Back to the Borderlands

At Gamescom 2011 in Cologne, Germany, Gearbox Studios unveiled the follow-up to its critically acclaimed first-person shooter, Borderlands. Running on Unreal Engine 3, the 2012 PC game is adding more depth to the story and improved visuals and gameplay to the open world experience.

Set once again on the borderland planet of Pandora, the new game picks up five years after the events of the first game. There’s a new bad guy, Handsome Jack, who runs the Hyperion Corporation, ruining the fun. It’s up to the player to change that. We talked to Anthony Burch, the writer of Borderlands 2 at Gearbox Software, about what’s in store for PC gamers in this 2012 action adventure.

DIG: What was your goal heading into Borderlands 2?

Anthony Burch: It was to take every system that people liked in the first game and improve on it even further. The mission system is completely overhauled so that the story and the missions can actually be even more in sync with one another, so that appearances can change on the fly. The story is a very, very big focus for us. The environment now includes the arctic tundra and lush green grasslands areas. We’re going to have much more than just the sort of dusty, sandy areas of the original. The entire world is much bigger this time around. You’ll never hit that invisible wall.

DIG: How did you interact with PC gamers in deciding what you’re adding to this sequel?

A.B.: Basically, if they asked for something hard enough and long enough and it seemed like something that enhanced the game, we’re putting it in. The mini map that’s now at the top right of the screen -- which makes it easy to find objectives quickly and spend more time actually playing the game -- was a fan request.

Also, fans loved the fact that the game has 87 bazillion guns, but they wanted the guns to have more variety. We listened to that and now the assault rifles that we’re showing off are ridiculously different from one another and super-cool. All the rest of the guns will be as well, and that is just four manufacturers in just the assault rifles. The gun system has been completely overhauled.

DIG: What improvements have you made to the gameplay?

A.B.: We’ve added new action skills. In the first game we had these skills called the Game Changers. If you played as Lilith, you could point to the Phoenix skill and then when you killed something close to them they would get set on fire. This changed the way you played. We have even more of those in this game.

Salvador has a skill called “overheat,” where the longer you hold down the fire button, the faster your firing is. So you could actually use this skill best by getting a bunch of guns that have really high ammo capacity or really high firing range just to empty your clips really quickly and go nuts.

DIG: How have you made the enemies more challenging this time around?

A.B.: Enemy AI has been completely overhauled, so when you find bandits they’ll now call out plays and be like everybody else. They’ll use grenades, fall back, take cover and even flank you. The Hyperion gun-loaders we have, who are the grunts of the Hyperion army, can have their limbs blown off to slow them down or remove a weapon from them. But then these little probe bots called the surveyors come in and heal them. They can reconstruct their arms.

This type of behavior forces the player to prioritize their targets. It opens up these really dynamic emergent experiences. The fighting is much deeper than it was in the first game.

DIG: How are you guys using Unreal Engine 3 technology to push the visuals of what already was a unique cel-shaded game experience?

A.B.: Borderlands has a really cool, distinctive art style and we’re keeping that, but we’re adding to that. When you enter an environment, there’s a lot going on now. The world’s more alive. In the first game, if you lost your shield you heard a beeping noise, which you might have missed completely. In this game when your shield is depleted, it shatters in front of you, and you can see the pieces fall in front of you. It adds a real sense of panic when you’re on the battlefield with chaos exploding around you.

Players will learn information about everything from weapons to enemies through visual cues this time around, like the loaders asking for repairs in the midst of battle. We’re going to have a lot of feedback to show players all of the mechanics that exist, which should enhance the gameplay experience.

DIG: What’s the most exciting thing for fans of this franchise that you’re doing with this sequel?

A.B.: It’s the story integration and making it feel more like a cohesive adventure in this immersive world. The world we’ve got now feels so much more alive. There are things constantly happening around you. We have all of these different bandit factions and clans fighting against one another. And the environment tells all these stories and it tends to make it a more immersive experience than the first game. I’m really excited about that -- but I’m the writer, so I’m biased.

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Taking the Mystery out of Middleware Perfomance

Sleuthing out code bottlenecks and unnecessary frame activity is possible only with sophisticated tools. PC game developers rely on the graphics performance analyzers (GPA) to visualize over time the execution profile of the tasks in their code on the heterogeneous (CPU+GPU) PC platform.

But until recently, coverage for middleware code has been limited for the game development community, which is why Autodesk Scaleform could pay off big for many development teams.

Introducing Autodesk Scaleform
With about 30 employees in its home office, Autodesk Scaleform was founded in 2005 by Brendan Iribe and Michael Antonov, who met at the University of Maryland. After creating a user interface (UI) middleware company, they got busy making an engine and library. Their first big success was the UI for the huge blockbuster title Civilization IV.

Autodesk Scaleform is a leading provider of Flash-based middleware and UI solutions for the video game and consumer electronic industries. Perfecting the UI is a key ingredient for software success, but it also requires a different mindset from designing fiendish levels and compelling characters. Autodesk Scaleform 4.0 gives game-development artists and user-centered design experts the ability to build out interfaces with dropdown menus, radio buttons, even a heads-up display. These background tools that work between other games subsystems are referred to as “middleware,” and they link separate software applications.

When game developers use Autodesk Scaleform and GPA together, it’s easy to see how the middleware and their game code perform. Middleware tends to be a “black box” and difficult to understand when performance-tuning. Generally, the code takes some CPU time and adds draw calls, but beyond that, middleware code is opaque.

Getting the System-wide Picture
GPA tools visualize the execution profile of tasks over time. They collect trace data during the application run, so they provide a detailed analysis of how the code executes across all threads and correlates the CPU work with tasks performed on the GPU. GPA also aligns clocks across all cores in the entire system so that developers can analyze CPU-based workloads together with GPU-based workloads on the timeline.

The visualization of the execution profile gives developers a system-wide picture of the way code executes on the CPU and GPU cores. The GPA is built upon a docking interface around a task timeline. Panels in the interface present the trace data and task selection set in a format that assists in performing a detailed analysis. Different analyses are available through the range of panels, such as a bar chart containing the sums of task durations that correspond to common workloads.

Developers get details on parsing errors, see the task that executed within a thread, and are able to identify the period of time the application spends preparing each frame -- thus allowing them to visualize where in the application that work is occurring relative to trace instrumentation. GPA tools automatically provide the DX CPU and DX GPU tracks, as well as Microsoft DirectX call instrumentation, in DirectX applications, without additional work. While most tracks show the activity of traced code within a particular thread, the DX CPU and DX GPU tracks highlight the work performed by the graphics driver (DX CPU) and the graphics hardware (DX GPU).

One problem that large studios typically face is that while they can instrument their own code for interacting with a GPA, very few computer games are produced with 100-percent proprietary code. Instead, competitive titles on hyper-schedules require developers to combine various technologies. Studios typically use off-the-shelf code such as Unreal Engine for key foundation work, but they might also incorporate Havok Physics for collisions and explosions, use Geomerics Enlighten for lighting, and so forth. Scaleform 4.0 enters the picture during the production of the UI.

Streamlining UI Builds on the Optimized Scaleform 4.0
Scaleform 4.0 includes an all-new, high-performance, multithreaded rendering engine, Flash 10/AS3 support, and iOS and Android mobile compatibility. The multithreading code was rewritten from the ground up, designed to make the new version future-proof in anticipation of powerful new processors. GPA helped Autodesk Scaleform confirm that its new renderer is faster than previous versions and that its ActionScript 3 virtual machine is very efficient. Autodesk Scaleform engineers reported a huge performance gain.

Alexis Mantzaris, principal engineer at Autodesk M&E Games Technology, is enthusiastic about the interaction with Scaleform 4.0 and the GPA they used. “Scaleform 4.0 customers who are familiar with GPA can now immediately evaluate the performance of their UI without learning to use a new tool like AMP,” he says. “Once confident that Scaleform 4.0 is highly optimized, they can focus on optimizing their Flash UI content and game code.”

Mantzaris says that the optimizations Autodesk Scaleform made on their core product include faster rendering and data loading. Those improvements make a big difference on mobile and low-end devices, which don’t have PC computing power. Flash content can load faster, run smoother and even take advantage of advanced rendering capabilities, such as 3D, when running on low-end devices.

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Powering Stan Lee’s The Guardian Project

The man who conjured some of the most beloved superheroes of all time, including Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, has a new legion of heroes primed for the 21st century.

Stan Lee’s The Guardian Project offers 30 unique animated characters, each based on an existing National Hockey League franchise. To attract a new, younger generation of hockey fans, the NHL has partnered with Lee’s POW! Entertainment and SLG Entertainment to create Guardian Media Entertainment (GME). GME is deep into production of a cross-platform franchise set to launch in conjunction with the 2011/2012 NHL season. Powering the new computer-generated TV series and online video game is Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 3 technology, marking the first time game-engine technology has been used for a mainstream Hollywood television project.

Peter Krygowski, the director of The Guardian Project at Vicon House of Moves (HOM), where the performance capture for these digital characters was created, says game engine resolution has reached a place where it can address the quality that other media demands.

“A cross-pollination is now happening between games and other media,” explains Krygowski, who has been in the video game space for 12 years. “Obviously games have been in the public eye for a while, but only recently has the talent behind them begun to work in other media, applying their problem-solving ideas to traditional pipelines.”

Building Across Mediums
Each character in The Guardian Project is a superhero version of a hockey team, possessing unique super powers and representing a specific city and environment. The San Jose Shark, for example, uses his Silicon Valley roots to hack into computers with technopathy.

“The artist who designed these characters with Lee has a background in character animation and design for both television and gaming, and he warned us that many designs would have to be simplified to work for both outlets,” recalls Tony Chargin, executive vice president of GME Creative Affairs. “However, when we began working with Vicon, their process allowed us to realize in our final products all of the detail we imagined in the original designs, without sacrificing anything.”

A team at HOM choreographed the actions for each character and then motion-captured the actors and stuntmen to capture the data digitally on the 26,000 square-foot stage. More than 200 VICON T160 cameras were used over the nine-day shoot in Los Angeles. CG assets were built using Autodesk Maya and Pixologic ZBrush, and Autodesk MotionBuilder was used to retarget animation and navigate environments during motion-capture sessions.

An Unreal Journey
Krygowski says the team didn’t know that when they suggested using Unreal they would have in their back pocket Alberto Menache, a Hollywood visual effects veteran who has worked on blockbusters such as Spider-Man, The Polar Express and Superman Returns. Menache’s input, insight and sheer diligence coaxed the best out of the Unreal engine.

“We wrote code to help generate custom shaders and bring virtual cameras into and out of the Unreal Engine for this project,” explains Menache. “As a result, we had incredible creative flexibility and could render out 8K frames in a matter of seconds -- not to mention the savings in gear costs -- without the need for a multi-CPU render farm.”

Menache says the team used Matinee to blend animations and camera cuts, as well as for effects. They also used the Unreal Material Editor to build shaders and Cascade to build effects. Kismet was employed to make sure cinematics would play at the start of the game and for some camera effects and post-processes.

Chargin says working with a video game engine saved time in editing and allowed the team to focus on creating dynamic content during production. “In terms of its value over traditional CG, the render times are cut down exponentially, which allows for softer deadlines,” says Chargin. “We can turn out a better product in a fraction of the time. Because this has never been done, we did not have a template, but with those challenges comes even greater excitement and reward.”

TV production is a fast-paced avalanche of work where turnaround times for visual effects run anywhere from seven to 11 days, explains Chargin. For the most part, he says, a bunch of talented people are pouring their collective hearts and souls into making compelling visuals under crazy deadlines.

“Game engines are not the silver bullet in beating the curve for traditional TV work, but used judiciously with skill and foresight, the game engine can cut out a ton of pre-viz, pre-, pro- and post-production time,” says Chargin.

The Future of Entertainment
HOM has already integrated Unreal Engine 3 technology into its system, intending to employ the game engine on both video game and Hollywood projects. Krygowski says the engine has the ability to push the envelope of media by allowing creators to build a single set of assets for a variety of media, allowing for real-world environments, assets and characters to traverse multiple uses, resolutions and intentions.

In Hollywood, it all comes down to dollars and cents. And Chargin believes video game technology will become a mainstay in Hollywood because of economics. He says the Unreal Engine allows his team to produce a higher quality product in a fraction of the time of traditional CG animation.

Creatives can bank on this, moving forward. And the implications for the game industry are also huge, given that the sharing of assets built in the same engine will allow for more immersive experiences. But perhaps more importantly, it will blur the lines between interactive and linear entertainment -- just as The Guardian Project and its cast of superheroes is doing.

Photo: Getty Images

Watching Nations Fall

The MMORPG is a classic PC game genre, one with a long and nuanced history. The biggest and arguably greatest of them is World of Warcraft, an RPG born from real-time strategy beginnings.

In Trion’s forthcoming MMO, End of Nations, the goal is to get back to those roots and create the very first massively multiplayer online RTS game. It’s an ambitious goal, one backed up with some incredibly detailed visuals and a powerhouse engine.

DIG had the opportunity to talk to End of Nations’ executive producer David Luehmann about the game’s development and his hopes for the future.

DIG: What is End of Nations?

David Luehmann: In a nutshell, End of Nations is a massive online, persistent, real-time strategy game. The game is set in a near future in which society as we know it has continued on the downward spiral until ultimately it fails and billions of lives are lost in the chaos that follows the collapse. 

DIG: So how is the gameplay for an MMORTS going to work?

D.L.: Internally, we actually think of it as an RTSMMO. Our canon is that it’s a great RTS that utilizes MMO features in a manner that improves upon the core RTS gameplay.

So in most ways it will be familiar to RTS players. There are two playable factions that have different units and abilities. The user interface will also be quickly recognizable and familiar to RTS players. The gameplay is best described as more tactical in focus, and there will still be resources that need to be managed, but players won’t have to optimize around build-order queues.

However, unlike traditional RTS games, everything is online, always online and persistent. For example, much like MMOs, there really isn’t a simple single-player campaign. There is a campaign mode, but it is very PVE/co-op focused and players will be bound to see other users as they play through the campaigns.

We also utilize other beneficial design constructs from MMOs, like the concept of leveling. So as users go through missions, they will earn persistent resources that can be used to unlock technology trees, new unit types, and new abilities -- and customize their units uniquely for each faction -- which in turn can then be used in both campaign and massive PVP battles.

DIG: What are some of the challenges you have faced in developing a massively multiplayer real-time strategy game?

D.L.: At a high level, the challenges fit into two categories: gameplay and technology. From a gameplay perspective, we need to focus on large-scale, moment-to-moment gameplay and avoid big build-order-based gameplay, as that won’t be fun for 50-plus players online together. We also want to be cautious of not turning it into an RPG with full loot dropping and character paper-dolls. Again, it’s an RTS game and we don’t want to muddy that focus.

For the technology side, the challenges really revolve around the core network architecture common in RTS games, typically peer-to-peer based. In a peer-based system, you are playing on a local game that is networked to other peers who are all doing the same thing, and the world state is shared amongst all players.

End of Nations is a pure client-server-based technology. You aren’t playing the game on your home computer, you are playing the game on a server in a data center, and your computer is just the client that is interfaced into the server. Another way of saying this is that your computer is a window through which you are seeing the game. This type of architecture is common for MMO games, as it allows for much larger numbers of users and helps with a bunch of anti-cheat challenges as well.

DIG: What are some of the key features we can expect to see in the game?

D.L.: There are three big feature buckets:

1. Scale, large scale co-op and competitive battles like you have never seen in an RTS game before, with lots of ways to team up with friends.

2. Persistence. Everything you do counts, but in the campaign mode and in the larger meta-game battles for territory. There will be thousands of players fighting for control of the world, and if you are part of big assault or are keeping the base safe -- what you do will matter.

3. Customization. This is both aesthetically and gameplay changing. What choices you make in building out your army, equipping it and upgrading units and abilities will be a big part of the strategy found in this game.

DIG: How are you balancing the MMO aspects with the RTS aspects?

D.L.: We address balancing through a couple of methods. The first is via a smart matchmaking/rewards system that takes rank, skill, clan, group and other player preferences into account in the big competitive battles. The second is really about embracing the differences between newer and more veteran players and employing design concepts in which there is a symbiotic relationship between new players and veterans.

DIG: How do you see the world and mechanics developing past launch?

D.L.: That’s very difficult to predict. First we’ll listen to our customers. We think of this as a service and, if there are particular features or needs that our customers have, we’ll want to address those.

Beyond that, we’ll certainly introduce new units, mods, areas, missions and new stories. Getting wilder, we could potentially release new factions -- or even wilder still, persistent player bases and the like.

DIG: End of Nations packs some serious visual firepower. What technology did you use to develop it?

D.L.: Everything you see is born from propriety tech created by our development partner Petroglyph or by our platform team here at Trion.

DIG: Has it been difficult to scale End of Nations? Are there any specific things you have done or used to ensure the game will run on legacy machines?

D.L.: Yes and yes! It has been difficult and there are many things we’ve done to keep the barrier to entry as low as possible. Technically we have a really solid rendering engine that can scale the complexity of all the visuals down to different levels of detail appropriate for older machines, and we’ve made design and platform decisions that will offload many of the logic needs to server. In this model the clients don’t need the entire world state in memory and/or have to calculate all the math, which really lowers the overhead on CPU and RAM.

DIG: When all is said and done, what is the one core thing you hope to accomplish with End of Nations
There’s a bunch of little goals all tied into this, but at the core I want to see us deliver a game that finds fans who think it simply kicks ass!

Dust 514 Brings MMO EVE Online Into the FPS Market

The upcoming game Dust 514,  an exclusive PlayStation 3 first-person shooter, will dramatically interact with the world of the MMORPG Eve. DIG sat down with producer Tom Farrer  to discuss PlayStation 3 exclusivity and some of the technical challenges of integrating a PS3 game into the PC game experience.

DIG: Why was it decided not to make Dust a PS3 exclusive, instead of bringing it to PC?

T.F.: For us, this was about bringing the universe of EVE to a new market, to a new kind of player. EVE is a fantastic game, but even we’ll admit it is quite complicated and has a very steep learning curve.
We want to be able to offer this incredible universe to people that perhaps don’t have the time to be able to sit down and learn all of these complex mechanics. We often hear a lot of people are very interested in our universe, but they simply don’t have the time to be able to sit down and really get into a hugely complex MMO. We thought the console platform would allow us to expand our audience.

DIG: So will Dust still speak to EVE players? Is there a common narrative thread, or sensibility, that they can pick up on?

T.F.: Absolutely. Both games are running on the same server, in the same universe, in real time. You can be orbiting a planet within the EVE client, and you’ll see the icons and markers that are representing battles that are going on on that surface at that particular moment in time.

As a corporation, you can also provide support. The connection isn’t just a meta-game connection; it’s a literal connection. The players within the EVE clients and the Dust clients on the PlayStation 3 can talk to each other on the local chat, and be in the same corporation. The equivalent in other games would be a guild. If you create one within Dust, it’s the same as creating one within EVE.

DIG: How much more work would you say is left before Dust is completed?

T.F.: Around the end of the year, we’ll be starting with the private, behind-closed-doors trials where we’ll start to test things and build things up, and we’ll continue to add more content. Around summer next year, we’ll release the game. And once we’ve released it, we’ll continue developing it, adding more and more content and features.

In a sense it’ll never be finished -- for a developer, in some ways, it’s fantastic because it means you never really have to cut anything. You just have to wait until ultimately you get to implement it. But then I suppose it’s also, “Ah! We’ll never be finished!”

DIG: Do you have a sense of some of the ways Dust will evolve over time, perhaps after a year or two from the release?

T.F.: I do. There are always so many ideas kicking around the company. When you’ve got that many creative people, you’re always going to have 101 million ideas. It’s always difficult to pick from them.

There are things that we want to do, and things we’re really interested in developing. But it comes down to seeing what the players do with the tools that we’ve given them. When we release the game and we start to see how players play, and how players use the tools we’ve thrown in a sandbox, it’s going to be that that influences where we take the game.

It would be arrogant for us to assume we would just know what the players would do, or what the players would want. We’ve been proved wrong before; we’ve been surprised before. As a company, that’s what we’re about: empowering the players and letting them drive the direction for the game.

DIG: How might the integration of Dust players into the world eventually change the feel of the EVE universe?

T.F.: I don’t know if it’s going to change the feel of the universe so much as just increase the depth and the complexity of the universe. For the longest time now, it’s been flying in space. And now, all of a sudden, there’s this new element.

I would see the games becoming more and more integrated with one another, to the point where we’re literally able to walk up and meet one another, rather than just talk on voice or communicate over text chat. I would hope it’s going to spur on a lot of exciting and dangerous conflict within the universe.

I would like to see interesting and unusual types of gameplay coming to the fore, with sabotage and infiltration of rival corporations. This isn’t something that you typically see within the shooter genre, and I think that bringing this type of gameplay into the universe of EVE is going to produce some really interesting results.

DIG: What kinds of technical challenges had to be solved in order to seamlessly integrate the console and PC experiences?

T.F.: Obviously we’ve got quite a bit of experience with networking, given EVE Online. Getting both games up and running on Tranquility, which is our supercomputer that we’re using to run both games -- some people would say it wasn’t as tricky as we expected it to be. But it was certainly tricky.

Really, we were expecting it to be harder than it was, in terms of linking the PlayStation 3 and the PC together. That was one of the reasons why we wanted to have a partnership with the platform holder, because of the things that we needed to do to be able to link the console network with our PC network. We needed to bend a few rules, break a few rules -- which traditionally you can’t when you’re working with a console platform. That partnership’s been very beneficial for us.

DIG: How exactly have you been playing around with the rules?

T.F.: It’s kind of all over the place. For example, something that’s very important within an MMO like EVE is that your identity is essentially a secret. Typically within a console game, your identity is broadcast to all players. Your console’s identity is your in-game identity. That’s not something that we want within our universe, because -- it may sound silly or even nasty -- but it’s important that you can backstab your friends, if you want to. It’s these kinds of behaviors that will actually create interesting and meaningful social interactions.