Quantic Dream is one of the few development studios confident enough to deliver an exclusive title for a platform holder. While the majority of developers and publishers have chosen to cover as many formats as possible to cushion the financial cost of game development, Quantic is teaming with Sony on original PlayStation 3 project Heavy Rain.
A tech demo for the title — The Casting — was first shown at E3 in 2006 but since then both companies have remained quiet on the project. Here, co-founder of Quantic Dream Guillaume de FondaumiÃ¨re tells GamesIndustry.biz in an interview at Game Connection about the studio's ambitious plans to deliver on the idea of virtual actors, it's dealings with the Hollywood A-list and why it believes the PlayStation 3 is the best option for the company's ambitious next-gen game...
Q:GamesIndustry.biz: You've upgraded your in-house motion capture studio for the PlayStation 3 exclusive that you're working on for Sony. How important is it to have that technology in-house rather than relying on outsourcing?
Guillaume de FondaumiÃ¨re: We've been running our own motion capture studio since 2001, but this is a brand new studio for us. Our games are really about creating emotions. Having virtual actors, as we call them, or 3D characters, that are as realistic and faithful to the actors that they embody is extremely important to creating this emotion.
We've worked with motion capture to recreate the motions and the expressions of actors just like in the movies. On Omikron: The Nomad Soul we worked with an outsourcing studio and we saw a limit with that exercise. We understood that in order to make best use of this technology we needed to adapt a number of tools to our technology and also to a certain extent we were a bit frustrated as to what was on the market.
Outsourcing studios have extremely powerful tools but they aren't really making the best use of them. We found that we needed a system in-house in order to test things. Fahrenheit was produced using this system. With our older technology we produced the maximum we could in terms of precision that the system was capable of doing.
We've acquired the new system as it's an extremely powerful tool, it has extreme accuracy and gives us the possibility to capture very very small motions, which means we can not only capture full body movement but also facial movement and expressions.
Q: And you see capturing emotions, not just movement, as a vitally important part of your games...
It's the next frontier to a certain degree. We've had this system in-house since April and it's been really beneficial for us to push this technique and our surrounding technologies further. Most of the efforts that we've put into creating these virtual actors are for our upcoming title on PlayStation 3 that we're currently developing with Sony.
I think when we showed The Casting everyone agreed it was nice and it really showed that there was a potential for creating virtual actors, but we're still at this frontier where we don't totally suspend disbelief. We still have this uncanny valley to bridge. But today, I can officially announce that there is no uncanny valley any more, not in real-time.
With our next project we're going to demonstrate with hundreds of characters that we can have extremely realistic characters that not only move like real actors but express themselves through facial animations and speech like real actors, and are extremely accurate to the actors they are portraying.
Q: How important is the actor in this process compared to the technology?
It's one hundred per cent important, and that's the big difference compared with what we were doing in the past. In the past the limit was the technology. In the production of our next title what we're discussing with Sony, is not "does it look good?" but "is the actor right?" Now we are really casting actors and we're looking for a performance because we've bridged the technological gap.
Q: Is there a problem with actors understanding what you're trying to do? Do they understand the challenge of virtual acting — do they take it as seriously as theatrical or other 'proper' acting?
When we show actors what we're capable of doing they now understand what they have to do. In the past you had to tell them that it's motion capture and it's not totally accurate, so they had to overact or downplay certain things - things that we weren't able to capture. Now we just show them what the technology can do and we ask them to do it. It's closer to theatre acting. It's very close to what actors do on a regular basis.
Q: Is it important to have established actors in your project? Heavenly Sword had Andy Serkis who's well known for virtual acting in Lord of the Rings and King Kong — is it important to have a successful name like that attached to the project or just a skilled actor?
It's a question of performance. The thing is that class A actors are not just good because they look the part but because they know how to act and perform. Of course we want to work with the best actors and the better the actor the better the performance. It's critical.
We had a meeting with Leonardo Di Caprio in 2004 and we tried to convince him to play in one of our future games — at the time we had Fahrenheit to show him. He liked it very much, but he politely explained to us that we still were not at the level that he'd expect the technology to be at in order to give us his time and be able to portray his performance.
Today, it's very different. We're talking with class A actors. These Hollywood actors are asking us about the scenario and the stories as the technical aspects are taken care of. We've been able to demonstrate that we're capable of portraying the performance. They are asking, "what's the subject matter, what's the role?"
Q: When are you likely to be able to show this technology off and convince the media that you've taken this big step forward?
That's something now that Sony is controlling. There's no need to hurry to a certain extent. It's always a bit frustrating for fans and for us to not be able to show what we're doing but we have to find the right time. We're now in the process of creating something that's playable in real-time and in the coming months the time will come when we start showing it to the world.
Q: So what attracted you to working on an exclusive title for Sony? Why the PS3 over other options on the market?
One of the most important things was the people at Sony. When were presenting The Casting, and this next project, we'd seen a number of publishers and had received a number of offers, but the most positive feedback and the sense of a real exchange we got from Michael Denny [VP of SCE Worldwide Studios] and Phil Harrison [president of SCE Worldwide Studios] — we immediately felt that these people understood what we are trying to do.
It's vitally important that the developer and the publisher, right from the very beginning, really work on the same title. They understand where we are putting the quality bar, and we felt that they would let us do the game we really wanted to do. We've been working together for 18 months and we still have this very good understanding.
The other point is the PlayStation 3 itself. We started very early on it back in June 2005, we hadn't even released Fahrenheit when we received the first development kits. Although we're very supportive of what Nintendo and Microsoft are doing, we felt that with the PS3 Sony has given us a tool to really to express ourselves. With Fahrenheit we've initiated what we call 'interactive cinema' and we believe that this new format is best served on this versatile and powerful machine.
Q: So you were happy to sign the deal as an exclusive — you're not concerned about limiting your market to one home console?
We believe that the PlayStation 3 is going to be extremely successful, as successful as the PlayStation 2. The other point is that when you look at the architecture of the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360 you see huge differences and it's extremely difficult to create games of the same visual quality on both platforms. Even from an economical standpoint, if you really want to give the best shot on both platforms you have to invest far more money than just spending the money on the one platform. Or you have simple ports, which are of less quality.
At Quantic we have high standards and we really want to give our fans the best possible experience with our creations and we didn't want to downgrade any version by porting a game. It was far more important to chose the right machine where we could express ourselves and give it the best shot.
Q: Can we assume you're working on other projects other than your exclusive PS3 title?
We're starting to think about new projects. We're working on very different things to Heavy Rain and the interactive cinema format and we're also working on extensions of this format too.
Q: There seems to be more viable alternative routes to market with things like PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade. Are these something Quantic is interested in?
This is something that we're of course taking into consideration. We'll be able to announce something towards the end of 2008. It's ages away but big projects take time to make. As I said before we're working more and more with Hollywood and we see how it makes its big productions. A triple A movie takes five or six years. The shooting can be short but the preparation takes time.
Guillaume de FondaumiÃ¨re is co-founder of Quantic Dream. Interview by Matthew Martin.