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.
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.”
April showers bring May flowers…or so they once said! Hopefully that English proverb holds true for us here in the Pacific North West this spring. While it has been dreary outside, long days and warmer weather await!
But what to do with your front yard once the weather turns?
Right now it is useless. It looks tired. It looks old. The neighbours think the house is abandoned (not actually but you get the point). This spring you are going to make your yard scream modernity – and on a DIY budget no less! Now roll up your sleeves and prepare to transform your tired yard into a magnificently modern masterpiece.
The key to a beautiful house is a beautiful lawn. Spring and autumn are the best seasons for lawn repair and a bag of turf builder, combined with a regiment of moss killer and weed remover, are quick and cheap options to restore that deep green hue.
Consider borrowing your neighbour’s push-mower to get that short uniform look and do not forget to edge the lawn. With proper edging and a close shave, you will have a fantastic looking lawn all summer – don’t forget to water!
Plant A Tree
A regularly pruned tree of moderate height, say…no larger than 7 feet, can be a focal point in your garden. It draws eyes from the house itself and provides depth to a well manicured lawn that is cut both short and uniform. You can grab a juvenile tree for around $20.
Be Bold: Stain Your Cement
The world of stained cement is a marvelous one. You are only limited by your imagination…and maybe your budget. But I know you are a DIY master with a small pocketbook. Fear not! The people over at doityourself have a wonderful breakdown of staining that cement, and for as little as 50 cents per square foot. Not bad at all!
Accentuate with Native Shrubs
Small, upright shrubs placed in strategic areas in your front yard provide multiple benefits. Shrubbery helps to define features by framing or highlighting them and provides privacy when used as a hedge.
Using native vegetation is better because you know it can survive in your yard and requires less maintenance over time. It can also be cheaper as you can transplant vegetation from a local forest significantly reducing the costs associated with preparing your yard (don’t snag any plants from your neighbourhood park).
Also, using native vegetation will attract wildlife such as butterflies and birds. Local vegetation can be used to create waterwise gardens too; meaning you can have a garden that looks like a million bucks, and is environmentally friendly!
Modern Lighting for Any Budget
At this point your front yard is most likely the envy of the block. But you can really make this thing pop. Small, stainless steel bollards are a perfect accent to a well manicured yard that can give that million-dollar curb appeal for under 100 hundred dollars.
There is a HUGE selection of bollards to choose from, but we are going for an ultra modern aesthetic and short, stainless steel bollards are all the rage. If you buy solar, you don’t have to pay for electricity or bury any wire! Double Bonus.
I should warn you though. Making these simple, easy changes to your front yard may cause realtors to approach you with an offer of selling your house. That is the price a successful DIY-er must pay for their ingenuity.
So you’re finally ready to upgrade to a professional-grade espresso machine? Congratulations! We know it’s a big step, so we’re here to help you along the way.
Buying a high-end espresso machine is one of the best investments (if not the best investment) a coffee lover can make. Not only will it allow you to be able to enjoy real authentic espresso, cappuccinos, and ‘velvety’ lattes in your own home or office, but it will also allow you to save money in the process (win-win!).
We feel it’s important to emphasis this point again: With a good machine, you will be able to make your own drinks at a fraction of the cost you would have to pay at coffee shops. With that being said, not all espresso machine are created equal. When you are buying your espresso machine, you want to be sure to choose the right one.
Below, we will be going over some of the different options you can choose from that are currently on the market. (Also, please note that when we say ‘best’, this is simply our personal opinion. Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to features and qualities they prefer in an espresso machine, so we just wanted to share some of our favorites with you!).
Best Manual Espresso Machines
La Pavoni Europiccola Manual Espresso Machine. This particular espresso machine by La Pavoni is arguably the ‘top of the line’ in the entire market for manual espresso machines. Not only does it feature a classic design with its inclusion of the retro press (which essentially gives you complete control over every aspect of your shot), but it also has a beautiful chrome finish to it.
The machine is completely manual, so it will take some time to get used to. You will need to practicing using it to get comfortable with the amount of pressure you need to use, as well as figuring out the right pulling technique to really get the best possible shot each and every time. Because of the manual nature of this machine, it is more recommended for those that are willing to learn, have patience, and really want full control over the entire process.
This is not the machine to purchase if you are simply looking to find one that does all of the work with the click of a button.
Best Semi-automatic Espresso Machine
The Rocket Espresso R58 Espresso Machine is by far one of the best options if you are looking at semi-automatic espresso machines. Manufactured by Rocket Espresso, the R58 has a level of craftsmanship that absolutely shines. Because it features dual boilers for both steaming and brewing, it is going to provide you with the ultimate level of control.
Along with this, it comes with a plugin PID with a large display that can provide you with the details you need to be able to change the temperature of both boilers at once. You can either utilize the included water reservoir or simply pump a constant supply of fresh water into the machine. While Rocket’s R60V espresso machine is also fantastic, it’s quite a bit more expensive than the R58. That’s why we give Rocket’s R58 machine the edge.
Best Automatic Espresso Machine
La Spaziale S1 Dream T Espresso Machine. This was a harder category to choose for, because there are many fantastic options. But the majority of us feel that the La Spaziale S1 Dream T is the number one automatic espresso machine on the entire market. It comes with a fully featured programmable touchpad and features two different boilers which will allow you to both brew espresso and steam milk at the same time.
Prior light shows on the Empire State Building featured giant animals and artwork from the Whitney, but this year’s will be like having a front-row seat at New York Fashion Week. Spanning 42 floors of the building (that’s nine more floors than it covered in 2015) and rising 500 feet high, the show will feature iconic fashion images of everyone from Audrey Hepburn to Kate Moss, including iconic works by the likes of Andy Warhol.
The light show is in celebration of Harper Bazaar’s 150th anniversary and Tiffany & Co., and it’ll be presented by Glenda Bailey, editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar, and Jennifer De Winter, senior vice president of the Americas of Tiffany & Co. You’ll be able to see it on the northern side of the building from 8:30pm to midnight on April 19.
Next on the lights schedule is green lights on April 22 for Earth Day then yellow and orange lights on April 25 for Project Sunshine Week. Yes, you should Instagram all of them.
Contrary to popular belief, the fashion industry isn’t all glitz and glamour. It’s fast-paced and very competitive. If you don’t keep up, you are at risk of getting left behind. This is why the biggest names in fashion are always on the lookout for what’s hip and happening.
Fashion capitals of the world are brimming with high-end brands. Cities like Paris, New York, and Milan have influencers and designers alike that are looking out for The Next Big Thing. The result? Each fashion house keeps their eyes on the lookout for whatever their competitors are doing. Although every region and fashion capital has their own charm and culture, the Italian fashion scene is one to look out for. It’s not only because the people dress very well there, but because it is a home to fashion. Iconic luxury brands such as Versace and Prada aren’t just headquartered there—they were born there as well!
So how does a fashion company keep up with the times and make themselves relevant? How do they get ahead through all the competition? After all, fashion isn’t just an art—it’s a business as well.
This is where modern day technology comes into play. In recent years, 3D modeling has made waves among the fashion community. Spearheaded by Iris van Herpen in 2011, the Dutch designer combined both 3d modeling and printing for her Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week collection.
The result? Applause and praise from critics and technology enthusiasts alike.
3D modeling may be quite a foreign idea to the fashion world, but it has been around for quite a while. This technology is often used in architecture and fine arts industries in various applications. Oftentimes, 3D modeling is used in visualizing housing projects that are yet to be constructed. It has also been used in animation, entertainment, and even in academic and medical fields.
3D modeling could be done in a variety of ways. Yet, the most cost-effective way to go about it is through the use of computers and software. The results of this method may appear quite simple, as oftentimes the results are almost identical to the quality of photographs. However, 3D modeling actually entails the surface of an object to be mathematically represented in three dimensions. This is done through specialized software like 3DS Max, and the user can choose to have the 3D model to be displayed as a 2D image through 3D rendering, or recreate the model physically through 3D printing.
The future of fashion
Van Herpen isn’t the only designer who’s foraying into the 3D modeling world. Francis Bitonti, who has previously used 3D modeling for architecture, has forayed into similar fashion pursuits. The architect-slash-fashion designer has a shoe collaboration with United Nude. However, it’s not just his fashion forward footwear that’s put him on the limelight. Bitonti is best known for draping Dita von Teese in a 3D printed dress.
Up and coming designers aren’t the only creatives who are dabbling into this technology. Karl Lagerfeld has also used 3D modeling and printing in smaller doses. In 2015, Lagerfeld modernized the classic Chanel suits with 3D printed details.
Although 3D printing clothes has been a popular concept and is currently being studied by fashion designers and students alike, it will still take a while for it to be mainstream in fashion. According to Lynne Murray in an interview with The Smithsonian, it would take around ten to twenty years for people to begin to 3D print their clothes at home or in neighboring stores.
What we know today
On the bright side, 3D modeling isn’t exclusively only used for 3D printing. 3D modeling has also been used in marketing and advertising for products and architecture. Taking inspiration from Francis Bitonti, 3D modeling could be used to advertise clothing.
3D modeling can be rendered to a 2D image. This makes it quite easy to do certain promotion material. Instead of waiting for a physical copy of your design, you could use your rendered model to do any promotion even before it has been produced. This helps to get word out for your products if your business only sells products on a pre-order basis.
A rendered image of 3D modeling also helps you to decide if your design is physically possible or could highlight any unforeseen design issues. Sometimes, certain fashion designs look good on paper, but are difficult to execute physically. 3D modeling helps designers find out these complications before the design goes into production, allowing them to either modify the design or find techniques to get away with it.
In addition, the 3D model of your design could be uploaded to your website. Interested viewers can explore the details of the design in the comfort of their home. This helps make an online shopping experience more personal. It also gives the user an idea of the ins and outs of the product before they purchase it—something they would normally do if they were to purchase something in store.
If you also wish to follow the footsteps of Irene van Herpen’s 3D fashion movement, you can also easily print the designs once you have a good 3D model.
Now that you know what you can do with 3D modeling in your fashion business, where can you get somebody to do it for you? As mentioned earlier, you can run to 3D artists or architects trained in the field. In fact, as mentioned earlier, Francis Bitonti applied his own knowledge on 3D modeling and printing in the fashion industry! Similarly, RealSpace 3D, who is typically known for their architectural renders, is also capable of creating fashion related product renders and 3D models. The company has worked with several reputable brands such as Teck and Fluor.
In a nutshell, 3D modeling has various applications for you to get your fashion brand ahead in the cutthroat business. As Karl Lagerfeld put it in 2015, “What keeps couture alive, is to move with the times. If it stays like sleeping beauty in the woods in an ivory tower, you can forget it.”
If you’re familiar with espresso and have fallen in love with it (like us!), then you know that sometimes it feels like it would be impossible to replicate it in your own kitchen. But how can you get started making your own espresso with or without your mahlkonig ek43 or a rocket espresso? We will get you pointed in the right direction, so you can start pulling delicious shots in no time!
First fill the reservoir of your espresso machine up (or connect your water line if the machine is plumbed!). And we know we’ve said this before, but please make sure your water is not too hard. An important first step is water treatment: distilled water can damage your boiler, while hard water can lead to some seriously accumulated scale.
Turn your machine on and allow it plenty of time for it to heat up. Depending on how large your espresso machine is, that can take anywhere from 15 to 35+ minutes, so don’t assume you are all set to go as soon as you are at the brewing temperature. Instead, you should wait a bit longer until the whole machine feels nice and warm.
Lock an empty portafilter into the grouphead. Then, for a couple of seconds, run the machine. This will brings fresh water up to the front and also heats the parts up that are closest to the coffee. Next wipe the inside of your portafilter off and the underside part of the grouphead and make sure they are dry and clean.
Grind a couple of beans to make sure you have the appropriate fineness. Also, don’t forget to remove any old, stale grounds from your coffee grinder! The coffee should appear powdery and clump loosely, but still have a ‘sandy’ feel when you rub it between your fingers.
We recommend dosing 18 to 21 grams of freshly ground into your portafilter. As the coffee exits the chute, make sure to slightly rotate the portafilter back and forth to ensure the grounds settle into the basket evenly. Afterwards, level the grounds with the tips of your fingers and fill in any air pockets.
Tamp with your elbow, arm and wrist positioned directly over the middle of the portafilter basket. Use your fingertips to press evenly and feel the edge of the basket. Next, inspect the dry puck in order to determine if the ‘bed’ is level or not.
Put the portafilter back into the grouphead and start the brewing process. If your machine has a separate “pre-infusion” or pre-brew stage, then complete it first. This enables the stored gas to be released before the full infusion start. When you have fresh coffee, you should pre-infuse until you first start seeing drops exiting out of the portafilter.
Start the infusion process and end the brew at your predetermined yield. We recommend starting out with i2 fluid oz (if you are measuring by volume) or around 30 grams (if a gram scale is being used). Before you serve the espresso, pour or stir the espresso into another cup so you can mix the crema.
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.
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 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.”
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.”
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 2, SaGa, Legend 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.
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!”
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.”
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.”