When you think of horror games, it’s almost impossible not to think of Resident Evil’s legacy. Capcom’s seventh Resident Evil title delivers the fear that its name promises but this time, in Virtual Reality.
We talked to the Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (RE7) Development Team, Mr. Kawata (Producer), Mr. Fukui (Technical Director) and Mr. Tsuda (Art Director) about overcoming the various challenges in creating RE7, the transition to physically-based rendering, the development of their company game engine and bringing the franchise to VR.
With game development pipelines becoming more large-scale and complicated in recent years, it’s surprising that a AAA title like RE7 was able to make its new release in just 3 years. So what was their secret?
“Actively introducing new technologies such as photogrammetry was necessary, but I believe the secret of our success was that all of our staff shared a clear vision and strived to achieve our goal”, says Kawata.
The title’s codename was “Harawata”, taken from the film “Shiryo no Harawata (The Evil Dead)”, a film produced more than 30 years ago. Screenings were held for the development team to get a sense of what this Resident Evil title aimed to express. Many directors and development staff were horror fans and refer to works such as ”The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Conjuring” as visual inspirations.
“We were somewhat conscious about not being too grotesque with the previous title. While this title keeps an exquisite balance without being averse, we sort of shook things off and pursued that feeling of terror to the limit”, comments Kawata. Besides the visual, many players may have been shocked by the non-pre-established harmony that storms from the beginning and the sudden changes of characters. With a clear vision of “bringing out the world’s most terrifying horror game”, the team set out to develop RE7.
Transitioning to a Physically-Based Workflow
In the physically-based rendering environment of the PS4 generation, artists need to keep in mind that 3D data needs to be optically correct. In the past, an asset may have been acceptable so long as the visuals looked good enough, even if it was not correct in the process of the real world. But with the physically-based workflow, the devs had to prepare more high-resolution data for textures from the normal texture map.
For this reason, RE7 did not reuse the data created with past works but recreated almost ALL the data. Sculpting software such as ZBrush has been used extensively to create high-resolution models in past projects. To improve efficiency, photogrammetry (a technology that constructs 3D data from images that were taken from multiple visual points) was fully adopted to the workflow in RE7. The generated high-resolution model’s shape was finely adjusted in Maya after re-topology work was complete.
“In photogrammetry, the material at the time of shooting is the result itself. Therefore, advance preparation may be the most important process. In game development, the way of making changes with the evolution of hardware”, says Tsuda.
For example, when scanning a person, careful comparison and image adjustments were done with professional make-up artists beforehand. For background assets and accessories, the process of getting the right materials is essential. There were times when they brought in a board that was corroded in just the right way or went out to buy animal organs in Tsuruhashi yakiniku stores. The shooting was successful, but as expected, everyone had trouble with the smell. (*They were later cooked and enjoyed by the staff.)
Of course, photogrammetry can’t be used for all models. Non-existent creatures, small objects or industrial products (feature points on reflective materials are hard to capture) were created from scratch by making full use of Maya’s modeling features. Fukui told us that data adjustments using attribute transfers and UV editor with good usability were helpful for this work.
3D scanning and Maya were essential in the workflow for the facial work as well. The facial capture data was output to the game in the following procedure:
1. Shoot the actor’s expression pattern with photogrammetry (approx. 80 patterns)
2. Resurface the high-resolution mesh of expressions to low-resolution mesh and add weight with bones.
3. Properly decompose the bone pose collection and store in controlling.
4. To capture motions, record the same expressions from expressions as a range of motion (ROM). Record marker type and marker-less type for a range of motion.
5. Record the facial data. (Full performance capture)
6. Analyse the animation by using the data from ROM. The analyzed animation is output temporarily as the animation of expression pattern weight value.
7. Bake plot facial data to the bone and output to the game engine.
In many cases, the speed or image is different when the captured body motion is put into the game creating a good opportunity for artist’s to show off their skill and make all the adjustments until it becomes a good animation.
It is also difficult to capture the feature points of hair and beards, and they are difficult to reproduce by photogrammetry. The Ornatrix plugin from 3ds Max was used for hair data production.
Challenges in VR Development
A demo titled “Kitchen” was exhibited in E3 on June 2015 as a tech demo for VR. They received great responses from players at the exhibition and at the Tokyo Game Show exhibition, some users even had to stop playing due to fear. With this response, full VR compatibility for Resident Evil 7 was given the green light.
The development of this title went underway and supporting VR was relatively easy systematically. However, the compatibility support of new devices caused a series of issues such optimisation for 60fps processing and preventing motion sickness. Steady efforts were made, especially to recreate the user interface layout for VR and keep the 60fps for effects by reducing filter effects processing. To prevent motion sickness, camera shaking was kept to a minimum and fine adjustments were made in walking speed to make it suitable for VR.
The team filmed player reactions from the game and posted them on social media, gaining a lot of attention and showing how compelling the game was in VR. They even conducted a programme called the Resident Evil Ambassador Program, using dedicated fans who have the power to spread information on Social Media.
Maya and RE ENGINE
With the full-scale introduction of new technology such as photogrammetry, a major workflow review was made for RE7 such as in the output environment from Maya (the core of the asset production pipeline) to the company game engine in order to create an efficient pipeline to produce the highest quality content.
At the same time as the game was being developed, the development team was also working to improve the game engine, called RE ENGINE. RE ENGINE uses the latest rendering pipeline and iteration can be done quickly. “It’s a developer-friendly engine equipped with VR compatibility, data robustness and is easy to use”, says Tsuda.
Before the update during development, it took about 3 days to reflect the engine build modifications. The redesigned RE ENGINE updates automatically with each build. The changes made to the engine reduced deployment time for engine updates from 3 days to 20 minutes at the shortest, improving engine iteration in parallel with the game development.
The updates to the RE ENGINE were important since it was designed for general-purpose projects other than RE7. Although it's designed with the Python macro feature, it can also be customized to implement processing suitable for projects.
In physically-based workflows, a large number of models need to be created in small units (such as plates and lamps), rather than the conventional way of creating a picture of the whole stage in a bird’s-eye view, so naturally, managing the assets was another challenge. A plugin called “SceneDataManager” was developed to collectively manage the game assets. It is a library feature so that anyone in the development staff can see the data on the server and can intuitively read assets in Maya. In past development, asset data was not thoroughly managed by a server and there were many situations where each person was managing assets locally. By introducing SceneDataManager, the latest data is managed by versions on the server which significantly improves data reliability and sharing efficiency.
In SceneDataManager, you can register information in the temporary model stage and also manage the attributes necessary for the game, such as collision information. In other words, it can lead to the completion of the asset without missing anything in the workflow.
Assets read from SceneDataManager to Maya eventually get output to RE ENGINE to make game adjustments. A tool to link Maya and RE ENGINE was developed to make sure the sense of operation does not differ between the two while working back and forth. “The environment provided by Maya is extremely flexible and powerful”, notes Tsuda.
In level design work, it’s important to adjust the tension curve, the balance between fear and relief. Trial and error adjustments were made for lighting expressions and the narrowness of the space.
The future of Capcom
It is said photogrammetry will be used in future projects. The character production for RE7 depended on the quality of the resolution at the time of the shooting. When using high-resolution textures, there are always limits to the texture memory if many characters appear simultaneously. The team is considering using the shader technology that is already used for environment production for characters as well.
“We would like to achieve high-quality and cost-effective character expressions by combining texture and shader techniques. We would also like to pursue more expressions of facial setup in Maya. We have had successful results, but there is no end because technological innovation is progressing rapidly. If we stop, we will be defeated”, declares Fukui enthusiastically.
Tsuda also says that “Maya’s substantial modeling feature is helpful in environment production. Handling large-scale data, the speed of operation, and high customisability are important points in game development. The difficulty of diverting the assets across projects is improved with the enhanced collaboration of Maya, SceneDataManager and the RE ENGINE. We are certain that the library of assets will become easier to reuse, which will lead to increased quality in development”.
“In the latest game development processes, outsourcing is essential in order to introduce a large number of personnel in a short period of time while keeping costs down. However, it’s important to look to the outside while raising the in-house production ratio in order to increase in-house knowledge”, says Kawata. Currently, CAPCOM is actively hiring development staff and are planning to expand the development staff to 2,500 by the year 2021.
With technology maturing in recent years, game development may be approaching a similar workflow of film production. For example, the input of human resources with various types of knowledge such as photography skills, film and TV, stage directing and make-up can be fed back into the world of games. Kawata concluded the interview saying “CAPCOM handles global game titles. Other than games, we are looking for people with high-end film production experience as well. We also welcome students and people with enthusiasm and sharp sensibility. Maya is the foundation of our workflow. It will be great if there is a well-balanced person who has the knowledge of both analog picture and basic knowledge of Maya and script”.