Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The Art Behind Metal Gear Solid 4 (Part 1/5)

Part 1 of 5
June 12, 2008 saw the simultaneous worldwide release of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (MGS4) for the PlayStation 3. Gamers all over the world were waiting eagerly for this ultimate stealth mission game.
No doubt they had already been captivated by its powerful gameplay.

MGS4 was a huge project that took Hideo Kojima, the virtuoso director, about three and a half years to complete. The Metal Gear series has been around for 21 years, with many people regarding it as a masterpiece in terms of its scenarios, gameplay and realism. Making a particular impact is its world-class graphics that go beyond the boundaries of a conventional game. These graphics give the action such realism and immediacy that players feel like they have been transported to a real battlefield.

The Metal Gear Solid series was created by Kojima Productions, a development unit at Konami Digital Entertainment. Kojima Productions has also given us popular series such as 'Zone of the Enders and Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand'. The team has three directors: Hideo Kojima, Yoji Shinkawa and Shuyo Murata. There is a program manager, design manager, script manager and sound manager, as well as many other artists and programmers.

In the development of MGS4, about 100 staff were involved in the 3D content production. Extra personnel were added during busy periods, and by the final phase of development over 180 people were working on the project. By the end there were as many as 40 programmers working on MGS4, including the work required for online compatibility. MGS4 truly was a mega-project.

The main tool used in this game with its world-class video graphics was SOFTIMAGE|XSI. We interviewed the Kojima Productions team after they had finished development and as the release date for MGS4 was approaching. In this interview, we were lucky to be able to speak with staff from all the major development units, including characters, background, machines, 2D, event demos, motions and programing.

From a Single Storyboard...

The MGS4 video was first previewed to the public in a trailer shown at the 2005 Tokyo Game Show. The main character, Snake, was shown looking around a wall in a ruined building. From this single storyboard, the whole project started. After four months, the team finished a spectacular trailer that was over 10 minutes long and made a huge impression around the world.

This high quality video that made such a strong impact fully utilized the real-time processing power of the PS3. To transfer this to the actual game without losing quality, it took a lot of effort from the team to import the data and create a proper balance. In the initial stages of the project, they were still getting used to the performance of the PS3, and there were no precedents to any of the work they were doing. The data size required for the content was much bigger than anything that had come before.

Art Direction in Metal Gear Solid

Like the previous titles in the series, Yoji Shinkawa was in charge of art direction for all the character and machine designs in MGS4. In this game, the most important consideration was whether the design would pull the player into the game. It didn't matter whether it was expressed through an exaggerated effect or through a conventional illustration.

Mr. Shinkawa starts his design process by using a brush to make a drawing. The resulting design is a black and white image drawn in Mr. Shinkawa's distinctive brush style. Then, one of a number of different methods is selected to embody the black and white image. The original picture may be touched up, it may be transferred to a 3D figure, or if the design is complicated, it may be modeled out of clay.

In this way, the team developed a more concrete design from the original image, which they then used as a reference when modeling with XSI. For machines modeled from clay and some of the characters, they used 3D data obtained from image-based modeling. The team then imported the data into XSI for editing.

It is also possible to use 3D scanning to create 3D data. But because the scanned data requires a lot of modeling correction work, the team decided not to use this method. They said that using the calibration method results in less correction work and that it was relatively easy to import accurate image data into XSI. The calibration workflow is described in more detail using images later of this article.

Yoji Shinkawa's design workflow

In the design process, Mr. Shinkawa also selected all the color designs. He said that even when he was drawing the original pictures in black ink, he could see in his head the types of colors that he would use for the characters. He made his final selection after all the characters were ready, choosing colors that would achieve a good overall balance. He reproduced textures such as material colors, metallic expressions and complex patterns using the real-time shader. The textures that Mr. Shinkawa wanted were created one after another by programers using the real-time shader. Sometimes he would show a prototype that he created in advance with a mental ray shader to share his ideas on texture with the programers.

Many characters from previous titles in the series reappear in MGS4, which makes the fans very happy. But there were some characters that were being depicted in 3D for the first time, such as Naomi, who appeared in MGS1. The team worked hard to create attractive 3D characters that would not disappoint the hardcore fans of the series.

Mr. Shinkawa said, "When we first started to develop the Metal Gear Solid series, we just wanted to make a war game that we ourselves would really want to play. The fact that the series grew into one that is played by so many people is thanks to our loyal users. We are confident that MGS4 will live up to the expectations of these fans. But we are never satisfied with the way things are. We always want to work harder to push our creative abilities to the limit and create even better games in the future."

Character Production Workflow

Most of the characters that are animated on the console, including the main character, Snake, have been restricted to a data size (including the face model) of about 5,000 to 10,000 polygons. Further, characters are used that have the same polygon resolution in both the game action and the event demos. This means that the game screens and video clips are seamlessly connected, making it easier for players to become emotionally involved.

As mentioned above, with the exception of crowds, characters are used that have the same polygon resolution in both the game action and the event demos. Separate from the resolution model used on the console, high-rez data are also simultaneously modeled for generating the normal map. Details such as creases on clothes are then expressed with the normal map that was generated from the high-res model.

In terms of bones used for constructing the bodies of characters, about 21 joint bones were used that contained animation data and were activated through these data. But many auxiliary bones were also used to supplement movements such as the twisting of knees, elbows, legs and arms. These were not activated by animation data. Rather, they were linked to the values of the basic joints that were activated by animation.

The team used these specifications not only on XSI, but also on the console. They could perform the same control on the console simply by outputting an auxiliary bone definition file from XSI.

Because the auxiliary bones themselves do not contain motion data, the data size can be kept to a low level. Further, if auxiliary bones need to be added or deleted, the operation can be performed simply by changing the model data without having to reconvert the motion data.

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