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Playing for time

Interview: Free Radical's Dave Doak sets his sights on PC

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When a new one comes out, they deliver something pretty close to a top-end PC, but over the 5-6 years the PC pulls away again. The other thing is, the base resources for all consoles and PC right now is quite similar, and the stuff you'll see at the higher end PC is just people turning on a lot of the scalability options - fancier rendering, shadow patterns, stuff like that.

The differences are often hard to spot. It can be difficult to tell what machine you're playing an FPS on, at least at a glance. So cross-format games can give comparable experiences, yes?

Doak: There's two things really. The cost of making games right now mean that it makes financial sense to make it for all of the platforms. The other thing is the difference in the art-assets you're building is negligible - in fact, you're mostly not making separate assets. You're using the same assets. And there are things to do with how the engine works which are quite scalable. You end up turning bits off to fit the platform you're on.

For example, PlayStation 3 is very different to the PC, in that it has these FPU [floating-point maths] units which are very specific in what you can do. But if you look at the PC, with its dual or quad core, they're much more multi-function processing units. Also, in a way, PCs have become more similar to consoles. From the N64 on, consoles have traditionally had their own onboard specific graphics hardware. And PCs have gone that way completely.

Moving onto your games... TimeSplitters is interesting, in that it runs parallel to the development of the shooter for the PC. We went one way, on average. You went another.

Doak: We kind of reluctantly put Timesplitters on the shelf after Future Perfect [the last Timesplitters game]. We wanted to have a think about what we were doing. A thing we were always trying to do with Timesplitters is... the whole design of the game came from what would entertain us. It's doesn't fall into the teenage adolescent stuff
typified by things like Doom and Unreal... it was a fairly eclectic bunch of stuff, and a lot of fun. One thing I was surprised to see was Team Fortress starting to go along that kind of look. We've always had people critiquing Timesplitters for being a cartoony sort of game.

But now that people have realised they can do fairly realistic rendering, they're starting to say "Well... do we really want to do that, as we want to have something that has its own distinct look to it". Look at Team Fortress 2. That's their jumping off point. Let's try and get this away from Counter-Strike and have its own brand...

Timesplitters has always had that and it's something we want to go back and look at again, specifically taking that cartoon look and doing it with the interesting rendering you can do now.

What do you mean by that?

Doak: A typical next-gen look has often got all the next-gen stuff like specular highlights and normal mapping turned up to the max... which tends to make it look unreal anyway. If you look what people do, it's a Spinal Tap thing. It's all turned up to 11. And if it's not turned up to 11, people think it's not next-gen enough.

But if you've got something like the Timesplitter's world, which has plasticky and metal things about it, and characters' facial details are more caricatured with lines and wrinkles, it benefits quite well from those things being available in the rendering. Shiny foreheads and things like that. I think we're going to have a lot of fun with it.

While I think most PC gamers would agree the more games, the better, there's the fear of ports, which may not even explain the controls properly because they assume you're using a 360 pad. You feel like a second-class citizen.

Doak: It's hard. From the developers' point of view, if you're moving it onto PC... if you end up having to support mouse and keyboard and the controller as well as separate options... you just end up with extra work... Also, on the PC, there's a sense that since the PC is a more expensive platform to own, "where are my extra bells and whistles?"

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