Trailblazing game technologies that go on to become the industry’s quality benchmark do not occur in isolation. One year, graphical fidelity will be the innovative push; the next, sound design; the year after, physicality. This year, two competing third-person-perspective titles are showing that crowd technology is the new bugbear that two separate developers are trying to revolutionise.
On one hand, there’s Ubisoft Montreal and its emphasis on crowd control in Assassin’s Creed III; or, more accurately, their lack of crowd control. Ubisoft Montreal wants the digital peons in Assassin’s Creed III to be believable in their daily goings on as a hooded assassin disrupts or blends into their world.
On the other side of third-person-perspective gaming, a more contemporary and less hirsute assassin is set to contend with the wiles of an authentic crowd. Agent 47 is the lead protagonist of Hitman: Absolution, and going by the lengthy chat we had with Bobby Anguelov about the specifics and importance of integrating an epic and authentic crowd into the latest Hitman game, we understood why the Glacier 2 engine’s ‘Crowd Technology’ is so important for our beloved entertainment medium.
Faces in the Crowd
In the past, crowd technology has been treated as an afterthought. After all, why waste precious resources on developing what essentially equates to a moving backdrop – particularly when developers are faced with the realities of the console hardware limitations at the core of multiplatform development. But, moving forward, the real problem is one of scale. If a believable game world is to grow, so too should the population.
We were refreshed to hear Bobby Anguelov’s solution to balancing accessibility with realism in Hitman: Absolution’s Crowd Technology. “When it comes to a crowd simulation, I don’t feel the two goals are mutually exclusive. I think an accessible crowd is one that would be immediately familiar to a player. If we can get our crowds to feel as realistic as possible then I think players will immediately recognise them and be able to jump straight into the gameplay mechanics without thinking. Accessible doesn’t necessarily mean simplified.”
Game developers have to work hard to maintain the precariously balanced veil of immersion that can, at the snap of a broken piece of complex game code, be torn asunder. Tainted, damaged or flat-out destroyed immersion then has to be rebuilt with the player. While Ubisoft Montreal is firmly focused on simulating a handful of believable NPCs, IO Interactive has called Ubisoft’s play and raised the stakes to the tune of 500 on-screen characters and 1,200 controlled individuals.
The Hitman series has always offered gameplay satisfaction via a combination of logical puzzling and unseen payoff. Short of that, less patient players could always blast their way from start to finish; for gamers that didn’t slot into the patient puzzling/impatient annihilator categories, they could find a solution in the pertinent grey area in between the polar extremes. Given the series’ emphasis on choice, we found it odd that the size and behaviour of the crowd was such a paramount concern for Hitman: Absolution. Bobby was keen to emphasise the importance of the inclusion of Crowd Technology for the Hitman series.
“The crowd in Blood Money was primarily a decorative feature, whereas the crowd system in Hitman: Absolution is more of a core game mechanic. Hitman: Absolution will give the player the best living, breathing crowd experience more so than other games have done to date. We will be giving the old fans a better looking and more reactive crowd than before as well as the additional of the new crowd gameplay mechanics.”
Bobby has a background in teaching and software engineering, seemingly slipping through the ranks of semi-related fields in true Agent 47 fashion before securing his position as game programmer on Hitman: Absolution. We were curious how Bobby’s background in software engineering and teaching aided his approach to Absolution’s Crowd Technology.
“I definitely feel there are benefits to looking at problems from various perspectives and that is where having a varied background and pool of experience helps. It is very often that the best solutions to a specific problem come from an unrelated field. To a certain degree, enterprise and game developers share a lot of problems and aren’t entirely as unrelated as people think. Solutions to problems are ideas and not technology; technology is simply the tools we have with which to implement our ideas. I have found that having a broader perspective when approaching a problem has been extremely beneficial. For example, I’m an AI programmer but, to a large degree, my background is in rendering, and so I’ve often found myself coming up with render-esque solutions to AI problems. Just because a problem is an AI one doesn’t necessarily mean that that solution will come from within the AI field.”