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Brave new worlds coming to a screen near you soon
While the gaming public were wowed last month by the awesome capabilities of next-generation console hardware unveiled by Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony, game developers had been working in secret for months testing the limits of the new platforms.
Glenn Entis, Chief Visual Officer for Electronic Arts, the world’s biggest games publisher, has enjoyed a closer look than most at the shape of gaming to come and the new possibilities being opened up.
He spends much of his time visiting EA’s studios around the world, working with the different teams on pre-production and visual development of games for both the current and next-generation versions of the consoles.
Microsoft declared at the E3 trade show in Los Angeles that its Xbox 360 console heralds the dawn of high-definition gaming and Mr Entis agrees: “High definition means richer, purer, brighter colours, stronger contrast ratios, everything we pay to see in a film we are getting now with high-definition consoles,” he says.
“A director will talk about creating moods with light, but when you try to squeeze that through [regular] NTSC [TV format], a lot of that gets muddied out. With high-definition, it’s a much more compelling experience.”
Widescreen - the 16:9 aspect ratio - also enables more immersive game-playing, he says, citing EA’s Need for Speed car racing title that will allow drivers to see a peripheral blur of objects going by as they race in Widescreen.
Gaming also earns some unique added benefits from high-definition television: “It goes beyond what TV and films can achieve, because game cameras add another requirement to the display - you can see in front and to the left and right of the character you are playing.”
Mr Entis is well qualified to comment on the differences between games, movies and television.
He joined EA in 2000 when it acquired Dreamworks Interactive, the game development arm of the film company. He had been chief executive, working closely with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg on more than a dozen games.
From 1981 to 1995, he worked for Pacific Data Images, a company he co-founded with the ambitious idea at the time of using computers to generate graphics, initially for television opening and closing credits.
PDI moved on to commercials and then movies, eventually creating the computer-generated animation films Shrek and Antz.
But it had started out with a Digital Equipment Corp VAX-750 microcomputer, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and having only a fraction of the processing power of today’s workstations. Processor-intensive rendering of animation could take hours and even days to complete.
“Now we have got amazing games platforms and tools and it all gets done in a thirtieth or a hundredth of a second.
“When I left PDI, I left that world behind because I was captured by the idea of real-time graphics where you would have real interactive control. It felt like I spent the first half of my career in a waiting room, where someone would eventually come to you and say: ‘Sir, your frame is waiting for you.’”
The EA executive says tools have never been better for game development, with Microsoft introducing its XNA software platform to aid development for the Xbox 360 and EA buying Criterion, the British company responsible for Renderware tools, a de facto industry standard.
But processing power and good developer tools do not necessarily guarantee a great next-generation game. That depends on the developers’ ability to instil emotion into characters and create games that go beyond the standard shoot ‘em ups.
“We have had a lot of game characters that have given very stiff performances, their eyes and their hands have not been moving properly, the nuances of responses have been missing, but the next-generation platforms will allow a new fidelity. Characters will draw you in whether they are intimidating you or inviting you in to solve the problem.”
Another area he identifies as providing major improvements is the creation of rich, living worlds: “There will be worlds alive with sound - if you hear something, you can follow that sound, you will catch something in the corner of your eye.
“There will be dynamics of motion - smoke that looks real rather than painted, you will be making decisions and the worlds and characters will respond dynamically to that.”
Mr Entis says there has never been a better time to be a game developer:
“I am very lucky, I look back at the early days of PDI and we were a small group of people and we felt like pioneers.
“But the last year and a half, as we have started to switch gears to next generation, I have never had more fun working, thanks to the quality of the people and the quality of the visuals. I’ve been 28 years in this field and this is the best time to be here.”