War is a theme as old as the video game medium itself; leaps in game presentation have typically corresponded to some kind of combat themed game.
In the more than 15 years since the introduction of the first-person shooter genre, and nearly 10 since tactical shooters came on the scene, the progressive immersion in one's environment has represented the cutting edge of these games.
Designers, artists and staff of three shooter developers - Guerrilla Games, which just put out Killzone 2; Gearbox Software, of the Brothers in Arms franchise, and Call of Duty's Infinity Ward - were gracious enough to speak with Kotaku about the increasingly complex set design and art direction of these kinds of combat-based first-person shooters. There's an art to war, after all, and this is theirs.
Setting the Table
Set design for a battlefield, whether for a film or a video game, presents a unique demand - the scene must make sense. It can't conflict with or present inconsistencies in the story at large. And in the case of a video game, it will need to advance the story. Building all that in to a combat scene is a tall order, because the environment is typically one that has seen action and destruction before the player's arrival.
"We did heavy research to bring the battles from the history books to the Brothers in Arms games," said Dorian Gorski, a level design director for Gearbox Software, which developed the Brothers in Arms tactical shooter franchise. War diaries and after action reports from World War II, along with period photographs, especially aerial shots if they were available, formed a basis for the designers' understanding of what had already taken place in the world they were depicting. Where they had missing information, modern photographs and first-hand visits to the battlefield helped fill in the gaps.
But "once you have completed the research, building the world presents its own set of challenges," says Gearbox's Erik Doescher, a level design producer. "Historical accuracy does not always translate into good gameplay. The scale and the scope of an area are often the first things that need to be changed. At this point, 'research' transitions into 'inspiration,' and we draw in this knowledge to enhance the game spaces, rather than the other way around.
But for a combat FPS not based in history, it requires a deeper understanding of times and events the developer already is making out of whole cloth. Being freed from historical constraints can help simplify a level's critical path - but it also requires a developer to build a foundation that makes sense.
"You have a lot more creative freedom to do whatever you want - as long as it fits," said Jan-Bart Van Beek, the art and animation director of Guerrilla Games, developer of Killzone and the just-released Killzone 2. "At the same time, nothing comes for free. We can't just go into a war book and pick out weapons."
For science-fiction combat FPSes, even placing "something as simple as a bucket of sand" in the corner of a room requires a designer to ask and answer - even if it's a simple answer - how and why the object got there, and why it looks the way it does. But, apply those questions to a weapon and the level of complexity is "enormous," Van Beek said.
"For each weapon in Killzone 2, it went through three or four iterations at the paper design stage," Van Beek said. "That's two months of work. Add in modelling and animation, and in total it's about four months per weapon." There are 60 "gun-based" weapons in Killzone 2, and all of them required this level of effort, Van Beek said.
Robert Bowling of Infinity Ward, which developed Call of Duty (and sequels 2, 3 and Modern Warfare) agrees that building a combat FPS, even in a setting that isn't literally correct, is easier than inventing an entirely new landscape. Reference photos are plentiful and help lay a quick foundation.
However, futuristic FPSes have an advantage over historical ones: identifying the enemy. There's no disputing the look of the Helghast, for example. Call of Duty, of course, features all-human combatants. that, if rendered with full historical accuracy, could be difficult to distinguish from friendlies, especially at longer ranges.
"We put a lot of focus on colour and silhouettes of the characters' design, giving them very distinct weapon loadouts and gear that will change the way they appear," Bowling said. "For example, you can easily identify an enemy as a combatant when a rocket-propelled grenade is on their back, or is wearing a specific headgear." The design accounts for distinguishing characteristics that are identifiable from scale distances of 100 to 300 yards away.
"This is just an evolution of character design," Bowling said. "Whereas Mario wore overalls to distinguish his body, legs, and arms from his head, and his mustache was used to distinguish his nose from his face, we use these details to distinguish characters from their environments and from friendly AI."
But even one's own continuity can create artistic design problems. Killzone's original story had the Helghast - essentially mutated humans - fighting offworld, outside of the toxic environment to which they had adapted. That condition was ostensibly the reason for the fascist, mechanised look of their combat armour, which made them readily identifiable. The story said they wore the breathing apparatus to replicate their native atmosphere, poisonous though it was.
Flash forward to Killzone 2. The story calls for a human invasion of Helghan, their homeworld. And yet with the game so unmistakably marked by the Helghast's breathing masks and yellow eyes, Guerrilla had to figure out a way to make that look make sense in an environment where, according to the original, it would be unnecessary.
"They were the icon and the brand identity of this game," Van Beek said. "But, we never directly explained why they wear the masks, so as you go along, you have to change your own canon. The current universe lore is that the gas masks carry combat drugs, adrenaline boosters, that type of thing. It's more of a feeding mechanism."
Colouring it In
Each leap forward in technology and graphic and gameplay capabilities has delivered a new set of expectations - from both a game's players and in its designers. The result has been increasing complexity of design, increasing budgets, team size and development cycles and an increasing specialization in the artists and designers who render these environments.
"During the prototype phase we found that developers found different ways to make the best use of the new tools, extra memory and processor power (made available by the next generation of consoles," said Mike Wardwell, a director at Gearbox. "Almost naturally, people found their niche, and the result was heavier specialisation. For the last generation one level designer could handle a map from start to finish - including art placement, lighting and scripting. Now there is more art to be made, the tools are more complex, and the quality bar is higher."
In other words, each succeeding generation is providing games with their closeup, and they had best be ready for it.
"A lot of the focus is on how we can use other elements, and not just high poly counts, to add detail and realism to the look of our characters and environments," said Infinity Ward's Bowling. "That's where a lot of focus on the lighting of your game comes into play - that's the quickest way from going to a good looking game to a photorealistic game."
That's lighting and contrast. The criticism of colour in an FPS has lately almost become cliché, but it does have a point - that the depiction of devas tation and depletion on a battlefield trends toward dead colours, earthtones, or desaturated, monochromatic themes.
"There is a certain amount of armchair observation there," said Guerrilla's Van Beek. "The colour palette has to fit the game and the tone and the atmosphere you're trying to create. We wanted to go for a grimy and sombre palette (in Killzone 2) because we felt it was a little more cinematic. But if you look at war movies, they also depict the world in a less saturated way. It's not necessarily about getting realism in there, it's really what sort of image you're trying to convey."
Jeramy Cooke, a director at Gearbox, thinks the monochromatic criticism is more a reaction to "design-by-copying" in a saturated FPS market. That said, bringing in an object of a vibrant primary colour with an engine that doesn't represent it well is going to be a poor choice, because it'll be perceived as poor graphics. Conversely, a scene filled with shades of a similar colour will make players less likely to perceive small flaws in the lighting. Whatever the case, "Simply 'doing what you saw in a movie' will always feel a bit empty," he said, "because it has no real purpose other than to copy."
Still, in the end, the key to a game's art, and colour, and design and direction is much like that of a film. It's sorting out the most important elements, without getting sucked into conceptualising, justifying and then finally creating details that don't advance the story. "If you put enough time into these things you really can do anything," Van Beek said. "Ultimately you have to make choices about what you want. You have to pick your battles."