It's always strange to go back to school but at least when returning to my alma mater of Imperial College, University of London, for its GAME 07 event last week, I wasn't meeting my lecturers ten years on. Thankfully I'm no computer science graduate, so the invitation to attend the Games and Media day conference, as organised by the computing department, came without too many uncomfortable deja vu moments.
But whatever my personal flashbacks, the event itself - now in its third year - is most certainly geared up for the future. There were over 250 attendees and the speaker list would have impressed GDC's organisers. Frontier's David Braben keynoted on the subject of Creating Games for the Next Generation, Beautiful Game Studios talked about Semantic Representation in Computer Games, while Rare delved into the tricky issue of multithreading. Peter Molyneux wrapped up proceedings with a talk on Emotions in AI, which he highlighted with a demo of his Fable 2 hound in action.
Raising The Bar
Perhaps the most striking talk came from Richard Parr (pictured), chief technical officer of Criterion Games though. Having worked on all of Criterion's games from Burnout 1 onwards, he presented a fascinating, high-level view of how game development has changed during that seven year period.
Of course, as befitted his audience, half of which consisted of undergraduate computer science students (or potential employees, as they're commonly known), Parr spoke at length about how Criterion takes time to plan out and document software architecture before piling into the meat of game development.
Key to this has been Parr's adoption of IBM's Rational Rose software, which uses the Unified Modeling Language (UML) to create an abstract model of a game's components and structure. It's proved crucial in terms of the company being able to successfully release five Burnout games within a five and a half year period, especially as some of those games have been developed in eight months.
Still, even with this high level control over a project's direction, Parr said game development was always likely to be a messy process.
"In the first Burnout, the boost feature was a late addition. We could race around on the other side of the road, just missing the oncoming traffic, but we hadn't really worked out a reason why until someone came up with the boost," he explained. Similarly, the takedown concept of Burnout 3 took time to emerge and once adopted involved last minute rework in terms of the user interface and progression system.
Burnout Revenge was even more convoluted with various game modes being coded into the game, only to be taken out again, when it was decided they weren't up to scratch. Still, various bits of redundant code were included on the retail disk.
"Those changes cost a lot of resources," Parr admitted. "We now do a lot more prototyping."
This philosophy is best highlighted in Black, Criterion's 'gun porn' game, which was in development for over four years, two of which were spent in pre-production. "We created two prototypes and spent a lot of time experimenting with how the levels would work," Parr said. This included physical modeling such as building areas out of LEGO, as well as walking around the office with toy guns and video cameras, to get ideas about point of view and camera angles.
Another area the company's beefed up in recent years is its version control and software configuration management tools, to ensure it always has working builds of in-development games available. It's also more rigorous about how different versions of the code are branched and merged. Resources have been invested in automated testing systems too. "They're expensive, but they pay off in the long run," Parr reckoned.
Revving Up Again
Burnout Paradise is now the company's main concern however, although with a winter 2007 release scheduled, the team size has dropped from its peak of 120.
"What's important with Burnout Paradise is to push the envelope where it works," Parr explained. "We're getting into diminishing returns when it comes to rendering and shaders. Most players are just looking for a good time, so AI, physics and characters are the areas we need to be focus on."
As for the nitty gritty of its first proper cross-platform next-gen title, Parr said PlayStation 3 was the lead platform, as technically it was the most 'interesting'. "Porting a PC game to PlayStation 3 isn't any fun, as one of our teams is currently discovering," he joked.
The Burnout Paradise game engine itself is constructed in a modular fashion, where the modules run independently of each other and use different processing threads (or SPUs) as appropriate, in order to make the most of hardware parallelism.
Another advantage of this approach is that within the common code architecture, specific modules can be optimised for each hardware platform. It also makes it easier to schedule work as coding tasks are broken down into well defined blocks, making it more straightforward to allocate and debug programmers' work.
This works out well for Criterion which tends not to employ Agile programming techniques because of its large team sizes and the relative inexperience of some staff. Pair programming and EA's 'cell' model of small, inter-disciplinary groups, are used however.
[Jon Jordan is a freelance games journalist and photographer, based in Manchester, UK. He once knew how to design highlift aerofoils, but these days he lucky to get a paper airplane into the air.]