Tuesday, April 3, 2007

DOXOfeature: Journey to Silicon Knights

The day has finally come...and gone, but it was definitely a memorable experience and a really great look into the gaming industry. Today I visited Silicon Knights, the biggest game developer in Ontario (which is sad, according to Dyack, considering they are comprised of only 150 employees) and let me just say that they really know how to treat their guests.

An average looking building concealed Silicon Knights, a clever disguise I must say. The development studio is spread over three floors of the building, the rest allocated to other businesses. It's definitely cosy.

When the elevator doors opened we were greeted by a gorgeous wall mounted fountain sporting the studios logo. I took the above image as we left, it was the only I was allowed to take, for what we were shown is something that not many have seen. We were ushered into the private theatre that Dyack and Co. use to show off their games. I'm sure they have movie Fridays too, or atleast they should.

The Dyack addressed our group rather casually, he comes off as a very personable man, and very very passionate. His presentation was a rather interesting one. He explained to us, the vision of Silicon Knights; Expand the industry through innovation and heightened production values. They're all about overtaking Hollywood as a story telling and entertainment medium. Dyack enlightened us about research and how they have put 8 -10 years into Too Human research and 8 years alone into developing the smart camera system present in the game. Considering they've been around for 15 years that's a healthy chunk of time dedicated to this ambitious trilogy - I'm just thankful somebody in the game industry is finally taking story telling history, and authenticity seriously*. He also offered some insight on how the industry will fight piracy. Stating that when the Internet is fast enough all games will stream off of a central server which players subscribe too in order to play, thus eliminating the mod chip and bootleg games market, in theory... Then finally, the reason for us being in a theatre was revealed.

Dennis Dyack reminded us that no photography, of any kind, was permitted because what he was about to show us was not shown to many others. He then proceeded to boot up a 360 dev kit and opened up the latest build of Too Human. To say the least I was thrilled, just before leaving I made jokes to my friends that we would be shown things nobody has ever seen, and there we were...sort of.

The portion he played began in an incredibly cinematic cutscene. The 'Wolf troopers' were preparing to embark on a mission inside a transport vehicle being dropped at it's location. The scene was flawlessly directed, rivaling the likes of the Metal Gear series, Final Fantasy or Resident Evil 4. Graphically the game was great, focal blurring really added to the cinematic feel as well as the quality voice acting. Animation was also solid, as was the texturing. Dennis let us in on a little secret; The RAM required to render the main character in all his hi-res glory is more than there was in the Gamecube all together.

The transition from cutscene to gameplay was absoloutly flawless, infact the cutscenes take place within the gameplay...or is it the other way around? Due to the advanced camera system players are put into cut scenes simply by walking into the appropriate area, the catch is that the camera transitions flawlessly, there is no graphical seperation and the player retains control of their character at all times. Yes, you can jump around while somebody is trying to talk to you. The real beauty of this game comes from the camera work though, honestly I found it hard to believe the camera was not being controlled by Dyack, it seemed very intuitive. Needless to say all issues from e3 seemed to be ironed out.

Dyack played for a solid 10-15 minutes and the game held my attention the entire time. There is absoloutly no load time visible to the player. There was a playable flashback sequence at one point which seemed to be rendered instantaneously and ready for the gamer to play when they reached that point. The setting changed completely as if we were watching a film. Again - no visible loading. Dyack explained to us that this was important to them, he said it was key in recreating the same experience as watching a movie.

After the play session there was Q&A. A few questions regarding the film influence were asked, and then I dropped the bomb, here's a summary;

Me: How is it working with a liscenced engine as opposed to one that you've created? I know it caused some problems at e3 that were exploited.

Dyack: I'm not answering that question.

That garnered a few snickers from most of those in attendance, mostly employees though.

After the talk they gave us all some swag! the awesome shirt, pictured below.

While people were moving out the door I took the time to introduce myself to Dennis and just to chat a bit, I apologized about bringing up e3, we had a bit of a laugh. We continued to talk about the industry and how imitating film, both in product and in presentation (down with previews!) would better the industry. Of course by this time I had worked up enough courage to ask him to sign my copy of Eternal Darkness, which just so happened to be in my back pack.

I brought a Sharpie but he insisted that he sign with a silver pen, I had no gripes, so we talked a little more. I addressed the fact that Microsoft was publishing Too Human and just got clarification that in no way is Silicon Knights a second party to Microsoft. They are free to develop for who ever they want, Microsoft is simply publishing the trilogy. He furthered this point by letting me in on a little secret.

Silicon Knights is currently working with SEGA to develop a multi-platform game.

After telling me that he added "I probably shouldn't have said that." While I think it was a not-so-well-known fact that they were working with SEGA, the fact that it was multi-platform
has not yet been revealed to my knowledge. His exact wording was indeed "All platforms" But who knows what that means, I don't think we're going to see Silicon Knights creating a DS game anytime soon. As far as I know the studio has never developed for more than one console at a time, but Dyack did mention that they were growing at a rapid pace.

After this intimate presentation in the theatre we were shown to the studio which was comprised of many personalized cubicles- but not shabby coffee stained cubicles, we're talking small houses here. Each work station was decorated to the employee's personal tastes. There was concept art and action figures everywhere, and I couldn't help but notice a portion on the wall that was covered in a black cloth, a print out pinned to it read

punishable by death

They've got class down there at Silicon Knights, everybody was a real pleasure, and just very welcoming. It was a great experience and a very satisfying look into the game industry

Keep looking forward to Too Human updates, the game seems to be incredibly well conceived. Believe not EGM because that build was obviously a fluke and the game looks beautiful, a note worthy part of the 'games as art' debate for sure.

Edit: Forgot to mention, I witnessed a brief miniboss battle. Nothing too special but, I thought you should all know that the name of that beast, was none other than "Matt Cassamassina" I hand it to the developers for spelling that right.

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