[This feature was published in the September 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]
The Bureau: XCom Declassified
Developer: 2K Marin
Platform: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
The Geomerics effect: Enlighten helped give the game its distinct 1960s look and atmosphere
The latest title in the XCom franchise has undergone unique public-facing design, narrative, art and technical direction changes. The game first appeared in 2010 as a horror-styled FPS set in the 1950s. It then re-emerged at E3 2011 with a well-crafted 1960s aesthetic as a hybrid-style FPS with third-person shooter aspects.
The more the team at 2K Marin played with the gameplay, the more they were led to a full third-person, squad-based dynamic that resonated with the original XCom titles. The end result is a highly innovative tactical squad-based game where the main character, William Carter, can choose in real-time how to best use his squad to combat an alien invasion.
As The Bureau: XCom Declassified continued to evolve, 2K Marin was especially interested in making sure that the graphics were able to portray the level of detail and dynamism required by the new aesthetic. 2K Marin spent several months researching different technologies and found the perfect balance in Geomerics’ Enlighten.
“We were already taking advantage of Unreal Engine 3 for this project, and spent a significant amount of time developing a fully dynamic deferred lighting solution for our direct lighting. We were really interested to see what Geomerics’ real-time global illumination technology, Enlighten, could bring to our team. We weren’t disappointed,” says technical director Carlos Cuello.
Enlighten comprises a set of tools and runtime technology for delivering real-time global illumination on multiple platforms. Global illumination is the process of light passing through multiple bounces on its way from the source to the observer. Games have developed a number of technologies for solving the first bounce problem in real-time, mostly based on variants of computing a shadow map. But the multiple bounce problem is harder to solve in real-time and many games avoid the problem by baking out lighting into static lightmaps. Enlighten removes the need to bake out lightmaps in advance, producing dynamic lighting that ties together the static and dynamic elements of a scene.
The 2K Marin team knew that one of the bottlenecks to building levels was the long lighting builds required to generate realistic global illumination. While level layouts could be iterated on quickly, minor modifications to the placements of lights could require an hour-long lighting rebuild. This was in stark contrast to Enlighten, where lights could be moved around at will, providing a true ‘what you see is what you get’ lighting environment.
“Iteration costs time and resources, but it is key for our project development. We have limited time and resources, but sacrificing iterations was not an option. This is where we have to balance the available resources with technology,” reveals senior technical level architect Rinaldo Tjan. “We wanted a fast lighting system that rivalled the baked lighting solution that was integrated with our existing workflow. Although we looked at many different options, none of them met our quality bar like Enlighten did. We also wanted a clean lighting look for The Bureau’s 1960s architecture and environment, and Enlighten allowed us to achieve that look.”
Tjan continues: “We are very careful when evaluating technology for our lighting pipeline. We know what we want and we are not blindsided by every shiny new technology out there. The performance aspect was the most magical thing that we discovered during evaluation. There is the fear of the unknown, and there is the fear of the word ‘dynamic’, which most of the time translates to ‘expensive’ in real-time game development. The flexibility Enlighten offers really delivers.”
THE END RESULT
On top of the workflow and iteration improvements, going to a dynamic lighting system had a big impact for the player experience in the finished game. Combat elements come alive with moving bullets that affect the environment lighting and Battle Focus UI illuminates the world as you issue commands.
“Changing lighting system is not something that you can take on lightly, but if the payoff means lighting the scene at the speed of light, I think it’s worth it,” says Tjan.
The end result is a beautiful looking game that catches the atmosphere and style of the 1960s, merging this with interesting gameplay full of dynamic lighting.
“We see lighting as being an absolutely key part of game design going forward into the next generation. We are really proud of what we have achieved with The Bureau, particularly after the long journey we took to get to the final game,” concludes Cuello.