With few resources to spare, Steve's GTC team quickly realized the potential of using this technology and joined the beta program. GTC Africa is one of the first PS2 titles to feature the Sensaura system. According to Steve, it saved time from the development point-of-view, while also enabling us to build-in layered sound effects from a very early stage.
Q. How long did it take to develop?
A. We started working on the game before we received PS2 development kits. Initial technologies were developed on a PC to enable the artists to start building the circuits. Then when we received the development kits these technologies were ported to the PS2 and optimized to take advantage of the hardware. In total about 20 months were spent in development, but only about 16 months working on the PS2.
From scratch this project has taken just over 16 months of pure development time, with some of the work being completed before we had the development kits. Knowing that dev kits would take time to arrive, we developed technologies that would allow circuits to be built and tested on a PC first.
Traditionally we have created our artwork in 3D Studio Max; so the first thing we did was to develop a process that allowed us to create data using this familiar tool and port it onto the PS2. This enabled us to get a head start on creating data for the game while we developed the engine from the ground up. In all, the project has taken just over 16 months of development time.
Q. How big was the team?
A. We have 9 people on the team, 5 artists and 4 programmers. This is quite a small team compared to many within the industry. What we lack in numbers we make up for in knowledge and enthusiasm.
Q. What do you like about the PS2 as a development platform?
A. According to Steve 'I hear people decry its complexity, and others hail it as a true 'developer's machine', which is my viewpoint. Emerging platforms, and evolving ones like the PC, are making it easier to program scene rendering than ever before. If you look at DirectX you have convenient building blocks to carry out complex graphical processes. If such approaches represent bricks, the architecture of the PS2 represents clay: the PS2 leaves it to the developer to explore the tremendous power available in its multi-processor architecture. This is what makes it a true 'developer's' machine and means that the programmer is limited only by his problem solving ability. In GTC for example, sunlight streams through the trees. The leaves mask out the light source in the appropriate places, because the programmer is able to determine the order in which objects are rendered. In higher-level systems, the programmer never gets the chance to make that decision or take that much control'.
Q. Why is the game only available on the PS2? Many games released are also being developed for Xbox, PC, or GameCube.
A. Driving games push the envelope of technologies across the board and to be 'just right' demands a lot of platform specific development work. I guess this is one reason that many driving games don't travel across skus as quickly as some genres. In addition, if you have a 'hot' property on one platform there is value in exclusivity as long as you are selling big numbers. You are also less likely to dilute your development effort for a sequel. Besides this, GTC Africa is a new title and we'll wait to see how it goes on PS2 first.
Q. Why did you choose Africa?
A. Africa is a continent of hugely diverse environments. Troubles aside, it is also one of the most beautiful continents in the world. As we wanted to show off the benefits of our massive draw distances, it seemed a natural choice for a first game.
Q. Do you think there is any appeal for the American market?
A. We would like to think so. Aside from featuring some big-name US vehicles, the Americans like circuit racing. We also figure they will find Africa an intriguing place to race.
Q. There are many Rally games about to emerge. What chance do you think you have of competing for the customers' cash?
A. Firstly, GTC is not strictly a rally game, with just that point-to-point stuff. It's real competitive racing, a white-knuckle ride through terrain that just wants to kill your car. It's also much more of an arcade style experience, rather than a simulation. To a point, GTC will appeal to people who want to pick up a game, play it and feel that they are actually pretty good drivers. Beyond that point, even the most experienced drivers will find GTC a real challenge.
Q. What is next. Are there any plans for a follow-up?
A. We chose a continent as a setting for the Challenge so that we could move around the globe with a sequel. So GTC Europe, Asia or the USA is not impossibility.
Q. Do you have licensed cars in GTC?
A. Yes, there are 12 in total, including models from Ford, Pontiac, Mitsubishi and Subaru. Pontiac have licensed a car that has not been launched yet: the 'Vibe' a sturdy four wheel-drive sports wagon that's ideally suited to African racing. There are the old favourites in there, including the Imprezza, Evo, Focus and Escort Cosworth, some exotic classics like the Firebird and Mustang.