Three Visionaries and Their Games
E3 2004 Conference Session 2.3 Sneak Peeks

Sneak Peaks featured three gaming giants and their giant games: Gabe Newell of Valve featuring Half-Life 2, Yannis Mallet of UbiSoft featuring Prince of Persia 2, and Ray Muzyka of Bioware featuring Jade Empire.

Jade Empire, an epic story, represents possibly the first time an immersive RPG has been merged with a high-caliber action system for real-time combat. Ray Muzyka, famous for Neverwinter Nights, Baldur's Gate, and Star Wars: Knights of the Republic, explained that Jade Empire was inspired by myths and legends of ancient China.

Part of the RPG side of the game is an extensive customization front end that allows gamers to tailor their own immersive experience. Muzyka explained that their increase in development consoles has changed their approach to game design. Console players prefer to play relaxed on a couch while PC players tend to lean forward and jockey a keyboard and mouse. They adjust the gameplay to suit.

Muzyka explained that their approach to game design is highly collaborative - a dozen core team members and a philosophy of accepting good ideas regardless of their source. This may partially explain their low 3% annual employee turnover.

Jade Empire features some innovative fighting styles. For example, "Paralyzing Palm" allows the fighter to use Chi to freeze an opponent, leaving them helpless. Combining this with "Legendary Fists" allows you to turn an opponent to stone, then pulverize them. Using the "Long Sword" allows you to perform some exotic finishing moves gory enough for the most bloodthirsty gamer (which might be adjustable to suit the tastes of the player). A "Focus Mode" allows you to slow down time while you destroy your near-helpless opponent. "Dire Flame" summons a Dragon to barbeque your enemy. Finally, "Transformation" allows you to turn into other beings, including large demons, allowing you to destroy large environmental objects like stone pillars so they fall and crush your opponents.

For Prince of Persia 2 (no title yet) Yannis Mallet corrected some sales criticism by stating sales of over 2,000,000 units, well beyond their expectations. When asked how they were handling the crunch of producing a major sequel in only 12 months, Mallet explained that they wisely began designing POP2 before the Sands of Time was released. He indicated that POP2 is really another entry in the POP history, not a sequel at all. In fact, he said "Forget all you know, except the best parts".

POP2 reflects a deep commitment to listen to gamers, identify what they're looking for, and give it to them. Expect more replay value, less repetition, more depth, and more time manipulation. In fact, to complete the game you must use the time manipulation functions, unlike Sands of Time.

The POP2 central character is darker, more mature than before. Fans (as well as Ubisoft's marketing and production people) agreed this character needed more depth since the game was centered around him - he must be more interesting.

Watching Yannis play the demo was both awesome and amusing - the game is challenging enough to frustrate even the master's attempts to fell insanely large bosses. The Prince's ability to interact with the environment was incredible - he could scale walls like Jackie Chan, climb and swing from ropes, climb and descend curtains, and trapeze from horizontal bars.

The Sneak Peek concluded with Half-Life 2. Gabe Newell said that the secret to Half Life 2's buzz is that Valve has paid a lot of attention to what gamers went. Gamers want the ability to interact with their environment to an extent never seen before, and HL2 will provide that and more.

When asked about the missed September 2003 deadline, Newell listed three factors: resources, time, and quality/functionality, only two of which can be constrained. They opted to let time be the unconstrained factor, and continue to build on the $40 million spent so far in order to boost functionality well beyond everyone's expectations. After 5 years, they want it to be worth the wait.

After hackers broke into Valve, stole the HL2 source code and distributed it on the internet, "everyone was depressed, really bummed out" says Newell. Regarding delays, he added "It helps to have really senior people who have been through this before."

Valve is committed to providing an engine beneath HL2 on which their older titles can play. Newell sited that he would love to play the original Doom on the Doom III engine, and they intend to allow Counter-Strike to play on the HL2 engine as well as other multiplayer titles like Day of Defeat, Team Fortress, and the original Half-Life.

The trailer that Gabe played, which even he had never seen, showed unprecedented environmental interaction - the main character, Gordon used the manipulator gun to pick up giant saw blades and used them as projectile weapons, and threw cans of paint at the wall leaving a giant splotch of color. In the climactic ending, Gordon drives a vehicle while shooting, and after stopping and taking out some more bad guys with a wide variety of weapons and tactics, manipulator-guns his vehicle and uses it to squash a few more bad guys.

BY ROB EVERTON
 
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