By Neil Schneider
Special guest today! Dr. Andrew Oliver, Chief Technology Officer for Blitz Games Studios joins MTBS to talk about their latest work in stereoscopic 3D console game development. We’ve been biting our tongues about this for months, and we think the industry will be very excited by what Andrew has to share.
1. Tell us about Blitz Games Studios (BGS). How long have you been around, and how did you get started?
My brother and I discovered computers and games around 1982 while still at school, and we started to write small programs that we sold to various publishers. When we left school, we wanted to continue to write games and met up with Richard and David Darling, who were wanting to set up as a games publisher. So we wrote the games and they published them as their new Codemasters banner, until the late 80’s, when Nintendo and Sega came along.
The games were getting bigger and we decided to set ourselves up as a company and employ people to write games, primarily (at the time) based on licensed properties.
We’ve been slowly growing and making more and more games on every major console since those times.
2. Your company is divided into sub-genres or game categories. Can you briefly summarize the types of games you focus on?
We have been very successful with family-friendly cartoon style games but it’s easy to get pigeon-holed into only being considered for that work, which we found annoying.
So we created our Volatile division several years ago to create mature games and kept the Blitz label to cover our family-friendly content. The first Volatile game released was Reservoir Dogs and the next one (a big-budget AAA game for late 2009) will be announced very soon.
We are very interested in the new online digital models like Xbox Live Arcade, and last year created our Blitz Arcade division to work on these smaller, downloadable games. Several of these have been released already including this month’s Buccaneer. Power Up Forever is coming out shortly via Namco.
We are very proud of our game engine and tools. We believe it’s about the best in the industry and we license it to other software companies. So that all comes under our Blitz Tech division which services and supports the whole of development here at Blitz. That technology is so powerful and versatile that we have also established our TruSim division which works on “serious games” content for a variety of medical and military training purposes. It allows us to really push the boundaries of our technology and you’ll see more interesting tech announcements over the next year, thanks to this team.
Lastly, this is a fast moving industry and we constantly train and encourage our staff to to present their findings and knowledge to others, including talks at universities. This area is so important to us, with full time staff on this, and both our internal training wing and our academic out-reach is under the Blitz Academy banner.
We have all these divisions, although we are actually just one company of 240 people in one large building in Leamington Spa in the UK.
3. You have some PC gaming expertise, but I think it is fair to say that most of your energies are spent on console gaming. Why do consoles appeal to Blitz Games Studios so much?
We like consoles because you can really tune a game to get the most out of the console and know that the gamer will play it exactly as you designed it. On the PC, there’s always the worry that it won’t work as intended, or a huge debate over what spec of PC to target. We have released some PC games like Reservoir Dogs, but they are always a conversion from a console game, in that case it was the Xbox version.
4. Which Blitz Games titles are you most proud of and why?
It tends to always be the latest game we’ve worked on and therefore would be American Idol Encore 2.
But I guess one of my personal highlights looking back would be The Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy on the NES. It came out at the same time as Zelda and we won an award for best adventure game in 1988. I’m also very proud of Chicken Run on PS1, as it’s the last game that I wrote the code for.
5. You have a nasty habit for being first at things. Can you name some firsts that Blitz Games Studios can take credit for?
I believe my brother and I created the first game to load from a CD. We did this back in 1987 for the Spectrum and C64. We weren’t aware that anyone hadn’t done this before. We were so fed up of mastering our games to cassettes that we wrote a system to load it from a CD. It was called “The CD Games Pack” and contained sixteen previously released Codemasters titles.
We were very close to the first games that had speech in them. I remember that “Ghostbusters” and “Mission Impossible” both on C64 had speech. But we made sure we put speech into our games from around ’86.
We created the first Xbox game. Fuzion Frenzy was the first Xbox game to master and was actually on sale about 2 weeks before the Xbox itself, and strangely some people were buying it.
We created the first successful console adver-game, with the Burger King games promotion a couple of years ago. It sold around four million copies on Xbox/Xbox360 in less than 6 weeks. There had been a couple adver-games before, but nothing to the scale of The Burger King games. Also, something that many people didn’t notice is that it was a dual format disc. Those games worked on both Xbox and Xbox360 which I’m not sure anyone else had done at that point.
We always try and get onto new consoles near their launch. We created a launch title for the Wii and I believe we’ve had games on every console within the first year of their release.
We are a very technology-led company creating our tools and engine ourselves, we have 25 programmers in our technology team alone.
6. Your latest interest is stereoscopic 3D gaming. Why does S-3D appeal to you, and what was your first S-3D experience?
I was thrilled when I first saw Polar Express 3D. It proved that 3D was now very good quality and we then saw Disney and Dreamworks announce they would be making films in 3D from now on. I was aware of the PC S-3D gaming scene, but it had always been very niche. But now these films would be mass market, then people watching these films would want the games to be S-3D.
7. We first met at SIGGRAPH this year, and I was very pleased that you attended the presentation we did with Mark Rein of Epic Games to talk about stereoscopic 3D gaming. Is it true that this event motivated you to implement your 3D ideas? How? Please elaborate.
Mark presented on an S-3D panel and showed Unreal Tournament 3 on the PC running in 3D and it looked great, but when asked if it would run on the Xbox360 or PS3, he said these consoles weren’t powerful enough. I always like a challenge and I felt sure that we could maximize the power of these consoles with our technology team and actually prove everyone wrong – so we gave it a go!
8. Looks like you answered the challenge! Congratulations on developing the Blitz Tech engine that supports stereoscopic 3D technology on consoles. Tell us about the Blitz Tech game engine, and how did you go about making it S-3D compatible?
We have a large team writing our cross platform engine and we always liked to push the boundaries with what is possible. Whilst I felt the statements about the consoles not being powerful enough were fair enough assessments, it soon became apparent that the biggest issue was that the game MUST run in 1080p @60fps before you can consider implementing the S-3D part. But having a console heritage we generally write our games to run at 60fps anyway so if we can make our games now run in 1080p at the same time, then it becomes possible. Admittedly some displays allow S-3D at 720 but it would be only a small proportion of people who own 3D screens that it would work for. Also, some 3D screens do work 30fps but they don’t look so good and the visuals aren’t that satisfying.
9. Which consoles does it support, and what have you achieved so far with performance? Are consoles indeed powerful enough to handle S-3D gaming properly?
We are targeting XBLA and PSN at first for S-3D. Optimizing a full game to run under these restrictions would be tough but by no means impossible and we are working on learning the lessons rapidly of creating very fast GPU rendering to enable this
10. Are all consoles born equal? Why isn’t the Wii on the support list?
3D displays have been built as new displays and run via HDMI. The Wii does not support HD, so sadly won’t be compatible with S-3D displays although it would be possible if the display manufacturers supported the feature in a slightly different way, or if Nintendo added an HDMI port with a special internal upscaler in the Wii.
11. If there is going to be a standard connection between a gaming console and a 3D display, what criteria needs to be met from a game developer’s point of view?
The game needs to comfortably run in 1080p at 60fps and then a set of full screen shaders needs to be written that interpret the screen in the various different display formats. Compatibility is a big and awkward issue.
12. How has 3D impacted your video games? What benefits do you see it bringing to your titles?
It’s meaning that we are optimizing our engine a lot more, and all games will benefit from the this. In fact, even if you don’t have a 3D display, everyone will get to to appreciate the hi-resolution super-smooth looks.
13. Do you see 3D changing the way games are played? For example, can the nature of depth be part of the game’s design and play skill?
You do get to see a lot more and feel more in the world and it’s very cool. We’ve noticed that you become far more aware of the depth you are into the screen, and in fact we can start to see things like lighting or shadows that aren’t quite correct. They looked fine before, but now you are seeing as a full 3D view you can perceive the depth far better. It’s probably inevitable that game design will be impacted by this new technology in some way. Time will tell!
14. I’m sure you’ve heard the old chicken and the egg argument in the 3D industry. The manufacturers want enough content, and the content makers want enough displays. Before this happens, everyone is in a stalemate. Blitz Games Studios is a shrewd company. How did you justify this move into true 3D gaming?
To be honest, it’s difficult to justify. There isn’t much of a market at the moment, but unless someone goes first it will never happen. However, once we started to see the results from some early tests, we felt it looked so good it drove us on. We do feel that if publishers want to make games of 3D movies, then we are now clearly and obviously the developer who can deliver this.
15. At the 3D Entertainment Summit, Jeffrey Katzenberg remarked that “3D in the home will be led by gamers”. I thought this was an interesting remark because he said “gamers”, and not “gaming”. Do you think that gamers are empowered to help drive the industry forward? How so?
Gamers on the PC drove the 3D market in the home in the first place. We wouldn’t have the various 3D displays on the market if it hadn’t been for those early adopters, So we already have a lot to thank them for, and indeed MTBS for encouraging and supporting the move to S-3D gaming.
Whilst 3D films are the obvious 3D entertainment for the home, there are quite a few blockers from this happening. The biggest being that there needs to be an agreed standard from all film companies and TV manufacturers on what that standard is. The great thing about putting 3D into a game is that we don’t need the politics of agreeing standards, we can just make a game that works because we’ve written the software to adapt to all the different standards. But all these standards are making 3D Blu-Ray etc further away.
People also question if people would be happy watching films at home with glasses, and if it was a family viewing, they’d need lots of pairs of 3D glasses. Whereas, we know that gamers would be more than happy to wear glasses to get the extra fidelity. And gamers have shown they are more than happy to buy peripherals, so getting glasses out to the consumer doesn’t present such a challenge. Finding 3D glasses on sale in stores near games, or bundled with games seems obvious, but selling near the DVDs or Blu-rays would be a much harder sell from a retail space point of view.
16. I think it would be fair to say that most of the 3D industry has treated gaming as a low priority market in the home relative to 3D cinema. For example, the 3D Entertainment Summit is the first conference I have participated with that featured a complete speaker panel about gaming, and that was one panel in a two day conference! Do you think there is a disconnect somewhere in the 3D industry? Please elaborate.
I believe that historically the film companies have tended to overlook our industry, whilst they have licensed their films to make money on the side. The games industry is very large and the quality on the current consoles is something that they shouldn’t overlook. I think it shows a large vote of confidence for us, that we were included and I hope that vote was justified by the announcement that we’ve shown games running in S-3D on the Xbox360 and PS3.
17. We released the preliminary U-DECIDE Initiative results last week, and according to traditional 2D gamers who don’t yet own stereoscopic 3D gaming equipment, less than 4% think 3D is tacky, and almost 88% think S-3D is suitable for gaming. I know I’m preaching to the choir when I ask this, but were you at all surprised by these numbers? Why?
When I speak to people about the potential of S-3D I find that there’s a fair percentage of people who haven’t seen any of the new 3D movies who answer that it will be tacky. Anyone, who has actually seen any of the new 3D animated features believes it will be very cool as they’ve seen the quality possible and how much it adds to the experience. So have 4% of your respondents not seen the current 3D movies? Or can they not appreciate the fact we can make that same leap in immersion?
18. According to the U-DECIDE results, 3D is consistently considered more suitable in the consumer markets for gaming than it is for Blu-ray, sporting events, and broadcast. What is it about gaming that makes the leap to 3D easier to grasp by consumers?
Gamers feel more involved in the 3D worlds we create and they are more used to seeing fast increases in technology and how that improves the gaming experience. As all games are created in 3D in any case, it’s obvious these will work well, should the technology be created – which now it has been!
19. We have very strong numbers demonstrating customer demand for 3D in gaming. Blitz Games Studios have developed a game engine that supports S-3D for console. NVIDIA, iZ3D, AMD, and more are making 3D gaming on PC possible TODAY. Meant to be Seen continues to grow a large community of S-3D advocates and gamers – we even offer free advertising to game developers who earn MTBS certification. Is there any excuse for game developers to stay out of the 3D game? Please elaborate.
The threshold to entry is still very high and the extra sales could be quite low unless people start supporting it. When I say people, my main target would be the TV manufacturers. We need a big enough potential audience, if only a small minority own 3D Ready or 3D enabled screens then this could be a slow uphill battle but once people see our games in 3D, they will be sold on it. For people with 3D capable displays, adding S-3D to games adds a huge selling feature to the game.
20. What final remarks would you like to share with the MTBS membership and 3D industry?
I hope TV manufacturers all add 3D capabilities to TVs as standard, or at a small added premium. The technology exists on all types of displays, and if manufactured in as standard it should be possible to add a very cool ’must have’ feature to their TVs. I hope that game publishers see the benefit in supporting 3D modes in games, as they will only cost a little more to produce.
I hope nobody supports 3D as a gimmick or partial support, because if people buy games supporting S-3D that are either poor games or don’t always work, or don’t produce good quality S-3D, we will encounter the problems that dogged the 3D film industry for so long.
I hope other developers take this seriously and that the big games start supporting this feature, because I can’t wait to play other people’s games in S-3D as well as our own.
Thanks Andrew! We will be watching your work closely. MTBS members, share your thoughts in our forums!
We’d also like to thank Blitz Games Studios for being prize contributors to the U-DECIDE Initiative, a continuing study to determine what people think of 3D technology and why. The surveys run until January 1st, 2009, and a draw will be made for nearly 60 prizes, including several titles by Blitz Games Studios! Additional prizes include iZ3D 3D monitors, ATI GPUs, and video games by The Game Creators and Guild Software.