The trouble with ‘myth-busting’ studio visits is that they all too often become myth-affirming. Whether out of need, defiance or simple denial, sometimes a developer actually believes that the way to silence critics is to show them more of what they doubted in the first place. So it’s with some trepidation that we walk through the gates of Ealing Studios, currently home to the next St Trinian’s movie, to find out if WarDevil, a game that most people still associate with a 2004 technical teaser clip, is anything more than CGI fluff.
Another worry is that this visit, which for creator Digi-Guys is the first of its kind, has been arranged as a ‘technical reveal’. And as we stand in a kitchen currently full of packing material for a Euphonix audio workstation, not to mention the discarded fruit machine from Shaun Of The Dead (no one knows what to do with it), it’s a reveal that’s coming five years after the game’s announcement. Andy Whitehurst, the studio’s founder and the game’s project lead, has a lot of explaining to do.
“Every now and again something needs to shake the industry up,” he says. “I hope that either WarDevil or its pipeline can do something like that. The analogy would be Star Wars. Think of the movie industry in ’76. George Lucas was given $6 million at a time when the average was around $15 million. He had nothing and made this thing that turned the industry on its head. It revolutionised visual effects; if it wasn’t for Star Wars, we wouldn’t even be using the tech we’re using now. People keep talking about movies and games but, in my opinion, they’re thinking about it the wrong way. You can’t use conventional thought.”
We know what you’re thinking. And had we not just seen something comparable to id Software’s Rage running on an original Xbox, we’d be thinking it too. Our mistake, the demo suggests, was expecting the myth to be simply that WarDevil, a thirdperson action game set thousands of years in the future, was vapourware. It’s not, but that quickly becomes irrelevant. The myth is that the way the industry works today is the way it’ll work tomorrow. Some more about that Xbox demo, first, as it casts Whitehurst’s rhetoric in a substantially different light. It was developed in 2005, when you’d expect all eyes to be on Xbox 360. Such is the nature of Digi-Guys’ new pipeline, though – designed as it is to render Hollywood-grade visuals at true 1080p, at an unbroken 60 frames per second, using just one core of a modern console CPU – that the demo would have to do much more with much less to be a valid proof of concept. “Hold me to it and hang me, because the reality is that if we don’t do it this way, it’s not a project,” says Whitehurst. “If we reduce the textures, there’d be no point in doing it.” So on comes the black block of a chipped retail Xbox, and his words are put into action.
Using creatures and environments familiar to both the teaser video and now the game itself, it’s a smooth stroll through an arid, sundrenched scene: the cloister of a temple carved into a mountain, apparently, opening out into an arena full of richly detailed pillars. Biomeks, which at a glance resemble fleshier versions of Doom 3’s Revenants, adopt various positions before a Virtua Cop-style shooting system takes them down. This, importantly, is not how WarDevil will actually play.
It’s a persuasive piece of work, to say the least, and tells you as much about the last five years as it does about Whitehurst’s concept of ‘Hollywood grade’. The crux of it is the use of such high-resolution textures that it avoids the traditional break in fidelity from feature film standard to in-game. So what you’d expect to see even in modern games – textures that turn to porridge if you look too close – doesn’t happen here. Then there’s motion blur, of the kind seen in Jurassic Park rather than the harsh, sometimes nauseating vector blur used in modern games. Add to that many of the light and particle effects you’d expect to see today, and a healthy layer of anti-aliasing. All on an original Xbox which then has the pleasure of rendering it twice, a debug menu bringing two separate cameras to the scene.
How is this possible? Whitehurst is cagey, probably to protect his work rather than hide some inconvenient truth, which given the evidence would seem unnecessary. In principle, it stems from a conclusion that’s currently sweeping the game industry, and which Whitehurst, a veteran CG artist, live-action director and apparent technical guru, came to several years ago: that brute force rendering methods that put all their weight on graphics hardware aren’t the way to go; they won’t reach that goal of true parity between HD cinematics and in-game action. Instead, Digi-Guys’ pipeline uses a pre-calculated texture system that “gives us the ability to have an enormous amount of textures onscreen, at a fidelity we can use in 35mm or even 65mm formats without altering them.
“It’s not dissimilar from many normal industry practices, but we’ve pushed it in another direction by holding colour, grading, lighting, diffuse, specular and even bump maps in a single PCTS [pre-calculated texture system] data structure. This information lets us separate it into channels for complex effects and do cool stuff like integrating the image map itself, and finding individual pixel light values for condition-based rendering.”