Yep, this is the original source for the one floating around the web.
PC-GAMER Vol. 4 No. 9 September 1997
Westwood's Blade Runner
By Jason Bates
A night flight into Las Vegas, where West-wood Studios is head-quartered, bears an uncanny resemblance to the opening sequence of Blade Runner -- a futuristic cityscape of skyscrapers and pyramids rising out of the darkness, awash in lights. One can imagine stepping out of the plane and into Deckard's world of neon and rain, shadows and Replicants.
For most of us, Blade Runner is something like that, a series images of from a visually sumptuous movie: we recall the black towers belching fire into the night, the rain-lashed, over-populated streets filled with wandering "cyberpunks" (long before the term had become a mainstream buzzword), a sky filled with fast-moving, lens-flaring "spinners," and the geisha girls selling their wares from video billboards the size of football fields.
But at Westwood Studios, based just off the fabled Las Vegas strip, the world of Rick Deckard and the Replicants he hunts is very much alive, reborn an the monitors and in the imaginations of a team hard at work on Blade Runner, the computer game. And it's a world unlike perhaps any other in computer gaming, both in its game design and its graphics technology.
"When we told Intel that we were doing a 640x480, 65,000 color game that emulates true color, with a 16-bit Z-buffer and six channel CD-quality audio, they said you can't -- the PCI bus can't support it," says Louis Castle, executive vice president of Westwood Studios, and the driving force behind the Blade Runner project "So we felt good about ourselves, because we hadn't even mentioned the 750,000 polygons for the characters yet."
The game design Castle describes for Blade Runner -- a design now almost realized, as the team enters the home stretch of the project -- is as ambitious as the technology. Confronted with what is essentially a slow-paced, stylistic film, the team had to come up with a way to not only be true to the subject matter, but create an original, compelling game.
What they came up with is unique: "virtual actors" that move freely about the game world, not scripted but acting with artificial intelligence to fulfill their own agendas, and random story elements, so that every time you play the game, things change. Even saved games aren't safe, because events will begin to change shortly after you saved the game.
The design is as risky as it is ambitious. Several years, thousands of hours, and several million dollars have been invested in this project -- and much of it on unknown technology and processes. How gamers respond remains to be seen.
Ridley Scott's Blade Runner was inspired by Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and though the film took much from Dick's book, it had a story of its own. Ridley Scott had to re-interpret Dick's novel and adapt it for film, and now Castle and Westwood's Blade Runner team have had to do the same thing to the film. They have created an original story for the game that's based on the film but modified for an interactive medium.
They could have taken the easy way out, making yet another 30 shoot-'em-up based on a movie license, a game where you hunt down Repli-cants instead of Terminators or Stormtroopers; or they could have settled for a point-and-click graphic adventure that puts you in Harrison Ford's shoes, retelling the movie scene by scene. But they wanted to do something more.
"We didn't want to re-tell the film," says Castle. "I quickly tire of point-and-click, tree-struc-tured re-tellings of movies. It's like painfully reading a book, where I can only read three or four pages, and then I have to do a crossword puzzle before I'm allowed to read more."
Instead, the game takes place at the same time and in many of the same locations of the film so the two plots run concurrently. But you're not Harrison Ford's Deckard -- you're Ray McCoy, a rookie Blade Runner in Deckard's shadow, out to prove yourself. This decision was made so gamers could re-live some of the sights and scenes from the film, but without the problem of knowing what is going to happen next.
When you start the story, Deckard has just been sent off on assignment, and you'll occasionally hear about him, but your paths will never cross. You'll also visit many familiar locations -- the Bradbury Theater, the Tyrell Corporation Pyramid, and the L.A.P.D.'s cylindrical skyscraper. But the film is treated as gospel, and you're not allowed to do anything that would change the original ending. And though Deckard never appears in the game, some of the supporting characters -- Rachael, Leon, Gaff, Dr. Tyrell -- do. And there's plenty of new characters who step inta their own major roles in your story.
"This is not a game about the movie, it is a game about the movie's environment," says Castle. "It's about the tension and emotion of the movie. To us, that's what Blade Runner was really all about"
Adventures in Space
When you sit down to play the game for the first time (as we did when we were given an exclusive trip through the latest version in development) it feels very much like an adventure game. Click on the ground, and McCoy walks forward; click on a person, and he interacts with them. The story begins with an animal killing downtown. You investigate, and soon find out Replicants are behind the murders: like Deckard, you've stumbled onto a group of Nexus 6 models desperate to figure out how to prolong their genetically-encoded four-year life spans and then escape from Earth. So you begin to gather evidence, compiling a list of suspects -- but there's no way of knowing which ones are Replicants, even if you had a strategy guide on your lap, because that's randomly determined every time you play the game. This is where things start to get interesting.
"We have 15 suspects," says Castle. "Which of them are Replicants? Only two for sure -- the rest of them are random. Because some characters can be human and some can be Replicants, their behaviors will be different in each instance.
"The suspects may or may not be guilty, and they may or may not be human. If you retire a human, you lose -- but not right away. If you retire a human, you suffer the consequences," says Castle. "That means once it's discovered, the cops will be after you. If the cops are after you, and there is enough evidence, you will be shot or incarcerated, and the game is over. If they suspect you, but you're able to weasel your way out of it, that's part of the game as well."
The plot is similar enough to Blade Runner to be familiar, but different enough to be interesting. It's also random enough so that it's fresh every time you play. "The game is really a simulator," says Castle. "It's not a tree-based game -- there is no tree that could describe Blade Runner. We've tried; you cannot do it"
This variability is caused by the characters in the story -- the Replicants, the police, the other Blade Runners. They are not scripted, they are given certain goals to accomplish. Every character is an independent actor, with artificial intelligence that directs its actions. Its actions can vary from game to garne, depending on whether or not that character is a human or android. Blade Runner may have more in common with a simulator like SimCity than a linear adventure like Myst.
"Those agents are real, goal-oriented artificial intelligences," says Castle. "We don't know what they're going to do, exactly. We've given them behavior, we haven't given them instructions. There's a big difference between behavior-based AI and scripted instructions." The actors move about the world, just as the player does, picking up clues or accomplishing goals, moving towards the dramatic confrontations. The irony of game AI playing a major role in a game based on a movie about AI creatures is rich, but it's completely appropriate.
And your detective skills will be taxed. "Every time I pick up a clue, I've changed the game intrinsically," says Castle. "Because when I picked it up, where I picked it up, who I got it from, who I give it to, what I do, who witnessed what I do -- it all affects what happens." And every time any other character picks up a clue or talks to a third party, the game changes again. Other, more subtle random factors -- such as spinners zipping overhead or bystanders wandering down the street, add to the ambiance of a bustling city in the future.
"The simulator gives us a dynamic detective story, so that every time you play the game, it's a bit different," says Castle. "But certainly playing the game you learn more about the world, more about the people and events in the world, so you get better at it."
Let's also keep in mind that this is no passive detective story -- the Nexus 6 is a deadly killing machine, and at any moment, you may have to switch into combat made (by pressing the space bar) and fight. The mouse cursor becomes a target, but you can move by clicking on the ground.
But can you reconcile these kind of random game-play elements with a compelling, linear story line? "Our Blade Runner is a five-act story," says Castle. "We take classic story structure and look for emotional charge, and a lot of thought went into how to control the emotional feeling of the characters when we give them free reign." The moral dilemma in shooting what may or may not be human adds to the emotional charge. "So we control very closely people's emotions, without controlling the plot," Castle says.
The plot itself is very intricate, weaving together the stories of 20 different characters. The plot has similarities every time you start a new game -- there is an animal murder, McCoy investigates, he discovers androids loose in LA. There's a love interest, an antagonist, and a final confrontation. But which character plays which role is not as predictable, and where you get your information as a detective is key because that information is in a constant state of flux.
"For a game to be non-linear, the information has to be dynamic. For the information to be dynamic, you have to keep track of where it came from, as well as where it is," Castle says. "And for it to be really human, you have to keep track of whispers and rumors. That's something we've accomplished with Blade Runner. As a cop collects a clue in the game, they may pass it on to another person, who may pass it on to another person, and finally it will end up with you, the player. It's important for us to track the lineage of the clue, because as it gets told, it may change, and it may not be exactly the same as it originally was.
"That's the high concept -- to make a game that was so highly controlled and structured that it feels like a good story, but at the same time giving people real, meaningful choices that change, depending on what they do."
This is interactive storytelling a few steps beyond most adventure games, games where 'interactive' is taken to mean you click on a key to open the drawer that contains a sliding tile puzzle... The real, meaningful choices that Castle is talking about come into play when you, the player, do your job -- shooting Replicants. Is it wrong to kill robots? Do androids dream of electric sheep?
A good Blade Runner will 'retire' his quarry, realizing that the Replicants' superior mental and physical skills and ability to pass amongst unseen make them a serious threat to the human race. Someone with a little more qualms -- or a character who falls in lave with one of the suspects -- may have some problems. And what if your own character is a Replicant? The government may be using androids (who think they're human) to hunt those other androids passing as human. Betrayal, deception, and ambiguity are the order of the day.
"Blade Runner is a dark movie, and we always want people to feel compromised to some extent," says Castle, "not because we're evil and malicious, but because that's what the story is about. The story is about an anti-hero. Nobody is right -- everyone has shades of right and wrong. We don't want to make a moral choice for you."
So there is no one ending. You can convince yourself you're completely human and destroy all the androids, winning the game. Or you might be persuaded that you're an android, and help the others to escape -- another way to win. Or you might be so confused that you flee the scene with one of the love interests, and that's a way to win too.
More Human Than Human
Castle is walking from room to room, trying to cram years' worth of development work into a whirlwind tour for PC Gamer. We pass up and down air-con-ditioned corridors where dozens of artists are animating, rendering, and hand-painting all the nuances into a true 3D world. "The Blade Runner Partnership [the people who own the rights to the film] was looking for several years before they found the right combination of publisher and developer. It's been said to me that our unique take on the story, plus our demonstrated expertise on the visual quality is what really got us the deal. That's why I think we got the license," Castle says.
So now it's time to see some of that technology and visual quality that has made Blade Runner such a hush-hush project for so long. It would be impossible to do such an stunning game -- with its free-flowing story simulation, incredible AI, deep plot line, and stunning visuals -- without the amazing technology Westwood has developed.
Blade Runner's visuals are impressive. All the characters are animations based on motion-captured actors, moving in a 3D environment Colored lighting and fog effects interact with the characters dynamically, so characters can stand half-hidden in shadows, and then suddenly emerge into the bright light. Up to 50 different light sources can be placed in one set; rain, colored lights, lens flares, and moving shadows all add to the dark, moody feel of the game.
Each of the 140 sets in Blade Runner is made from several million polygons, built in three dimensions, not 2D backdrops. "We're calling it a real-time 3D adventure game," says Castle. "The word 30 kind of confuses people, but when we say 3D, we mean everything in the game was created in CGI. The game's a simulator, the environments are real, the camera moves. We don't want to call it an action adventure game, because people will think Tomb Raider, and it's not a Tomb Raider type of game at all."
The environment takes up about 60-65 percent of the CPU bandwidth because it is so rich, but also because the camera can move. "We had to have a mobile camera for cinematic reasons," says Castle. "It sets the stage, punctuates the drama, and follows the action. If you run around a building, the camera has to follow you. The game must be live while that occurs." But the camera doesn't follow the character constantly, as in Tomb Raider. It's used for cinematic touches, such as having the camera suddenly zooming behind as you turn a cor- ner in pursuit of a suspect Characters are also incredibly detailed, rep- resenting hundreds of thousands of polygons. They begin as motion-capture data, then are turned over to the artists for rendering and animation. The motion-capture gives every character a unique, lifelike feel, and up to eight different characters can appear an a set at the same time, helping to bring the city to life. "One of the problems with Blade Runner is that it's a city full of people, so I can't take the approach of Tomb Raider, with only one person in a room." says Castle. "I have to accept the fact that I have lots of people, and how am I going to render that if every character in the room is taking half the bandwidth of a Pentium? I can't do it."
But even with all of this activity, the game runs at a minimum 15 frames per second. This is a very important point, because the gameplay is a mix of action and adventure -- at any moment a Replicant might appear, and a player will have to draw his or her gun in a hurry. "You can't have terror if your game is going one frame per second when the moment of action occurs," says Castle. "It has to be instantaneous, and you have to be incredibly responsive in order to survive."
So how is this being done? In part, West-wood is using DirectX, including DirectPrimitive. Without DirectX, it would be unlikely the programmers would have been able to do the game the way they did. But they are not using the slower Direct3D, and the vast majority of the technology used in the game is proprietary rendering technology developed in-house. That technology begins with voxels -- pixels with height, width, and depth.
"We had to invent a new technology for the characters," says Castle. "We went back to voxel technology and used it as a launching pad. What we are using is not voxels, but sort of 'voxels plus.' We use voxels to do the three-dimensional rotations, transformations, and projections that create the character, but we actually use a very fast polygon rendering engine to render the polygons to the screen. By not having to have a voxel model that is so dense that every pixel is a voxel, we were able to achieve much higher frame rates with much more polygons on the screen and have lots of characters."
This is the first major production to use voxel-based technology for characters, but expect to be seeing more of this kind of thing in the future. Westwood has been working with its own technology for a while, but other companies are starting to get into the act, licensing Caviar's voxel technology. "But we've been doing it for eighteen months, and, as far as I know, the Caviar stuff has only been around for six months or so," says Castle.
The 'voxel-plus' characters that you see on screen are quite impressive. In screen shots, the characters may look slightly pixelated, like bitmaps, particularly up close, but when you see them moving around the screen, their true fluidity becomes apparent. The motion-capture is smoothly integrated into the game, and the result is highly realistic characters with a wide variety of movements.
"It should be noted that the characters could be so rich that you couldn't tell them apart from rendered characters," says Castle, "but that would require pretty high memory maps, like 64MB or more, because the geometry takes up so much memory. That's why if you see any sort of pixeliza-tion, it's simply a function of memory, not a function of rendering speed." But as memory becomes ever more plentiful in the years to come, characters in future projects can be even more detailed, and Westwood already has plans to use this technology in a potential sequel to Lands of Lore II.
With all of these polygons and voxels, the question of support for 30 accelerators comes up, but, surprisingly, they are of no use. "The reason we don't use 3D accelerator cards is because of the voxel technology," Castle says. "Once we go to submit the polygons, we are submitting too many polygons for the card to render them all. It just chokes the pipelines on the card. So instead we have a very fast rectangular rendering routine that just renders a rectangle whenever it goes to draw a polygon."
All this rendering has created over 160 giga-bytes of game art, which might mean some long lunch breaks for the artists if they had to rely on standard machines for rendering. But Westwood has made a significant investment in technology. Forty miles of network wire run through tubes along the building's ceilings. Ninety "farm machines" -- 200MHz Dual P6 boxes with 128M B of RAM apiece -- are stacked up in a locked roam, rendering game art 24 hours a day. Several terabytes (equal to 1,000 gigabytes) of storage space are accessible from every desktop, across 100Mbps Ethernet wire. There's enough technology here to make even the Tyrell Corporation envious.
Timing is Everything
Rarely do so many things come together at the same time in one title -- a leap in technology, an innovative game design, and a recognizable and popular license. Even Castle seems amazed by it all. "I've never heard of anything like this," he says. "My comrades in this industry, adventure gamers and designers alike, have never conceived of all of these Holy Grails coming together in one product"
So why now? "Part of it has to do with the platform, and the fact that the hardware is getting better," he says. "But part of it has to do with Blade Runner itself." Because of the ambiguous nature of identity in the world of Blade Runner, characters who are trying to pass for human act, for obvious reasons, like characters who are human. So whether or not a particular character is human, he, she -- or it -- is still going to act in a fairly predictable manner, which simplifies some of the thornier game design issues.
Regardless, it's clear that Blade Runner, with its story simulator and voxel-based characters, means to show us things we wouldn't believe.
A Blade Runner's Gear
Everyone remembers the scene in Blade Runner where Harrison Ford feeds a photograph into the Esper machine and zoomed in and around it to look for clues. You'll also find 12 or so photographs in the game that you can use in your own Esper, flawlessly recreated from the movie.
Pronounced "Kai-Ya," the Knowledge Information Agent functions as your clue base. Every conversation and piece of evidence you acquire is stored here, along with profiles of your major suspects. Running on a mini-database program, it can dynamically sort evidence by where you acquired it, who it's about, and will even return probabilities for you on the likelihood of a suspect's being an android -- but it's predictions are only as good as the quality of the evidence you acquire.
The flying cars that figure so prominently in Blade Runner appear in the game. though you don't actually control them. You use them to move from place to place, but you don't fly them.
The classic test that is administered to suspect androids, it measures physiological and empathic factors. You'll get to perform it as well, though watch out for folks with guns under the table.
Westwood's resident musical genius, has a sound-proof office all his own. An accomplished musician, he is as adept in live performances with his band as he is in the realm of computer-recorded music. He created the driving music in all of the C&C games, and his techno-metal soundtracks from C&C and Red Alert are hot-sellers in Europe and on Westwood's web site.
His task now is to recreate, note for note, the original soundtrack to Blade Runner. Westwood could not secure the rights to Vangelis' groundbreaking musical scare, but Klepacki's version is unerringly accurate, and sounds even crisper through the new digital medium. He's also flexing his creative muscles, creating original tracks for the game in the style of the original.