Darryl Long can't make his Ultima IV, his favorite game from his formative days. Then he works on artificial intelligence and cloud computing to help other Ubisoft Entertainment designers and developers make their Ultima IV.
Long is CEO of Ubisoft Winnipeg, which the French publisher opened last year. Winnipeg is a kind of headquarters for corporate artificial intelligence and cloud computing efforts. These technologies help Ubisoft use its 32 studies around the world – as one of its commissioners told me, the sun never sets on Ubisoft – to work on massive game worlds such as Assassin's Creed: Odyssey and live service online games like The Division II.
AI helps release animators and artists to do more than work with pastures and other earthly tasks. You can designate an area and set boundaries, and AI will fill it with grass and trees that look like an artist had created it ̵
I found this fascinating, and Long walked me through some of the basics behind Winnipeg's work at a Game Developers Conference 2019 meeting. Here is an edited transcript of our interview.
Far from before
GameBeat: You talked about procedural algorithms. Look at the latest games Ubisoft has posted, what can you point to where you used a procedural algorithm to do a particular thing?
Darryl Long: The best example I can give is Far Cry 5 because I produced Far Cry 5. I just came over recently. There is a gentleman named Etienne Carrier. He made a presentation at GDC last year, specifically on this topic. The biggest I can point out is the vegetation of our worlds. Back on previous Far Cry games we had a system for placing trees and shrubs and everything in the world, and then we added the ability to place stones and make it the decoration of the forest. The artists had to draw the boundaries of that region at hand. It was a lot of work. What we did is we automated using procedural algorithms. We wanted to take the world's terrain and simulate how much light it gets, how much moisture it gets, what temperature gradients are, things like that, and find out which trees will grow there, what kinds of shrubs and grasses and anything. And then find out how much they would grow, even at that location. Something with a lot of wind, the trees do not grow very high. The vegetation in Far Cry 5, the vast majority of it was built through a procedural algorithm according to these rules.
GamesBeat: So for example here is a meadow and the algorithm would know that the grass would grow so high and the trees would be so high, depending on how the wind comes down to the mountain to the west.
Lang: Absolutely. Even more than that, it would determine where the meadow would go sometimes.
GamesBeat: Based on the terrain of the area?
Long: That could be it. It could be – on the sides of these mountains in Montana, the grasslands tend to run down on the top of the hillside erosion. Then the trees grow more in the valleys between them. These are rules programmed in the procedural algorithm and then they know these things and it generates terrain.
GamesBeat: Can this also apply to Far Cry: New Dawn.
Long: I didn't work at New Dawn, but we absolutely wanted – at Ubisoft, we want to make sure we don't reinvent the wheel all the time. Of course, we want to transfer technology from one game to the next.
GamesBeat: Say 10 years ago, you would have a team of artists doing this by hand. Not even talking about making the limits of the algorithm, but doing everything by hand.
Long: Back at a game like – I try to go back far enough to remember what I was working on. It was never released, but there was a game I worked 15 or 16 years ago. When we make grass, we do not place every grass blade specifically, but we make grass maps, that's what we call them. The grass cards were all placed by hand. An artist would say I would put a grass card here, a grass card there and make a meadow that way. It took an incredible amount of time, and of course it limits the size of the world we can do. No one wants to create 16 meadows every day.
GamesBeat: And that restricts what else these artists can do.
Long: Absolutely. I would much prefer an artist to build a new mission or something than to place leaves of grass. It's about strengthening our creators. If an artist can click on a button and have grass everywhere, and then decide how to shape that grass and give some feeling to it afterwards, it is a tool that gives value. It improves the game they can make. If we can create tools that allow them to say, "I want a house" and they click on a button and get a house that is already built and filled with beds and tables and televisions and all the stuff Then they can customize it. They can go in and tell a story. It's something I think artists can do, but that machines will never be able to: tell a story. Put the soul into a creation that really makes it special and memorable for the player. When you enter an environment, into a house or building, or something designed in a game, you immediately and unconsciously record the story being told in that scene. I don't think it's machines that can do that for us. There are artists.
GamesBeat: It also gives you time and resources to talk to these geologists and meteorologists and herbalists to tell you how these things behave in nature.
Lang: For me, this was one of the great things about Far Cry 5. Doing this kind of research allowed us to connect with people who understand how the world works and reflects it in the game. We had people come to us and say: I grew up in Montana and it feels like home.