Q&A - Propaganda's Holmes On Turok, UE3, Coding Cross-Platform
Industry veteran Josh Holmes co-founded Propaganda Games in January of 2005 after a long stint at Electronic Arts -- at the time, his new firm was called Revolution Interactive.
His firm began its work with Disney label Touchstone originally for a different game, but when Touchstone got hold of the Turok license, Holmes says his team decided to give the pitch a try.
Shortly thereafter, the studio was acquired by Disney, and now the Turok developers are part of the organization. In this in-depth interview, Holmes talks to Gamasutra about picking up the big, scaly tail of a license that's older than many people expect and how he hopes a focus on AI will reboot the franchise and make dinosaurs scary again.
Holmes also shares his perspective on the Canadian development scene, working with Unreal Engine 3, and the challenges of cross-platform development.
When does Turok ship?
JH: February 5th, 2008, in North America, on PS3 and Xbox 360. There's a PC SKU as well that's coming out a short time later, and that's being developed by Aspyr in Austin.
Was that a strategic decision to avoid the holiday rush, and all of the shooters right now?
JH: Or just good games. I think there were two parts to that decision. One was really wanting to give the game more time to focus on polishing both the Xbox 360 and the multiplayer experience, but as well with the PS3, making sure that we optimize that and polish that to bring it up to where we are with the 360.
You guys are working with Unreal Engine 3 for this title. How has that been, as an experience?
JH: It's been a great experience. We basically started working with that engine really early on, like almost from the beginning when we founded the studio. At that point, Epic's focus was squarely on Gears, getting Gears done, and making it the great game that it is. At that point, the 360 became the natural leap for the project.
I think since then, they're really focused a lot of their attention on the PS3, especially with UT3 coming out, and developing the engine in that area. But we've also taken our destiny in our own hands, and we have a really talented team of engineers who can focus on optimizing the engine and making it run really, really well on the PS3.
I think the Unreal Engine is a great toolset, and it provides some fantastic pipelines as a foundation to build your game upon. If you rely on it as the off-the-shelf, make-a-game solution, you're probably not going to be super-satisfied unless you're making specifically the games that Epic makes.
For that reason, we've invested a ton of resources into really expanding and modifying the engine for our needs, because we have a very different game experience.
What kind of modifications? Can you detail some of that?
JH: Sure. We've really expanded the animation system, because we have some really complex animation needs with the creatures, as well as the humans. The AI system is completely rewritten and overhauled from the ground up. We've invested a lot of time in our physics systems -- ragdoll systems that are specific to creatures and our enemies.
In addition, we've got physics-driven foliage in the world, we've got foliage systems, dynamic foliage systems that work throughout our levels. A lot of that stuff we had to invest in to give it the look and the feel of the levels.
At this point, the 360 version of Unreal Engine is very mature. The PS3 version seems to have been the subject of some criticism, as well as PS3 development in general. How has it gone for you guys?
JH: General opinion on the PS3 is that if your code is written in such a way that it's structured for the PS3 and the Cell processor, then you have no big issues.
It's a different way of approaching development, and I think that some of the challenges and potential frustrations of some developers have at times stemmed from the fact that their code is structured in such a way that it runs really efficiently and effectively on the 360, and trying to sort of work that across doesn't really work.
So you have to invest a lot of time and effort in optimizing the code to run on the Cell processor and the PS3 hardware. However, if you approach development in the opposite order, I think that the problems might actually go away.
I think that part of it is just going to become the development community becoming mature, in terms of development on the PS3, and getting more experience on that hardware, and people shifting a lot of their priorities in terms of where they focus first.
It was the same on the PS2, it's just that happenstance was that the PS2 came out first, so everybody structured their code and their engines to run on the PS2, and then ported that across to the Xbox with no problem.
So when PS2 was the idiosyncratic one, it was easier. Now it's the same thing this time, but the wrong order?
JH: Right. I think it's resulted in some pain through the development community. I think that as we move forward in this generation of consoles we'll see that start to smooth out, but yeah, it's been a rough deal at times for some developers.
I think as we see second or third-generation games on the consoles, we'll see a lot of the issues ironed out. It's kind of unfair to compare second-generation 360 titles with first-generation PlayStation 3 titles and say, "Hey, why aren't they equally strong?"
That's just the natural course of development on any platform, that people become more familiar with the hardware and are able to master it more completely. I think that it will iron itself out. From a consumer standpoint, it makes total sense. From a development standpoint, it's understandable.
You guys are based in Canada, right?
Josh Holmes: Yeah, Vancouver.
Did you just say, "Oh, we'd like to make the next Turok game," or were you part of the decision-making process?
JH: Actually, we had heard through the grapevine while we were working on this other original IP that they were in the process of acquiring it from Classic Media, and we were really excited about the idea of reinventing Turok and trying to take it back to the things that were so cool about those original games when they first came out.
As much as we were creatively invested in the games we were working on, we were always brainstorming with all these ideas over lunch in the afternoon, saying, "Hey, you know what would be cool for Turok?"
We found ourselves really excited about that, so we started thinking it through more. Like, "Well, you know, if they do acquire this, eventually they're going to need someone to develop it, so why don't we put together a pitch and see if they give us the game?" So that's what we did.
We went down and presented our idea for the game, which is shockingly similar to the game we see here today, and said, "Hey, how do you like this?" And they loved it. So from that point on, we've been working on it.
Most people think of the N64 games as sort of 'day one' for Turok, in terms of the gaming audience. But it's an old license that has gone through a lot of changes, dating back to the '50s. Do you have carte blanche to do what you want to do with it, or did you work with Disney and Touchstone hand-in-hand for a franchise reboot?
JH: It is. It's totally a reboot of the franchise. It wasn't so much like we had carte blanche, in terms of them saying, "Hey, go away and do whatever you want." We just kind of came to them with our idea, and they were like, "Yeah, you know what? We love that idea." From that point on, we worked together.
A big part of the puzzle is working with Classic Media, as well, keeping them in the loop in terms of what we were wanting to do with the franchise, and making sure they were cool with that. It's kind of a partnership, creatively, from the beginning.
So Classic Media is still retaining the IP? It's just being licensed for use in the product right now?
JH: Yeah, exactly.
What concepts do you think were important to bring this property back from the dead, and making it relevant now?
JH: Getting back to the things that are really cool about the promise of what Turok's about: It's really about being put into a prehistoric world and being forced to survive. I think when you look at the original games when they came out on the N64, the first one was really groundbreaking in terms of what it did for shooters on console, and shooters in general.
At that time, the first-person shooter was really focused on this sort of Doom clone, corridor crawler. Turok was that game that took it outside of that, and put you in this large, vast world to explore. Granted, it was mostly sheets of fog with some audio suggestions, and a lot of that stuff was really the imagination of gamers when they played it. But what it presented people with was a fresh take on what the shooter could be.
So we went back to that, and we said, "Okay, that was really cool. The things that we remembered about engaging those creatures -- that was really interesting and original. What could we do to take that and bring it to the next level for next-gen systems?"
I think some of the things that really appealed to us was the opportunity to really push AI, particularly for the creatures. When you look at the '90s, Jurassic Park, and the advent of CG being able to bring these dead creatures back to life, it's like everyone and their dog was creating CG dinosaurs, just because they could do it. It was like every commercial was a dinosaur.
I think the thing that happened was that dinosaurs lost their impact. They lost the reality of what it would be like to face a creature of this extraordinary power, when it actually did walk the earth. We actually had to take that back, and say, "What can we do to reinvent dinosaurs, and create a unique look and feel to our dinosaurs, to set them apart from anything you've seen in those moves or TV commercials?" That, for us, was a really interesting creative challenge.
How did you go about doing that? What sets your dinosaurs apart?
JH: We did a lot of research, and initially started out by focusing on, "Okay, let's find out everything we can about what dinosaurs were really like." And that was phase one. Phase two was, "Okay, well that being reality, let's put all that aside, and let's focus on the things we think are interesting and fun as a play mechanic. Secondly, let's focus on a unique look and feel."
I think the look drew a lot of influence from horror movies, and looking at creature designs for horror movies. One thing that we used as a touchstone for us was zombie films, and how old-school zombie films had at one point been scary, and then they lost their impact and became these comical, slow, sloth-like things that were old and tired and nobody cared.
Then they were reinvented as these fast, bloodthirsty, never-stop killing machines in 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead. We took a lot of the inspiration from that, in terms of that's what we needed for the dinosaurs. We drew inspiration from that feel -- that emotion they give you in those movies.
What's important in making the game? There's a lot of shooters right now. What's the hook that you find driving your inspiration to make your shooter stand out?
JH: We really focus a lot on our dynamic AI systems. Not only do we have an AI on the part of the human opponents, where you can take one, basically plop him into a world, and he's able to make decisions and decide how to survive moment-to-moment, and how to seek out enemies and eliminate them using a variety of tactics.
I think our human AI is really strong and great, and does move that forward in a lot of ways, but it's also something that's been done in other games really, really well. Where we're breaking ground, I think, is applying that same approach to creatures, giving them behaviors and instincts and decision-making capabilities within the world, but then allowing them to interact with one another within the context of a basic ecosystem, and then also interact with the humans.
When you get that complexity of different layers and mixing and matching those together, it results in a lot of really interesting situations.
You want to give the player some freedom, but you also want to be able to set up some situations that they can recognize and capitalize on. How does that work for you when developing the game?
JH: For a lot of us as a team, this has been a real learning experience and a journey, because I think the vast majority of our team hasn't had first-person shooter experience. While that's posed challenges at times, I think it's also given us a fresh perspective on things.
One of the things we discovered in approaching dynamic AI systems is that until you actually have the system really well implemented and integrated, it's very difficult for the level designers to plan out and create scenarios. Whereas before, because it's so fixed in terms of exactly what's going to happen in every situation, you can kind of design it all out up-front, and understand, "Okay, this is exactly how this encounter is going to play out."
But because the encounters in our game are so driven by the AI system, until that AI is complete and you can start populating the world, the process of designing levels has a sandbox element to it as well, because you're putting creatures into an area, and you're putting humans into an area, and you're watching what happens and tweaking it to create more thought, in terms of the experiences. So it is set up.
Obviously the level designers are going through and trying to create these really interesting areas and scenarios and stuff, but a lot of it is driven on their creative side by the AI systems.
Did it change any way you structure your team, or anything like that?
JH: It definitely changed the way that we approached development of the game. I think it was one of those learning challenges for us, because we hadn't worked with a system like that before.
I think what we found was that it was a highly iterative process of development, where once we did get those things to the finish line and we got our core mechanics really, really solid, we had to basically go back and make a lot of adjustments and iterate on the spaces in the world to make sure that it was as strong as it needed to be.
What projects have you had before this one?
JH: Personally, I've been in the industry for about 12 years. I worked at EA for about 10 years, or nine and a half years. At that point, three of us [Propaganda] founders worked together extensively in development, and then the fourth guy also came from a background in EA. We worked together. He was on the financial side.
I worked on NBA Live originally and some other sports titles, but Daryl Anselmo and I were co-creators on NBA Street, when that came out back in 2000 or 2001. We moved on to some internal fighting prototypes and things like that, then we moved on to create the Def Jam series of games -- Vendetta and Fight for New York.
At that time, we started working with Jorge Freitas, who's our director of technology. At the end of Fight for New York, we kind of felt like, "Hey, that's as far as we can push this," or "We've pushed it already for a pretty good challenge," and that's when we snuck out.
So was this your first game as your current studio?
JH: Yeah, definitely. It's the first game out of the gate, and a huge game at that. It's been a pretty daunting challenge, because we basically started out with initially four of us, then pretty rapidly within the first month or so, we were actually fifteen people as a core. But within the first year and a half, we'd be 90 people as a studio, in terms of a huge undertaking to recruit the people that we needed.
There were a lot of people we worked with in the past, but we also brought people in from all over the industry and different backgrounds. There were people who worked on Splinter Cell, and Prince of Persia, and Battlefield.
What's the development community like in Vancouver?
JH: It's huge. I think it's like up to 65 development studios. It seems like there's a new studio that opens almost every week. You've got all the major players there. THQ's got Relic. You've got Radical from Vivendi.
You've got Next Level... and EA Studios, both EA Burnaby and EAX downtown. What are the other big ones? You've got Slant 6 working on...
SOCOM now, right?
JH: SOCOM, for Sony. Then there's Blue Castle working on something for Capcom now, I think. There's just a tremendous community of talent. A lot of people have come from the east rivers, that great community and Montreal as well.
So you guys weren't really around very long before you ended up getting acquired.
JH: Yeah, not really.
Is it just because you think it was your expertise and your careers at EA that helped that, or was it just the right person at the right time?
JH: I think it was a bit of both. I think that there was respect for our experience and track record, and the belief that we could build the studio that we have built. I think at the same time, we were able to forge a relationship with the right publisher at the right time, and when we were acquired, we were still relatively small, so it was an acquisition, but also very much a start-up type of mentality.
How many staff members do you have? Are they all working on Turok, or do you have other projects?
JH: Now we're up to almost 150, and we will be adding more than 50 by the end of the year. We were actually focused on two projects right now, as we're getting Turok out the door. A lot of it, if Turok is a big success, we'll go on and develop more games in that universe, but we're waiting to see how that goes.
Then we have a second project that's in development. We haven't made any announcements about it, but I can say that it's an action RPG.