Tech Retrospective: Burnout Paradise • Page 2

How Criterion built Paradise City, with exclusive HD Big Surf Island capture.

While it would be easy for the Criterion team to hype up its undoubted accomplishments, the reality is somewhat less exciting, more believable, and is obviously backed up by proven results.

"We try to set budgets for things like performance, the amount of memory you're using, or bandwidth we're using from the disc, then we work out what that means for the artists and designers in terms of constraints for what we can do in the game because of the technical limitations," says Parr. "We stick to that rigidly, enforcing that in the rules that we have. For example, when artists try to add new pieces to the world: if you stick to the rules and to the budgets it'll work. That's the balance we try to strike as a team. We make some commitments on the technical side, like we're going to hit the frame-rate, we're going to keep the latency low, but we look to the artists, the content creators, the designers to play by the rules as well and stick to the constraints we give them and ultimately that means we'll end up with a better product."

"You get inventive," adds Fry. "If you've got constraints you can be inventive to get around them."

Part of maximising performance in this way is to give the content creators better tools to get the job done. "Some of our biggest technical challenges were about supporting the artists and supporting the people building the world," says Parr. "We put a lot of effort into the database asset-management system at the backend so we could have lots of artists working on the same scene at the same time, which a normal art package isn't really designed to do."

The tech team also wrote tools that would scan through the entire open world of Paradise City and identify areas that were impeding performance. "We wrote stuff that would go away overnight and measure performance," Parr continues. "Flying a camera around the whole world and render it in many directions and tell us whether people were in budget, basically, drawing a map with big red blobs on it pointing out which bits were too expensive."

Empowering the artists with the tools, assistance and the facts and figures was key in making sure that they hit budget.

"There can be many reasons why one scene might be more expensive to render than another," says Parr. "It might be that someone's stuck a huge texture onto something that's absolutely tiny, killing our bandwidth, or there's a bunch of alpha polygons one on top of another spending ages chewing GPU and drawing nothing - it happens by mistake sometimes. It's just a case of giving those guys the tools and the clues to see what's going wrong and fix it."

"Just talking about the artists for a second, they would have metrics when they built the game to say, will this fit in memory or not, will this load in from disc fast enough or not, by and large, will this render fast enough or not," adds Fry. "It wasn't much fun to work around those constraints at times, but as long they knew how, they could."

The release of Big Surf Island this week continues Criterion's aspirations of evolving and refining its existing product as opposed to making a brand new Burnout game. The island introduces new Freeburn challenges geared to the new terrain as well as offering new vehicles and gameplay opportunities that literally redefine some of the laws of physics within Paradise City, but Criterion has also used the DLC program to evolve the Burnout tech itself.

"There've definitely been improvements throughout the course of the DLC. For example, by adding the night time, we actually changed the entire lighting model," says Fry. "Of course, we saw the bikes added, animation added, the physics changed quite a lot to support two-wheeled vehicles, lots and lots of behind-the-scenes evolutions. The physics changed constantly throughout the course of the DLC, especially with the island and its immense jumps - the forces that go on there are quite 'special'. And in terms of tools, being able to create content faster, more efficiently - just to be able to produce this amount of DLC and not break the game. "

However, the same open world data for Paradise City still had to be streamed in from the optical disc, meaning that wholesale improvements to the tech couldn't be implemented, even if the team wanted them.

"One of our biggest constraints was that we didn't want to ship that entire world again - people wouldn't enjoy downloading that again as an add-on. We were constrained by the fact that the data on the disc had to be the data we would render," says Richard Parr. "One of the less pleasant surprises is that we've been free to change the code, it's a small amount of memory, a small patch, you can change more or less all of the code. But as soon as you do that, the QA team have a nightmare because they have to test the entire game again. If we change lots of code, it becomes much more expensive."

In terms of what's left under the bonnet, what may surprise many is that while the graphics hardware of the consoles gets a thorough workout, there's plenty of room left to get more from the main processor.

"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," says Fry. "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."

But the Criterion tech team are quick dismiss the notion that the current generation, or indeed any generation of hardware has been pushed to its absolute limits.

"It's nothing new, you hear it all the time... we've maxed out, we're the best," says Fry dismissively. "That's proof that you're not the best," Parr chimes in. "It means you're out of ideas."

"You always find new ways to do things, the constraints lift. Not just with a new console generation but with every game you do," adds Fry. "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."

The latest Burnout Paradise DLC, Big Surf Island, debuted on Thursday for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and costs 1000 Microsoft Points or GBP 9.99 at the PlayStation Store.

Do you want to know more? Visit the Digital Foundry tech channel for more stories geared towards gaming technology and performance, and look out for the complete, unabridged Criterion interview coming this week. You ain't seen nothing yet, it's epic.

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