Playing for time
7th Oct 2007 | 07:00
Dave Doak is one of the co-founders of Free Radical Design, the group who splintered from Rare after creating Goldeneye, arguably the first console-based FPS classic. Certainly the only console-based FPS to directly inspire PC games with its use of sniper rifles, stealth and realistic locales.
Ever since they've followed their own determined path, working in what was considered primarily a PC genre, to create their own fun-packed vision of the shooter. Now it seems they're coming to our party. Thanks to increasing videogame convergence, Free Radical are both developing on PCs and developing for PCs. It's a perfect time to open a dialogue, and see what Dave and the team are bringing to our format.
We've been following Free Radical at a distance for some time, so it's interesting to finally talk. How are you approaching the PC?
Dave Doak: The only thing we've ever released on the PC was the port of Second Sight... but at the moment there's a fair amount of convergence of technology. From our point of view, going forward, PC is certainly a platform we'll be catering for.
What are the design issues when developing for the PC as well as the consoles?
Doak: The biggest challenge for us, specifically for PC stuff, is what the hardcore PC gamer expects from a shooter is quite different from what console gamers expect. There's a bit of PC snobbery there, I think [Laughs]. From a game design point of view, I've always found it's funny dealing constantly with questions about analogue controllers versus mouse and keyboards. It's a very thorny topic.
We're quite precious about our mouselook.
Doak: For a while, I hadn't played any PC shooters. The first one which drew me back in recent years was Half-life 2. I remember having this very strange feeling when playing it, in that it was like point-and-click to kill people. If you play a lot of console FPS you get used to the idea of there being some kind of weight to the turning, some kind of lag in it. When you go to PC, that's almost completely gone.
The accuracy of the mouse means that, to make a game difficult, things like headshots become increasingly dominant. When you've had that kind of control, it's hard to have someone take it away.
Doak: I think people can be a bit hypocritical about it. People say "I don't have this control any more!" But the game's been designed for you not to need that level of control. "But I had it before... can I have it back?" It's interesting watching the titles which move the other way - a good example of which is Unreal. For me, it's a thing they've always had to contend with. I saw recently them being asked whether in the next Unreal whether they'll be able to play cross-platform online. And they were "No... we're not even going to go near that."
Why the PC and why now?
Doak: The broader point is that our engine technology is PC-compatible. In fact, our engine technology is built on PC, which wasn't generally the case before. With the Timesplitters games and Second Sight we were mostly developing on PS2 hardware, and then porting to Xbox and Gamecube.
This time, building new engine tech, we're building on PC in advance of console hardware being available. But it was an easy choice, as we knew the consoles would be moving towards more multi-threaded, multi-core stuff and most next-gen engines broadly have the same rendering feature set. At the moment, the PC performance is doing what it generally tends to do across the lifetime of a console.
When a new one comes out, they deliver something pretty close to a top-end PC, but over the 5-6 years the PC pulls away again. The other thing is, the base resources for all consoles and PC right now is quite similar, and the stuff you'll see at the higher end PC is just people turning on a lot of the scalability options - fancier rendering, shadow patterns, stuff like that.
The differences are often hard to spot. It can be difficult to tell what machine you're playing an FPS on, at least at a glance. So cross-format games can give comparable experiences, yes?
Doak: There's two things really. The cost of making games right now mean that it makes financial sense to make it for all of the platforms. The other thing is the difference in the art-assets you're building is negligible - in fact, you're mostly not making separate assets. You're using the same assets. And there are things to do with how the engine works which are quite scalable. You end up turning bits off to fit the platform you're on.
For example, PlayStation 3 is very different to the PC, in that it has these FPU [floating-point maths] units which are very specific in what you can do. But if you look at the PC, with its dual or quad core, they're much more multi-function processing units. Also, in a way, PCs have become more similar to consoles. From the N64 on, consoles have traditionally had their own onboard specific graphics hardware. And PCs have gone that way completely.
Moving onto your games... TimeSplitters is interesting, in that it runs parallel to the development of the shooter for the PC. We went one way, on average. You went another.
Doak: We kind of reluctantly put Timesplitters on the shelf after Future Perfect [the last Timesplitters game]. We wanted to have a think about what we were doing. A thing we were always trying to do with Timesplitters is... the whole design of the game came from what would entertain us. It's doesn't fall into the teenage adolescent stuff
typified by things like Doom and Unreal... it was a fairly eclectic bunch of stuff, and a lot of fun. One thing I was surprised to see was Team Fortress starting to go along that kind of look. We've always had people critiquing Timesplitters for being a cartoony sort of game.
But now that people have realised they can do fairly realistic rendering, they're starting to say "Well... do we really want to do that, as we want to have something that has its own distinct look to it". Look at Team Fortress 2. That's their jumping off point. Let's try and get this away from Counter-Strike and have its own brand...
Timesplitters has always had that and it's something we want to go back and look at again, specifically taking that cartoon look and doing it with the interesting rendering you can do now.
What do you mean by that?
Doak: A typical next-gen look has often got all the next-gen stuff like specular highlights and normal mapping turned up to the max... which tends to make it look unreal anyway. If you look what people do, it's a Spinal Tap thing. It's all turned up to 11. And if it's not turned up to 11, people think it's not next-gen enough.
But if you've got something like the Timesplitter's world, which has plasticky and metal things about it, and characters' facial details are more caricatured with lines and wrinkles, it benefits quite well from those things being available in the rendering. Shiny foreheads and things like that. I think we're going to have a lot of fun with it.
While I think most PC gamers would agree the more games, the better, there's the fear of ports, which may not even explain the controls properly because they assume you're using a 360 pad. You feel like a second-class citizen.
Doak: It's hard. From the developers' point of view, if you're moving it onto PC... if you end up having to support mouse and keyboard and the controller as well as separate options... you just end up with extra work... Also, on the PC, there's a sense that since the PC is a more expensive platform to own, "where are my extra bells and whistles?"
The cost of doing bespoke extra PC stuff may just not justify the cost. For multi-platform stuff, generally, the PC stuff is a smaller part of the cake.
When we're working for PC, we do tend to use controllers for input, but when we go into testing we have people play all the way through with mouse and keyboard. The one thing I would say about any kind of shooting stuff is that we tend to favour, because of our background, the more loose run-and- gun feel rather than picking people off with headshots from miles away.
Give us that indulgence, as I like that kind of gameplay. When I've gone to play things like Counter-Strike, I'm not so much into hiding behind things forever. I like it feeling a bit more arcadey.
Which I've always liked about your games. What I find ironic though is that you guys pretty much popularised all that sort of stuff with Goldeneye. Headshots, sneaky play, sniper rifles... it's as if you invented prog rock, then went on to be a punk band.
Doak: Goldeneye has a very interesting pace to it. If you watch the NPCs, their animation system is quite slow... if you're shooting at the NPCs, you can headshot them all the time... but they move so slowly compared to what you see now, and you can see when they're going between animations.
If you watch someone play it, you'll notice there's a lot of 1-2 seconds where you can see someone is changing their action, and you know there's a half-second to shoot someone. So you either do so, or get out of the way. It wasn't anything particularly designed into it, but ended up being there.
But in Timesplitters, the NPCs are able to basically fire all the time. There's a lot more firing going on, but in some ways firing is a lot cheaper, so you can be hit much more. I agree, we've done less of the stealthy stuff, while Goldeneye was set up to foster that.