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Bridging the gap

Microsoft's new Shadowrun game may have found the Holy Grail gamers have been seeking for years.

Last Updated June 5, 2007

Just over a year ago, Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates surprised gathered media when he took the stage at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, Calif., attending the video game industry's E3 conference and trade show for the first time ever.

There, he announced an ambitious plan by the world's largest software company to unify the online capabilities of video games by letting people play and interact irrespective of what kind of device they used.

The plan, dubbed Live Anywhere, would integrate Microsoft's Xbox Live online gaming network and Xbox 360 console with internet gaming on Windows-based PCs and extend to cellphones. While the third part of that equation has yet to materialize, the first video game that lets console gamers play head-to-head with PC users — Shadowrun — has just been released.

Set in 2031, the first-person action game melds magic and technology, giving the player the option to play as a cybernetically enhanced soldier helping the RNA Global corporation control and profit from newfound magic, or one of the rebel Lineage who want magic to remain free to all.

CBC News Online spoke with Shadowrun's executive producer, Mitch Gitelman, on a recent visit to Toronto, where the studio manager at Microsoft's FASA Studio discussed the challenges of developing the game.

What stands out for you most about creating this game?

It's the hardest thing I've ever done. Mentors of mine told me I was going to fail. I was told to quit by my mentors.

We [at FASA] worked three-and-a-half years of 18-hour days …

I just crapped a watermelon. I can turn around and look at it and say, "That's a nice watermelon and I can't believe it came out of me."

I can retire now. I don't have to make another game — but I will.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in making Shadowrun?

Three years is not really a long time to make a game. If you're doing the 10th Harry Potter game, you can crap those out pretty quickly … We made a game from scratch, we made an engine from scratch that truly innovates — it felt like we didn't have enough time.

There's all sorts of things that can contribute to the length of development. One of the worst is feature-creep. There were people on the team who said we have to have vehicles in this game, and do this and that … but you have to enforce schedule discipline.

Part of the problem is you're trying to create something fun. How fun is fun enough?

Unfortunately, it falls to me to say we're done and there will be no more additions to the game. It's like killing your children.

The team is so dedicated to quality that it sometimes nearly comes to blows — there's major league competition to do a good job.

What were the technical problems related to trying to integrate both PCs and consoles?

On a very base level of having an Xbox 360 and Windows Vista machines talk to each other, you have to ask: Do you have the guts to try it in the first place? But networking between the two is not the tough thing.

Then what was the hard part?

It's the first cross-platform game. When we were making Shadowrun, Games for Windows Live [Microsoft's brand for PC games] didn't exist yet. Vista didn't exist yet. So we had to guess what it would look like. A lot of it comes down to leaps.

We had to build our own engine because we knew our gameplay would require things that [for example] the Quake 3 engine couldn't do.

Like what?

The portaling system — switching between indoors and outdoors [in the game.] When you're making a game, you decide whether you're going to be indoors or outdoors, and that determines how you make your game. When you're making a hallway shooter with dark, detailed rooms, you make your game one way, or you have vista games in huge outdoor environments and make your game that way.

[Shadowrun requires elements of both types of games and the ability to instantly switch between them since characters can teleport between each of the settings.]

We're dumb enough to do both in one game — that's stupid. You can't load all of that stuff in memory. Instead, you 'portal' it off. In Halo, you can't see from one room into another room — there's [closed] doors between them. In Shadowrun, you can.

What is the key difference between a console game and a PC game?

The Xbox II [Xbox 360] is a little different from a PC. It's got three [computing] cores in it, it's a confined unit, homogeneous. To develop for a product like that is fantastic.

Why?

It makes game development easier. For example, I don't have to know what video card [a user may] have [in his or her computer]. I don't have to scale my artwork. For different video cards, you normally have to create different artwork and levels of detail so PCs can handle the images.

What is the future of video games?

The next thing is indies. A lot of people don't want to work for a major corporation — [Instead] they try to think of new ways of approaching their work. You see parallels in [film directors] Steven Soderbergh and Terry Gilliam.

Game developers can use [software] tool packages that are easy to use, keeping costs down by making smaller, more accessible games. I see independence being the way.

I think we're training people for this right now by letting them make user-generated content. You customize your cellphone to be a different colour, the next level up is blogs, sites like MySpace, and games. You already see it in games like World of Warcraft where you can customize your character.

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