In this deep-dive tech interview, Digital Foundry quizzes the developers at Evolution Studios on a wide range of topics, from its first impressions of the PS3 hardware back in the MotorStorm 1 period, through to tech enhancements made to the sequels, plus the introduction of set-piece Events in Apocalypse - and of course the studios' firm commitment to stereoscopic 3D. We also get some answers about the game's support for 1080p, a feat that hasn't been especially prominent in the game's marketing to date.
The depth and level of insight provided by the studio's responses is only made possible by the range of development talent that was drafted in to answer our questions, so many thanks to each of the following Evolution staff members who took part.
- Matt Southern, Game Director
- Andy Seymour: Lead Technical Artist
- Simon O'Brien: Art Director
- Nick Sadler: Lead Artist: Events
- Oli Wright: Lead Graphics Programmer
- Neil Massam: Vehicle Lead
- Dave Kirk: Physics Programmer
- Dave Hewitt: Online Programmer
We were genuinely excited by the hardware. The SPUs in particular were almost like an entirely new class of processor, like the PlayStation 2's vector units, but on steroids - and you could program them in C++. The GPU was also a big shift for us in that it was also fully programmable. I remember we had an early PC build of MotorStorm (before we had devkits), and it ran at something like five frames a second. Just fast enough to give a sniff of gameplay, and we had a crowd of people round the PC, all wanting a go.
From an art perspective there were two major challenges. Firstly we knew that we needed to move from our in-house world editor to a DCC in order to craft the worlds more artistically. Prior to MotorStorm, Evolution Studios developed the World Rally Championship series of PlayStation 2 games with hundreds of unique stages, and we knew we'd need trade quantity for fidelity in order to show off PlayStation 3 visuals for launch.
Secondly we were aware that the advent of next-gen techniques such as shader code and normal mapping were going to be a training challenge for the art team. So our render coders taught our key artists the basics of cgfx vertex and fragment code. This was made easier by a very early visual node-based shader authoring package called RTZen. Tech Artists could use it to prototype shaders and see the results instantly, and then analyse the shader code that was generated to understand the techniques in play.
We saw the MotorStorm concept as an ideal opportunity to set us apart from the competition by overcoming one of the genre's most difficult technical hurdles.Neil Massam, vehicle lead, Evolution Studios
The high risks associated with balancing multiple vehicle types racing head-to-head within the same game, especially on a launch title, were considerable. But we saw the MotorStorm concept as an ideal opportunity to set us apart from the competition by overcoming one of the genre's most difficult technical hurdles. The successful implementation turned out to be one of the games most defining features and achievements.
Our vehicle rigging and suspension system had to cater for this broad range, many with exposed and highly visible suspension. We settled for a technically complex real-time physics based suspension system to increase the level of realism. Havok physics and driver ragdoll tech were also key ingredients for the vehicles in MotorStorm and added an additional level of believability on the new PlayStation 3 hardware. Components that fell off the vehicles or hinged now looked convincing and the drivers being flung from their vehicles added further spectacle to crashes.
At the time I think we thought we'd done a good job. We were pretty happy with the mud effects for example. At the time I think we thought we'd done a good job and we were pushing the RSX hard, although we knew we could do a lot more with the SPUs. Looking back now, there isn't much that hasn't moved on. In MotorStorm we didn't have a gamma correct rendering pipeline, for example. We fixed that in Pacific Rift very early on in development. Other significant changes for Pacific Rift from a graphics point of view included a complete re-architecting of the shaders and lighting model - we moved from an ad-hoc Phong lighting model to something that was 'nearly Cook-Torrance'.
Visually we were very pleased with the results of MotorStorm. Dynamic deformation of mud was a key technology during MotorStorm's development, but one that in hindsight had possibly too much focus. It was technically very impressive, something that we couldn't have done on the PlayStation 2, but in as far as adding to the gameplay experience, it was limited. We tried to push the PlayStation 3 as far as we could during our early exposure to it, and in doing so we learnt that visually often the old techniques were still the best.
We attempted to minimise baked lighting in our diffuse textures; relying heavily on our lighting engine to create a realistic-looking environment. In doing so we slowly learnt that there was still a place for photos on polygons. It simply looked better and was cheaper to render. This filtered through to Pacific Rift, prioritising our GPU time where appropriate, on high risk areas such as water.
As kids I think a lot of us were happy for video game sequels to offer minor iteration and polish, but as the medium has grown more significant differences are rightly expected. We felt that interest in MotorStorm would wane if we didn't treat the franchise with a healthy disrespect, whilst still respecting the original audience and staying faithful to our DNA.
We felt that interest in MotorStorm would wane if we didn't treat the franchise with a healthy disrespect.Matt Southern, game director, Evolution Studios
We also spotted a decline in interest in the entire genre of racing after Pacific Rift, which sold really well. We looked to the genres that were really gaining momentum for our inspiration: shooters, action adventures.
It's all too easy to find yourselves treading water. We needed to push ourselves beyond our comfort levels in order to keep the franchise invigorated.
Apocalypse has lots in common technologically with our previous games. Unlike our approach to the franchise, we try and make incremental improvements to our technology rather than reinventing the wheel. For example on the first MotorStorm our VFX pipeline was very hard-coded. On Pacific Rift we developed an in-house editor for the artists to define VFX, and this was taken through to near breaking-point on Apocalypse. Our animation pipeline, however, had to be completely overhauled to deal with the massive events in Apocalypse and the engine was reworked to deal with new challenges such as multiple dynamic lights.
Evolution by name, evolution by nature. We were partly ready for large-scale dynamic environments already. Our object culling approach, for example, has always used occlusion objects rather than pre-computed visibility. This system just needed iterating to handle moving occlusion objects, and we also added a dynamic portal system to make our indoor sections more efficient.