Tech Interview: WipEout HD/Fury

Studio Liverpool on re-igniting the 1080p dream.

It's one of the crown jewels of the PlayStation Store, and last week SCEE updated the brilliant WipEout HD with a brand new Fury expansion pack. However, describing it as a mere add-on is something of a disservice: the 7.99 download offers almost as much new content as there was in the original game, and while the core gameplay is initially very familiar, the execution of the new game modes really is WipEout as you've never played it before. The game scored an immense 9/10 on Eurogamer this week, meaning it is utterly unmissable.

Of course, from a technical perspective, WipEout HD and its furious pseudo-sequel are of prime interest to Digital Foundry not just because they are beautiful-looking, technically adept games. Studio Liverpool made 'full HD' the target resolution, making it one of the few developers to make good on the 1080p dream, coming up with brand new PS3 rendering technologies in order to create a game that runs as close to a sustained 60FPS as possible. We talked about the game's dynamic 1080p resolution back when the original launched, and Sony itself discussed the technique in more depth at its recent Develop presentation, but we wanted to know more the implementation and some of the other technologies Studio Liverpool used to create this superb game.

In this revealing technical interview, the developer provided three of its finest to answer our questions: game director Tony Buckley, WipEout HD graphics engine lead Chris Roberts, and finally WipEout HD: Fury lead programmer Stephen Taylor. And while we had access to these gentlemen, we thought we'd get some of the most popular WipEout HD FAQs out of the way first...

Digital Foundry: The first and perhaps most obvious question. WipEout HD is an excellent game, and in age where exclusivity is very rare on any platform, you can only buy the game via PSN. Isn't this deliberately limiting your potential audience? Why no presence at retail? Isn't an HD/Fury combo more than worthy of a Blu-ray release?

Studio Liverpool: Being a PSN-exclusive title does obviously limit our audience a little due to the fact that there are people out there who do not have access to broadband or a credit card, or simply prefer to purchase physical media. However, before we started to develop WipEout HD we had made the decision to release the game as a PlayStation Store title to highlight that download content does not have to be the preserve of 'small games' and that it can be used as a vehicle to provide larger-scope games. Releasing a WipEout HD and Fury combo on Blu-ray is an option for the studio. However, at the present time we are happy to keep WipEout HD and the Fury expansion pack as exclusive PlayStation Store content.

Digital Foundry: The Fury expansion once again mines the rich vein of content you created for the PSP WipEout titles. A lot of people will be wondering why the focus has been on those tracks as opposed to the Psygnosis-era games. Will we ever see 2097 tracks within the WipEout HD universe?

Studio Liverpool: This is without doubt the most commonly asked question: why do we not have tracks from the PS1 era? The answer is pretty simple really, we don't have the art assets readily available for the PS1 tracks and as a result the amount of work required to recreate them for HD would not be cost effective. We have 30-plus tracks from the previous PSP versions that we can choose from all of which provide us with the assets required, [but] even with these assets it still takes the art team eight months of solid effort to get one HD/Fury track to look like it does.

Digital Foundry: The WipEout heritage predates the launch of PS1 - a lot of us old-timers remember the pre-rendered demos of the first game revealed by Sony before PlayStation launched. How many of the original Psygnosis team are still working at Studio Liverpool? Is there a continuity in the team or are new developers picking up the baton?

Studio Liverpool: Although there are still a couple of members from the original Psygnosis team working at Studio Liverpool the PSP and PS3 versions of WipEout have been developed by the influx of new talent that has joined over the last five or six years. On the whole the WipEout team retains a degree of continuity with a good percentage of the team working on Pure, Pulse, HD and the Fury content. However, as the studio has other projects to resource it is difficult to keep people exclusively for the WipEout projects.

Digital Foundry: We learned last week from Epic Games' Mark Rein that less than 50 per cent of gamers played Gears of War 2 in HD. Do you have similar figures on the breakdown of how many people are playing WipEout HD in standard def, 720p and 1080p?

Studio Liverpool: Unfortunately we don't have these kind of figures available.

Digital Foundry: From a purely business perspective, does it make you think that maybe WipEout HD is in a sense over-engineered if, as we assume, only a tiny minority of the people playing it will be doing so at 1080p?

Studio Liverpool: You could certainly argue that point. Personally I'd prefer to take the stance that we are pushing boundaries and demonstrating what is possible from today's hardware. If teams don't attempt to push the hardware then things will never move on.

Digital Foundry: Aside from a more stable frame-rate and far less noticeable tearing, are there any other actual advantages to running in 720p? GT5 Prologue for example offers 4xMSAA in 720p versus 2x in its 1080p mode.

Studio Liverpool: Yes, 720p offers 2xMSAA whereas 1080p has only 2x2 filter to smooth jaggies. Also with the reduced resolution at 720p the fill rate becomes less of an issue and you can afford to increase the amount and size of alpha'd particle effects not to mention shader complexity. This would have allowed us to achieve more weather effects and atmospherics had we wanted to go down that route. Conversely, we really wanted that clean utopian feel so 1080p was the right choice for us to realise our vision and push the visual fidelity.

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