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Seattle-based, now Warner Bros-owned Monolith Productions, whose history dates all the way back to 1997's FPS Blood, has had a long tradition of delivering immersive and well-regarded first-person experiences -- this generation coming up with both of the Condemned games, and F.E.A.R., one of the most successful attempts to blend horror and first-person shooting yet released.
Now, the developers are working on F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin, which begins about thirty minutes before the original game's ending. Players will again battle the paranormal manifestations of a wrathful and powerful psychic girl, taking on the role of a special forces agent who will have the same superhuman reflexes seen in the first F.E.A.R. The game is scheduled to release for PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 next February in the U.S. and Europe.
To find out more about the game's technological basis, we spoke to John O'Rorke, engine architect and principal software engineer for Monolith, and Matthew Rice, senior software engineer, AI, in a two-part interview.
What follows is a detailed look at the decision-making process at Monolith when it comes to tech; how features are decided on and become implemented, as well as a frank discussion of the future of current-gen engine technology.
It also examines the current state of game AI, taking in a discussion of the features of the latest iteration of Monolith's AI technology in F.E.A.R. 2, and what the future holds.
It sounds like there are a lot of pretty high level features; coming on from the prior game, what were your priorities? Was the engine improvement driven by the demand of what was going into F.E.A.R. 2? And, if not, what drove them?
JO: For F.E.A.R. 2, we really wanted to just crank up the destruction, and the overall visuals, and the environments, because that's really what made F.E.A.R. 1 unique and special. So we just wanted to take that and bump it to the next level, and so, it was dictated by the needs of the project.
We focused on "How do we get five to 10 times as many objects in spaces? How do we do some really cool new lighting stuff? How can we make the environments feel more real? And also make it run off of a console, with limited memory, and stream everything, and all that other fun stuff?"
Obviously, F.E.A.R. is a horror-based game, so atmosphere is very paramount for it. But to execute on horror, a multidisciplinary approach is required, because obviously the tech has to be ready to support these things, but art and design have a big say in what's scary, and how it's going to look. So how do you balance those disciplines when updating an engine, and picking and choosing what features to concentrate on?
JO: That's a really good question; that's something that a lot of people tend to overlook when analyzing technology. It really doesn't matter what the cool new feature is unless there's an adequate workflow for it. Technology development is expensive, but not nearly as expensive as content creation.
And so, there have been techniques, and research, and prototypes that have been done, that we've had to scrap just because there's no way in the world that we could create a workflow that would allow our artists to populate that and still stay within timeframe and budget -- but, I say that, though there are also a lot that have panned out, and resulted in some pretty cool techniques.
One of the things that we did for F.E.A.R. 2, for example, was textured volumetric rendering, and we were able to come up with a nice workflow for that, that was pushed by engineering -- just something that the graphics engineer and I were playing around with, and we came up with a technique, and we prototyped it, it turned out really well. We pushed it to the artists, and then they started incorporating it into a lot of spaces. They really help pull out the atmosphere.
And then there's always the converse, of course, where the artists say, "Well, what if we can do this," and then there's back and forth about, "Oh, okay, here's what you're really trying to do; here's a solution that we can put in there for that, and see how you'd like it to work for your workflow," and so it's very much a two-way street in terms of ideas and stuff like that.
F.E.A.R., obviously, and F.E.A.R. 2 are on this technology, but what other games from the studio have been running on this generation of your engine?
JO: It went F.E.A.R. -- F.E.A.R. was our kind-of new technology; new renderer, physics, and all sorts of stuff like that; Condemned was basically our migration onto the consoles, with the 360 launch title; Condemned 2 was an increment on the console technology and move onto the PS3; and F.E.A.R. 2 is a further refinement of all the graphics and performance, and a couple of new features that we're working on, too.
When you're talking about your engine development, obviously you guys have game projects going; your flow is that as a project gets towards wrapping, you start working on the engine improvements that are going to go into the next title. So, I'm assuming that's why you are able to incrementally list the upgrades that happen per each game title you just mentioned.
JO: Yeah, it's very much a leap-frogging of systems; it takes longer than game project to rewrite all of these systems, so we pick the biggest systems, or what we really want to hone for the title, or what needs major extensions to support the game, rewrite those for that title. Then those are usually pretty solid, so we switch to a different set of systems, and so on.