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Insomniac and Lionhead talk next gen engines: why obsessing over power gets us nowhere

"We need to make it easier for the artists to make the games."

The simplest way to sell something is to over-sell it, and that's one commercial trend the arrival of next generation console hardware is unlikely to change. Microsoft has yet to so much as publicly countenance the thought of a successor to Xbox 360, but third party engine developers have already promised to exhaust the machine's capabilities. Crytek's CEO Cevat Yerli, for instance, boasts that CryEngine 3 has been "next gen ready" since 2009, while Frostbite 2 developer DICE is reportedly aiming "two years ahead" of Xbox 720's launch day specs.

"Power" dominates the next gen conversation, an ill-defined criterion for success that floats in a muddled jargon-soup of clock speeds, memory allowances and calculations-per-second. That's never more apparent than when you're talking to Epic's Cliff Bleszinski, poster-child for the company whose middleware tools have become the gold standard on Xbox 360.

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"It is up to Epic, and [technology lead] Tim Sweeney in particular, to motivate Sony and Microsoft not to phone in what these next consoles are going to be," Bleszinski observed in May alongside the unveiling of Unreal Engine 4, Epic's latest techno behemoth. "It needs to be a quantum leap. They need to damn near render Avatar in real time, because I want it and gamers want it - even if they don't know they want it."

Magpie enthusiasts can be relied upon to take an interest in horsepower-intensive software. But many of Bleszinski's peers have caveats. As sabre-rattling over the virility of the latest engines has intensified, a growing body of developers are expressing reservations about the pre-eminence of "power" over flexibility, cost-effectiveness and user-friendliness. "I'm all for technology being as dumbed down as possible," Lionhead's creative director Gary Carr flatly summarised when we asked for his thoughts in June.

By Carr's lights, hardware is worth precisely as much as the concepts it allows creatives to put into practice. "Quite often people who are very good at writing technology are not good at writing creatively cool things," he went on. "The point I'm making is: if you can offer something that's as simple as a Fisher Price toy which still produces amazing results, than I've got a broader range of people I can invite into this industry to make great games."

As an Unreal licensee - Epic's famed engine is the backbone of the forthcoming Fable: The Journey - Carr understands the attractions of mind-blowing texture resolutions and syrupy dynamic lighting. But when you're talking about realising a vision, all that comes second to ease of use. "The pipeline and tools to be as simple to use as possible. I can't stand the fact that sometimes you need to put technical people in to do something which should be a very creative role."

These sentiments returned to dog us last month, during a showing of chimerical four-player shooter Fuse - Insomniac's debut Xbox 360 title and first new IP for consoles since 2006. The Ratchet & Clank studio has taken the opportunity to build a brand new proprietary engine, with a view not just to matching the production values of Gears and its ilk, but creating a foundation for next generation efforts.

Broadly speaking, the Fuse engine's key asset is that it allows designers to make alterations without spending hours watching levels re-compute, or enlisting the help of over-worked programmers. Demonstrating the new toolset, senior animator Ben Van Dyken implemented a new, extra-camp running animation for one of the game's characters by dragging and dropping nodes on a grid. Moments later, we were able to appreciate the results in-game.

"Developing multiplatform has forced us to change our technology, and take a step back from how we make our games," Insomniac's chief creative officer Brian Allgeier told us later. "We want to make sure that it's very flexible and that it could extend into the future. So yes, essentially we're going to be able to build off've this engine for many future projects."

For Allgeier and his cohorts, being able to prototype and test ideas quickly is worth considerably more than access to hardware with no upper limits. "I think iteration is key, especially for creative people and artists who want to be able to work very quickly and see the results and get into that creative mode. The moment you have to add up minutes between clicking a button and seeing something change in the game, it just slows down the whole process, and you can lose a lot of momentum that way."

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Sadly, such losses of momentum are widely held to be inevitable whenever a new console arrives, as teams wrestle with unfamiliar platforms. Carr hopes that considerate design on the part of engine developers will absorb the blow, however, allowing upcoming talent to apply their best ideas from the get-go, rather than a decade down the line.

"I don't want people to have to research for ten years and become middle-aged people before they can do something that is industry standard," he told us in closing. "That seems crazy. We need to make it easier for the artists to make the games."

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