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Video games: the next generation

 

By Marc Cieslak

Reporter, BBC Click

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The video games industry is obsessed with the phrase "next generation", but what does it actually mean? What can gamers expect from any game given that name?

It would be easy to dismiss the next generation gaming experience as simply eye candy.

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start_quote_rb.gif Every single thing in the city can be grabbed, climbed on, jumped from end_quote_rb.gif

 

 

Jade Raymond, Ubisoft producer

 

 

The latest games all look great but the potential offered by the processing power of consoles such as the Xbox 360 and PS3 does not end there. They also give developers a wealth of new gameplay possibilities.

At Ubisoft's Montreal studio, a team of 300 designers, programmers and artists have spent four years developing Assassin's Creed, a next generation medieval action adventure.

"A lot of people have heard the term 'next gen game' thrown around and so far what we've seen as far as next gen games mostly means better quality graphics," said Ubisoft producer Jade Raymond.

"So you've seen in fighting games where boxers are up close, you get more detail on the facial animation. Or in car racing games it looks exactly like the car, and you get more shiny cars and the environments are more realistic.

"But for me personally, next gen game had to mean new types of gameplay."

Assassin's Creed is set during the Crusades and the action takes place in three huge cities. Each is populated with thousands of computer controlled characters. Players can take Altair, the character they control, anywhere in the city.

"We made this rule and gave ourselves the challenge to try and make huge cities that are completely interactive, which means that every single thing in the city can be grabbed, climbed on, jumped from," said Ms Raymond.

"Which means that we created tools to be able to recognise the 3D models and automatically generate interactive edges on everything."

Lego blocks

The gaming environment took so long to develop because everything that sticks out of a wall more than two inches can be an anchor point for Altair.

_44172351_assassincreed1.jpg Bumping into people affects the direction of the main character

 

 

"Our challenge was to make it readable for the player as we're using games to see the level design ingredients or the game designer path," said creative director Patrice Desilets. "This time there is no path whatsoever."

Vincent Pontbriand, Ubisoft associate producer, said: "In a regular, more linear, game what you would do is create game levels. In our case, since it involved cities in which you could travel anywhere, we quickly realised it was going to be impossible to customise the entire city that way, polygon by polygon.

"So what we did was we created a bank of objects, what we call a Lego system, and this allowed us to produce the first templates for the cities quickly by adding and removing blocks.

"Then we were able to do the same things with objects and eventually with the characters and the population itself."

While larger environments that allow the player more freedom are certainly a bonus, there is still more to be done before a game can earn that next gen title.

Background characters

Probably one of the biggest challenges facing games is to make computer controlled characters more lifelike.

This is where the hardware buried inside the latest consoles proves so useful.

"The tendency in technology is to move towards multi-core, multi CPU type of machines," explained AI programmer Matthieu Mazerolles. "What this means is instead of having just one processing unit you literally have several, sometimes up to a dozen all within the same box.

_44172353_assassincreed2.jpg More than 200 models were used as the templates for characters

 

 

"What this allows us to do is to take all of the calculations, which are highly complex, that go into making the AI seem alive, and distribute these across many different processors."

Said Ms Raymond: "We worked on this whole kind of physics systems for when you bump into people and push them out of the way, so that tactile thing really felt real.

"So bumping into a group of people will make you fall over, running full force into a small woman will knock her over."

One of the tools the company has worked on is something which generates crowds of diverse people.

"For NPCs we have hundreds and hundreds of different looking characters, that were the templates we used to create our initial models," said Mr Pontbriand.

"But then we created our own technology to take those templates, cut them down into pieces and then, with the technology, added the ability to randomise between skin colour, clothes, hair colour.

"We ended up with a multiplying factor, so these sketches that became models ended up producing thousands of different variations in game."

'A player's story'

Increased production values, emotional involvement, environments that have more bearing on the world - could all of these elements help shift games from what many perceive to be a marginalised ghetto into the mainstream?

"As an entertainment medium, games are really just scratching the surface," said Ms Raymond. "I think we are at where we were with film when we made the transition from silent films to films that were telling a story with sound and dialogue.

"We are just at the point of discovering what we can do with interactivity and what's an interactive story where you are creating a story for players, but it really has to become the player's story." Said Mr Desilets: "I strongly believe the more we go on with next gen the less we will see video game rules apparent, they will be more and more hidden and the experience will be a lot more immersive because you won't see the video game rules that only gamers really like."

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