GDC: The Making of The Last Remnant
At GDC 09 Epic Games’ Michael Capps and Daniel Vogel sat down with Square Enix’s Hiroshi Takai and Robert Gray to discuss the ups and downs of building The Last Remnant with Unreal Engine 3.
Cerny opened the conversation by noting the wide discrepancy between Japanese reviews of the game and American reviews. While Famitsu gave the game an almost perfect score of 38 out of 40, American reviews were largely negative.
“I thought it was scored too high,” Takai answered honestly. He theorized that Japanese reviewers tend to review a game from the point of view of a person who likes similar games whereas American and European reviewers are more subjective in their evaluations, scoring a game based on their personal reaction. Capps described starting the game up and immediately being faced with dense and confusing menus. “It was overwhelming,” he admitted, although he remains proud of the finished product.
The choice of Unreal was unusual for the Japanese company which had a long history of developing its own technology. When asked why Square Enix made the decision to use Unreal, Takai explained that as far back as five years ago rising production costs on PlayStation 2 games had prompted the company to start looking at the emerging middleware and engine market as a way to save money. At the time, Square Enix was considering the Renderware engine but after Electronic Arts acquired Criterion, they had doubts about the engine’s long-term support and began to look at Unreal.
Closing the deal with Square Enix was challenging for Epic, which at the time could only show an English-language version of the engine. “We were humble. Obviously Square Enix could build an engine that was just as good as Unreal Engine,” Capps said. The selling point was the engine’s immediate availability versus years of engineering required if Square Enix wanted to start from scratch.
“On first impression, I didn’t get it at all,” Takai recalled upon beginning work with the engine. However, as he dug into it he realized the advantage of being able to move complex graphics onto the fast-approaching next generation of game hardware.
Getting up to speed with Unreal was not easy, however. Epic began translating documentation for the engine but odd mistranslations began to creep in. For example, ACTOR was literally (and uselessly) translated as “a person who performs on a stage.” These kinds of issues necessitated bringing in Gray to work on the Japanese team and smooth over language problems as they cropped up. Square Enix also sent over developers to embed with Epic for several weeks in order to better understand the Unreal method of production.
Gray noted that Unreal Engine is very artist-friendly, which actually proved to be an early problem that the team had to overcome. Because art assets could be brought into the engine quickly, the art department moved far ahead of the rest of team, disproportionably leading the process.
Square Enix also had to deal with engine upgrades as Epic refined the software. “When a large scale update happened it would one or two months before we could properly integrate the update,” Takai said.
“Unreal Engine is never done and you have to decide for yourself when it’s done for you,” Gray noted.
When asked whether the collaboration was a success the answer was mixed. “Getting in touch with other development cultures was a great experience. It was laborious, but we learned a lot,” Takai said.
Gray agreed, saying, “It was big step for the company. We could have taken the easy road and made a first person shooter but we pushed the engine in new directions.”
There was a downside though. “Unreal Engine didn’t meet our expectations in certain areas. We wanted to create a lot of characters but we had to scale down our game,” Takai said.
Takai’s non-answer to a question from the audience was perhaps the most revealing. The Last Remnant was intended to be a simultaneous Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 release. However, when asked why the game shipped only on the Xbox 360, Takai noted that the PC version had just been released but “I can’t answer for the PlayStation 3.”