Square Enix may have disappointed some fans by not bringing Final Fantasy 15 and Kingdom Hearts 3 to this year's E3, but they saved one surprise to show off behind closed doors.
In a demo and question-and-answer session mostly restricted to developers and potential publishing partners, Square Enix showed off the latest iteration of their Project Flare cloud gaming technology. Originally revealed last November, Project Flare aims to use supercomputers as servers to deliver gaming experiences that wouldn't be possible on most regular PCs or consoles.
Square's November demo focused on physics, but its new demo for E3 was all about sheer geographical scale. In a demo that I was repeatedly told was "not representative of a final product," Square showed off a massive forested world that could be explored quickly from a bird's eye view or at a slower pace from the perspective of a cute creature. Square said the full world map was 32 kilometers by 32 kilometers -- 17 times the size of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim by the company's estimates.
But what's truly impressive is not just the size; it's that none of the world was being instanced or streamed in by the computer. It was all fully rendered in full detail across the entirety of the giant world. That includes over 600,000 trees, hundreds of packs of creatures, hills, mountains and more.
I was able to briefly take the controller and test out the demo in real-time myself, hopping back and forth between the creature view and soaring through the skies. Despite Square's claims, I did notice a very small amount of pop-in, but only from an extreme view distance, and without any blurry textures that slowly stream in to further detail. Essentially it dodged most of the compromises I've become used to dealing with in giant open world games.
And though this demo was simplistic, it was also created from scratch in a mere six months with only two programmers and one artist.
During our session, Square Enix offered information regarding both the new technology and their philosophy behind it. Square Enix chairman and former CEO Yoichi Wada said, "There are lots of games showing at E3 this year, but not really anything new." By Wada's estimation, this lack of "real" innovation is tied to technology. He believes that these days the business model is driving games more than technology, and we need a new breakthrough to push games in a different direction.
As far as he and Square Enix are concerned, Project Flare is that new technology.
Square Enix director of business development Jacob Navok said, "Games now use smoke and mirrors to provide the illusion of a living world. With Project Flare, we can provide an actual living world."
Of course, Navok doesn't mean a literal living world, but running games off of a single supercomputer opens giant projects up to some wild new possibilities. Using massively multiplayer games as the core example, Navok claims that Project Flare will allow for every player to be on a single server rather than split into shards like in current MMOs. It also allows for a fully dynamic, deformable and modifiable world without the need for patches or updates. He also brags that hacking and cheating would no longer be possible.
It's important to note that Square Enix isn't keeping Project Flare to itself. As mentioned previously, most of the publisher's meetings for it at E3 are with developers and other potential partners. They want to license the technology to third parties, which means keeping it extremely accessible. Square believes that making the new technology accessible to other studios will push them to create new types of gameplay.
Square is also looking internally with the new tech. Though it's being developed at Square Enix Montreal, the team behind Project Flare is working closely with a group at Square's Japan headquarters. That includes Tetsuji Iwasaki, the man who created the server architecture for Final Fantasy 11, one of the company's first forays into the MMO market.
As for actual games using the new technology, Square Enix says it will be making more announcements later this year. Currently plans are for those announcements to include a first reveal of at least one in-progress game using the Project Flare technology.
What I've been shown so far of Project Flare is incredibly impressive from a conceptual standpoint. However, there's a huge gap between ambitious technology holding up in a tech demo versus in an actual game. I'm eager to see how Square Enix and its partners begin to apply Flare to games that will be intended for the public.
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