Interview with Alex Amancio: Far Cry 2's Art Director
An interview with the art director for Far Cry 2, Alex Amancio. He talks about making the plant life look real, while using very little memory. Plus how the foliage reacts to wind, every piece of grass blows with the wind.
They also compare the art to Crysis, and talk about making it for both PC and consoles. All the trees and grass are dynamic, simulating the wind.
Can you give us a bit of background on how you came onto Far Cry 2?
Amancio: The team that's working on this Far Cry has been at it for over three years. A year after the original Far Cry we started working on this game. We came from different projects. Some of the core members came from Splinter Cell and other games, but we're basically a brand new team for this franchise.
We started working on Far Cry 2 before Instincts had even decided if it was going to have mutant powers. We started fresh and our key was to have a realistic game, we didn't want any mutant powers in the game.
We obviously changed the setting to Africa; we wanted to keep the very iconic setting of Far Cry but we got rid of the desert island scene.
Frankly the desert island scene was becoming very crowded with Lost and stuff like that, so we tried to go with a setting that was really fresh and new and Africa came to mind. Plus its so iconic; that image of the Savannah is very, very underexploited in videogames.
Basically our mission was to create a sequel for the original, so everything that came out before wasn't our mandate and really had nothing to do with us. The first one was really the first shooter that felt like an open world environment, so we decided to push the bar further an actually have an open world, 50 square kilometres.
So when you came to assemble a new team at Montreal did you take anything from original developer Crytek? Any advice shared?
Amancio: Nope. We basically started as a very closed off team. Very early on we decided that we wanted to create the engine ourselves because with the different things that we wanted to accomplish, we found that no engine could give us everything that we wanted to have.
We wanted an open world game, we wanted a game that was going to look top notch and we wanted a game that wouldn't just run on super high-end PCs. As you can see we're running on Xbox 360.
The way we created everything, we really took on a different philosophy to most games. Everybody usually thinks that large textures means high resolution, we actually went the opposite way.
Very early on we said that if we were going to run this on reasonable machines we need to save memory. So we started using small textures and just tiling them up on top of each other, then just using masks that basically hide all the different layers with all these different generic patterns. Everything looks organic, everything looks different and yet it's all using very low memory. It's a very innovative way of thinking.
Like characters re-use normal maps, but I don't know if you've notice as you play the game but every NPC is different; you don't see two guys that are the same.
All the trees and grass are dynamic, simulating the wind. What kind of challenges did that lumber on you as the art director?
Amancio: It was really hard. Even with the dynamic time of day the game has to look good at every time of day, but it needs to look different. If you have a linear level you can just basically tweak an area and then have the perfect area, because you know where the player's coming from.
We can approach an area from any direction so yeah, having to tweak every direction, for it to be beautiful from any direction, at any time of day... it's an enormous challenge. It took a lot of effort to be able to do this.
The series has always been very impressive from an artistic perspective. We'd be interested to know what you think of Crysis from a visual standpoint?
Amancio: Not only myself but the entire team really respect what Crytek has been doing with Crysis. Very early on we knew that we wanted to go a completely different direction.
Instead of going for the tropical island and trying to go for hyper realism, we changed the setting. First of all we wanted to have a really, really credible environment, but we didn't want to replicate anybody's vacation photos.
What we wanted to do was approach it like a movie would approach a set design. What they do is take a realistic environment and try and make it more than real, more iconic and more interesting that reality. We wanted to have a game that really felt like its own unique universe rather than have it look like somebody's vacation pictures. We wanted anybody to be able to see a screenshot of the game and go, 'oh, that's Far Cry 2'.
How much on location research did you do?
Amancio: We went to Africa for a period of about two weeks. We stayed in the wilderness, we didn't stay in any hotels, so we basically went from point to point camping in the middle of the Savannah and in jungles.
We felt to actually go there would give us credibility, it would make the difference between having a game that looks and feels like how we think Africa should look and feel, as opposed to have it feel gritty and feel real. We actually had journalists from South Africa see the game and comment that we actually captured Africa, which was our goal.
Did you have to chop down any trees for textures or anything?
Amancio: Oh no. We took a lot of pictures and then instead of scanning them on models, we basically figured out to build a shader that reacts and feels like that material.
We broke it down into its component pieces, looked at how light hits it, normal maps to actually get something that looks and feels like it, rather than a picture plastered on a polygon. That's why if you get close to a tree or something you can feel its volume like it's actually a material.
And how have you found managing these assets to work on both consoles and PC?
Amancio: Obviously it's a huge challenge. We have constraints but they're totally different constraints. We kept all of them in check from the beginning and by doing that we basically built the game around their constraints.
We tried not seeing them as negatives, but 'how can we take that weakness and turn it into a strong point?' For example we do have a very limited memory on console so instead of taking that as a negative we redesigned our graphical pipeline and memory's no longer an issue. We can have the open world, we can have the crispness... everything.
For you as the art director, it must be more satisfying to see it up and running on PC though?
Amancio: As you can see the game is the same. Obviously the resolution is much higher but I'm extremely proud to have this game up and running on Xbox and PS3 unchanged. To have this open world, this level of dynamic elements and this level of crispness, actually running on a console.
Did you feel any pressure to match the level of foliage interactivity as Crysis? Obviously they're doing a similar thing to you.
Amancio: We know people will compare the two because of the history. But the games are so different there really is no comparison point. Yeah we wanted to have destructible elements, destructible vegetation but it's not because of Crysis, we just wanted to have it because we feel it's the next logical step. And this is on console, it's not just on a high-end PC.
Would it be fair to say you're even raising the bar a bit of what they've done?
Amancio: Yeah. That was our goal basically, to sort of keep moving forward. Crysis wasn't our benchmark, we were our own benchmark. We set the bar very high for ourselves and then on top of it not only did we want to have the bar very high on PC but keep in mind that we wanted to have this on console, unchanged. That in itself is an amazing challenge. But we think that Crysis is a fantastic game, the entire team respects what they're doing.