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All About 3D - Part One

Blitz CTO Andrew Oliver goes in-depth on the company's latest project - putting 3D into games - and some of its challenges

With most sections of the general public having just gotten used to HDTV and the benefits it can bring, the prospect of talking about the next big thing to happen in home entertainment - 3DTV - might seem surprisingly soon.

But with 3DTVs already on the market and Hollywood set to embrace the technology more fully this summer, here Blitz CTO Andrew Oliver explains why his company's forthcoming XBLA and PSN title - Invincible Tiger: The Legend of Han Tao, published by Namco Bandai - incorporates full-on 3D, as well as revealing some of the costs and challenges in the journey so far.

Q: You've been working on your latest game - Invincible Tiger: The Legend of Han Tao - for XBLA and PSN. How's that coming along?

Andrew Oliver: It's due within weeks, we had a few bugs in it that we had to iron out. August is what we've been told, and that's what we've told Sony and Microsoft.

Q: You're putting a game out there that looks like a really nice, solid action title, that fingers-crossed will do well - even without all the 3D stuff.

Andrew Oliver: Well, to be honest that's the point. It was always going to be a nice game for Xbox Live and PSN, and frankly we know that only a few people - a tiny percentage of people - will be able to look at it in 3D.

But the thing we want to do is... 3DTVs are coming down the line, but the TV manufacturers can't push the TVs because there's no content they can show. At some point the 3DTV market will be blown open by Hollywood movies as being a way to get into the home.

But we can do it now - gamers are tech-savvy people, and it seems a shame not to allow them to do it. It became a challenge internally - we got hold of some of these TVs to see if we could do it, and we can. We think it's all cool, so we'll let other techy people to see it.

I'm not expecting people to buy new TVs for this game, but I'm expecting at some point that when people want to go and buy a new TV they can look for certain features that are actually starting to appear.

Q: Is it worth the expense of putting 3D into a downloadable game? What are the benefits to Blitz?

Andrew Oliver: It's cool. We're into making games, because it's cool. There are lots of features that you put in games that don't make you more money, but they are cool and people will appreciate them.

In this particular example only a small number of the buying public will appreciate it, but as time goes on there will be more and more people. It seems a shame - I've talked to so many people who have said they're just not in a position to push what 3DTVs can do.

Well, we are in a position, and we think it's cool. We're not going to make much money out of it, I appreciate that. But we're not adding it for the money.

Q: That's a great viewpoint to take, but it seems a bit too good to be true at a time when the rest of the industry is knuckling down on streamlining to sure-bet franchises and repeat products that will make the most money...

Andrew Oliver: Well, we're a solid, stable company that's been around for twenty-odd years, and we accept that we do many licensed projects. We just did Dead to Rights, and it's a cool project which is what people buy and expect to see - it's the third a series, no surprise there. And the others are all TV or movie licenses.

That gives us a really solid foundation - but we've got a passion to do new things, so this one's going out under Blitz Arcade, which is us doing our own stuff on the digital platforms. We all know that the future is digital publishing - we don't want to ignore it, and we don't want to wait until it's too big... but it's a platform where you can do small, creative, innovative stuff, so that's exactly what we're doing. That's Invincible Tiger.

You couldn't have argued that you could have made a retro, Chinese/Japanese fighting kung-fu game in a boxed product - but that doesn't mean to say it isn't fun. It's a fun, cool game and it's something that we as gamers kind off miss. There were so many of those games a few years ago, and when the industry went full-3D, it kind of broke that type of game.

There's a certain irony that we've gone back to a 2D classic, and put it in 3D - but in a different way to that which people would have expected...

Q: What level of extra cost, as a percentage, has it meant to put 3D into the game?

Andrew Oliver: It's the question that everyone asks. I'd say it's been hugely expensive to do the engine and buy all the TVs, get all the drivers... that's been a pain in the arse. But we have a very powerful engine which we're very proud of, and we're trying to push it into new areas. We're now licensing it to others, and we were thinking about what other unique elements we could add - 3D was another thing we could add that would make it unique, and once done it could go into the games.

So yeah, we've probably sunk tens of thousands into it to-date, but we can now just put it into games. The point about 3D is that you can actually do some very cool things. It gives you extra immersion, you actually start to believe in it - our game looks like you're looking into the world, more than on TV. Ours is slightly cartoony, but you can imagine there are certain things where it will just draw you in more.

But on how much more it costs to put 3D in - there will still be about an extra 10-15 per cent of stuff that you'll have to put into the budget of a game to make it 3D.

Because when we make games, we cheat - we have flat sprites for things like trees in the distance, but as soon as you put it into 3D, you can see that it's flat. Your eyes can see it's a floating, flat plane, so you have to model more things up. So you've not only got the speed issue of trying to run it really fast, you realise that you can't use some of the old tricks.

The obvious one is the special effects - the smoke, fire and so on. We always layer up and do flat planes, but it looks really obvious in 3D. You can above four flat smoke effects over the top of each other that makes it up - looks great in 2D, but in 3D the illusion is broken, so you have to think about doing some sort of volumetric particle effects, which is really hard.

But that's because the illusion is working really well, and you are seeing into a 3D world. You can't cheat quite as much - you have make those things more representative of the 3D world, which I think is really interesting, even if it does make it slightly more challenging.

Q: Will the onus be on companies like Blitz, or other independents, to foot that extra bill for the time being? I'm not sure publishers will commit to that for some time.

Andrew Oliver: We found that. We've made our own game and pushed it in there at our own expense, but we have a publisher with whom we're just agreeing a 3D project, so frankly it will progress, it will go into a big, full game and we will learn more lessons, get our art tuned and so on.

So when people start coming around to 3D, the movies are in homes and it's common that over half of new TVs are 3D-compatible, we'll have grown up with this stuff and know it. Others will go in, and there'll be lots of hurdles - we've had a lot to this point, but there're still a lot of new things you can do with it.

The film companies are doing some pretty clever tricks - Coraline was the one that impressed me, because they did quite a lot of extra tricks to do with fooling the brain into thinking there are other things going on. That's stuff cool when you think about games.

One of the things I have to say, though, is that most of the tricks make things feel frightening, because they confuse your brain and it gets uneasy. It does lend itself to making horror games...

Q: Is there a reputational aspect as well? If you're pioneering a technology, it may mean a financial hit at the beginning, but hopefully that pays off if people see you at the cutting edge of games production?

Andrew Oliver: There are all sorts of things you do for reputation. There are different ways of marketing yourself, or your middleware, or whatever. One way is to pay for lots of print adverts to say that our middleware is available.

There's another way - just to show off what cool stuff it does, and that's effectively what we're doing. We decided, rather than pay thousands on print adverts, to give that money to the programmers to add stuff that gets talked about.

The 3D stuff is interesting because, yes, we're ahead of the game a bit and the TVs aren't really out there. But I have absolutely no doubt that it's happening - every TV manufacturer wants to put it in their TVs, but they want the content. It's expensive to make, but all the Hollywood blockbusters are going 3D, so it's a bit of a no-brainer to see that it'll work its way onto TVs.

The content will be there. When? I don't know, but without doubt it's coming.

Q: The 'when' of it is a big question though, it's a bit like a three-way version of chicken and egg... hardware, content and consumer interest all need to come together at the right time. While stuff like the World Cup or next-gen gaming pushed HDTV sales, we're still at a point where the majority of the population hasn't taken up that technology yet and the vast majority of TV content on the networks still isn't in HD either...

Andrew Oliver: They'll build 3D into HDTVs - the Samsung we've been using looks like a regular HDTV, you just have to know which one. InvincibleTiger.com is going to have a compatibility list of all the 3DTVs. Suddenly people will start to realise that some of the TVs are capable of 3D, so you're future-proofing yourself.

Even if you have to go out and spend GBP 50-100 more, soon it's going to be very cool. I'm not expecting people to buy a TV for our game, but there will be the appreciation that it' coming.

Andrew Oliver is CTO of Blitz. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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