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A New Hope

Chris Williams on how LucasArts plans to revolutionise gaming.

Last week, Chris Williams - project lead on LucasArts's first next-gen Indiana Jones game - gave a speech at GDC London titled Unlearn What You Have Learned.

As he explains in this interview, the speech focused on the company's new approach to next-generation titles - an approach which, Williams hopes, will change the very core of gaming. Read on to find out more.


GamesIndustry.biz: For anyone who missed your speech at GDC London, can you summarise the key messages?

Chris Williams: The first part is a discussion of how LucasArts is collaborating with Industrial Light and Magic, and the convergence of film and games within Lucasfilm. The level to which we're taking that convergence is unprecedented.

What we committed to doing about a year and a half ago is building our entire next-gen game pipeline, all of our tools, all of our technologies on top of ILM's framework. So we have ILM engineers and LucasArts engineers working side by side, building one virtual studio for games and film.

This is really George's vision, and it's a massive technology effort. Our goal is that technologies you see in some of the cutting edge movies that ILM works on are immediately available to us on the games side, and we can get them performing in real time.

The way we're thinking of the research and development with Lucasfilm is we go to the extreme - we deliver that incredibly high visual bar, and then we can step back from that and decide what's realistic to do in real time. So it's a slightly different way of thinking about your research; it's not current-gen plus one.

For example, if you look at Poseidon and Pirates of the Caribbean, those fantastic water simulations; there's absolutely no way we can do that level of visual quality in real time, even on the next-gen hardware. But because we understand the techniques and the tools and the solutions for how it was done, and we can begin incrementally stepping back, optimising, cutting corners - we end up with something that's a very high quality water simulation. It's more of a conceptual shift.

What about the second part of the talk, where you discussed LucasArts's vision for next-gen gameplay?

Two years ago, we committed to making games that were fundamentally different, and we weren't going to be content simply delivering a current-gen game with better graphics.

We knew that we were going to need some startingly advanced technology to do that, because you can talk game design theory all you want, but at the end of the day you need killer tech to change the way people play games.

So we partnered with two companies. There's Naturalmotion, which has some really exciting, behaviour-based character AI. We're essentially teaching characters behaviours; we're still doing a lot of animation, but it's a careful interplay between animation and simulation.

The idea is that you're providing the player with a truly simulated character that's going to adapt to the environment around him, he's going to react to what's going on, he's got situational awareness, and it's not just always drawing from a library of animation. That introduces an element of surprise and unpredictability. You're never going to get the same payoff twice; that's really revolutionary.

To complement that, we've got some technology we've been working on with Pixelus Entertainment - digital molecular matter. So we've got wood that actually splinters and bends realistically, metal that dents, rubber that flexes... Really believable and authentic material simulations. Again, we want to add an element of surprise to the way things break in the game.

You demonstrated that technology using footage from a new, as yet unnamed Star Wars project. There seems to be a lot of demand from gamers for a SW game on the Wii which allows the player to use the remote controller as a lightsaber - is LucasArts aware of that demand?

I don't think you're the first person that's pointed it out to us...

Sure... So is it something you're considering?

I can't comment on that. But that being said, my talk's titled Unlearn What You Have Learned - which is a little arrogant, but what it alludes to is we looked at some pretty conventional things about games; hit reactions, how things break in a game and so on. We challenged those conventions and worked really hard to develop new technology that we think is fundamentally going to change gaming at the core.

We're going to have a gorgeous game, fancy lighting effects and all that kind of thing, but we feel like we really have to go in and introduce that simulated element to create a different gameplay experience.

Are you excited by the concept of the Wii remote?

Oh, absolutely. I was playing with it about two weeks ago and it's fantastic. The prototype I was playing, the way they had mapped the controls and the adaptibility - the various possibilities with the control scheme - it's tremendously exciting. The nature of the interface is going to allow designers to do some really exciting stuff.

How have you found working with the various next-gen consoles? What differences have you noticed in terms of horsepower?

I think it's too early to tell. We're still optimising a lot of code, we're still looking at what all the hardware can do... The jury's still out for us on where we're going to be able to get additional performance out of one piece of hardware over another. If we had a PS3 launch title it would be a different story, but we don't.

How's the new Indiana Jones game coming along? How do you keep such an old franchise fresh, especially with the likes of Tomb Raider out there?

I think what people really love about Indiana Jones is the character. That's what I think people are thirsting for.

So when LucasArts talks about our vision for the next generation, all these underlying technologies are in the service of bringing great characters and great stories. By focusing on that, and by adding revolutionary technologies to those elements, we can deliver an experience that's going to feel fresh, and also bring in a broader audience.

What we're developing right now is not so much a game as a really wonderful entertainment experience that's going to capture the imagination.

Is the game going to tie in with the new Indiana Jones movie?

What we're saying right now is that the story has been written in collaboration with George Lucas. That's the official line...

You mentioned the importance of bringing in a broader audience. Can you explain more about how LucasArts plans to do that?

We've got all these technology partners, we're working on very sophisticated things, but our goal is to deliver a more accessible experience to the player. It's not in the service of a more hardcore audience; if anything we want to broaden our audience. We need to deliver things that are new and innovative to drive people to embrace the next generation.

I don't believe that someone's going to go out and spend the kind of money that it's going to cost to buy a new system just for the pretty graphics; it really needs to play differently, and that's where we're trying to advance the industry.

It sounds like you might be following a similar approach to Nintendo - i.e., concentrating on innovative gameplay rather than better graphics. Would you say that's true?

Obviously, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have all gone in different directions with the latest round of hardware. As for how that's all going to play out... Who knows?

We only control the software that's on our disc, but our philosophy is there needs to be something on that disc that no one's ever seen before, and that they can only get in our games. We really feel like we've got some exciting stuff that's unique to us.

Chris Williams is project lead on LucasArts's new Indiana Jones game. Interview by Ellie Gibson.

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Ellie Gibson

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Ellie spent nearly a decade working at Eurogamer, specialising in hard-hitting executive interviews and nob jokes. These days she does a comedy show and podcast. She pops back now and again to write the odd article and steal our biscuits.