Yesterday we brought you part one of our week-long interview with Nick Burton, a senior software engineer at Rare, where he talked about working on Star Fox Adventures right up to Kameo: Elements of Power and Jetpac Refuelled. In part two he talks at length about the power of the Xbox 360, the future of Rare and why he thinks Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts is a hardcore gamer's game.
VideoGamer.com: The games you're doing now for the 360 that are coming out soon, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts and Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise, are they pushing the 360 as far as it can go?
Nick Burton: You never can push them as far as they can go. The reality of the peak performance of the console is yes, you could look to a generation beyond where we are now and think, yeah, I could use that power. But the reality is in 360 and the PS3 and the latest generation PC graphics, the amount of power in the GPUs is such that you're more bound by your creativity and the aesthetic you're going for than you're really bound by polygon pushing power. You're probably actually more bound maybe by art authoring and the amount of data throughput that, just the amount of memory you'd need, but I don't think 360 has reached its limit.
If you see some of the stuff we've done, in fact some of the stuff our guys have done, the GPU particle systems and things like, some of our guys have been working on the geometric style real time radiosity. Even at the start of this generation, if you'd said to me, without actually me just looking at it and you were asking me off the cuff as a graphics programmer, could that happen, I'd have said no. And then you think, well, what's going to come next? You can still keep pushing it and pushing it and pushing it.
VideoGamer.com: I guess the feeling is that Microsoft launched the 360 when there was still some life in the Xbox left, for whatever reason, and given that there's still so much potential left in the 360, if they decide to do something similar this time it might be a disappointment?
NB: I think this generation, this isn't insider information or anything, this is just my feeling technically, that this generation is going to be longer. Yeah, the last one was perhaps artificially shortened so Microsoft could burst out of the gate, but the thing was they had the technology in J and Chris' groups to do it at that time. And so that made sense from a business point of view. It makes me laugh every time I see the, oh this is slightly better on the PS3, or this is slightly better on the Xbox. In reality they're both really powerful machines. Stupidly powerful. This is something that still amazes me.
When I first joined Rare the most powerful computer on the planet was, this is geeky, was the Cray T3E 1200, which was the first machine to break a teraflop. Now, less than 10 years, so 2005, and the 360 comes out, that, if you put the GPU performance in with the CPU and you add all the floating point performance up, is about a teraflop. You could argue with the PS3 it's got more on the CPU but its GPU's not as good, but on average you look at them, you get real world situations for them rather than some weird benchmark and they're both about comparable. So you've effectively got a supercomputer under your TV for a couple of hundred quid. They are the most powerful computing devices in most people's homes. Most people don't have Alienware PCs. Even now the funny this is with a console, because it's a closed system, and because there are some things that have changed in there, like the way memory architecture works and the kind of memory they have. It means you get much more bang for buck per computer cycle than you do from a PC. A PC's doing a lot of stuff. There's a lot of data going around and hard disc management going on, email services and things. Even if you turn a lot of those off, they're still doing a ton of stuff that you don't want them to do. The games console, 99.9% of the power in there, yeah we can have it. So it means you can do things in smarter ways sometimes and tune things much more. You're going to see a good few more years yet out of this generation. I'm convinced of it.
VideoGamer.com: That's quite reassuring from a gamer's point of view. You invest in a console and you want it to last.
NB: Looking at the Microsoft release schedule and internal projects that are going on now, there's a lot of exciting stuff coming out, as far ahead as I'm able to see. There's a lot of stuff coming down the pipe. I bet you're still going to be playing on your 360, you know, three years time, maybe could be a bit more. Ask me again in three years how much more it'll extend. I never like to look further than that, but I don't see that changing that much unless somebody else in the market decides to take that next step. Maybe Nintendo are going to come out with a massively powerful machine. Who knows. Sony have gone on record to say they're not going to do that. And I know the feeling at Microsoft is we want this generation to continue on for a long period of time. Then it's more about extending what 360 can do, not just in terms of the kind of games we're all used to, but doing new kinds of stuff that maybe we've not see before by having interoperability with mobile devices, that's quite a big thing at the moment, or maybe those alternate reality games and the whole networking thing gets bigger. There's a ton of stuff you can do. They're such powerful computing devices, why not, you know, use them in slightly different ways. With Xbox LIVE, I can't remember what the subscription figures are now, but it's phenomenally high. If you look at that, maybe on a global scale it's not that many, but that's 12 million people that can all play together. And then you start looking at the things that Google has been doing, like Google Maps and Street View. The ideas that fly around in the dev community are just crazy. I was having a chat with Tony Barns, the MD of Pixel Lab who is the guy who runs Games EDU, because he loves all this kind of stuff. He's really into alternate reality games. When I'm at the gym and I'm on the cross trainer, it's got a screen on it and it's playing TV. Why is it playing TV? Put a PC inside it, put me onto Google Street View and I can do and run round a course in Las Vegas or LA.
VideoGamer.com: Simple but effective.
NB: Yeah, and it's using technology in different ways. You think, well, would hardcore gamers want that? I don't know, but I could see my mum playing on that, and I'd still play on it. It's not going to be long before we stop seeing this kind of cyclic run of consoles and it's going to start, well I just play games. I hate this hardcore gamer, casual gamer thing. If you go to the cinema are you a film buff or are you just somebody who goes to the cinema? And then there's the film buff. So I think there's hardcore gamers and then the rest of the world that have started to become gamers. Or maybe it's because I don't have time to be a hardcore gamer as much now.
VideoGamer.com: I guess it's just that people like to feel that they know more about certain things that they like.
NB: It seems that the hardcore get threatened when something is encroaching on our territory. It's like "what do you mean you play games? You're not a gamer! That's my thing". In reality it's good for all of us. You think how far games have come. There's a lot of talk of that here this week, but some of it sounds like hot air, but in reality it has. I'm old enough to still remember coming to the seaside and my parents going "come on, I want to go on the beach" but I wanted to go in the arcades. Think of all the lost summers. Now I could just sit out here and play it on the PSP.
VideoGamer.com: So you talked about Kameo. When are you going to do another one?
NB: This is where I have to be enigmatically vague. Never say never. I'll say that I'm not working on one at the moment. I'm not working on one at the moment. Doesn't mean nobody else is, but that doesn't mean they are either. Sorry. For the obvious PR reasons we can't talk about what we're doing now. All I can say is, you know about VP2 (Viva Piñata Trouble in Paradise), VP on DS, Banjo obviously. There's a couple of things on the roster that are going to be pretty cool as well. Obviously you do the math. Look at the size and how big the Banjo team currently needs to be, how big our shared technology group and asset group are. Look at the number of games and how they're staggered and how many teams we have. There's about half the studio missing from the release schedule at the moment (laughs). You'll be hearing soon enough, which is what I can't say really. It's not going to be too long. It's always exciting but we just have to be careful. As a developer it's a pain in the arse to be honest sometimes, because you want to go out and go "yeah! Yeah!" I really want to tell everybody about this because what I'm working on at the moment is really cool.
VideoGamer.com: This is what you're working on?
NB: What I'm personally working on at the moment is cool. I think it's a kind of game I love. Absolutely.
VideoGamer.com: Is it a gamer's game? When you look at Banjo and Viva Pinata.
NB: That's a difficult one to call. You see, I'm a gamer and I love this kind of game. So I'd say yes, but I know there are some that would definitely say no. It might be a cultural thing. If you were European or English and said is that a gamer's game, I'd say yes. If you were American I'd say no, I think, but maybe that's my take on America. I don't know.
VideoGamer.com: It's not an FPS then?
NB: You're fishing too much now (laughs). What I think is really interesting, really cool stuff. Seeing other people interested in it that I wouldn't have expected to have an interest in it. It won't be too long before you hear about it.
VideoGamer.com: Does the same thing apply to Perfect Dark then?
NB: Yeah, pretty much. The thing with us. These things don't go away forever. Everybody probably thought Banjo had, then of course Banjo comes along and it's not quite what anybody expected. We quite like doing that. It might be a new IP. It might be an existing IP. I guess part of our job within MGS, and it's the same for Lionhead, is, you've got to try and lead the innovation a bit and work with the hardware guys and work with Microsoft on where they're seeing holes in their portfolio or where they want to go with something. And they're really good because they actually continue and go "well, we kinda want something on this." Then the designers go and suck their teeth, cogitate for several weeks or a month or something, and come up with sometimes ludicrous ideas, and sometimes off kilter ideas, and everybody goes "actually, yeah". I think we have that luxury that we can do that. Everybody always thinks of Rare as that AAA gamer's game, Nintendo style. In reality what we've always been about is making very popular games. As games have got harder and longer to produce and much more costly to produce, that's become much more difficult. So of course what we do then is go off on these tangents and say "well, let's get Animal Crossing and cross it with some weird Mexican gardening simulator". I remember the first time I saw the original Viva Piñata. I literally, I'm not going to use web speak but you could walk out the barn with WTF written above your head in big letters. Then you actually play it and you're like "Can I have a look? Can I grab a build?" It was the same with Banjo.
VideoGamer.com: Does that mean that Rare going forward isn't going to be doing the typical hardcore games that you're known for?
NB: No it means that you're going to see both. I personally, looking at Banjo and having played it quite a lot. It's a gamer's game. It's a hardcore game. I reckon it is. The reason I say that is because the building gets so competitive in multiplayer it's insane. The first few hours you kind of wrestle with it a bit. The VP guys are going "somebody built a space shuttle the other week" and you think, how the hell did they build a space shuttle? And they go "well they used that and this and these work like that". So I can do that with them? I never thought I could do that. I ended up building what can only be described as a flying bed stead covered in guns. So get the jet engines, turn them on their sides like jet packs. Cover it in guns. One of my other mates built this thing that looked like an Apache gun ship. And flew like one as well. It's all physics based. I thought, come on, I must be able to build something else crazy. So I managed to be build this giant Katherine wheel out of jet engines. With Banjo sat in the middle of it it's very hard to control. It didn't last very long because it got smashed to pieces, but it was fast. It worked like a Katherine wheel but you could steer it around the levels.
And you think, what the hell are people in the community going to do with it. So in that way, loads of people say to me that they play Guitar Hero. They always think of Guitar Hero as a broad appeal game, but I always say Guitar Hero is a hardcore game. I think Banjo is going to be the same. It's got all the Banjo-ness that the hardcore will like and it'll probably be appealing to kids, but at it's heart, the online part of it and the competitive nature of building things is very very hardcore. It breeds that competitive nature from that bizarre set of almost Lego-like building blocks.
I reckon VP, it's not actually a hardcore game, but the hardcore love it. The amount of people that come to me and say VP is my dirty little gaming secret. If you're talking hardcore in terms of a PD style hardcore. You're going to see that kind of stuff. I'm not going to say what. That kind of stuff is never ever off the cards, any more than something with such broad appeal as UNO. That's not to say we have any LIVE Arcade card games in the works. For us it's just about what's a good game. What appeals to a lot of people? What are a lot of people going to fund fun? What are they going to get a lot of mileage out of? I guess that's one of the real key things for us at the moment? What's going to give people a lot of value for money by a lot of play time. They can still feel like they've completed it in eight hours but if they want to play it for 800 hours they still can. GTA I guess pioneered it with the sandbox thing. Banjo is sandboxy in another way. The stuff I'm getting excited about is sandboxy in a different way. So that seems to be a big thing at the moment. People love to customise things. It makes debugging it a nightmare. So, sorry to be vague.
Check back tomorrow for part three of our mammoth interview with Nick Burton, where he'll continue to talk at length about all things Rare.