The Criterion Tech Interview: Part Two • Page 2

The conclusion of the epic Digital Foundry vs Criterion technology interview.

Digital Foundry: On PC there's a move to offload code to the GPU in the form of CUDA etc. Can this be extended to console, extending non-graphics tasks to the GPU?

Alex Fry: You can if you want to!

Digital Foundry: And do you do that in Burnout Paradise?

Alex Fry: No.

Richard Parr: We're busy drawing pixels. There are issues again potentially with latency in terms of stopping your GPU to do some physics and get it back to doing graphics without introducing a huge stall into your graphics pipeline or have the CPU waiting around forever to have the results come back. There's enough CPU horsepower for the moment.

Digital Foundry: The thing about the PC version of Burnout Paradise was that you could get a console-beating experience on pretty meagre hardware. I ran the game with a Radeon HD 4830 at full 1080p, but kept down-clocking the CPU and it was still running at 60FPS...

Alex Fry: Paradise really did not stress the CPUs of these consoles. There's an awful lot of room left. I think that's why the PC version kind of just worked. Had we really gone to town, it would've been much harder to get it running. We tried as much as possible to run the gameplay on CPU and keep the GPU as scalable as possible. Depending on your graphics card you could have different quality options, but CPU would have been minimally affected, whereas with some games you play, the graphical options will have a massive CPU load without telling you why. We tried to stay away from that.

Digital Foundry: Going back to what we were talking about at the beginning, you seem to lament the passing of the PS2.

Alex Fry: It was an awesome piece of machinery!

Richard Parr: Sony would tell you that it hasn't passed yet.

Alex Fry: I cut my teeth on Dreamcast and unfortunately missed out on a lot of PS1 coding but the PS2 was a very cool machine.

Digital Foundry: The reason I want to go back and talk about this is that I recently went back and played through Black again from start to finish and it's still an awesome experience. Did the next gen come too early?

Richard Parr: Black came when our tech was pretty mature and a new thing for us to do was an FPS...

Alex Fry: A lot of the tech in the core game, the rendering tech at least, was the same as Burnout 3. But again when you write something you've got to be sensible. We didn't write a Burnout engine as such.

Digital Foundry: But some of the stuff in Black was simply bat-shit insane... the amount of destructible stuff you had in Black, nobody's doing that now. Even Killzone 2, arguably the pinnacle of the FPS arms race they have one or two sections reminiscent of Black in that respect, but nowhere near the same level of stuff you can blow up. It's just not core to the gameplay the way it was in Black.

Alex Fry: That's exactly the right phrase to use. We did that in Black because it was fun. It wasn't to show off or anything like that, it was just fun.

Digital Foundry: The look and feel of Black appears to have influenced the next gen, but nobody seems to want to tackle the same kind of core experience as Black.

Richard Parr: Ultimately, Burnout was about how much fun we can have in a car. With Black we literally thought how much fun can you have with a gun? It's not exactly politically correct but it's an interesting question in the context of a video game. Shooting stuff and having lots of smoke flying around, it's a hugely visceral experience, and that's what we focused a lot of Black about. We gave you some good reasons to blow some stuff up.

Digital Foundry: The lighting was incredibly good, but it's funny you should say that because when you fired a rocket launcher the screen filled with smoke. Alpha effects tend to slow the consoles down. Even Killzone 2 pares it back considerably compared to Black.

Richard Parr: That was a bit of a PS2-driven decision really. You talk about the embedded eDRAM on 360, it's the same on PS2, you can just draw lots of pixels. What are we going to do with that? We'll cover the screen with lots of smoke.

Alex Fry: Well you say that but the Xbox kept up as well. It rendered the world and the characters so much faster, because we went quite heavily with multi-textures at that point and the Xbox could do that better than the PS2, but it was slower at rendering particles. So whereas it might have only used a quarter of a frame rendering its characters and 75 per cent to the particles, the PS2 would've been more along the lines of 50-50... slower at drawing the world but faster at drawing the particles. It's another example of where the two trade-offs meet bang in the middle and it looks great on both.

Digital Foundry: Assuming that generation hadn't ground to a halt at that point, was there more you could've got from those consoles?

Alex Fry: Without a shadow of a doubt, there always is.

Digital Foundry: There was a lot of talk at this E3 about "maxing out" the current hardware.

Alex Fry: Well, there always is, isn't there... it's nothing new. You hear it all the time... we've maxed out, we're the best.

Richard Parr: That's proof there that you're not the best. It means you're out of ideas.

Alex Fry: You always find new ways to do things, the constraints lift. Not just with a new console generation but with every game you do. Whether it's a sequel or whether it's a new game, you learn to do things differently... better. The constraints go away because you learn. While it's nice to say you've maxed something out, there's not really any point.

Richard Parr: We started Black with tech that we'd used with Burnout 3 and were starting to use with Revenge and when we got to the end of it, it's not like we hadn't learned anything. We could've carried on learning about those consoles, we could still be learning today. We just went off and learned different stuff on PS3 and 360 instead.

And with that, the interview basically drew to a close as the conversation became more informal and strictly "off the record". But it proved to be an absolutely fascinating 74 minutes of discussion that hopefully revealed the mind-set, philosophy and techniques employed at arguably the best cross-platform developer in the world.

One thing I can say is that those of us holding out hope for a Black sequel on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC are going to be disappointed. Rumours of a Black sequel regularly crop up on the internet, but having met the guys and toured the office, it's fair to say that it's definitely not happening in the here and now, and while the Criterion team is working on a new game, I can confidently say that it involves no AK-47s, Uzis or indeed any other expression of first person shooter gameplay. So, for many, Black 2 remains the best sequel never made, and with Burnout development being taken care of in the form of hugely popular DLC, it's not exactly rocket science to deduce that Criterion's next effort will see it move away from its established IPs...

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