Remastering the past
The studio’s next job, the Team Ico HD Classics collection, makes God Of War look simple. Bluepoint spends a month evaluating HD remake requests, looking at factors such as artistic merit, present-day singularity and complexity. For two weeks, Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus were touch-and-go.
“Japanese developers have a very different philosophy,” O’Neil explains. “They use Linux, to start off with. So you get the first drop and have to find a Japanese version of that. And they use an unusual build pipeline.” This time the brief summary of the issues encompasses differences in fill rate between PS2 (higher) and PS3, having to decipher two vastly different games, getting Ico running in 1080p, issues with PS3 transparency handling, and a piecemeal, painstaking approach to replacing the renderer.
Chief technical officer Marco Thrush elaborates: “The main difference to God Of War is that we got the [GOW] code and could just drop it into Windows Compiler and run it. But with Shadow, it was developed on Linux computers throughout the whole development. There was only ever one platform. So once we tried to compile it, there were thousands of Assembler functions that simply didn’t compile. We could run the God Of War games on day one, but Shadow took a lot longer.”
Quite what was really said when, with the game finally running at an elusive 30fps, Sony asked about 3DTV support is unknown, but probably unpublishable. O’Neil’s official version is: “’Ooh, that sounds really interesting, but really hard, because we’ve got to run everything twice when it’s already hammering the crap out of the hardware.
“So we just started offloading crazy amounts of stuff on to the SPUs, just to free up the RSX [PS3’s graphics chip] enough to do it. Another problem is that you’ve got to adjust the focal distance to determine how strong the effect is, and a lot of games in 3D don’t work very well.”
Thrush agrees: “The standard approach is you just put the focal point on the player and give the player a depth slider to adjust the strength of distortion. But as soon as you get anything close to the camera, your eyes can’t focus, you get window violation stuff.”
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Back to O’Neil: “We wanted to make it something that made the game better, so we came up with this technique where we analyse the scene, the Z-buffer, and figure out what’s close to the player, where the player is, what the range of depth in the scene is. Then we can automatically calculate the focal point, the distortion effects, the strength of distortion, so they don’t make the player feel bad.”
The results, he adds, are unique to each game, Ico becoming a kind of ‘magic box’ due to its interiors and camera, while Shadow Of The Colossus gets even more colossal – the awesomeness of your approaching prey turning to vertigo as you angle towards its weakspots. Such a thorough exploitation of the source material would be, let’s say, ‘troublesome’ without that aggressive approach to bugs and glitches.
Knowing how to fix whatever problems come up, however invisible the results might be to the average player, is hard. Knowing if they should be fixed, however, requires a constant dialogue between Bluepoint, its publisher and a game’s creator.
“We’ll say: ‘We’ve found this problem – do you want us to fix it?’ Because there are a few bugs and cheats in the original PAL version [of Shadow Of The Colossus] that we fixed, and that will upset a few people, possibly. But it was a deliberate decision: this can break the game, so let’s do subtle things so people can’t take advantage of it. But we won’t change anything without talking to the original developers.”
A ‘lazy’ HD update, then, probably wouldn’t work in the first place. O’Neil would sooner blame lack of time, budget or due diligence for the ones that ‘go wrong’, especially when porting from difficult platforms. And, of course, “there are games where it’s really low-poly, or where there are low-res textures or just bad art direction. If it didn’t look awesome for a PS2 game, it’s not going to magically have a shine on it now.”