While many different mediums are able to deliver an “unforgettable experience” there really isn’t anything like what you can experience while playing a video game. These experiences stay with you, for one reason or another, and at least for me, they stick out far more than anything else I’ve consumed in my lifetime of watching tv, films, live theatre or reading a great novel.
In any of these instances, immersion is at the heart of the experience and when it comes to narrative experiences like your Uncharted’s or your Death Stranding’s and such, the game’s ability to immerse the player through audio and visual aspects can make or break an experience.
All of this was, of course, nothing new to the man I had the pleasure of speaking with last week. Mark James, the Chief Technical Officer at Striking Distance Studios is an incredible developer who has had quite a long career in the gaming industry. He’ll hit his 30-year mark within the world of professional game development next year, and is just as giddy and happy as ever to talk about what new technologies he gets to play with every day.
What was particularly exciting is that I got to hear firsthand about what Striking Distance Studios is doing with regards to telling more immersive stories on PlayStation 5. The studio is currently working on a narrative-focused game set in the PUBG universe. The PS5 will be bringing a lot of incredible features, and a lot of them are focused on being able to give developers the tools to create the best and most immersive gaming experience possible.
PSU: As the Chief Technical Officer, is there a PS5 feature that made you particularly excited when you heard about it?
Mark James: I would say for us, and particularly for the narrative-based game we’re making, I’d say the audio features. The dedicated audio was probably the most exciting feature. Audio has always been one of the things that is fairly downplayed as I struggled to get cycles. Graphics are always the big shiny thing or always one of these things where you used to always see our audio engineers always struggling to get those CPU cycles. Now we’ve got dedicated audio hardware and that’s supporting all these amazing 3D sounds.
We see it as a layer of immersion that we can get into our games. That’s gonna add to our kind of narrative experience. So not only are you going to be able to see everything there, you’re going to be able to experience it in terms of 3D Audio. When you talk about 3D Audio, it’s not about playing the sound, it’s understanding where the sound is played. So, you know, whether that’s being played in an amphitheatre or corridor, you know, it’s about knowing that sound is very different and actually our ears are incredible about picking up these tiny little nuances of sound.
I think now we have a piece of hardware that can do that. You can get so much more depth. If I can play a sound behind me, I can never see a screen behind me. I’m still looking at this flat surface, but with audio, I can make that almost VR like in its positions. And I can play sounds behind being, giving me so much more grounding in the level.
PSU: For Striking Distance, which key features are you going to utilize that will be included on the PS5?
Mark James: So I think one of those things is that we’ve got this kind of mantra of every step is different and that can encompass a lot of things, including audio. But with things like the new SSDs, we were always struggling to put pixels on the screen and we’re always going to have to make sure, how we were having to deal with the current generation to make sure it sees what areas were high res textures, what areas were high res geometry. Now being able to get the throughput on screen, it means we can add so much more detail in every step and actually so much more variation.
So unlike something like Spiderman is a great example. Everybody’s raving about how fast I can move through the world and that’s fantastic, but also for our game we can add more detail in even the smallest step. So it’s not about processing these huge worlds. It’s about every time I enter a corridor, that corridor might look different. There’s an extra door that’s opened or there is a piece of dust that didn’t exist there before or a scratch on the wall.
We can start to add all that real variation by bringing in all this kind of extra detail that we weren’t able to feed to the CPU and GPU. So I think that’s great, that kind of immersive experience really enables us to build these kinds of rich worlds that feel very different even though we’re utilizing sometimes some of the same materials.
PSU: What makes the upcoming title from Striking Distance Studios only possible on PS5?
Mark James: I think that we at Striking Distance, we’re always trying to get the best power out of every console we work on or piece of hardware we work on, whether it be you know a PC or PS5. So I think, you know, we always try and get to that fidelity and that kind of display, so you don’t feel cheated if you’re on one console or the other.
So I think that’s it; haptics is another great example in sound design. We can start to use this controller now to put small audio-based vibrations in the environment. So if I’m walking through an engine room, I can not only hear the engine room. I can have that slight rumble in my controller, and that’s going to make me feel as if I’m in there as well. And those extra pieces of feedback really enable us to add to the player experience. So I think they’re the things that we are going to add. We’re going to try and make our game, the best experience and whatever platform, but I think there are some features particularly on the PS5 that are really gonna add to the experience.
PSU: How will you utilize new features like haptic feedback and adaptive triggers?
Mark James: So I think the haptics are great. Again, one of the key pillars of our game is this immersive, combat and action. If there’s any time we can add to that emotion with control of feedback, that’s great. We can do things like we can sample the ambient audio as we just discussed and then make sure that ambient audio, it comes back in the feedback. We’ve got a high fidelity speaker now on the controller. So when you put local sounds like a door slamming mod or a shout, we can put that next to you, which is great for the player.
Anything that’s a local device, like a communicator or something that feels local to the player. We can now use that space. So I think there are lots of things in the controller. And then, of course, you know those triggers, say for example if you’re utilizing a gun or any kind of ballistics, we want you to feel that trigger squeeze. So we want you to feel that feedback as you go through that. If I hit something with a melee weapon, I want to be able to feel the impact and I can do that through the triggers. So again, it just adds that feedback loop to the player that actions in the game are having these vibration reactions or trigger feedback reactions as you’re going through.
PSU: What about the improved motion sensor in the controller?
Mark James: Absolutely. So one of the things that was used for in particular, first-person shooters and even current generation is that sometimes they would actually start to work out that we tend to move our hands before we move our heads. It’s actually something we naturally do. So sometimes you can get pre-camera movement by reading the motion on the device. So if we’ve got that extra input, we can actually start to direct the camera, maybe towards an area and assist that rather than the player turn the camera. We can actually assist the camera in pre-turning that I’ve given you a subtle hint because you’ve already given us that hint on your hands.
It’s just super smart. I’ve used it in a couple of games before as well. You see from my history, I used to work for 2K, and this was a great way of in PSVR, utilizing movement. Because it’s actually very difficult to move the camera around in VR. It makes you feel sick. So if you can use the light bar on the controller, and move people in that direction to start with, it gives a great hint. So definitely I can see much more control and positioning use. Now we’ve got the cycles to do this.
PSU: We’ve talked a lot about audio, but what about lighting features that are now going to be possible on the PS5 such as ray tracing?
Mark James: Absolutely. So let’s talk about visual fidelity first. For us again, we think visual fidelity is another one of those key components of any game we make. So we’re working very hard on visual fidelity, particularly because this is our first ray-tracing capable console. So that opens up a whole new world, particularly around global illumination. So global illumination, just a 101 on that is the fact that every light source feels it’s contributing to your overall illumination solution in the area. So that means, static light sources, dynamic light sources are all fields that are contributing.
Using something like ray tracing as part of our global illumination solution gives us the ability for that to be much more consistent within its light response. So it means that I can do things like switch a light from white to red and everything’s going to have the correct response in terms of materials about that light change. Normally in the old generations, I’d pre-bake that information, I’d actually have just one red room and white room and make it a complete change. Now it can actually do that level of fidelity within the lighting solutions using ray tracing.
I also do cool things like ray traced shadows. So when you look at shadows in the current generation, they’re used with some approximated techniques, whereas now I can actually cast a ray and actually have a really crisp shadow. You see things like this on trees, you know when I see tree canopies, sometimes they’re really false in games. Whereas now I can actually show a real tree canopy via ray-traced correct shadows. We look at the world, and we’ve got this ideal of what our world looks like and whenever we see a discrepancy between light and what that light should look like in a world, we see that as a false. So the closer we can keep that in terms of real ray-tracing, which is how the world really works the more we have realism. So that’s why it’s so desired.
Realism is one of the key components of our game. We are actually trying to make these environments, even though sometimes fantastical look as real as they can within their lightened response. We’ve already seen some of the amazing stuff with digital humans that’s currently being done. Things like hair, eyes, the internals of the mouth. They’re actually very hard to do and there are some offline vendors that have been doing these fantastically for years in movies. Now we’ve actually got the compute power to do those in real-time. So you can see some of my good friends at Visual Concepts that have just released the screenshots for NBA. You can see the quality of digital humans we can get to now on these consoles. We’re getting very close to that uncanny valley in terms of the humans, in their skin and hair responses.
PSU: Now I know we’re not supposed to talk about the upcoming game from Striking Distance Studios, but I just feel like I need to ask. Is there anything you can share that hasn’t yet been shared or when we can expect more information?
Mark James: All I can say at the moment is what’s currently been said that it’s a narrative game based in the PUBG universe. If you look at the expertise of the studio we are masters in creating these narrative games. So I can only say hang on. We’ll show something as soon as possible, but when we show something, we think we’re gonna blow people’s socks off.
PSU: I don’t know if you noticed this but I have next to me a copy of a game you worked on called Timeshift. It’s a favourite of mine, and I wanted to bring it up because now it’ll be a game from two generations ago. You’ve gone through multiple generations in your career, and would you say the leap from PS4 to PS5 is one of the bigger jumps forward in terms of the technology?
Mark James: I do for very different reasons. So from three to four, it was all about the number of pixels on a screen. There was very much a 4K and HDR push around there. And that was even emphasized more by the Pro and everything else. It was about the number of pixels, how we could put these HD frames and we could get an enormous amount of pixels on-screen. I think this generation is going to be about interaction.
I’d say PS3, in the nicest way we were working in textured boxes. Most of the time we couldn’t actually interact with a lot of the stuff that we saw, even though it looks great, we couldn’t interact with it. I think now we have the computing power and a fidelity power so that we can interact with those environments. So I think that’s going to be the major change, alongside the extra feedback methods like enhanced audio and haptics are going to create more immersion. I don’t think we’re not going to go to 8K or put more pixels on-screen. I think the quality and the variation of those pixels is what’s going to matter this generation.
PSU: What feature do you see going into the PS5 generation being the absolute biggest game-changer, and further into the generation will push the PS5 to its limits?
Mark James: I think from a consumer basis, cause I think the consumer-facing feature against the engineering features are very different. So I think as a consumer-facing feature, I think probably the audio experience will be the most defined one. I actually see this current generation of consoles being something that pushes headphones. For example, I think suddenly people are gonna realize just what a high-quality 3D audio experience sounds like. So I think it’s actually going to get people to invest in multi-speaker setups or high-quality headphones setups because they’re going to get so much more from their games in actually having those.
So that’s probably going to be the biggest push in terms of a consumer feature, outside of the fidelity of those pixels on-screen. That also points towards digital humans, things people are going to look at like I’m not seeing more pixels, but the quality of those pixels is very, very different compared to the last generation.
For us as developers. The speed of the SSD really matters to us, because that’s actually really important. That’s the biggest part. Before we were dealing with these old rotating media, the old hard drives and things that will always struggle to feed the CPU and GPU fast enough, and we had an IO problem. Now we’ve actually got a much more balanced console where we’ve got memory and storage that can feed through these powerful processors a lot faster. So that’s I think probably the coolest developer feature is the SSD and I think the coolest consumer feature will probably be 3D audio and pixel quality.
We’re less than a month away now from PS5, and it just keeps getting even more exciting. At the end of our discussion, I asked Mark if there was anything he wanted to add, and he said “I think everybody’s excited about the new console generation. I still get excited after all these years about a new console generation and what it can do. I think as developers its a chance to expand our ideas and try something new. So it’s a super exciting time for innovation”
I was already excited for what Striking Distance Studios is cooking up but now after hearing firsthand how they will be creating the most detailed and immersive worlds we’ve yet to see in gaming has really pushed that excitement even further. It’s also exciting because we’re seeing a third party developer take huge advantage of the PS5 features not only within the console but also on the controller. We can only hope to see more studios do this as well.
Striking Distance Studios are currently working on a single-player narrative-based game set in the PUBG universe.
Thanks to Mark James for your time and Striking Distance Studios who helped organise this interview.