Exclusive: Mammoth interview with Rare graphics god!

Exclusive: Mammoth interview with Rare graphics god!
Wesley Yin-Poole Updated on by

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Loved Star Fox, Kameo, Banjo, or anything else mega developer Rare’s pumped out over the last 23 years of its existence? Then we’ve got a very special surprise for you. A massive, no-holds barred interview with one of Rare’s stalwarts, Nick Burton, a senior software engineer who’s been at the company since those heady N64 days, working on Star Fox Adventures right up to Kameo: Elements of Power and Jetpac Refuelled. We caught up with Nick in sunny Brighton during the Develop conference, and scored one of the most in-depth and frank interviews with the mega developer in years. So gargantuan was our chat with Nick that we’re spreading it out over the whole week. Here, in part one, Nick takes us through his early, terrifying days at Rare, reveals how Dinosaur Planet on the N64 became Star Fox Adventures on the GameCube and tells us how he improved Kameo: Elements of Power’s graphics after Microsoft asked the developer to make it a 360 launch title instead of an Xbox game.

VideoGamer.com: How long have you been at Rare?

Nick Burton: I’ve been at the studio for a long time. I started there in 98, so in the Nintendo days. GoldenEye had just come out, when we were up at Manor Farm. Blimey that seems a world away! The first game I worked on was Star Fox. The whole of Star Fox, its entire development.

VideoGamer.com: What was it like joining Rare just after GoldenEye had come out? You must have thought you were going to the best developer in the world.

NB: Terrifying! I’d always been, not a fan boy but I played Rare games, right from Jetpac on the Spectrum. I get into the office on the first day, who is now our production director Lee Schuneman takes me round, introduces me to the team. It was still very secretive at the time. Couldn’t go anywhere but your part. So I was like, OK, can I meet everybody else? And they were like, no. It was enforced by Nintendo in a way, and Chris and Tim (Stamper, founders). It was like having a company within a company so everybody was quite competitive. We still have that camaraderie now but everybody knows everybody. We still retained it but in a much friendlier way.

And so he takes me to meet the team. Actually it wasn’t just after GoldenEye had come out it was a couple of weeks after Diddy Kong Racing had come out. I was with the Star Fox, well the Dinosaur Planet team, who were the Diddy Kong team, and I’d been playing Diddy Kong, and he’s going oh yeah this is the guy who did all the levels, here’s Johnni Christensen, and there’s Keith over there, he’s the character modeller, and it was just like, oh my god! Absolute mind melt. I’d stayed on at university and done research so I wasn’t green as a student but I was green as far as the industry was concerned.

And then at lunch time, do you remember that legendary Edge article on Rare with Chris and Tim? I’d read that and that’s what made me apply basically. I thought I can get a job there, or try to. There was this thing where it mentioned everybody sat around massive TVs at lunchtime and played GoldenEye. And it was true! So I’m playing GoldenEye and I was pretty good at it. I could absolutely own all my friends at it, no problem. So much so that they would be screaming oh my god Nick’s coming! They were expecting that they were going to get it. But I was just dying every 10 seconds, literally I’d respawn and die, I’d respawn and die. I was thinking, what the? One of the guys I was splaying with, Martin Bennett, this went on for about a week until I got my first kill at lunchtime. I said Martin, you’re really good at this. Oh yeah, I was the main tester on it. Thank you! You might have mentioned that to me a couple of weeks before. It made me feel better.

But yeah it was quite scary, with Chris and Tim coming into the office the first day or so after I’d got there and introducing themselves. I was like oh my god you made Jetpac! Not you made Donkey Kong or anything like that, it was like oh my god you made Jetpac! It was interesting, and very exciting, especially because there was this product we were doing called Dino Planet. It was a time when games just popped out on us. You could still do that in those days and it worked really well. I remember the first Perfect Dark adverts going up. Literally that first day when the website went up all it said was ‘It’s dark’. And that was it. Almost like Tim’s own viral marketing I suppose. And then that was up for a few days. And the next one went up and it was ‘It’s very dark’, and this went on for about two weeks until it went ‘Perfect Dark’, the next game from Rare, and there was just a slight picture of an alien head, which was Elvis of course. And I knew that they were making a Donkey Kong 64. But it was scary as well. The training, well not training, but your induction in those days, which we still do in a way, was right, there’s the Nintendo 64 manual, there’s an SG Workstation, make us a demo game. OK… right. And that was it. We kind of do that even now but we do it inside our shared technology group and we have lots of support but then again it’s a much bigger task.

Then we went to E3 in 2001 I think it was with it, so about three years after I’d joined. Miyamoto, they kept an eye on us but not much. Obviously Japan was a long way away and the internet wasn’t what it is now. So it was the first time Miyamoto really got to play Dino Planet. One of his widely publicised comments was ‘yeah Sabre kind of looks like Fox’, which was unintentional on our part, completely. We thought, ah that’s it, it’s just a comment. Then a month went by and there was this big meeting and it was like, how would you feel if we changed it to Star Fox? You know there’s a bit of you that goes well, I like the IP we’ve got. And there’s another bit that thinks well Star Fox is quite a big IP. Maybe we should. But I was still very junior then so I was just out doing a mix of AI, gameplay and a bit of graphics programming. So I was like, yeah, tell me what to write code for and I’ll go and do it.

So then GameCube came out, we ported onto that so we were able to do a lot more with the graphics. I started doing more of the graphics work, but it was mainly special effects stuff at the time. A lot of the cool rendering, like the first fur rendering and stuff was a guy called Cliff, who was just an amazing graphics programmer. And yeah, it came out, did very well. And then we started as you do on a prototype. At Rare the teams tend to stay together, or at least the cores of the teams. And Star Fox, by the time we finished that we were a well-oiled machine. Really, give us a game and we can make it much quicker because everybody knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

And so we started on I suppose what’s not unlike Banjo 3, but it wasn’t what became Banjo 3. It was going OK but you could see that other projects were needed. That was about the time when Star Fox had come out, actually a couple of weeks after because they were waiting for it to happen, that Microsoft were doing a buyout. So Kameo had gone over from GameCube onto Xbox. Everybody always thinks about porting it, it must be really horrendous, but its not actually that bad. It’s funny, everybody thinks, oh people like Rare, you have no porting experience. Of course you do! We’ve gone from N64 to GameCube, from GameCube to Xbox, from Xbox to Xbox 360. Which is a funny thing, everybody always says Kameo started on the N64 and it blemmin’ didn’t! It started on the GameCube!

So they were just ramping up because they’d gone on to the Xbox 1. PD was ramping up because that had gone on to Xbox 1 as well. So we ended up thinking well the teams have got to get bigger. We dissolved our prototype team. Myself, Phil Tossell (Kameo software lead) and a couple of other people went onto Kameo and the others went on to PD.

The Xbox, compared to the GameCube for the same generation was phenomenally powerful from a graphics programming point of view. So I was like, yeah this is really good fun, there’s loads of stuff we can do. We weren’t far off, we were pretty much, we say finished, the whole story was there for Kameo, and all the art was there if it was for Xbox. Then they said look, we need some launch games for 360, are you going to do it? A lot of people on the team sucked their teeth and said, er, I don’t know. Can’t we come out on Xbox? You think, imagine how much bigger and more visible it’s going to be if it’s a launch title. So we said, no, come on, let’s make it a launch game.

So then we spent, it was only 12 months going from Xbox to 360, really whacking the graphics power. It was great for me! So being a graphics programmer I’d gone from N64 where particle systems, there were maybe 100 particles each, to GameCube where there were a couple of thousand, to Xbox where there could be 10,000, to the 360 where there really could be a million. In fact we just did that. You know if you’ve played Kameo, if you go into the throne room, we joked in that light beam with the little dust things there’s a million of those and they all react to Kameo as she flies through them. Nobody but me notices this! And everybody goes, are there really a million particles in that room? Yes! How do you know have you counted them? No, but I’ve written the code that generates them.

VideoGamer.com: Kameo is still considered one of the best looking 360 games, despite the fact it was a launch game.

NB: Yeah. We always said with PD and Kameo that they weren’t first generation games, they were second generation in the first generation because as games they were finished, but the architecture and the engines were such, and the support from our shared technology group was such that we could just concentrate in that year on really upping the ante. So like the battlefield, George Andreas, our lead designer on Kameo, he’d always wanted right from the GameCube days, this big expansive battlefield. I don’t know if you remember the first ever E3 demo of Kameo on the GameCube, where you could get in this thing and fly over this big battlefield. They said they wanted this big war with thousands of guys and it just wasn’t possible. And then George was going, oh I want to do this battlefield if we can, and the art guys said yeah we can do that, it’s this ZBrush thing, as far as an art asset’s concerned it’s big but it’s fairly easy. We got all the parallax mapping stuff sorted with the help of ATI, and it was looking really good. We said can we do it? Can we put loads of guys on it?

I said well look, there’s this thing we can do now with the Xbox 360, especially because it’s got this very fast video memory, it’s like an instancing and posturing system where you render something real time, convert it into a sprite and you do that quite a few times, and then munch those sprites up in shaders so they all look quite different. And then, I bet we can render a few hundred of these guys. I got the code going in about a week for this. It’s just teapots as you do as a graphics programmer floating around in one of our test levels. And George comes in and there was a cube with loads of these, he said, oh, how many of those are in there? Oh, there’s 500 there. He’s like, fantastic! So can we have 500 trolls in the battlefield? So I went and talked to Steve Horsburgh, our AI guy, and we worked out how we’d choreograph it from his point of view. Yeah!

So we up it a bit and all right we can do a bit more, we can have 1000. Fantastic! So we put a 1000 trolls down. That’s a lot of characters. Anyway, a couple of weeks went by and I was just doing something completely different and I happened to notice in one of our debugging tools I’d made a real nasty bug, in a good way, in the render for these. It meant that it was actually rendering it three times and not once. So there were really 3000 of them but there were two rendered on top of one you could already see. I said George, there are actually 3000 here, and I just looked at the performance and we can have a couple more thousand if we want as well. In the end they said let’s leave it at 4000, we’ll have 3000 trolls and 1000 guys.

We got these GPU particle systems where the CPU wasn’t involved at all. How many particles have you put in that fountain? 50,000. Why? Because I typed it in in the editor. Because we had such strong art and a strong art style, and very colourful… I love blue skies in games, me. I still like Gears and things like that but I’m not too keen on brown games. I like Outrun! To have a nice colourful game like that, I really like that.

We really felt like we were pushing beyond probably what was expected. That was probably a canny decision by Microsoft, to try and choose projects that were fairly far on for Xbox, like PGR3, so they got a lot of bang for buck out of the starting gate. But yeah, I still think Kameo looks great, from an aesthetic point of view as much as from a technical one. But for first generation it was technically impressive. It was fun!

Check back tomorrow for part two of our mammoth interview with Nick Burton, where he talks about the power of the next generation consoles and just exactly what he’s working on right now!