An Interview With The Initiative’s Francisco Aisa García – Development Challenges, Next-Gen Consoles, VR, And More

We get some great insights into the potential future direction of the industry.

Posted By | On 21st, Aug. 2020 Under Article, Interviews


Francisco Aisa García is an industry veteran who’s seen how the sausage gets made – his career has seen him work on some of the biggest, best games ever made, including a stint at Rockstar that involved working on Red Dead Redemption 2, followed by work on The Last of Us Part 2 at Naughty Dog.

He is now working at The Initiative, on their mysterious new game. And while the topic of that game was strictly off-limits – Microsoft will reveal that on their own time – there was a lot of insight to be gained from a discussion with a veteran of games development who has not only worked at some of the most successful development houses of all time, but also directly with two of the three platform holders.

With Sony and Microsoft preparing to launch their new consoles later this year, and Nintendo solidifying their stature with the Switch, with the onset of so many exciting technologies – VR, streaming, SSDs, AI and machine learning, to name just a few – there was no shortage of things to talk about. Below is the full transcript of our delightful chat with Francisco.

Would you like to introduce yourself for our readers?

So I started my career, the first thing I did was I started computer engineering, and from there, I moved on to a Masters for game development. Then I started working on an indie project that won a contest and a sponsorship from Nintendo. From there on, I moved to Rockstar, where I worked on GTA5 and Red Dead Redemption 2, and shortly after Red Dead 2 was finished, I moved to Naughty Dog to work on The Last of Us Part 2. And currently, I have been working at The Initiative for a little over a month, I just recently moved actually.

So you’ve basically had your hand in some of the highest rated games of the generation!

Yes, I have been fortunate enough!

So which of these would you say was your most challenging moment as a developer?

Probably when I was working on Red Dead, because there were plenty of challenges we had to deal with. I had to work on so many systems, at some point we were reaching for so much, it was hard to continue hitting the quality level we wanted. But it was so worth it in the end.

Yes, definitely. It’s probably really encouraging when a game you worked on resonates with so many people.

Yes, for sure!

So since you’re a veteran of the games industry, you’ve had a lot of experience working on so many high profile games, one thing I have been wondering about is this generation of games in terms of game design. Largely it just seems to be the same as the last generation of games, just more of it. Most things this generation have just taken stuff that existed, but made it bigger, better, more polished. There doesn’t seem to be much new ground being broken. Why do you think this is? Would you say gaming as a medium is so mature we won’t see those kinds of breakthroughs anymore?

I actually think we’re probably on the verge of seeing the biggest generational change with the next generation consoles.

ps5 xbox series x

So you think the PS5 and Xbox Series X will facilitate jumps in game design?

Yeah, what’s gonna happen is that the new generation, because of what we can do with technology now, will open the door to approach game design in an entirely new way. We can realize situations in this game that before we couldn’t do because we were so restricted by the technology. I mean when you look at the consoles on paper, it can seem like they’re not a big jump, all it seems to be is slightly bigger numbers. But especially the way in which the SSD will allow us to do things that we couldn’t even dream of doing before, I think that will change the paradigm, because now we can start doing things we literally wouldn’t have even considered before.

One question I had in this regard was, at least with Microsoft Studios, there is a desire to support the Xbox One family as well for the next few years. The Xbox One of course is not as capable as Series X, it doesn’t have that SSD, it has a weaker CPU and GPU… do you see that having any negative impact on game design for the first few years of this generation, given that the baseline is now a 2013 machine?

I don’t necessarily think so, because all these technologies you have to work on, they take some time to develop. In any console generation, you always see that the biggest leaps and most impressive games come near the end of the generation. So I don’t think that this will hold anyone up, because if you think about how PC development works, PCs have always been ahead of consoles, but that disparity hasn’t had any impact on game design. I think next generation games will similarly scale well, I don’t think it will be a problem at all.

One thing then I want to ask you is that there are these new technologies you have been talking about that will change the paradigm, such as the SSD, which the Xbox One and Xbox One X obviously don’t have. Do you think that games will be able to scale down to those consoles without much loss in the intended vision?

Yeah, I don’t think it will be a problem.

ps5 ssd

Okay, so getting away from the technical side of things, one huge topic with game development for the last few years has been crunch. And crunch is something that studios such as Naughty Dog and Rockstar are both infamous for. As someone who has worked at those studios, what is your own take on crunch, and do you think it’s something that will get better moving forward?

I do think things are changing for the better. It’s well known that the industry gets into this spot where there are hard deadlines that have to be met, and it’s really difficult, especially with AAA games, to judge the amount of work that’s left to be done. So it’s more that companies end up in these tight spots where there’s more work than expected to be done against a deadline. But I do think, from what I’ve seen and in my experience, I do think the problem is something the industry is conscious about, and I do think they are taking the right steps and moving in the right direction.

So hopefully crunch is something we see improvements on in the next few years. Another thing I wanted to ask you was that you have now worked at top tier studios with Sony and Microsoft both. Is there any difference you’ve seen in their approach to game development?

That’s a very interesting question. I really like the approach Sony has, they seem to give almost complete freedom to their studios to realize the vision they have. Especially with top tier studios, because they have full faith in them. And that’s what has yielded some of the best games we’ve seen. And I think Microsoft is moving in the same direction too, which I really like to see, giving complete control to studios, and just letting them fully realize their vision. Which is why I am so excited to see what’s to come on the next generation.

I’m definitely excited to see Microsoft’s first party slate next generation, given their recent spate of acquisitions, and of course, as you said, their changed approach to game development. Speaking of which, I have to assume you won’t be able to talk about what The Initiative is working on right now!

No, I can’t!

I had to ask! So I want to return to some of the more technical aspects of the next generation now. So we have DLSS 2.0, which is basically going to use AI to help enhance image quality. Series X apparently supports the DirectML standard. Do you think this kind of machine learning will become more commonplace for upscaling image resolution and quality next generation, over traditional methods such as Checkerboarding?

Yeah, for sure. I think the application of neural networks is kind of exploding across all departments, certainly with graphics. That’s probably the easiest application of it you can think of, because you’re working with something tangible like image quality. But I’ve seen and researched applications of it for other different fields, almost everywhere in games. It’s quite an exciting time, because I think we are getting more powerful technology, which gives us new tools. But at the same time we’re finding new techniques to do things that were otherwise inherently expensive because of neural networks, making them cheaper. So I think that’s going to be very interesting, I think we’ll be surprised to see the different uses people come up with across different departments – not just for graphics, but for other things as well, such as gameplay or animation quality. There are definitely applications there, and it will be interesting to see how it develops.

And do you think that things like the SSD will be able to help with this kind of thing as well?

Yeah, for sure, and this is what I was talking about. I’m quite deep into animation, and I am very focused on the quality of animation, and trying to get things to look realistic and feel right. And one of the restrictions you come across when you’re working on these big games, especially games like Red Dead, is that you don’t have enough memory to be able to fit in all the data you need, you have animators working on a myriad of animations, but that’s all irrelevant if you don’t have the memory to fit them in. But with SSDs, it just suddenly gives you the capability to load things faster, but it goes deeper than that. Just the way you architect systems changes, if you know you can stream data really fast, then you no longer have to go through all these hoops to make sure you can stream the assets you need for animation. If you know you can stream that fast, and stream loads of assets for animation when you need it. And that all of a sudden gives you the ability to have much more fidelity in character animations.

Okay, so basically a complete from the ground up paradigm shift in how game development is approached, because of the SSD.

Yeah, more than anything, it’s the realization that now we have the power to deal with an amount of data that we couldn’t before, just because of how fast we can stream it from the SSD. Which will allow us to create these big rich worlds which are densely populated and really well animated, with performances from characters that seem very believable, because we can stream all that data without any of the problems we have run into in the past.

So given how dramatic a change we are talking about here, do you expect that for PC gaming, a few years from now, SSDs become mandatory, a baseline for being able to play games, rather than just an option like they are right now?

That’s a good question. I don’t have an answer yet, but my guess is that like everything we have seen in the industry, there will be a tipping point, but until then there will also be a degree of support for what there is out there right now. And to be honest, I think that’s the right way to take these things, you want to transition users slowly, and you want to make sure you can support users who can’t upgrade to the latest technology yet. And I do think that in PC Land, SSDs will catch up when things start to boom and technology starts to mature, but I still think there will be support for- it’s like when you are developing a game for PS4 Pro, you have to make sure that your systems scale well to the older systems.

And this is actually what I was saying earlier, I have no concerns in this regard because you can always architect your systems so they can fully support different hardware, it’s just something you have to keep in mind when you are architecting them.

unreal engine 5

A few months ago, there was a job listing for an opening at The Initiative, which listed Unreal Engine 4 as the engine you’re working on. Unreal 4 is of course ridiculously scalable across everything, but given that Unreal 5 is now a thing – was Unreal 4 just a thing put on there because 5 hadn’t been announced yet, or is 4 the engine you are working with for your game?

I can’t really speak to that! I don’t want to talk too much about what we are doing at the moment, I think that’s for someone else to speak on. So I can talk about Unreal Engine, but I can’t talk specifically about what we’re working on.

Sure, so let’s just talk about Unreal Engine as a whole for a moment. Do you think that these modern engines like Unreal and Unity are going to be able to help with that sort of scalability across different hardware tiers that you have been talking about?

Oh yeah, that’s a great question and a great example. This is what I am saying, engines like Unreal and Unity are already taking the new technology into account, they architect their systems to leverage that technology. But, they scale. They have no problems scaling down, because like I said, you can’t just make a wholesale transition to new technologies, you’re leaving the majority of users and machines out there in the cold. So their systems are architected in such a way that they let you target different tiers of technology. And in that respect, these engines are definitely enabling developers to hit different levels of technology. And not just Unreal or Unity, if you can think of any engine that’s out there, you can be confident that this is the way it’s being built, whatever engine big studios are working on, they are approaching it this way.

One thing I did want to ask you about was what are the kinds of technical innovations that are only possible on next gen? You’ve spoken about SSDs already, of course, and how they have such a far reaching impact on game design, but are there other things? For example, graphically, are there innovations we can see only on next gen and not on current gen?

I think for sure we’re going to see innovations all around. What gets me excited is the things that are built into the hardware to process things faster. All these things you can think of, like raytracing and the benefits we will see, we’ve seen raytracing already, but never seen the full potential, because we’ve never or people dedicated exclusively to building worlds around this technology. And in the new generation, it’s going to be ubiquitous everywhere. The teams are going to work on technology to support raytracing, and how to use it, and I’m quite sure we’re going to come out wit some things we aren’t expecting. Raytracing can also have impact on how you play games, you can see reflections everywhere for example, which can affect how AI reacts because they can respond to those reflections. That’s something you can now incorporate into your design that you wouldn’t have even thought of before.

Like in a horror game.

Yeah, exactly.

So it’s interesting you bring up raytracing, because during the PS5 event last month – and I’m sure we’ll see this in the Xbox event as well – we saw so many games support raytracing. And it’s interesting because not even high end cards can often deliver locked 4K 60fps graphics with raytracing enabled. Do you think the return to having custom hardware in both consoles this generation will help the consoles have a leg up over PCs in terms of being able to implement these demanding features?

Ultimately, you have to think that this is how things usually go every generation. Consoles start on par with PCs, and then PCs end up overtaking them, because the technology keeps developing. The leg up for consoles, I think, is in the fact that the teams developing for consoles know exactly what hardware and architecture is working with, and so they can squeeze every last bit from it, because they know all players will be playing on that hardware. But in this generation, more than last gen, I wouldn’t necessarily say that they will be ahead of PCs in terms of raw power, but I do think they are pushing things one step forward in ways that we couldn’t do before.

It’s almost reminiscent of the PS3 with the Cell processor… there were so many things you could do with that, but the drawback was that it was very, very specific technology that was hard to adapt to, because it was so different from the architecture used on PCs. But this generation, the architecture is a step forward over previous generations, sure, but it’s not alien from a normal PC. So I think it’s a good thing, because you get the pros without the cons. It will push forward new techniques and new ways of implementing design decisions, but it won’t make the developers’ lives a nightmare to develop for them. So what you develop for these systems will also scale easily to PC.

cyberpunk-2077-rtx-ray-tracing 2

So on the whole, would you say that Sony, Microsoft, even Nintendo basically moving to more standardized hardware has been for the better versus them sticking with their own custom bespoke hardware?

Absolutely! I think in particular Microsoft has always done a good job in their consoles in this regard. In regards to Sony, I think they have seen how that pays dividends, especially since the PS4 generation, they’ve seen how teams are able to develop faster and work more efficiently. So I do think it’s almost like the proof is in the pudding. At this point, everyone has seen the benefits of standardized hardware. So I would be surprised if they ever move away from the current trend.

One thing I want to talk about is resolution. PS5 and Xbox Series X both offer support for resolutions of up to 8K. Now when PS4 and Xbox One were announced, they announced theoretical support for 4K, but ultimately we needed PS4 Pro and Xbox One X to actually deliver on that. Do you think that the current, base XSX and PS5 are powerful enough to be able to deliver at least some AAA games at 8K down the line?

It’s difficult to say, to be honest, because like you were talking about the PS4 being able to push 4K, it can, it’s more about where you want to put your boundaries. If you push really hard on a lot of systems, for example, pushing up to 4K will be difficult, at least if you want to do it natively. So it’s always a question of trade offs – how far do you want to go, and how much benefit do you actually get from going 8K?

My specialty lies on gameplay and AI, not graphics, so I couldn’t tell you for a fact, but I do know these consoles are capable. I think from my point of view, it’s more about where you want to draw the line. Would you rather push for 8K but scale down other systems? Or would you rather push those systems, but scale the graphics down to 4K? It’s a lot like framerate, you know. I personally feel like most games should strive for 60fps, but it’s a tradeoff, would you rather push for 60fps and then scale down on other things? Or the other way around?

So basically it will come down more to whether or not developers want to push for that in the end.

Yeah.

So apart from this huge leap in graphics, the next generation is also promising a big jump in audio fidelity. The PS5 has that Tempest audio engine, and 3D audio, for example. Do you think that audio design will play a bigger role in the next generation of game design?

I would love to see that, actually. I am very excited for that in particular. In that respect, I’m a fan, and I am waiting to see what audio departments in different studios will do with it. But I’m excited because I think audio in particular has been stagnant, especially because representing audio accurately can be really expensive. Especially physicalized representation for it. But I am excited, because these technologies will definitely benefit projects like Hellblade, which have proven the impact of audio when it is done right. So if I had to make a bet, I would say we are going to see some things that will be very interesting from an audio perspective.

As far as comparing the PS5 and Xbox Series X, they seem to be almost evenly matched. Discussions have centered on two points of discussion. One is of course the GPU: the Xbox Series X has the better GPU relative to the PS5 one. Do you think that functionally makes a difference?

There is more raw power, that’s for sure, and you can push more when you have more power. But at the same time, ultimately, like you said, they are pretty evenly matched.

I think the way you have to look at this is that there is a generation jump that is moving in the same direction for both consoles, I would even say this will apply to Nintendo. And it will come down not so much to the raw power they are going to have, but what the teams are going to do with that power. And I think they’re evenly matched because from an architecture point of view, both will allow the same kinds of fundamental changes to the way we do things in games.

So I don’t think the big difference will be in how much more powerful it is, but rather in what we do with this new powerline.

Okay, so would you also say that the difference in the SSDs – the PS5 has the faster one – will also not come down to much because of the same reasons?

Yeah, I do.

psvr

Now I did want to talk about something Xbox specific, which is the Velocity architecture. In your experience, is this something that has helped make development easier in any way so far?

I don’t actually have the full specification, I haven’t dealt with the technology so deep right now, so I can’t really tell you. And if I could, I probably wouldn’t be allowed to [laughs]

One thing I want to ask you, as a game designer, is about VR specifically. A lot of the changes in game design we’ve seen over the last few years have come from VR. Do you think that the next generation will see VR be more prevalent and mainstream? Do you think that is something Xbox will get in on?

I have no idea to be honest, but I do like the VR paradigm. I had a VR set just a few years ago, and I did think it was very interesting. Before I tried it, I didn’t think it would be too much of a difference, but once you try it, it’s really impressive. But there are still some difficulties for it. I think the majority of games that are developed for VR have not reached the same bar that mainstream AAA games have. I would love to see that, but I am finding some difficulties seeing how we cross some boundaries, especially movement. Some people seem to be just fine with moving in VR, even though they are not physically moving, they don’t get sick. But a lot of people do. So for me the biggest question is, how do we solve those problems?

I have no doubt that VR is here to stay, it’s not going anywhere. But I would like to see those problems being tackled, because I think once we begin to see those problems getting solved, we’re going to see a lot more traction.

So in terms of the next generation of VR sets, that’s what you want out of them most?

For me, there are a lot of improvements that can be done, resolution, refresh rate, field of view, more realistic controls – especially that, that helps a lot with immersion. But even if you are improving things in that area, you’re still fundamentally restricted in the type of game you can make. Because you don’t have the freedom to build a world you can move around in as easily. It’s a constraint in a way, because you have to account for that. So for me the biggest change would be to find a solution for that movement problem, because not only will it change the type of VR game that is made massively, but more and more people will start considering it more seriously and develop full priced games.

I wanted to go back to something we talked about before, which was the existence of the PS4 Pro and Xbox Series X. Do you think we will see something similar to that this time around?

I actually don’t have any information, so I can purely speculate like anyone else might. My gut tells me that that would make sense. I’m not sure – maybe you can answer that – I’m not sure what the thought process that people have on these consoles, but I think it has been well accepted. In my opinion it works well because it’s not a fundamental architecture change, your original PS4 runs all the new games just fine. The key thing is that whatever game you develop has to run the same games with the same performance and restrictions on the base console as the PS4 Pro. So for me, I don’t know, I have no idea what’s to come, but I like it because it allows for a more fluid transition to the next generation.

This brings me to something else: Microsoft is building a continuous ecosystem, going all the way back to the original Xbox, with the idea being that they want to make it as easy as possible for players to transition between different machines. What are your thoughts on Microsoft’s commitment to backward compatibility, compared especially to Sony? As a developer, as a player.

I think this goes back to what I was saying before, the architectures we are working with now are more standard, so it’s also a lot easier to be backward compatible. And in that regard, I’m not just speaking of backward compatibility, I think the overall mission Microsoft has is phenomenal. I love the way they are trying to account for everyone, they are trying to be present through PC, through console, through Game Pass which is absolutely amazing. I have been using it a few months, and I think it’s a great idea, and I am excited to see what’s to come there. And I do think Microsoft is really heading in the direction that fans would want them to see companies head in – give us support, allow us to play in the medium we want to play, and support them all. That’s my personal opinion.

I did want to ask you, before I proceed with more technical questions, as a developer, what have been your favorite games of the generation? Purely as a developer, where you admired the craftsmanship that went into them?

I was very, very surprised with God of War. I remember seeing one of the trailers, and I was a bit skeptical. And when I played it, I was blown away, from the world to the story to the combat, it was my favorite game of that year. And obviously Red Dead, but I feel like that’s unfair of me to say, because I worked on it. And recently, I have been playing a lot of Call of Duty, and it always surprises me how decent it looks for a game that consistently hits 60fps. I think there’s something to say about that. And obviously, The Last of Us 2, but that again is unfair of me to say, and Spider-Man was fun. I am also really looking forward to Ghost of Tsushima, that looks interesting.

One thing I wanted to talk about was the existence of physical media. Sony at least is offering a digital only PS5, and Microsoft has been offering a digital only Xbox One. Do you think this is indicative that somewhere down the line this generation, physical media will begin to be phased out?

That is a very good question. I don’t know. My gut tells me it makes sense, because the way we have been heading generally is to have less and less physical. Look at music, we used to have cassettes, and then CDs, and then one day I didn’t even have a CD drive on my PC anymore. It’s just weird to have a drive these days. And the same with movies – DVDs and Blu Rays are out there, but it feels like more of a niche group. So again, I can’t say for sure, but my gut tells me that it would make sense that at some point physical slowly gets phased out. I suppose it will depend on what the data shows. If more people are buying digital, I imagine that we will end up transitioning to digital.

xcloud

Similarly, there’s a promise of cloud gaming, and we actually seem to be seeing it catch some mainstream traction, especially with the interest that xCloud or GeForce Now are generating. Do you think that cloud gaming will eventually crowd out consoles from the market somewhere down the line? Not this year or next, maybe 10, 20 years?

That’s a very good question too. If you’re talking 10-15 years, I could see that happening. Having a look at how things are going, they look promising, and I think it is an ideal situation, because you can harness all the power you need as and when you need it, you don’t need to cycle through consoles or anything. So you know, from a usability point of view, it would be ideal for everyone. But there are some constraints and hoops we have to jump through that I don’t see streaming being able to any time soon. The main thing is latency, right? Not everyone has a perfect connection, which makes latency even worse. I can see streaming taking off for some people who can access good connections for some kinds of games. But for the average player, getting the feel right of a game that requires good timing, is very difficult with streaming, and the difference is super noticeable. So in my mind the better move is what Microsoft is doing with Game Pass, because you can play the game you want on the machine you want. The machine you want is up to you, but you can guarantee the game will run well. Whereas for cloud gaming, you could have a choppy experience, and the experience could vary. And the games might not be played exactly the way they were meant to be played. So in the near future, I see it being very difficult. In the far future, it depends on how this technology develops, I suppose. If 15 years from now, we all have fiber optics, and latency is down to 3-5 ms, sure, I can see streaming take over, I don’t see what advantage a local machine would even have in that case. But I find it very difficult to believe we will get there that soon.

Another question I wanted to ask pertains to Nintendo and their direction with the Switch. Do you think mobile technology is developing fast enough and in the right direction for Nintendo to be able to keep up with the advances Series X and PS5 bring to the table with a potential Switch 2?

I would say so. I don’t see why not. I think at the end of the day, even if you think about things such as SSDs, those are even better for a machine that you are moving around, so I don’t see why they couldn’t jam this technology on it. I guess it will come down for them to judge how worth it it is for them to include that technology, so they can offer those experiences, or if it is even worth it for them to offer those experiences. Because Nintendo has consistently done very well with the tech they have developed, and that technology doesn’t need to be cutting edge, especially because it works so well for the type of game they develop. So I guess it will come down to what they want to enable for their developers. In my opinion, and this is again just an opinion, they probably will include this tech, because if you look at the Switch, they have had a lot of third party games, not just only first party games. So if you want to be in the same ballpark as the other systems, I think it makes sense to not necessarily go full fledged, but just be in the same region of tech.

So make a machine capable enough of receiving at least some of the big games from third parties.

Yes, exactly.

We discussed the potential death of physical media eventually. But before that happens, do you think we might see physical media change its form? Move away from discs to cartridges, or USB sticks, or some form of that type of storage, given how much faster it is, or how they have fewer moving parts?

That is a very good question. I guess it depends. I think you make a good point, but I think at the end of the day, the benefits notwithstanding, this will come down to how much more expensive a move to cartridges would be. After all the SSDs are what we will be working with, so surely they will be expandable. So if the medium stays discs, and discs are cheaper, you can always run the game from the on-board memory, and use the disc to supplement that. So at the end of the day even if you are using a medium that’s supposed to be slower, it doesn’t really matter because a machine already has – we will be using the faster piece of the machine, if that makes sense. So even if we were using cartridges, cartridges might be faster than discs. What would that mean? It means we don’t have to rely on the SSD as much. So it comes down to weighing the benefits and costs, if cartridges can be made at similar prices to discs, and are faster, I think a switch like that makes sense. Otherwise, not really.

nintendo switch

So let’s talk about that on board memory, because it’s been a talking point for the last few years. Games have gotten massive – Red Dead and The Last of Us 2 are over 100GB each, Call of Duty is over 200GB now. Do you think these are the kinds of sizes we will see become commonplace next generation?

Yes, that’s another good question, and I agree it’s really annoying how every time I want to play Call of Duty for 15 minutes, there’s a patch I need to download and install first. But it makes sense that games are getting bigger, because the types of things we can do need more data, which is better geometry, character models, animations… so the direction in which we are going, because we can harness this kind of data, we can make these well realized worlds, but harnessing that data means creating so many more assets, which add to file size. So I don’t think games are going to get smaller, if anything I think they will get bigger. But on the other hand, there’s some encouraging improvements, like the tech that Unreal showed where they scale the geometry of the world. Plus you can think of games where neural networks generate assets and parts of the world procedurally and on the fly, so that means we need less data. But even with those improvements, I think games will continue to get bigger and bigger. Of course, that doesn’t have to mean that everything has to be stored on the hard drive either, perhaps you are playing a game over a hybrid streaming solution, where the machine is running the game locally, but some assets and data are being streamed through the cloud. Maybe that could be a way to deal with that. But all I know is that the data the games are using is getting bigger, so I think games will continue to get bigger as well.

I think there was a solution Microsoft came up with a few years ago when One X came out, which was sort of intelligently detect what machine you are on, and only install the assets and parts of the game that you need, so it doesn’t need to install and dump all data on your machine, just some of it. Could something like that become more commonplace? Because we are looking at next gen machines coming with 1TB of on board storage, and expanding that will be expensive, because SSDs are expensive. If game file sizes get to 200-300GB on average, you won’t be able to have too many installed at a time.

Yeah, you have to think that developers are very conscious of this, and that Sony and Microsoft have this in mind, and that this concern will weigh on them as they work with studios. And I am sure the studios will be mindful of this as well, no one wants to put out a 500GB game if they don’t have to. The other thing is that even dynamically loading what you need is one way to do it, but there are also newer compression techniques. So I think games will try to leverage those to try and keep file sizes in check. Plus I talked about streaming, and that’s a good solution, though it will depend on the direction that games are moving in in general.

But like I said, studios will be conscious of file sizes. But when studios reach a point when they want to push a lot more, that’s when they need to think about solutions to this problem, whether it’s the piecemeal delivery approach you mentioned, or the hybrid streaming solution I’ve been talking about. Of course, those might not be an option for everyone if they don’t have the best connection, but it seems to be a smart approach, because it will give you the ability to have lots of data to have a bigger, better realized world, but without the costs of storage space.

One of the biggest leaps in the next generation is the CPUs. The PS4 and Xbox One had pretty mid tier CPUs even for the time, while the new consoles are going all in on cutting edge CPUs. What kinds of things might these CPUs enable for games, in terms of NPCs, AI, that kind of thing?

That’s another interesting question. I think the biggest change, as funny as it might sound, is in how the development team has been transitioning. In the past, teams used to be very concerned about how to optimize things like the cache on the CPU and such, but with these new consoles, the powerline has changed, and we now work with different cores. Back in the day we didn’t use to squeeze all the juice we could from every core, because games weren’t very multi-threading friendly. Whereas these days, you have to, the powerline has shifted. We now squeeze every last thing we could from every core. And I think the fact that we now have a lot more power to harness is good news, because teams are now used to working this way, and engines have also adapted to this kind of architecture.

So they’re going to scale very well with this new generation of CPUs. And the kinds of things you can do, such as the crazy NPC AI in Red Dead, we had to rely on strategies like time-slicing, and now we won’t have to. That’s not to say we won’t, because it’s a good strategy, but it gives us the ability to have much more intelligent AI, and just have a lot more of it. So the worlds will seem a lot more realized, without compromising on how things in your immediate vicinity are. So this is exciting, because there’s a lot of work that can be distributed. Personally I am excited because I’m keeping up with what’s going on with AI on the gameplay side, and I am very excited to see game worlds that come closer to what you see in a Rockstar game, NPCs that react to what’s going on, NPCs that care about what’s happening around them. So I’m very excited.

So given this improvement in CPUs, and how you have been talking about deeper, richer, more reactive worlds, do you see open worlds becoming even more entrenched this generation? We have already seen that happen this generation, the highest received games of this gen are all open world games. Do you think this shift towards more open, more emergent design will continue next gen?

I think so. And that’s something I’d love, because the parts that I enjoy most in games are the parts where you can just immerse yourself in a game, and explore it, and I think to some extent every studio is realizing that. Like you said, you can see it in this generation’s games too, look at even Uncharted or The Last of Us, that have become less linear and more open in parts. They always want to tell a story and they always want you to follow that story, but the way in which they tell that story has become a little more open. And I think that’s been very well received. And that goes for every game, like you said. Like Zelda, the fact that you can now explore the world at your own pace and be curious about it is something that has been very well received for everyone.

the initiative

Do you think the shift towards photorealistic graphics will continue? Do you think the next gen can deliver on that promise?

Yes, absolutely. If you look at The Last of Us Part 2, you just look at their facial expressions, they are so good, some of them blow my mind. And remember, I saw them every day, they still blow my mind. That sort of quality is going to get even higher. A lot of it is part of the amount of data we are going to be able to deal with. So I do think we will see a trend not just of bigger worlds, but more believable ones with more believable characters as well.

What do you think the next big evolution for game design will be after VR and SSDs? What comes next?

I am pretty excited about finding ways in which we can capture performances and automate them in such a way that you can have actors perform their scenes without needing much oversight from developers. Because that would open the world to having more realized worlds like The Witcher, but keep the workflow similar to like a normal film, because now the team no longer has to work on the data and process it and make sure it works. Automating that process significantly cuts back on that. That’s what I would like to see moving forward, because we know the worlds will be bigger and more realized. So I would like to improve the way to get that data in, so we can continue to tell stories in  ways that are very believable. So that even if you play a game the size of Witcher, you can have performances like The Last of Us Part 2 in it.

My final question for you is, as a player, as a developer, where do you think games will be by the end of next generation?

I think there will be a massive boom in the way we handle animation, I think the characters are going to feel very real in the way they move. I think storytelling will mature because these characters will be so much more believable. And like you said, also a big boom in these big, immersive worlds that are realistic and full of people and things happening in them in a believable way. And the way that design inevitably will move is that things will feel more like a sandbox, so you can play around to find ways to do things. So more systemic games.

That was all the questions we had! Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us!

Thank you for this interview, it was exciting to me, because I just want to be able to talk to the community, so I appreciate it.

Definitely!


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