In the late 90s, video games sat on the precipice of a 3D graphics revolution. Everything was about to change, and it was gonna change fast.
Last week on Splitscreen, Jason Schreier and I were joined by veteran video game programmer Brett Douville. Douville started out at LucasArts in 1998, where he worked on games like Star Wars: Starfighter and Star Wars: Republic Commando. He left in 2004, and after a couple of years joined the team at Bethesda Game Studios, where he worked on Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim.
During our chat, I asked him what it was like doing technical work on video games during the 3D graphics transformation of the early 2000s.
I’ve transcribed our back-and-forth below and edited it for readability.
Kirk Hamilton: I’m thinking back to you starting at LucasArts in 1998, and then leaving in 2004. Which was kind of this period of time — everybody looks at 1998 as this year when all these [amazing] games came out. And then 2004, that’s when Half-Life 2 came out. And in the interim… I’ve noticed anyways, going back and playing games [from] that period, there was this huge explosion in 3D rendering technology. The kind of thing I would imagine you were working with a lot.
You were at one [studio] during that whole time, it sounds like it was also a tumultuous place, which made it harder to keep track of that. But I’m curious, do you look back at that six or seven year period of time and see it any differently than maybe the next seven years? How do you view that chunk [of time] just in terms of game development and technology?
Brett Douville: Yeah, I mean, there was a huge change. I think the biggest thing that happened right around the time I went to LucasArts was when they went fully 3D. I mean, they made a big announcement, we’re not doing 2D at all anymore…
Kirk: Right, that was Grim Fandango, was in 1998…
Brett: Exactly. In fact, when I signed there, I said, I’m gonna need to take a week of time and just play Grim when it comes out. Whatever it takes, I’m gonna be playing that when it comes out.
Brett: But yeah, it was a huge explosion, in part because the PS2 was on the horizon, they had had that really amazing demo of, I wanna say it was a Final Fantasy VIII scene of them dancing or something like that? They were saying, oh, this is in real time. It was really, really exciting.
And of course, Lucas going fully 3D was like Dylan going electric. It was a huge sea change, and people couldn’t believe it. We talk about it on [my podcast, Dev Game Club] occasionally, about how strange it was that LucasArts, this 2D titan for the adventure game stuff, decides to go fully 3D. And is in the meantime doing like, an RTS [Star Wars: Force Commander] and trying to be the first 3D RTS, and things like that. It was a weird time.
But yeah, a lot changed in that time. We had a really good rendering library, written by Eric Johnston and Mark Blattel, who were kind of the low-level rendering guys for the PS2. It was basically a GL, graphics language, full implementation and really quick. Smart guys. They worked closely with us for [Star Wars] Starfighter, and we were kind of on the forefront of that 3D stuff.
The game looked really good, for the time. I can remember us showing it in an internal meeting and putting beforehand, “All this stuff is in-engine and real time.” You know, we’re just recording frames directly off the PS2. We’re not doing anything special. And yeah, it was a huge change.
Of course then you go through and you also get the Xbox, the original Xbox, and the explosion of 3D [PC graphics] cards, and just huge changes. 3D cards really kind of came into their own at that time.
Jason Schreier: It’s funny how all those 3D games today look terrible, but all the 2D games that came before, a lot of those look incredible and have aged really well.
Brett: That’s true. One thing is that, there are games from that 3D era that look pretty good, like, NOLF 2, I think has aged particularly well.
Kirk: Yeah, it looks extremely good.
Brett: Considering… that just tells you, art direction is king, right? You have to really consider what you’re working with.
Kirk: That game in particular. That’s No One Lives Forever, for people who aren’t cool and don’t know NOLF as an acronym. Even though everybody should know that acronym.
Jason: NOLF sounds like an alien on an 80s sitcom.
KH: Ha, yeah, when in fact it’s this stylish, first-person spy game. I’ve written a lot about that game on Kotaku, and went back and replayed them both. And it’s really striking, those two games, the first and second game, which are separated by I think two years, or one year? Something really small.
Brett: Very close together.
On the left, the first No One Lives Forever. On the right, the vastly better-looking sequel, released just two years later.
Kirk: And the first one looks like Goldeneye on an N64. And in the second one, Cate Archer has a whole face, and eyes, and everything is animated and moves, and it’s really remarkable how quickly everything was advancing. I’m curious: Were things moving faster then than they do now? Or do you think things just move at a different speed or in different directions? How would you compare technological advancement now to then?
Brett: What I would say is, things probably move just as fast now, it’s just that the visual changes are so incremental. So, the apparent speed is a lot lower, because you can’t see the differences. Unless you actually keep up on this stuff and really read a lot, it’s very hard to be able to say, “What’s going on that’s different here?” It looks better, but you wouldn’t be able to point and say, “This is why.” Whereas back then, we had a huge amount of Moore’s Law, which is that computation basically doubles in performance every 18 months. In the graphics chips, and things like that. And that was just really, really huge.
At this point, I think that the amount you’re getting [multiplied by] time is, well, we’re putting more memory in there or whatever, so texture resolution is better, etcetera. But back then the texture resolution was probably going much faster, so you would see huge differences.
Or like, going from the sort of original graphics stuff to having full hardware transformative lighting. Suddenly, lights were everywhere. The original Unreal is a great example of that. And I think those are the things that made this huge difference. You didn’t have coloured lighting before, and now you do. It was a big step.
[These days], you know, a lot of this stuff you probably don’t pick up on necessarily, or don’t know that they’re using the graphics card for. Or they’re using it for different stuff, in some cases. I know that Horizon Zero Dawn procedurally generates where it puts all its grass, every frame. Instead of having that in memory. Which is just… that’s amazing! But do you notice?
Kirk: When I see that my gun is lit up red because there’s a red light next to me, and I’ve never seen that before, that’s really obvious. Where when I see grass, I don’t know where the grass is coming from. I just think, there’s some grass.
Brett: Yeah, exactly.
Thanks again to Brett for coming on the show! Check out Splitscreen for more conversations like that. Also sometimes we talk about the weather.