It's not all that long until the next generation finally arrives with all three consoles on the market and developers are starting to really experiment with what this additional horsepower means for their upcoming games. LucasArts is a company which has had a few hits and a few flops recently so you can understand why they want to get in on the next generation as soon as possible. However they are in no rush, and are working on some of the most innovative and jaw dropping technology advances you are likely to see over the next few years. During their Activate presentation, LucasArts showed some of their proof of concept prototypes and left the audience in awe. They didn't just show it in a test environment either, with one of their upcoming titles - Indiana Jones - used to demonstrate something that could change the face of gaming forever.
The presentation began with LucasArts explaining that, with the next generation coming, they really wanted to take their franchises to the next level and this of course includes Star Wars. As soon as they got their development kits they began work on their concepts for Lucas to take a look at. The first task they had was to make a proof of concept which was shown to us and absolutely blew us away. It was a female character in a Star Wars universe, set after the final three films, taking on a number of bad guys in absolute jaw dropping visuals. It was then we began to wonder what the next generation has in store. Once happy with their demo, they took it to Lucas who said "make it", but they realised the technology they needed to build the game they wanted did not exist, so like many innovative developers they had to start from scratch and build some technology. They've announced two such technologies they have been working on and both are equally as impressive as each other.
The first technology is DNA for environmental objects. The presenter explained it like this - every object in the world has a DNA structure to it which determines how it reacts when it is hit. Up until now games have not been able to replicate this all too well due to a lack of technology and horsepower available, however, as we saw, it's not going to be too long before it becomes reality. This technology is so advanced at this early stage, that they could change object properties on the fly. The first demonstrate was with wood and, as explained, wood has varying levels of density which determine how it shatters. We saw a number of types of wood being destroyed and they all destroyed in unique fashions, every single time they were hit. For instance the Balsa wood smashed into smithereens, with pieces flying everywhere, while a harder, tougher wood produced much more resistance with only small shards breaking off with the entire structure almost remaining in tact.
This was also demonstrated with a number of other materials such as metal, jelly and more. This technology is obviously designed to aid in producing the most realistic environments that have ever been featured in a video game and this will be an exciting technology once it becomes available in many LucasArts titles. What really excited us was the fact that the demo was not a video, it was running live in front of us on a Xbox 360 development unit, proving that this technology is feasible on today's hardware.
The other technology demonstrated focused on the physics of objects in a game environment. For instance, in a typical game today, characters react to collisions with pre-defined animations done by the developers in programs such as 3D Studio Max. LucasArts' new technology allows them to program characters to react in unique ways during collisions and they are already using this in upcoming games such as the next generation Star Wars titles and the half-announced new Indiana Jones game set to ship in 2007. The latter game was used to demonstrate the technologies in a game environment. This was the first time we saw this new technology being used in an actual game setup and it appeared to be running fine without any framerate issues or indications to show that this will tax the Xbox 360 console to a large extent.
While LucasArts would not confirm that this was a level from the upcoming game, it did feature a number of action sequences and felt long enough to be defined as a full level. The demo started in a quiet street found in China town. Indiana turns up and everyone wants to have a go at him for some reason so the fighting and hand to hand mechanics become apparent quickly. The main example of this new technology is demonstrated when interacting with a heavy object present in the environment, in this case an antique car. The developers showed us over and over again a guy being punched into the car and how the car reacted differently each time. For example, sometimes the side window would shatter, other times it wouldn't. It was determined by how well the guy was punched, the impact area of the car and how the character fell once the car was hit.
There is no doubt that LucasArts seem to be on the forefront of next generation technology and if they keep going they may be uttered in the same breath as industry pioneers such as CliffyB who push graphics and consoles to the maximum they can take. LucasArts has been in the shadows of the big boys for sometime outside of the Star Wars license, but with recent success and these new technologies, perhaps this will soon change. Now, where's that Sam and Max technology? We'll just have to wait on that one a bit longer.