Ten Minutes with James Schmalz

Ten Minutes with James Schmalz

By - Posted May 05, 2005

First-person shooters are so plentiful on the Xbox and PC that slaughtering wave after wave of zombies/armies/aliens has almost become a 3D cliché. Promising to inject a little innovation into the old genre is Pariah, which introduces a new weapons system and a level editor that allows you to share maps on Xbox Live. James Schmalz, creative director of Digital Extremes, gives us the rundown on his new title, as well as his thoughts on developing games for the next generation of hardware.

What’s the scenario behind Pariah?

PariahThe world of Pariah is set in the future, about 500 years, and Earth is kind of decayed and been run-down for centuries—all of the people have moved to off-planet colonies—and it has ended up a prison planet. At the beginning of the game, you’re a doctor, Jack Mason, and you’re brought in to escort a prisoner off-planet, and you’re told this person has a virus. But your dropship gets shot down and you crash into the wastelands around the prisons. So your immediate goal is to survive and get back to the prison; you find out who the prisoner is, what the virus is, and how it all unfolds from there.

Who are you battling against in the game?

There are a number of different groups of villains. The ones you encounter right off the bat are escaped prisoners; the idea is that there are these big prison facilities, but there have been prison breaks and the guards are like, “Whatever—they’re not going anywhere.” There are these guys called scavengers who, as soon as your ship crashes, come in to see if they can grab parts from it so at the beginning you’re fighting off those guys. And then as the story unfolds, you end up fighting guards, and some mysterious other people throughout the game.

There are a lot of first-person shooters out there. What makes Pariah different?

The first thing about Pariah that people find really interesting is that as you play the single-player game, we’ve got these upgradeable weapons. In a typical first-person shooter, you find a weapon every couple of levels. But we not only have that, but we also have these upgrades that you can get, and each upgrade is progressively more difficult. So as you’re going through, you get to decide which weapon you want to upgrade and how you want to use your upgrades as you get them. And of course that carries over to multi-player, and we’ve got some new gametypes that people haven’t played before, and the upgrades give them a new flavor.

The other really cool thing we’re really excited about, and that we put a lot of effort into, is our map editor. It allows you to create your own map—if you can play the game, you can make a map. It’s very easy to use, and then very easy to share your maps whether you’re on Xbox Live where you can publish your maps and have your friends download them, or even if you’re not on Xbox Live and you want to play split-screen or system link. It’s very easy to use, very powerful.

How difficult is it to come up with new concepts for weapons?

PariahWeapons are really tricky. In any first-person shooter, you gotta have a rocket launcher, right? If you made a first-person shooter without a rocket launcher, you’d have people complaining for sure. So we knew there had to be this core of first-person shooter weapons like the assault rifle, the grenade launcher, and the rocket launcher, but we also added a few unique weapons as well. Then we were thinking, “What can we do to make them more interesting?” And that’s sort of where we came up with the upgrades idea. A good example is the grenade launcher. It works as you would expect it to work—it shoots out a grenade, then after a certain period of time it blows up; if it hits an enemy, it blows up immediately. We wanted to add tactical variety to that, so one of the upgrades is, as the grenade is flying through the air, it’s picking up debris and bits of metal from the ground around it. If you shoot it just 20 feet out in front, it just picks up a little bit of debris, almost standard grenade damage; but if you shoot it at a very long distance, it picks up tons of debris and when it finally falls it shreds any enemies nearby. It really encourages you to be accurate at long distance with that upgrade because it obviously becomes more powerful. So it’s not just about making your weapons more powerful as you upgrade them, but to have a little variety and make them tactically different.

What can you reveal about Dark Sector, your next-generation title?

Not too much!

Well, can you talk about the challenges in developing next-generation games?

It’s a huge challenge. One of the things we did with Dark Sector was to start the project about two years ago, just preparing for the next generation. Multi-processor systems are the way technology is going, even on the PC, so that’s something we’ve really prepared for and built the architecture of the Dark Sector engine for—being really smart about how it uses the multi-processors.

Another thing is just the sheer amount of content. Everybody’s heard the rumors about how much effort it’s going to take to make these high-polygon environments with everything normal-mapped, all the characters normal-mapped, and taking advantage of all the ridiculously cool features that we’re going to have available. It creates a huge need for tons of incredible top-quality content. That’s going to be the biggest challenge for everybody—just the sheer amount of effort it’s going to take to build these games.

How will this new hardware change gaming itself?

PariahInitially, people were saying, “Well, how is it going to be really different in the next generation of games? Are they just going to look better?” Currently, if you’re running a game on a single-processor system, you might be allocating 20 percent—or if you’re going crazy, 25 percent—of your CPU power to A.I. Now, just imagine if you have one or two processors that you can put into A.I. Or physics is another example. We’re starting to see people just touch the surface of what you can do with physics in the current generation of games. You’re allocating 10 to 25 percent of your CPU currently to physics; now imagine if you had two processors for physics. That’s just such a crazy difference. In terms of game design, just imagine what this allows you to do if you can allocate that many resources to physics, or to sound, or to particle systems. You could have a whole processor dedicated to creating particle systems!

So I think people are going to have this crazy amount of CPU power, which we’ve never been exposed to before, not even remotely. Even with PCs, if you go over a period of four years, you’re talking maybe a doubling of the actual speed. But now if you’re doubling your processors, you’re actually doubling your CPU power. If you go beyond that with more processors, I think it’s just going to be unbelievable what people will start doing with those systems.

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