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The Destructible World: Building Red Faction: Armageddon

The anticipated sequel changes the scene from the fields of Mars to the inside of the planet, and in doing so also changes the core destructibility gameplay that made the original so popular -- art director Chad Greene explains why.

[The anticipated sequel Red Faction Armageddon changes the scene from the fields of Mars to the inside of the planet, and in doing so also changes the core destructibility gameplay that made the original so popular -- art director Chad Greene explains why.]

Red Faction: Guerilla -- the latest installment of Volition and and THQ's long-running destruction-centric Red Faction series -- was something of a surprise hit with gamers. The 2009 game became a hardcore fan favorite as players were unleashed on an open world -- colonial Mars -- and were enabled to destroy anything and everything in sight.

Surprisingly, then, 2011's Red Faction: Armageddon puts some constraints on players. In favor of a linear narrative and more gameplay variety, the game guides players into the underground world of Mars -- all of which is not destructible.

In this interview, developer Volition's project art director Chad Greene describes the thought processes that lead to this profound change for the next game in the series.

He also takes us through some of the creative decisions that were made to ensure that the game is still as appealing as its predecessor while delivering an experience that's not quite the same in scope or feel.

Let's talk about the increasing popularity of physics-based gameplay because it seems to have really exploded over the last two, three, four years.

Chad Greene: Inherently, video gamers love -- it goes back to watching movies, etcetera -- blowing stuff up, right? What happened in the past was that a lot of destruction, up until our game and a couple other games out there, had very what's been called "canned" explosions, where it's not really physics-based.

Our engine is something we've been working on almost for the last seven years now -- we had five years of development going into Red Faction: Guerilla to get it to where that was. This title has been in development for almost two and a half years now, so what we did was once we got that, we inherited that code and built upon it, but we didn't do much to it because it worked real well.

Our game, our engine -- we like to tout as the only engine out there that can literally destroy and break apart every single man-made object in the game, and none of it is canned, it's full, sharded destruction with physics.

I haven't played the game much yet, but that seemed slightly more ambitious in Guerilla, because it was much more open world, and this one feels much more level- and scenario-oriented. Is that accurate?

CG: No, I'd actually say it's almost the opposite. Everything in Guerilla was placed on the ground, right? On the surface of the planet. Therefore buildings were placed on the ground.

We actually said, "How can we improve destruction and destructibility in the world?" And we said, "What if we went underground and we brought everything in tighter with more density and more shards of buildings, more destruction?" It gives us the ability to have 360-degree placement destruction.

We can actually put buildings on walls or ceilings and bring that all around you, so the player is not just looking for buildings to blow up on the ground, he actually can consciously look up to the ceiling to say, "Okay, is there a light grid up there? Is there something on the wall?" So it's bringing it all around the player.

So that's the reason you brought it inside? Is it in fact more linear, that way?

CG: The storyline is linear, yes. But we are going to have quests and things that are very open world-ish. You can follow the main story or you can go off and do these quests as well, so we're going to have those elements.

I don't think there's anything wrong with linearity, by the way. I'm just making sure I'm on the right path here, because with a linear story or a more focused experience, there's a lot of stuff you can do that you can't in open worlds.

CG: Yeah. That's a very good question, and we've been asked this recently, and I want to point out that we've really started to think about story as being really important -- not that we've never thought about story -- but this title from the beginning was all about the story.

In fact, it's tied into transmedia, and we're going to be doing a deal with Syfy Channel in the spring; there's going to be a live action movie that ties together Guerilla and Armageddon in the timeframe between. Having that storyline and being immersive, you feel for it, you want to help the people out, you want to be the character Darius, and it's important.

There seems to be quite a different tone, which is partially from the story and from the world. It wasn't so horrific and oppressive before, right? What was the thinking there?

CG: The most recent title, Guerilla, was about oppressive man versus man. The EDF were oppressing the Red Faction and the people that were mining on Mars. While that's still an interesting tale to tell, we basically said, "What else can we add on that?"

We've always has these ideas as far as the fiction background of where we wanted the titles and franchise to go, and we started discussing... We definitely wanted to be sci-fi, we wanted to have change of pace gameplay, and we didn't want it to be just military versus military.

What the aliens provide us is change of pace; they jump on walls, they jump on ceilings... we have a lineup coming that's going to be progressively more powerful so we can really play that sort of mini-boss angle on gameplay.


From an art perspective, how did you go about creating this new look, and deciding that was the way you wanted to go?

CG: You know what? Red Faction Guerilla, they did everything they could… real world Mars. If you play the game, it is what it is. It's what Mars would look like --

If it were somewhat terraformed.

CG: Exactly, and as great as that was, it was hours and hours of gameplay of red rock Mars. We didn't want to continue that visual palette. Going underground, we were able to look at things that could be, might be.

No one's ever been beneath the planet to say there's not lava, or ice in these areas. We started there, and said, "Let's have a journey of visual variety. Let's keep things interesting for the player so they aren't going through the same color palette."

Some of the lava caves and lava cities you're going to see in there, and ice caves, and natural rock… Visually, that's exciting because you come around the corner and you see some red glow on the wall and you've never been to a lava cave and you're like, "What the heck is that?" And it's this red glow, and you come in and there are these gorgeous looking lava waterfalls, stalactites, the rock formations have changed. That was a lot of fun.

Another thing is lighting; in Red Faction: Guerilla, we had one light source: the sun. In Red Faction: Armageddon, we literally have caves and missions that have over 4,000 dynamic, interactive lighting. One of the things that I'm proud of and like to give a shout out to -- imagine a building comes crumbling down in Red Faction: Armageddon, the lighting is dynamic and interactive.

If it had neon signs and stuff attached to it, as it comes crashing down, the lights go out -- they literally flicker, buzz, and go out. What that means is that you're shaping the world and light around you through destruction. You can take out almost every single building in a cave and almost go to that Hollywood night dark. We actually have flares and spotlights that are going to be able to be used to help the player through, or they can repair the structure.

When you're going from a standing building to destruction, how do you manage the polygon count? As you're destroying a lot of things, do you have to remove some stuff? You obviously can't have it littering the ground forever, either.

CG: Absolutely. What we do is first off, none of our polygons -- we have invisible shards that are in the buildings that don't get activated until destruction has happened, so we're able to keep around a really high-res version but not have to be at the cost of the shards. Once destruction enacts, we basically unhide all of the shards, and then the shards become -- you have to take into account how much memory, and framerate performance issues are happening.

We do have to be careful with shard size; we had it once where shard size was so dense you could write your name into the wall, and that made hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of polys, and you learn from that, and you go, "Okay! I can't do that. What can we do?" Then we have different shard sizes, so concrete will have a different size from fiberglass, so each of them are managed that way. After doing Guerilla, we really learned a lot, so a lot of that stuff is part of our production process.

Speaking of destruction limits, when you have four player mode, does that change things further?

CG: You definitely have to look at the single player experience as how much you can pack into an area as far as memory and framerate. When you get more people and simultaneous destruction, you do have to consider it, but I think when you see our multiplayer levels, I don't think there's that much of a visual difference, if any. They're still full of destruction and everything.

A lot of it has to do with visibility occlusion and how you lay the levels out, so you don't stream out areas you aren't seeing. That actually is a big thing for us. Not only do we go underground to bring everything in, but we can literally have a cave that has sixteen tunnels going off of it, which gives you all kinds of choices and places to explore. Because you're in a tunnel, we predictably know which direction the player is going, so we can stream out and stream in, and always have high quality visuals. I fact, that's given us almost linear game graphics in our game.

How do you control and QA the massive destruction stuff? Does it give you extra QA challenges there?

CG: Absolutely. Our guys do all kinds of crazy stuff to try to break things, or this polygon didn't disappear, or did disappear, or this whole area is stuck in the wall -- we'll go into it and find out it was world anchored but it shouldn't have been. World anchoring basically has to do with what stays around and what doesn't after destruction.

There's a ton of challenges. Everything has to be broken up and blown up in QA from every angle, with every weapon, in any instance -- you know, what happens if I run through it with the exoskeleton from this angle? What happens if I run through it and jump up? We get some crazy bugs that are hard to reproduce or ones that are head scratchers.


I imagine in a game like this, there are inevitably going to be a few things that get through that are going to wind up on YouTube and you're going to be like, "Well, it's really hard to do, so…"

CG: Absolutely. In fact, a little known fact is that the Red Faction: Guerilla sledgehammer came about to stop crashes from happening because people were getting stuck in areas that they had no way of getting out of. If you ran out of ammo, you always had the sledgehammer, and that allowed you to not get stuck in places, so that solved some crashes.

So, you're underground. It seems like, realistically, if you're destroying everything there would be a lot of mine cave-ins and stuff. Is that something that you deal with, or not?

CG: Well, we have destroyable organic rock formations, with a sort of shimmer to the rock… The player is going to learn early on that there are basically crystals and other things that can be destroyed in terms of the terrain.

We don't have geo-modding where you are carving your way through, but we have destructible organic elements, and a lot of these will tie into landslides, and uncovering secrets, and things that will play into the dynamic world as well.

It's almost easier to feel like you have more destruction when you're in this open plane and you can only level buildings. When you are inside and there's suddenly something that you can't destroy, it suddenly brings it back to being a game again -- you know what I mean?

CG: Yeah, absolutely. These are a lot of the things we had to think about. "How do we train the player? What's acceptable or not? What feels like a good payoff versus something that feels like cheating in the experience?" We have to think a lot about that and how we lay out levels.

Do you do decal damage on indestructible cave walls and things like that? What do you do there?

CG: Yeah, we have decal damage, exactly. Little scorch marks and things like that, and dust debris that comes flying off of it.

The ability to create stuff in the game makes the universe feel a bit more fantastical than before. That obviously changes the game tonally and in terms of gameplay. Can you just go through the thought process on that?

CG: Yeah, so the Nano Forge actually had repair functionality in Red Faction: Guerilla. It was only in the multiplayer. What we said is, "That was a lot of fun." We got a lot of feedback from people saying repair is fun, people want to do that, how do we bring that into the single player experience?

It is part of the history of the game and the lineage... If you follow the story of the games, it was a highly sought-after technology from Red Faction: Guerilla. The EDF wanted it, the Marauders wanted it, and they were coming after the main character to try to take it. Through generation by generation, this has stuck with the Masons, and this was handed down to the current character, Darius.

Darius has his dad's genes, he's kind of the MacGyver sort of fellow, he's smart, he's fast, he's athletic. He, by trade, is a miner as well, and an ex-member of the Red Faction army, and what he has done for his own trade is he has unlocked more functionality of the Nano Forge.

What we are showing today is the repair functionality. What it does is it repairs anything man-made that can be destroyed. You can use this from anything from fixing a bridge that got blown up to repairing a building so you can use it as magnet gun ammo. It is using the nanite technology that existed and we are expanding upon it.

Lately there was an image that someone stitched together of a lot of recent main characters in video games, I don't know if you saw that.

CG: I did see that.

What do you think of the bald, scruffy space marine phenomenon?

CG: (laughs) It is what it is. If you look at him from the neck down, there are clear differences on our character to that one. In fact, one of the things that was concerning early on was our very first stills had a guy in a tank top and a bald head, you can imagine the stereotypes and analogies drawn to that, and we were looking at that as kind of funny because we have four outfit changes throughout the game.

In fact, our player goes under distress, you'll notice decals on his face from damage, and he'll slowly wear out. He starts out in a military outfit, he then progresses through the surface outfit that's in the mission now, and then he's only in the tank top version at the end of the game when he's in the hot areas of lava. When you see it as a full progression, you realize it's logical, but when you see the image of the bald guy in the tank top you can't help but compare it to other stuff.

Right now, if your engine has trouble with alpha, or hair, or something like that, you'd rather not do it at all than to do it and call out attention. I'm not saying -- we can do alpha, and everything -- but I wasn't comfortable with the look we were going to have in there, so I'd rather not have it at all, and play into other things.

I'm surprised. I always considered it a choice rather than a constraint.

CG: I'll be honest with you, if I had a way to get good looking hair that sorted properly and didn't alias, and could dynamically move around as the player turned his head, so it wouldn't look like a helmet of hair, I'm all for it. But I'm not prepared to design something that's going to look bad.

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