At CEDEC2019 held in September, a group of developers from Luminous Productions presented a variety of topics pertaining to the latest game technology. We will be releasing a series of speaker interviews on an irregular basis to reveal additional details that the speakers did not have the chance to discuss during their presentations, along with the speakers'thoughts and sentiments behind the development.
Takeshi Aramaki, Studio Head & VP
"BackStage" - a demo featuring a fully path traced scene realized through a collaboration with NVIDIA
―Please tell us what brought you and NVIDIA together to work on this demo?
Aramaki：Actually, it was my plan from the start to engage in the technological development of ray tracing in anticipation of the next generation. Interestingly enough, right when I was writing my email to NVIDIA, seeking a company to partner with on this initiative, NVIDIA reached out first and invited me to do a ray tracing demo with them. I thought well, this is meant to be, and it led us to work on this project together.
―So, while the timing played a key role in getting this initiative off the ground, you already had the concept in mind?
Aramaki：Yes. When I asked myself what should be our next advancement at Luminous Productions, the answer that came to me was to further enhance the compatibility between cinematics and the game. I had always had this vision that, in order to carry over the cinematics data to the game, it'd be important that the game had support for ray tracing and that we'd have to make this happen eventually. Another factor was that quite a lot of the Luminous Productions team have experience in working with 3D CG cinematics, including some who are highly skilled at creating game data from pre-rendered data.
―NConsidering that NVIDIA reached out to you, the importance of ray tracing seems to be on the rise - where would you say ray tracing is at currently in the game industry?
Aramaki：Since there are only a handful of hardware that support ray tracing at the moment, I would say it's still early days for the technique. Numerous game engines have been incorporating physically based rendering in the past, but I feel that the difference in what each technique can offer is becoming increasingly insignificant. That being said, we as a studio are placing a great emphasis on ray tracing, as we believe we can bring forth an expression that is unique and representative of Luminous Productions with this technique.
―We've seen ray tracing being partially incorporated in the past; what was your primary motivation behind creating an entire scene with path tracing, as you did with the "BackStage" demo?
Aramaki：Of course, other developers are incorporating ray tracing as well, but only partially as you said - for reflections or shadows only. However, as I mentioned earlier, we have quite a number of artists with experience in pre-rendering at Luminous Productions, so my main motivation was to create something we could use as a reference for what must be achieved in our game through delivering the same level of quality with ray tracing as you would get with a pre-render. I'm hoping that our experience with path tracing will serve as our benchmark, which we can use to determine what direction we should evolve our game.
―I see, it's easier for the team to share the same vision if they can visualize what their goal is and what exactly they should aim to create?
Aramaki： What I wanted was to create something that could represent what our goal is with ray tracing, rather than creating the image by building on our techniques one by one from the bottom-up. I also thought it could potentially also serve as a benchmark for not only the team involved, but for the entire studio.
―Did you take on this challenge based on your firm confidence that it could be integrated into your workflow in the near future, and not simply because it is cutting-edge technology?
Aramaki：Absolutely, the initiative wouldn't have happened without that vision. As our next step, we want to take on the technological development necessary to achieve pre-rendered CG quality in real-time by incorporating lighting techniques as well as path processing methods used in pre-rendering in order to match a certain reference quality.
―I thought the demo showed quite a high degree of promise that could certainly help you advance on to the next step.Incidentally, how much of your original ideas and objectives were you able to attain in this demo?
Aramaki：Yes, it actually turned out better than I expected... (laugh)
Honestly, as a path tracing demo I'd give it an A+ for its quality. At the same time, our future challenge in terms of facial came to light and we also discovered many aspects that need further improvement in the workflow. However, the fact that we gained a better understanding of these flaws itself is significant, and it has helped us break down the ideas of what needs to be done next into more specific assignments, allowing us to take a major step toward making the necessary improvements.
I expect to see more and more ray tracing demos being produced as well as ray tracing actually being implemented into games within our industry, but some of what we managed to achieve this time is a step ahead of them. We gained visibility on the issues on the performance side and were able to deliver a more substantial outcome than we initially anticipated.
―Was there anything particularly challenging in your endeavor to achieve that degree of perfection?
Aramaki：Well, the short production period of three months from beginning to end was a challenge in itself...Specifically, many of the light sources shown in the "Backstage" demo, such as glass bottles with a large amount of reflections and refraction and other translucent objects, are often used in games, but the handling of these objects with ray tracing was quite tough as there wasn't a lot of literature available on the subject.
―As far as past examples go, while there are some that have been fully calculated for ray tracing, it seems like it's quite hard to find one that has actually been used in a game?
Aramaki：That's right. We couldn't really find any presentations by other companies that would explain how to handle things such as details, so we pretty much felt our way through the dark on our own. (laugh)
―Changing the shading method seems to require a tremendous amount of trial and error on a very fundamental level, but you still managed to complete the demo in the short period of three months - was there any secret behind that success?
Aramaki：Based on my own experience of implementing pre-rendered shading in the past, it was pretty easy to grasp the scripting of current ray tracing shaders. The original API concept of Direct X ray tracing possessed pre-rendering design elements, so as long as you have an understanding of that area, it is not that difficult a technique.
―But it's not often the case that people have that kind of past experience, I assume?
Aramaki：Considering that the shader techniques that had been used in the game industry before now were completely different from the shaders used in pre-rendering, I don't think there are too many people with experience in both.
―In that case I assume you'd welcome new hires, not only from the game industry but from the film industry as well, with the motivation to learn something like this proactively?
Aramaki：Yes, the gap between film and game is rapidly disappearing.I should mention, a number of artists currently working for Luminous Productions, particularly in the animation team, have transitioned from the film industry. Even if one's career does not have its foundations in game development, the experience and knowledge garnered in film can certainly be capitalized on in making games and could even be enhanced further. That experience plays a huge part especially in current game development, which incorporates pre-rendering, and we hope the viewers can see the results of that when watching our "BackStage" demo.
Skills from various industries will grow in demand as technical features continue to evolve
―Right, so the knowledge the film industry can offer is becoming more important than ever. My impression from these five interviews is that the developers can no longer keep up with or surpass next-generation game development unless they continue to introduce technologies from various fields without limiting themselves to the game industry - is that the case?
Aramaki：For example, when it comes to modeling, artists with experience using CAD (computer-aided design) are highly valued. Screenplay writers who specialized in film and anime are also doing an excellent job in our field and developers with expertise in pre-rendering techniques seem particularly compatible with game development. All in all, the abilities of those originally from different fields can be fully utilized and are sought after more than ever in the game development environment.
―The evolution of hardware and the massive growth in what needs to be and can be done that comes with it, opens up more opportunities for people with diverse experience, doesn't it?
Aramaki：While it's important that we incorporate technologies from various fields, I, at the same time, recognize that the core elements we must focus on are to build a solid game world and to shine a spotlight on our artistic capabilities and expression, so that our players will get fully immersed into our game world. It's vital that we eliminate any sense of uncanniness that players might sense during gameplay and we want to dedicate ourselves into creating a more realistic and immersive environment that enables the players to feel like they're actually in the game world.
―An environment where the player can feel like they're actually in the game world - does that mean you're heading towards photorealism?
Aramaki：That's correct. Keeping the game's worldwide launch in sight, I think that bringing our expression closer to reality will help players get immersed through having our content be easily relatable to their real world experiences. I want to deliver a game with such photorealistic expression keeping our audience around the world in mind above all.
More than wanting to show impressive cinematics, it's the realism that's important. Our number one focus is on how easily a player can immerse themselves into a particular world view.
Luminous Engine as the development environment where artists can freely pursue uncompromised quality
―I believe Luminous Productions is presently in the stage where a variety of technical tests are being conducted - is it your policy to continue to proactively participate in and give presentations at events targeting developers, such as CEDEC, moving forward?
Aramaki：Yes, I'd like us to be active in that area, although it also depends on what phase of development we'd be in at the time. Getting to present the results of the testing we are doing can greatly boost motivation of our employees while also giving them the opportunity to hear the response from other companies first hand.
―Apart from Luminous Productions, there are several companies that develop their own engines and tools. From your perspective as a developer, what do you think the unique strength of the Luminous Engine is that cannot be found elsewhere?
Aramaki： I would say its strength is that the design concept of this engine has always been to streamline the work of developers, so the learning costs for those who have never used the engine before are not that high and that enables everyone to work efficiently on our engine.
Additionally, the graphics part is designed so that the data from DCC tools can be easily brought over, not to mention that the engine's level editor uses node-based scripting which makes it possible for us to implement game prototypes at early stages of development.
To sum it up, our engine provides an environment where we can create game samples without difficulty. In that sense, I believe it's becoming an engine that is truly competitive and can rival the engines of other companies.
―The engine being easy to use and the game samples being easy to create is what leads to high-quality - do you think such an environment is another one of the unique characteristics of Luminous Productions?
Aramaki：When we think about how we can improve the quality of a game, we focus on how much work can be performed by the artists who can deliver the quality we need.
Taking the creation of character behavior for example - if the process involves an artist who first creates the motion data that then gets implemented by a programmer and so on and so forth, we often end up making a compromise somewhere along the way or the character behavior turns into something that the artist did not intend it to be.
In order to avoid such situations, we at Luminous Productions are aiming to create an environment in which the person who is responsible for creating the data follows through with it until the final output. Even right now, our studio has an environment where the artist can create everything on their own all the way to when the game is playable on a gamepad. An environment where such talented artists can experiment with different things in order to achieve quality - that's certainly a characteristic of Luminous Productions.
―I feel said environment seems to have been fully leveraged for the "BackStage" initiative?
Aramaki：The process moved swiftly from the moment we decided to do the "BackStage" demo to when it was actually finished. I think the way we could structure a team for that specific initiative right on the spot and get started as quickly as we did was only possible because of the environment this studio offers.
■A studio with an atmosphere that encourages individuals to do their utmost for a common goal
Aramaki： The same approach can be applied to game development. In particular, our combat team has been successful in turning themselves into a taskforce, where the game designer works alongside artists and programmers to generate ideas together and produce tangible results at a quick pace, rather than having the game designer just pass down their ideas from the top down.
Early on, we share and set up objectives within the team with the members of that particular team. It's very rare that we run into a situation where the team members are working in an uncoordinated fashion or they don't know what their work is for.
―In the previous interviews in this series, the developers mentioned on more than one occasion that the advantage of Luminous Production is that the studio encourages their employees to proactively experiment with anything that could lead to creating something interesting - is there anything you personally try to keep in mind, in order to create such an environment?
Aramaki：For game development, I place great emphasis on what our objective and concept are. To achieve that objective, our team members keep working towards it while sharing their progress with the whole team, but I try to leave the how to them; this approach gives individual team members broad discretion in terms of how they want to realize the set objectives and allows them to let their uniqueness shine. At the same time, each individual and the team are aligned on their objectives by having discussions when necessary to make sure everyone is on the same page.
We are developing a new game at Luminous Productions. We are blessed to have such talented developers supporting the foundation of our engine development and that's why we were able to accomplish a ray tracing demo like "BackStage." The engine is constantly growing and we have future plans for it as well. We are also capable of quickly incorporating new ideas into our game thanks to said foundation and the developers we have. Ultimately, I hope to deliver a game that can surprise and satisfy people around the world.