Games

Huddesfield Designers Bring New Ginetta Racing Car to Life

The in-house design team at the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre (3M BIC) has used 3D technology and augmented reality to help Ginetta fine tune its latest prototype. 

3d racing car

Having already provided a similar service for the launch of its first prototype in 2015, Ginetta approached the 3M BIC design team to animate its £1.3millon LMP1 machine.

This enabled the car manufacturer’s own in-house design team to visualise the cars development, as well as showcase it at a launch event at Silverstone Circuit to potential buyers.

Ewan Baldry, technical director at Ginetta, said: “3D technology is an important part of our design process and marketing. To see something on a flat CAD screen has a few limitations, so being able to see something you can move around is very helpful.

“The main thing with a project such as this, from a marketing point of view, is to show credibility in the early stages to demonstrate to people the direction you are heading in, therefore having 3D visuals was key.”

The animation for the LMP1 car was created using physical STL data (used for Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) testing or wind tunnel analysis) submitted to the 3M BIC design team by Ginetta.

Some adjustments had to be made to the original model in order for it to be re-textured with the corresponding racing livery, using Autodesk 3DS Max.

The team then rigged the car for animation and set the lighting for rendering purposes.

Paul Tallon, lead consultant designer at the 3M BIC, said: “3D rendering is a process in which an algorithm calculates the movements of a virtual photon on interaction with a surface of varying qualities.

“With the 3M BIC’s High Performance Computer and the latest Vray rendering software, we were able to get the detail to look as real life as possible in our render. This was particularly important for Ginetta who was looking for a realistic render to show their clients.”

As well as the on-screen render, the design team produced the car in augmented reality (AR) for use with the Microsoft Hololens, enabling people to walk around a scaled down holographic version of the car.

A 3D model was also printed in nylon by selective laser sintering (SLS) using the industrial additive manufacture printer on the 3M BIC’s Innovation Avenue, all of which were showcased at the launch event at Silverstone.

Ewan added: “Having worked with the 3M BIC team previously we knew they’d do the project justice. Again, we were really pleased with the service. We didn’t give them very much time, but they still produced something which was professional and to a high standard.”

Significant interest in the LMP1 has already been expressed following the launch event, from both new and existing customers.

The 3M BIC design team is currently working on the next stage of the process which involves creating a serious gaming experience that allows users, particularly racing drivers, to virtually test the LMP1 car on a track with varying different scenery and weather conditions to enhance the driver experience.

Leeds-based Ginetta, the leading British race car manufacturer, was founded in 1958 and acquired by racing driver and businessman Lawrence Tomlinson in 2005.

Since then it has taken the racing industry by storm, selling cars across the world and training some of the brightest stars in motorsport.

Source: bqlive.co.uk

25 Fastest Gaming Laptops Ranked

These are the gaming laptops we’ve tested with the best 3D performance over the past year.

gaming laptops

Gaming on a laptop is no longer the frustrating compromise it once was. Slimmer designs paired with more powerful processors and graphics cards have brought gaming laptops closer than ever to performance previously found only in desktops.

And the pace of innovation hasn’t slowed down. Just in the past year, laptops can now easily support high-end virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and new designs can fit top-tier graphics hardware into very slim laptop bodies, as in the case of the 17mm thick Asus Zephyrus, which is the thinnest laptop with an Nvidia GeForce 1080 GPU.

Putting gaming laptops to the test

For this roundup, we’ve taken all the laptops with discrete graphics hardware tested over the past 12 months, and ranked them based on 3D performance. When testing a gaming laptop or desktop, we run preset tests using several games, including Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Bioshock Infinite, and others, along with standard benchmarks like 3DMark, which is designed to test a computer’s 3D graphic rendering capabilities.

For this list, we’re ranking the laptops in order of 3DMark scores, but the real-world game scores (presented as the number of frames of animation per second the laptop can render) match very closely. Note that these scores are specifically for the exact configurations of each laptop we tested, and almost all can be configured with a wide range of options.

The winners are…

The results offer few surprises. The handful of laptops with dual video cards (rare in a laptop) came out on top, followed by laptops with a single Nvidia 1080 GPU and so on down the list. The No. 1 spot is held by the most expensive laptop we’ve ever reviewed, the $9,000 Acer Predator 21 X. But at more reasonable prices, systems from Asus, Alienware, Origin PC, Lenovo, HP, MSI and Razer, among others, are all represented.

As we test many more everyday laptops than gaming ones, the last few spots get us into crossover territory, with Nvidia and AMD GPUs that aren’t really for gaming, so serious gamers should stick with something that has at least an Nvidia 1050 graphics card.

More details on each laptop, including links to reviews and benchmark scores, are in our roundup gallery, with a top-level overview below. We’ll update the rankings as new gaming laptops are tested in the CNET Labs.

acer-predator-21-x-22.jpg

Acer’s frankly insane $9,000 Predator 21 X was the top performer in this roundup.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Top 25 Gaming Laptop Performers

System Name 3DMark Fire Strike Ultra score Graphics Card
1 Acer Predator 21X 9444 (2) Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080
2 MSI GT83 8594 (2) Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080
3 Asus ROG G701V 5226 Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080
4 Alienware 17 R4 5024 Nvidia GTX GeForce GTX 1080
5 Origin PC Eon17-X (2017) 4970 Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080
6 Origin PC Eon17-X (2016) 4919 Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080
7 Razer Blade Pro 4456 Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080
8 Asus ROG G752VS-XS74K 4126 Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070
9 Asus ROG Zephyrus 4095 NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 with Max-Q Design
10 Alienware 15 R4 4054 Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070
11 HP Omen (17-inch) 3816 Nvidia Geforce GTX 1070
12 Origin PC Evo 15-S 2671 Nvidia Geforce GTX 1060
13 MSI GS73VR-7RF Stealth Pro 2647 Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060
14 Alienware 13 R3 (OLED late 2016) 2609 Nvidia Geforce GTX 1060
15 Razer Blade 2593 Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060
16 Lenovo Legion Y720 2523 Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060
17 Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming 1871 Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050Ti
18 Origin PC EON15-S 1861 Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050Ti
19 Lenovo Legion Y520 1855 Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti
20 Asus ROG Strix GL753VE-DS74 1822 Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050Ti
21 Acer Aspire VX 15 -591G 1252 Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050
22 Dell XPS 15 (2017) 1242 Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050
23 Wacom MobileStudio Pro 16 810 Nvidia Quadro M100M
24 Samsung NoteBook 9 Pro 547 AMD Radeon 540 Graphics
25 HP Spectre x360 357 Nvidia GeForce 940MX

 

Source: cnet.com

3D graphics of Nvidia Uses AI are Now Better Than an Artist

Nvidia spans both gaming graphics and artificial intelligence, and it is showing that with its announcements this week at the Siggraph computer graphics event in Los Angeles.

Those announcements range from providing external graphics processing for content creators to testing AI robotics technology inside a virtual environment known as the Holodeck, named after the virtual reality simulator in the Star Trek series. In fact, Nvidia’s researchers have created a way for AI to create realistic human facial animations in a fraction of the time it takes human artists to do the same thing.

“We are bringing artificial intelligence to computer graphics,” said Greg Estes, vice president of developer marketing at Nvidia, in an interview with GamesBeat. “It’s bringing things full circle. If you look at our history in graphics, we took that into high-performance computing and took that into a dominant position in deep learning and AI. Now we are closing that loop and bringing AI into graphics.”

“Our strategy is to lead with research and break new ground,” he said. “Then we take that lead in research and take it into software development kits for developers.”

Above: Nvidia’s Optix 5.0 can “de-noise” images by removing graininess.

Image Credit: Nvidia

Nvidia has 10 research papers this year at the Siggraph event, Estes said. And some of that will be relevant to Nvidia’s developers, which number about 550,000 now. About half of those developers are in games, while the rest are in high-performance computing, robotics, and AI.”

Among the announcements, one is particularly cool. Estes said that Nvidial will show off its Isaac robots in a new environment. These robots, which are being used to vet AI algorithms, will be brought inside the virtual environment that Nvidia calls Project Holodeck. Project Holodeck is a virtual space for collaboration, where full simulations of things like cars and robots are possible. By putting the Isaac robots inside that world, they can learn how to behave, without causing havoc in the real world.

Above: The Project Holodeck demo

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

“A robot will be able to learn things in VR,” Estes said. “We can train it in a simulated environment.”

Nvidia is providing external Titan X or Quadro graphics cards through an external graphics processing unit (eGPU) chassis. That will boost workflows for people who use their laptop computers for video editing, interactive rendering, VR content creation, AI development
and more, Estes said.

To ensure professionals can enjoy great performance with applications such as Autodesk Maya and Adobe Premier Pro, Nvidia is releasing a new performance driver for Titan X hardware to make it faster. The Quadro eGPU solutions will be available in September through partners such as Bizon, Sonnet, and One Stop Systems/Magma.

Nvidia also said it was launching its Optix 5.0 SDK on the Nvidia DGX AI workstation. That will give designers, artists, and other content-creation professionals the rendering capability of 150 standard central processing unit (CPU) servers.

The tech could be used by millions of people, Estes said. And that kind of system would cost $75,000 over three years, compared to $4 million for a CPU-based system, the company said.

OptiX 5.0’s new ray tracing capabilities will speed up the process required to visualize designs or characters, thereby increasing a creative professional’s ability to interact with their content. It features new AI “de-noising” capability to accelerate the removal of graininess from images, and brings GPU-accelerated motion blur for realistic animation effects. It will be available for free in November.

By running Nvidia Optix 5.0 on a DGX Station, content creators can significantly accelerate training, inference and rendering (meaning both AI and graphics tasks).

“AI is transforming industries everywhere,” said Steve May, vice president and chief technology officer of Pixar, in a statement. “We’re excited to see how Nvidia’s new AI technologies will improve the filmmaking process.”

On the research side, Nvidia is showing how it can animate realistic human faces and simulate how light interacts with surfaces. It will tap AI technology to improve the realism of the facial animations. Right now, it takes human artists hundreds of hours to create digital faces that more closely match the faces of human actors.

Nvidia Research partnered with Remedy Entertainment, maker of games such as Quantum Break, Max Payne and Alan Wake, to help game makers produce more realistic faces with less effort and at lower cost.

Above: Nvidia is using AI to create human facial animations.

Image Credit: Nvidia

The parties combined Remedy’s animation data and Nvidia’s deep learning technology to train a neural network to produce facial animations directly from actor videos. The research was done by Samuli Laine, Tero Karras, Timo Aila, and Jaakko Lehtinen. Nvidia’s solution requires only five minutes of training data to generate all the facial animation needed for an entire game from a simple video stream.

Antti Herva, lead character technical artist at Remedy, said that over time, the new methods will let the studio build larger, richer game worlds with more characters than are now possible.

Already, the studio is creating high-quality facial animation in much less time than in the past.

 

“Based on the Nvidia research work we’ve seen in AI-driven facial animation, we’re convinced AI will revolutionize content creation,” said Herva, in a statement. “Complex facial animation for digital doubles like that in Quantum Break can take several man-years to create. After working with Nvidia to build video- and audio-driven deep neural networks for facial animation, we can reduce that time by 80 percent in large scale projects and free our artists to focus on other tasks.”

In another research project, Nvidia trained a system to generate realistic facial animation using only audio. With this tool, game studios will be able to add more supporting game characters, create live animated avatars, and more easily produce games in multiple languages.

Above: AI can smooth out the “jaggies,” or rough edges in 3D graphics.

Image Credit: Nvidai

AI also holds promise for rendering 3D graphics, the process that turns digital worlds into the life-like images you see on the screen. Film makers and designers use a technique called “ray tracing” to simulate light reflecting from surfaces in the virtual scene. Nvidia is using AI to improve both ray tracing and rasterization, a less costly rendering technique used in computer games.

In a related project, Nvidia researchers used AI to tackle a problem in computer game rendering known as anti-aliasing. Like the de-noising problem, anti-aliasing removes artifacts from partially-computed images, with this artifact looking like stair-stepped “jaggies.” Nvidia researchers Marco Salvi and Anjul Patney trained a neural network to recognize jaggy artifacts and replace those pixels with smooth anti-aliased pixels. The AI-based solution produces images that are sharper (less blurry) than existing algorithms.

Nvidia is also developing more efficient methods to trace virtual light rays. Computers sample the paths of many light rays to generate a photorealistic image. The problem is that not all of those light paths contribute to the final image.

Researchers Ken Daum and Alex Keller trained a neural network to guide the choice of light paths. They accomplished this by connecting the math of tracing light rays to the AI concept of reinforcement learning. Their solution taught the neural network to distinguish the paths most likely to connect lights with virtual cameras, from the paths that don’t contribute to the image.

Above: Nvidia uses AI to figure out light sources in 3D graphics.

Image Credit: Nvidia

Lastly, Nvidia said it taking immersive VR to more people by releasing the VRWorks 360 Video SDK to enable production houses to livestream high-quality, 360-degree, stereo video to their audiences.

Normally, it takes a lot of computation time to stitch together images for 360-degree videos. By doing live 360-degree stereo stitching, Nvidia is making life a lot easier for the live-production and live-event industries, said Zvi Greenstein, vice president at Nvidia.

The VRWorks SDK enables production studios, camera makers and app developers to integrate 360 degree, stereo stitching SDK into their existing workflow for live and post production. The Z Cam V1 Pro (made by VR camera firm Z Cam) is the first professional 360 degree VR camera that will fully integrate the VRWorks SDK.

“We have clients across a wide range of industries, from travel through sports, who want high quality, 360 degree video,” said Chris Grainger, CEO of Grainger VR, in a statement. “This allows filmmakers to push the boundaries of live storytelling.”

Source: Venturebeat.com

The Making of Final Fantasy 12

the making of ff12

the making of ff12the making of ff12

Controversy trails behind the Final Fantasy series with each new release. From cries of betrayal when Final Fantasy 7 jumped ship to PlayStation to frustration over the story changes Final Fantasy 15 underwent during its tortuous 10-year development process, there’s simply no such thing as an easy birth when it comes to Square Enix’s biggest franchise.

Final Fantasy 12, the 2006 PlayStation release whose overhauled high-definition remake The Zodiac Age launches July 11, may well have been the most tortuous release of all. Arriving years late and abandoning numerous established series traditions in favor of a radically overhauled play style, FF12 immediately inspired ardent enthusiasm and passionate hatred among the series’ faithful, with seemingly little room in between.

Worse, its troubled history and belated arrival led to a cascade effect throughout subsequent Final Fantasy titles. Because it shipped so far behind schedule and appeared at the tail end of PS2’s life, Final Fantasy 13‘s creators had to abandon plans to bring that game to PS2 and instead target next-generation HD hardware — a disruption with an impact on the franchise the company is only now beginning to get under control.

It wasn’t supposed to be like that. FF12 was meant to be the safe game, the comfortable fan-fodder. Like with the charming Final Fantasy 9, the idea behind FF12 was to double down on series traditions and easy wins. Its creative team brought together Yasumi Matsuno, the visionary writer and director responsible for Final Fantasy Tactics, and Hiroyuki Ito, the systems designer who created the series’ two defining play mechanics: The Active-Time Battle system and the flexible Job class system.

Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age
 Square Enix

FF12 would combine the best and most beloved elements of the franchise in a setting steeped in Final Fantasy’s established rendition of Western high fantasy: Kingdoms and royalty, knights and airships, pirates and nihilistic gods. While Yoshinori Kitase’s team explored sci-fi futurescapes with Final Fantasy 10 and 13and Hiromichi Tanaka led the charge into massively multiplayer online collaboration with Final Fantasy 11, Matsuno and Ito’s names hinted at a game that would embrace fans who felt increasingly disenfranchised by the series’ movement into new settings and genres.

Of course, Matsuno and Ito didn’t create the game single-handedly. Their collaborators on Final Fantasy 12 included such luminaries as illustrator Akihiko Yoshida, composer Hitoshi Sakimoto and designer Hiroshi Minagawa — all of whom had been largely inseparable from Matsuno since working together at Quest on groundbreaking tactical RPGs Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre. They’d all moved over to Square together to team up again on 1998’s Final Fantasy Tactics and the stunning cinematic action RPG Vagrant Story, and Ito had contributed heavily to Tactics, refining the character class Job system he had designed for Final Fantasy 3and 5 to its next evolution.

Square as a company, and Final Fantasy as a property, were collectively in a state of flux around the time FF12 was announced. In 2001, the company released the ambitious first (and, it would turn out, final) full-length motion picture of its Square Pictures movie imprint in the form of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. That film’s crushing failure at the box office in part led the “father of Final Fantasy,” series lead designer and producer Hironobu Sakaguchi, to depart from the company and establish his own studio, Mistwalker. Amidst this turmoil and the uncertainty surrounding the online-only Final Fantasy 11, fans could at least rest assured that the next numbered Final Fantasy would be a mature, grounded work created by some of the most talented people at Square. And so it would be — but the end result wasn’t necessarily what series fans had been dreaming of.

Now, more than a decade later, two key personnel on FF12 hope series fans will give this polarizing entry a second chance.

MEET THE NEW BOSSES

Takashi Katano and Hiroaki Kato make for something of an unlikely pair. Katano is every inch the classic vision of a game programmer: Round-faced, soft-spoken, with his fashion choices tending toward buttoned-up shirts a conservative hairstyle. Meanwhile, Kato sets off his lean features with an unruly mop of hair and trendy, thick-framed glasses, while a hint of wry amusement frequently tugs at his lips. Yet the two have worked together on Final Fantasy 12 for almost a decade, all added up. While neither saw their names bandied about as marquee talent on the PS2 release, they both played critical roles in the original project. And with most of 12‘s project leads long since having departed from the company, Kato and Katano have taken charge of the game’s upcoming remake, The Zodiac Age.

Having been entrenched in the FF12 project more or less from day one, Katano confirms that despite struggles that beset the team, the final product closely resembled the team’s original creative vision. It turns out that, despite assumptions by many players, the radical upheavals FF12 brought to the franchise formula were always a part of the plan.

Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age
 Square Enix

Final Fantasy 12 did actually turn out planned, from what I saw,” he says. “I had just finished up as the main programmer on Final Fantasy 10 when I was shown the dev docs for Final Fantasy 12. It had the Gambit battles and the seamless open world.”

FF12 represented a fundamental shift in design from FF10. That game had largely pared down the concept of what a Final Fantasy game could be. While it brought considerable technical advances to the series, including fully voiced story sequences and an end to the pre-rendered static backgrounds of the PlayStation One Final Fantasies, it stripped away any pretense of freedom to explore. Even more shockingly, FF10 abandoned Ito’s trademark Active-Time Battle system — a hybrid of real-time and turn-based menu-driven command — in favor of a strictly turn-based format. Battle in FF10 called to mind the turn-order management of the company’s tactical RPGs. Perhaps not surprisingly, the system’s designer Toshiro Tsuchida had come to the project fresh from working on tactical RPGs like Arc the Lad and Square’s own Front Mission trilogy.

Ito, with Katano’s help, hoped to push FF12 back in the other direction. Even the name the team came up with for its new battle system, Active Dimension Battle, suggested an evolution of the old Active-Time Battle. In many respects, ADB combat felt inspired by the inventive 3D combat system that had appeared in Vagrant Story, Matsuno’s previous project. Where Vagrant Story focused largely on one-on-one combat, however, FF12 needed to work for a party of three or four characters against half a dozen or more enemies at once. Even more ambitiously, FF12‘s battle system would break down the barriers between exploration and combat, allowing fights to unfold in the same virtual space as standard dungeon-crawling.

“At the time, I was pretty concerned about whether the PlayStation could really pull that off,” Katano admits. “Compared to FF10, there was a lot more to do and a lot more to consider, because it was a very complicated title. So it really took some resolve to kind of dig down and say, ‘We’re going to do this.'”

“It was just so much more complicated than, say, FF10, which was more of a linear path,” says Kato, whose role on the PS2 version of FF12 was that of “a project manager — you know, monitoring development progress and taking care of all the ins and outs and everything that came up during development. While I wasn’t on from the very beginning, I was in just about when things really got moving in terms of building the game.”

Working with a high-level view of the FF12 project allowed Kato to grasp the enormous scope of the game and the unexpected complications that arose from relinquishing so much control of the player’s experience. For example, he recalls the headaches introduced by giving players the freedom to change around the makeup of their three-member combat party by swapping in reserve team members at any time. “The ability to switch party members in and out of action meant that, at the start of every cutscene, there were several conditions you had to take into account,” he says. “With so many different sort of variations and permutations to account for, the team was always discussing, trying to see every possible outcome. We’d get to work on it and then run into a wall: ‘Oh, we hadn’t accounted for this one thing.’ It was a very iterative process about finding problems and solving them, and also considering all the possibilities.”

Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age
 Square Enix

Even more than the Active Dimension system’s ability to target foes and seamlessly initiate combat, the Gambit system sat at the heart of FF12‘s battle mechanics. It also proved to be, by far, the game’s most controversial inclusion. Some players felt it removed their agency of the action or trivialized the strategy of combat. Popular webcomic Penny Arcade lampooned the Gambit system by envisioning a self-playing version of Super Mario Bros. that allowed players to set Mario to jump and stomp Goombas without their input.

In effect, Gambits allowed players to set the behavior of their party members in battle by rigging a simplified programming language. As players acquired additional Gambit rules, they could largely automate combat by setting conditions to guide their team’s actions. At the most basic level, you could set characters to automatically use fire-based spells against enemies weak to fire. But you could also connect more complex commands: For example, using the Oil skill to render an enemy vulnerable to fire, which could then be exploited by the character set to target elemental weaknesses with fire spells. Gambits could allow you to set your party to perform incredibly sophisticated sequences of commands, freeing you from the need to micromanage their every action — though you could still bring up the command menu to freeze time and adjust tactics on the fly as needed.

Naturally, granting the player so much control over the behavior of the game’s artificial intelligence posed unique challenges. “Say you have your player character over here,” says Katano, tapping the table with his left hand. “You have that party member in an active Gambit. So they might wander off over there instead,” he nods, pointing to a space near his right hand, “and trigger a cutscene. In order to prevent things like that, we had to explore different methods and find a way in the programming. It took about two months. We had to make sure the characters didn’t run over there to make sure we could prevent it from happening.”

Despite the complications involved in implementing the Gambit system, Katano says it felt like the most natural approach to solving the problem of making the Active Dimension system a reality. “We never really explored the idea of having the players issue individual commands,” he says. “It was never meant to be that way.

“We did look into variations on the party control, and one key here was Hiroyuki Ito. His system for monster A.I. in Final Fantasy 4 was somewhat similar to the Gambit system. Maybe Gambits were a little more complicated, but basically that precedent allowed us to manage the party without micromanaging the characters. With this, the three-member parties, and sometimes having a fourth when a guest joined … having the player pick out commands for every single one of them would have taken away from what was supposed to be the fun of the game. We didn’t want it to be overwhelming, so we went with the Gambit system. We never really looked at a menu-based approach.”

As it happened, though, the Gambit and Active Dimension Battle systems weren’t entirely unprecedented within Final Fantasy canon. FF12‘s approach to battle felt almost like a single-player adaptation of the massively multiplayer approach to unified exploration and combat Hiromichi Tanaka’s team was designing for Final Fantasy 11. While this connection may not have been deliberate, as each team within the company worked more or less alone, Kato acknowledges that it wasn’t a complete coincidence, either.

“There wasn’t specifically an intentional sharing of concepts with FF11,” he says. “But, at the time, a lot of the staff were playing FF11. Being part of the same company, I think it informed our ideas and influenced our decisions in some ways, with FF12 having some unique elements necessary to make that work for single player. But there wasn’t a conscious sort of exchange there.

Ultimately, Katano says, the team’s goal for FF12 was to let players approach the adventure however they like. Unlike with FF10, the hand of the creators would provide gentle nudges rather than firm directions. Matsuno’s team simply aimed to facilitate player choices while minimizing the damage mischievous minds could inflict on the game.

“I wouldn’t say there was any resistance to the open world design [at the company], because that was just such a basic principle of the project,” he says. “Everybody was in on it. It was more a question of, you know, how we were going to do it. It was accepted and there wasn’t resistance except that it was really going to be very difficult. So, ultimately, everyone was simply focused on how they were going to accomplish it.

“We didn’t really want to limit players in any way, even if they found exploits. We wanted them to find these things and enjoy them. That’s part of the discovery of the game: Finding those little shortcuts and exploits that you can do. It feels good, and we wanted them to feel that way.”

Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age
 Square Enix

THE UPHEAVAL

Unfortunately, these best of intentions encountered some critical stumbling blocks along the way. Final Fantasy 12 ended up shipping about two years later than its intended launch date. The impressive ambitions the team members laid out for the next evolution of Final Fantasy proved even more complicated than they had expected. Yet an even more critical roadblock emerged sometime around the game’s first major playable public showing at E3 2004: The departure of the game’s lead designer, Yasumi Matsuno.

The precise nature of Matsuno’s resignation from the company and the game remains shrouded in speculation. Perhaps, as some people claim, he suffered a health crisis inflicted by the stress of carrying such a massive project on his shoulders. Or maybe there’s something to rumors that he left due to frustration over executive meddling in the game’s creative direction.

Matsuno’s original vision for FF12‘s story centered around Basch fon Ronsenberg, a knight falsely accused of regicide, as the lead character. While Basch and his struggle to restore his good name remain a critical element of the final version of the game, the company’s higher-ups reportedly insisted that teenage duo Vaan and Penelo be made the game’s point-of-view characters. Final Fantasy has to connect with young players, and Basch (being an elderly 28 years of age) evidently wouldn’t do.

Or perhaps Matsuno’s departure involved a little of both columns A and B. His projects leading up to FF12 had been smaller, more niche-oriented works: A compact dungeon dive, a chess-like tactical game. FF12 by its very nature as a numbered Final Fantasy sequel had to appeal to a far wider audience than a franchise spinoff.

Meanwhile, the expansive open-world vision the FF12 team chose to pursue made for a venture as demanding as the most massive contemporary PC RPGs, such as Morrowind. Matsuno’s work leading up to FF12stood out amongst its peers due to its uncompromising sensibility. Yet a tentpole release for a corporation the size of Square Enix necessarily involves compromise on both ends.

Following Matsuno’s departure, veteran RPG designer Akitoshi Kawazu stepped in to guide the project to completion. Kawazu’s work on unconventional role-playing experiences (Final Fantasy 2SaGaLegend of Mana) has given him a reputation for creating difficult, unfriendly games — a reputation he happily embraces. As a result, many fans attribute the uneven quality of FF12‘s final act to Kawazu.

Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age
 Square Enix

Katano, however, says that’s not really the case: “The game pretty much followed on the same track after Matsuno-san left. There wasn’t a huge overhaul or anything like that. The playable version of the game had been shown at E3, and at that point it was really a matter of polishing up the final product. Once he left, it was just a matter of, ‘We’ll take it from here,’ and following the path.”

Katano also emphasizes that some of the game’s more polarizing or controversial features were in place long before Matsuno left the team. “The part about the change in lead character — that change actually was pretty early on in development. Really, in terms of the story tied into development, there were some slight changes as to which character would appear at which stage, but nothing that would overwhelm development, necessarily, in terms of changes to the plot.

“It’s not as though the whole tale was rewritten into something completely different as we went along. It was just a matter of following the gameplay beats and having them pair up with the story as they went along. Things like locations, and battles, and keeping it all seamless. That was the biggest element of the rewriting, making sure it fit with the gameplay.”

In any case, the change in staffing doesn’t seem to have resulted in bad blood, given that Matsuno returned to Square Enix a few years later to head up a top-to-bottom remake of Tactics Ogre for PlayStation Portable. He also remains on friendly terms with the remaining FF12 team members. “We’re still in touch with Matsuno-san,” Katano says, “and he’s actually quite excited for [The Zodiac Age]. He’s looking forward to it as a player. We can’t wait to see what he thinks of what we’ve put together. He’s even tweeted about it a couple of times!”

Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age
 Square Enix

THE FF12 LEGACY

Final Fantasy 12 met with mixed reactions at launch. Professional critics almost unanimously lauded it with positive reviews, but players struggled to find consensus. For every fan who loved, say, the game’s hands-off approach to combat or the way its story offered a ground-level perspective on a grand saga, another considered those elements anathema to the very concept of Final Fantasy

For Katano, the idea that the team was beholden to some external vision because of its name is ultimately counterproductive. “This is strictly my own opinion,” he says, “but the question of, ‘Is what we’re making Final Fantasy?’ never really occurred to me, because Final Fantasy is what you make of it. It’s not predefined.

“That’s honestly pretty much the gist of it: ‘Final Fantasy’ is what comes of the process of giving it your all. If I were concerned about one thing, it was simply making sure players would find the fun and understand the play style we were going for.

Kato agrees. “Just echoing the same sentiments that it’s a challenge, and there’s nothing you can’t do because it’s ‘Final Fantasy.’ If it’s fun, then it’s accomplished what it’s supposed to be. Of course, you’ll have your chocobos and elixirs and those specific points that you touch on. But as long as you hit those, you’re pretty much free to make it what you will.”

“Each numbered Final Fantasy kind of builds itself completely differently from everything that has come before,” says Katano. “This was just a new story, and it had the Gambits and the seamless battles, and those were the points we wanted to focus on. It just naturally took the shape it did, both at a team level and at a company level.”

Even though FF12 has proven to be one of the most divisive chapters in an already polarizing franchise, Katano and Kato don’t seem to have any real regrets about the game they helped steer through a long and difficult birthing process. It was a challenging project, but one they take satisfaction in. “Those are difficult terms, ‘satisfaction’ and ‘challenging,'” muses Katano. “I think, ultimately, they’re kind of the same answer. The result — maybe not satisfaction, exactly, but I felt fulfilled by having made something challenging and fun. We took on this task, and coming up with this as the end result.”

“At the time, you know, the Gambit system and the seamless world and all the side quests … having those all concentrated on a single disc, that was satisfying,” adds Kato. “All that volume — that was very impressive to me, especially for that hardware generation.

“As for challenge … Well, we’ve revisited the systems here in The Zodiac Age, and I find that making that as fun as possible and seeing what new experiences we could generate — that’s always been the challenge. It’s been fun.”

Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age
 Square Enix

More than a decade on, FF12‘s creators seem curious to see how players will react to the game’s HD remaster. In many ways, the elements that made the PS2 release so controversial in 2006 feel like a result of FF12 being a work ahead of its time. Today, seamless open world RPGs have become standard fare on consoles, to the point that games from completely unrelated genres frequently integrate concepts that felt so strange and unexpected in FF12.

Likewise, the idea of highly automated, A.I.-driven RPG combat no longer seems like a betrayal of the genre. Both of Square Enix’s numbered, single-player sequels to FF12 have incorporated combat mechanics similar to that of the Active Dimension Battle system — minus the Gambits — while blockbuster franchises have helped standardize FF12‘s approach to A.I. party companions in everything from shooters to stealth games to Western RPGs. You can see FF12‘s DNA in everything from The Witcher 3 to Metal Gear Solid 5. If anything, The Zodiac Age runs the risk of feeling too commonplace in 2017. Considering how jarringly unconventional FF12 felt a decade ago, that may be the game’s greatest claim to fame.

However, Katano rejects the idea that the FF12 set out to revolutionize the RPG. “We weren’t really trying to change the world, or change the game industry, with what we were doing,” he says. “We were just exploring something that we thought was fun. So in that sense, it’s a success. The game’s legacy is that success, in that people enjoy it.

“If people in the game industry think of it as as significant accomplishment or it inspires them, too, that makes us very happy.”

“I feel pretty much the same,” says Kato. “It wasn’t about changing the world or the game industry. It was just about making something that people would enjoy. And seeing that at the time, you know, Japanese RPGs had all been pretty much command-based, it was something very new for that era, so for the time … having that seamless open world … yeah. Looking back, it was a pretty bold challenge, come to think of it. So I think that’s part of the legacy.

“And we never know what’s next. At the time, the Gambits were something new and fun. We’re always looking for the next thing that’s going to be new and fun.”

Source: polygon.com