There is a very cool, easy-to-miss thing that happens once you get to the open-world section of Gears 5. And pulling it off required a whole lot of people from a whole lot of teams.
I am, of course, talking about what happens when you shoot through the ice. No, I’m not joking; it not only looks cool, but feels incredibly satisfying within the context of the game. Check it out, and the reaction of game developer Aaron San Filippo:
Simultaneously amazed, delighted, and horrified at the amount of work that must have gone into this detail. https://t.co/lDBDPNtBab— Aaron San Filippo (@AeornFlippout) September 10, 2019
And this is why my job is so much fun. I wanted to find out how much work went into that detail, so I asked a bunch of people at the Coalition, and they were kind enough to share a bit of their time explaining it.
“This kind of feature, that is both a visual and gameplay focus, hits almost every discipline on our team,” campaign design director Matt Searcy told Polygon. “Design, animation, VFX, audio, and programmers are all involved in realizing the ice effect from the earliest gameplay prototype to the finished polished state.”
And the sort of hyper-real way the ice cracks, the water moves, and then the top layer is refrozen? What is easy to describe in words took a lot of work to make happen in the game. Like, a somewhat surreal amount of work, for those unfamiliar with game development. This is a field in which everything that seems simple is notoriously difficult to portray well.
“The backbone of the effect is a dynamic texture that we render to whenever the ice is shot,” James Sharpe, technical VFX art lead, explained. “The texture uses RGB channel separation to store multiple pieces of information, allowing us to track damage that just cracks up the surface separately to damage that makes a hole. The pixels of this texture correspond to a grid of collision primitives that change state when the floor is destroyed.”
So what you’re saying is that —
“To make the floor disappear visually we use shader operations to push the geometry below the water plane,” Sharpe continued. “This transition is covered up with a particle effect and a generic destructible that roughly matches the hole and uses a simplified physics tool we built in-house. There’s a lot involved in making sure the ice itself tells the player what its ‘health’ is when being shot, how you can see the difference between solid and broken areas, the satisfaction of what happens to an enemy when they drown … it all matters!”
That’s a lot! And it really isn’t just for show. As players quickly find out, you can shoot the ice out from under enemies to watch them fall into the freezing water, to their inevitable death. And then the ice is refrozen, allowing you to continue walking across the surface or even to kill another enemy in the same way.
That’s the sort of thing that so many developers love, the sort of visual effect that doesn’t just look pretty, but adds to the gameplay in some way. I asked for another example, and they brought up the use of fog.
“Because the artists could paint different densities of fog, we were able to use it as both a visual showcase and a design tool,” art director Aryan Hanbeck said. “We have a few arenas that are longer or larger than other Gears games and we used fog in some cases to change the visibility and feel of the space, or spaces that transform once you start fighting in them with each grenade explosion, destroyed pillar or gunfire battle.”
Which is fascinating, because game development is a zero-sum game. Time spent on one thing is time not spent on something else. So how does the team decide what’s worth the time, and what might not be?
“It’s definitely a balancing act of give and take,” Searcy said. “As we go through development, we do regular reviews and we try to bring extra focus to the things that are resonating with players. We want to make everything look great, but when we find a gameplay aspect that surprises and delights, like the breakable ice, to pay off as a combat mechanic and visual feature, it tends to get extra love and attention.”
Next time you see something in a game, consider that the team was just as enthusiastic about it as you are, and it probably took much more time and effort than you’d expect.
Gears 5 is out now on Xbox One and Windows PC. It’s very good.