Rainbow Studios - MX Unleashed
We do a exclusive Q & A with Robb Rinard of Rainbow Studios.
Q: Critics will be quick to jump to the conclusion that Rainbow took the ATV Offroad Fury engine and put motocross bikes to it and some new tracks in order to ship a quick product. But having played the game we know better than that. What changes under the hood have been made that differentiates this title from the previous games?
A: Every game Rainbow ships represent the evolution of our ever-changing game engine. Since back in the days of Motocross Madness 2, our tech team has grown from 2 to almost a dozen really talented programmers whose job it is to perpetually advance both the scope and performance of our engine. Those guys are independent of the actual game programmers working on programming the game itself. That said, we’re still developing content for a platform that hasn’t changed at all since it’s release in the fall of 2000, that being the PS/2 running at 300 mhz.
So that bears the question, when developing games for an unchanging platform, how and where do we put our efforts in the 3rd year and 3rd generation game for the same platform?
When we developed ATV 1.0 and Splashdown, it was everything we could do just to learn how to program and debug things on a very complicated machine like the PS/2. It took our engineers months just to get a single polygon to show up on the screen, let alone ship a playable game.
During the development of ATV 2.0 and Racer Revenge, the tech team focused mainly on improving everything about the graphics side of the engine. They constantly added new render shaders and interfaces for the artists to make use of. At the same time we were starting to understand how to make better use of the math co-processors on the PS/2 called Vector Units. This allowed us to optimize everything about the graphics pipeline, not so much to make higher quality graphics, but to free up CPU time on the processors to make time to do other cool game play things like better physics, AI, and physics objects.
Now three years later we’re hard at work on MX Unleashed. The tech team has delivered a number of cool new graphics features in the past twelve months, all of which you’ll see in MX Unleashed.
First we have a new technique for rendering skies. The skies in ATV 1 and 2 were all compressed textures using the PS/2’s standard compression method called IPU. The results are full of visible compression artifacts that the artists didn’t find very desirable. This year we have a new technique called geometry skies. We developed a tool that looks at a rendered sky cube and converts all the gradients of color into collection of tiny polygons. We match the color of each polygon to the color of the sky at that point and then use gouraud shading to produce a rendered image that looks identical to the original picture without using any texture maps whatsoever. As it turns out, the PS/2 can render untextured polygons incredibly fast. So we save render time, as well as improve the visual quality. Pretty tricky, huh?
Second, we’ve added a new feature to our outdoor rendering system. In the past we could render thousands of trees in the world, but there was no shrubs, or ground clutter. This year we’ve added a second system called shrubberies that allow the artists to spruce up the density of ground cover around the outdoor tracks. It’s still a work in progress, but the results look promising.
Lastly, our guys have come up with a new texturing technique that really improves the look of the terrain. It’s real complicated to try to explain, but it came out of the work our guys did developing the water rendering technology for Splashdown. We plan on using it in our Freestyle worlds to help support the new game we’ve come up with called Hits and Runs. We’re still working on it so we don’t have any demos ready for release yet, but it should be pretty cool once the artists get dialed into how to make it shine.
The biggest new game play features that players will see in the moment to moment experience of playing MX Unleashed are in the two new physics systems we’ve written.
First a bit of history: Motocross Madness 1 was Rainbow’s first attempt at writing a physics engine, and MCM 2 was the same engine with slight enhancements. ATV 1.0 was our second generation physics simulation and was largely untouched through the release of ATV 2.0. For MX Unleashed, our physics programmers have rewritten the physics simulation for the bikes from the ground up once again. The biggest difference between the old driving models and the latest one is this: Our past driving models were what I call a “point and steer” driving experience. Even though we’re racing on dirt, which is very slippery compared to asphalt, the bike didn’t slide for the most part and went in the direction it was pointed. This was by design. We felt that the complexity of racing the bike through complicated jumping based rhythm sections would be too overwhelming if players risked losing all their speed each time they come through a turn.
This year’s driving model is much more like driving on real dirt. The player has to use the banked portion of the berm in order to maintain speed coming through a turn. This combined with the addition of a great new game mechanic involving the use of the clutch allows players to take turns one of three ways. First you can simply rail the turn by coming in at a wide angle and laying the bike flat into the berm. Second you can come into the turn very steep and power slide the bike up onto the berm under full throttle. Lastly, you can come steep into the turn, hit the brakes, whip the back end around, pop the clutch and blast out of the turn at blazing speed. This new turning mechanic that uses the clutch is incredibly addictive once you learn the feel of it.
The other big addition to MX Unleashed is the creation of a rider physics system. In years past the rider’s motion was controlled via a set of key framed animations and never responded to forces that he experienced on the bike. Our physics programmers have created a complete physics based skeletal system for the rider that allow his performance on the bike to reflect the forces that come up through the bike physics. The best example of seeing this new system at work is riding through the whoops. Blitzing through the whoops at top speed now looks very much like the way the pros do it in real life. Lap after lap, it’s simply a pleasure to watch the rider respond to every bump on the track, as well as making for spectacular new wreck sequences!
Q: What types of game modes will be incorporated into MX Unleashed?
A: MX Unleashed will support primary game play modes: Stadium Supercross, Outdoor Nationals, and Freestyle gaming.
The career is setup so that players can either choose Racing or Freestyle gaming. Our fans made it clear that they don’t want to be forced into having to do both in order to beat the game. Racers like racing, and the Freestyle guys don’t, and vise versa. Also, although you can bust a tricks while racing, they don’t affect the performance of the bike in any way. In other words, there is no “trick to boost” system. In MX Unleashed you’ll win races by exhibiting good driving skills and running a good race, not by out tricking your opponents.
We’re also adding a third way to unlock everything the game has offer. When we play tested our past games, there is a fair number of people out there that want to play our games, but struggle to succeed for one reason or another. They either have difficulty controlling the bike, or find the computer opponents to challenging. But they paid good money for the game and deserve to enjoy everything the game has to offer. So we added a system that allows people to play any mode of the game and bust tricks which count towards points you can spend in the store. The store allows players to spend their trick points to unlock anything in the entire game. This way, even players that aren’t very good at the game get a chance to try all the cool bikes and ride on every track in the game.
But we’re also thinking about the high-end motocross fans out there that find the “ALL-OUT-AI” modes in ATV 1 and 2 not competitive enough for them. In ATV, when you beat the game, you got a cheat code that made the AI bikes run flat out as fast as they could go, but still run the same bikes that the player was riding. For people that were very good at the game, the ALL-OUT-AI mode simply wasn’t tough enough competition for them. So in the spirit of the movie Spinal Tap where the guys could turn up their guitar amps to “11”, we’re allowing the AI in MX Unleashed to be turned up to 125%. Prior to beating the career, the AI difficulty slider can go from 70% - 100%. But once you beat the game, players can crank up the AI all the way to 125%, giving even the most serious motocross fan a hard core racing challenge.
Q: The racing in Mx Unleashed will undoubtedly be awesome but not everyone is into racing. What should the freestylers and explorers out there look forward to?
A: This year we are unveiling an entirely new game play mode in Freestyle called “Hits, Runs and Machine Races”. Here’s the scoop:
A “hit” is a jump, marked somewhere in the world. Each hit has two components, a take off zone and landing zone. In order to successfully complete a hit, players must pass through the take off zone and touchdown safely in the landing zone. Points are rewarded for landing closer to the center of the landing zone and based on how many tricks and combos they were able to bust while airborne. Each time a hit is successfully landed, the size of the landing zone will shrink by 10% and the base multiplier value of that particular hit goes up by 1. Each time you miss a hit, the landing zone grows by ten percent and the base value goes down by 1. For example, if you land the same hit 4 times in a row, it will be worth a trick multiplier of times 4 and the landing zone will only be 60% as big as when you first started.
A “run” is sequential series of hits that have to be performed in a row, with no mistakes along the way. Players initiate a run by pulling into a “Start zone” which activates the run. Runs are akin to a freestyle version of a rhythm section on a Nationals track. Most runs are anywhere from 5 – 10 jumps in length and may have timing elements to them such as jumping over a train or a dump truck along the way. Sounds like fun!
A “machine race” is a waypoint race against non-motocross vehicles. For example, on one level you might race a World War I Bi-Plane around the level. Both the bike and the plane have to physically pass through each waypoint gate during the lap. If the player can beat the machine in the race, the player will be able to take control of that machine and tool around the level exploring our huge outdoor worlds in a whole new way. Other examples of possible machine races include: Baja trucks, dune buggies, or a Jet Ski.
Q: Will MxU support system link for multiplayer as opposed to just split screen?
A: We’re not certain at this point what all we can support so I can’t really comment on this. I don’t want to talk about things that don’t show up in the final product.
Q: Its easy to see that both the rider and bike models have been beefed up in detail as opposed to previous titles, how many polys we talking?
A: This year, our highest level of detail bikes are coming in around 4500 polygons and the highest detail rider is clocking 1950 polys. Interestingly enough, the rider is fewer polygons than we shipped in ATV 2, and looks even better.
Q: As soon as you grab the controller you can easily tell that the driving mechanics are more in-depth than just holding the gas wide-open and turning. Can you explain the mechanics behind the steering model and how it will affect gameplay?
A: Answered this one above… (-:
Q: What features of the Xbox will MX Unleashed take advantage of? HDTV support? Xbox Grass shaders? Dolby Surround? etc...
A: This is a difficult question to answer at this point in the development of the game. We’ll know better towards the end of the product when all of the core features are in and do some performance analysis to see what more we can squeeze out of the Xbox.
Q: What licensing has been picked up for MxU as far as bikes and riders and gear?
A: The process of securing bike manufacturers and pro riders is still in progress. This wont be known for another few months.
Q: Will there be a "create a rider" feature ala’ Tony Hawk 4 where we can change appearance and build up stats?
A: No. If we started the player out with a bike that has crappy performance, the game would be insanely hard because the sizes of the jumps are what they are. Also, although we will allow players to tune some minor things about the bikes, we’ve worked really hard to make the physics model perfectly tuned to deliver the best riding experience possible. Allowing players to tweak it further will only degrade the experience.
Q: Fans of the genre have been drooling over the prospect of tracks from real locales and while previous titles have included these awesome places to race in their listings, the recreations were anything but realistic. Is MxU going to offer tracks from the THQ AMA Nationals / World SXGP circuits or will we be racing on fictitious tracks?
A: All the tracks in MX Unleashed are created from scratch. At the beginning of the project we had Roncada model some real world tracks for us so we could play test them. The truth of the matter is real world tracks are boring to race in a video game, especially have the set the bar for jump sizes with ATV 1 and 2. If we modeled realistic tracks for MX Unleashed players would be less than thrilled with 80 foot doubles all over the place. Most triples and quads in the game are in excess of 200 feet, which feels really good in a video game.
Q: How many tracks will be included in Mx Unleashed?
A: Close to 50.
Q: Are there plans to include a track editor?
A: No, not in this year’s version. In the future, who knows?
Q: Rainbow Studios have nailed down rendering realistic water in Splashdown, will water play a role in MxU (ie puddles, ponds etc)?
A: You will see mud puddles on the outdoor Nationals tracks, and one of our Freestyle levels is based on a tropical island layout.
Q: Will there be different environment effects (weather) and will they affect the physics of the driving model?
A: There will be snow and rain in the game. We’re playing with wind effects right and toying with the idea of having it effect the bikes flight path.
Q: What can we look forward to as far as stunts go? Will we be able to pull off back-flips?
A: Our animators are studying all the latest and greatest versions of all the top tricks. As far as back flip goes, yes, we are including it. But it won’t be a gift. It will take a certain amount of skill to successfully land a back flip.
Q: How will MxUnleashed live up (in your opinion) to the expectations of gamers who are fans of the Rainbow experience?
A: After having spent so many thousand hours on-line racing with the MCM 2 and ATV 2 crowd, one would think I’d be tired of playing motocross games. Not true.
Between the state of the art new physics model and fantastic track designs and competitive AI, I can’t get enough of playing MX Unleashed. Lots of members of the team are already addicted to playing the game. It’s kind of cool when the game comes together with more than 6 months left in the schedule. Lots of times I hear programmers say, “I just ran the game to test something real quick and ended up turning 15 laps.” Eek, scary! (-:
Q: And in closing, what would you like to say about MxUnleashed to the fans?
A: There are a number of competing Motocross games coming out this Xmas. Don’t be fooled into buying any of these imitation MX games. The team at Rainbow Studios set the standard for what great off-road racing is all about and MX Unleashed is no exception. Our game ships January 15th, 2004 and will be well worth the wait !
We'd like to thank THQ and Rainbow Studios for giving us this exclusive interview and screenshots before anyone else.