August 29, 2002 1:47 PM PDT

Games push for more than pretty faces

LONDON--Looks aren't everything.

That's the message being sent by a group of designers at the Game Developers Conference here, who say that as the visuals in their titles approach a lifelike appearance, it's time to focus on other things.

"The danger is that we end up spending 99 percent of the time modeling dust particles hanging in the air and 1 percent of the time on gameplay," said Peter Molyneux, creator of the game "Black & White."

Molyneux and his cohorts in the industry have watched game consoles become ever more powerful, allowing developers to work more and more polygons into their designs to make them smoother and more realistic.

"We recently mapped the performance leaps in consoles, and found that each generation was 100 times faster than its predecessor," said Argonaut Software CEO Jez San, who also attended the conference.

As the next generation of hardware should be able to render at a billion polygons per second, future games will boast lawns made up of individual blades of grass and characters who look more like real people.

"It means more layers and more effects," said San. But "the thing about polygons is that they don't affect gameplay, just how the game looks."

"We need to have balance," Molyneux said.

Market considerations can make that balance hard to achieve, though: If Molyneux's Lionhead Studios doesn't model those dust particles, somebody else will--and buyers' first impressions are tough to overcome.

"You walk into a shop and you see a game with 10 million polygons per second next to one that just displays 1 million polygons per second, and you buy the one with more polygons," said San. "It looks nicer, even though you have only had 10 seconds of exposure to it."

Shoot first, ask questions later
Still, even console manufacturers are starting to rethink their direction. Sony Computer Entertainment's Colin Hughes, who provides consultancy services and support for PlayStation2 developers, agreed that there's a need to "move away from throwing polygons at the screen."

Hughes said that as the tools already in use at Hollywood special effects houses begin to find their way into the world of computer games, the challenge will be not to make the models more visually complex, "but to use the processing power to give them life."

Such a paradigm shift, though, is a daunting prospect. Frontier Development's David Braben, who wrote the seminal game "Elite"--arguably the first true 3D title--says there's one sure way to give characters more life.

"The next big thing in games will be two-way speech: spoken conversations with characters," Braben said. But though that's technically possible now, he added, it's very hard to achieve.

At Argonaut Software, San is developing a combat-driven game based on U.S. SWAT teams that allows the player to converse with the characters. The game, called "Squad," allows a limited set of orders; because they are context-sensitive, San said, the speech recognition can be very accurate. However good such speech recognition is, though, the games that currently use it are limited.

"In a combat game, you don't need great artificial intelligence," said Sony's Hughes. "If a squad member ignores you, you can overlook it. It's combat. You're shooting most of the other characters anyway."

The problem becomes much more difficult in games that don't revolve around killing, said Frontier Development's Braben. "Once you move away from shooting games, and you stop blowing the other characters' brains out, the quality of the (artificial intelligence) and speech recognition becomes much more critical."

In other words, once characters open their mouths, it's a lot easier to tell just how stupid they are. And speech recognition becomes a relatively easy problem when seen alongside the development of more powerful artificial intelligence engines.

Despite the difficulties, however, former "Black & White" developer Demis Hassabis, who now runs Elixir Studios, is optimistic. He envisions gaming worlds that will be very lifelike indeed, and that might very well make the struggles worth it.

"In 'Squad' there is only a set number of responses to any situation," Hassabis said. "As the technology improves, we can begin to make worlds that are more open, until we end up without a storyline--you will just drop a character into the world and let them get on with it."

ZDNet UK's Matt Loney reported from London.

 

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