Halo Anniversary, MGS HD & God Of War: How HD Remakes Are Made
Gaming, like music, cinema and other forms of entertainment is cyclic, occurring and reoccurring as fashion dictates. Bands continually remaster their music to the highest available quality, while Hollywood is currently obsessed with revisiting past hits of the Eighties.
Gaming has been affected in a similar way, with many developers and publishers either remastering or completely remaking past classics for a brand new audience to enjoy.
Since Bluepoint Games unleashed its excellent God Of War Collection on PS3 gamers in November 2009, numerous other developers and publishers have jumped on the remake bandwagon and delivered a host of updates that have ranged from the excellent to the truly forgettable.
Ubisoft has released a Prince Of Persia and Splinter Cell collection; Square Enix has retooled Lara Croft’s last-gen adventures and paired them with Tomb Raider: Underworld; while Sony has released a remastered Sly Raccoon trilogy, persuaded Ready At Dawn to retool its God Of War PSP games for the PlayStation 3 and re-hired Bluepoint to revisit the excellent Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus. And let’s not forget Microsoft’s recently released Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition.
It doesn’t stop there though. Capcom recently disappointed gamers with its average and expensively priced ports of Resident Evil 4 and Resident Evil: Code Veronica X, but redeemed itself with an astonishingly good update of Street Fighter III: Third Strike and the incoming news that Dante’s first three Devil May Cry adventures will be remastered.
Konami is also getting in on the act, with HD collections of Silent Hill and Zone Of The Enders and the recently delayed Metal Gear Solid Collection, which Bluepoint Games has just finished working on.
Even digital and handheld developers are joining in, with Treasure recently releasing both Radiant Silvergun and a vastly updated Guardian Heroes on Xbox Live, while LucasArts remade its Monkey Island games and Team 17 has just updated its 3D Worms games for a new generation of gamers.
Nintendo has also seen the potential that updates can offer, teaming up with both Grezzo and Q-Games to deliver impressive updates of The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time and Star Fox 64 3D.
In short, it would appear that everyone wants a slice of the remake pie, and considering the respectable sales of many past titles, it’s not hard to see why.
God Of War was one of the first HD remakes, and kicked off a whole new wave of rereleases.
But why are studios falling over themselves to constantly deliver updates of past classics when they could simply be working on interesting new IP? The answer is a mixture of business acumen and the genuine desire to please fans.
“I don’t want to sound cynical, but the cost of developing and remastering something versus making a brand new title is significantly lower [for publishers]” reveals Bluepoint’s president Andy O’Neil.
“Everyone saw the God Of War Collection and thought, ‘Oooh, we want a bit of that.’ They’re popular because people are buying them and I don’t think it has much to do with the [backwards] compatibility issue either, which people go on about a lot.
“You get a lot of value for your money, and usually only the best stuff gets remastered so you know it’s going to be pretty good in the first place. It’s a bit of nostalgia, or maybe just the chance to play something they never got around to playing before. It’s a win-win, really.”
“I think it’s mainly down to the fact that the bulk of the games that are getting remade are ones that did incredibly well from yesteryear,” adds Just Add Water’s CEO, Stewart Gilray, whose studio is putting the finishing touches to its Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath remake for Xbox Live and PSN.
“Perhaps we’re all just sick of FPS2010, then FPS2011, then FPS2012. The majority of the games getting the HD treatment are story-led titles, such as Metal Gear Solid, God Of War and Silent Hill.”
Ubisoft’s Syed Abbas, producer at Ubisoft Pune and the lead producer on its recent Splinter Cell Trilogy HD collection believes that additional extras like trophies and stereoscopic 3D can also add to the allure of revisiting past classics.
“It would not be an overstatement to say that all these titles [Splinter Cell, Prince Of Persia, Beyond Good And Evil] have been ground breaking games, each in its own way setting the benchmark for its respective genre.
“By bringing these games to the current generation of consoles we have provided the players who have not played the original games with the chance to discover and play some of the best games ever made.
Stranger’s Wrath is one of few HD remakes with new features added to the game.
“Also, if you are someone who has played these games before, then it’s going to be nostalgic journey down memory lane. You will have the same core gameplay that you enjoyed then, and with the addition of trophies you get a whole new set of challenges.
“So even if you were an expert in the original Splinter Cell game, now suddenly you have to unlock a trophy which requires you to finish a level without firing a single bullet! There is something new to experience for everyone, so you [effectively] play it for the first time, again!”
There’s obviously a big interest then, both from consumers and publishers for revisiting past classics, but just how easy is it to get these projects off the ground and why is there usually so much difference in quality behind the many updates that are available.
Unsurprisingly, both money and time are a massive factor in how a game eventually turns out. When Konami’s Metal Gear Solid Collection was announced, fans were up in arms because it didn’t feature either an update of the PlayStation hit Metal Gear Solid, or its GameCube remake, Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes.
Konami has since included a PSN code to download the original PlayStation version (if you’re a Japanese PS3 owner) but it’s still disappointing that a new version isn’t there for completist purposes.
“The deal [with Metal Gear Solid] is we talked about it and we looked at doing it and we also looked at it running on an emulator,” says O’Neil. “There’s a business side to this and we’ve only got so much time to do it, and Twin Snakes couldn’t be done for legal reasons.
“Silicon Knights had a big team for two years converting MGS, to do it justice. [The original PSone game] kind of needed a complete makeover, and it doesn’t look pretty if we’re honest with you.
“We talked about it, but said we can’t do it justice. It came down to remaking it versus re-mastering it, and if we remastered it, it would have been just like the PC version.”
This last point is rather interesting because there’s a world of difference between simply remaking and remastering an old game. Remaking is an opportunity for developers to effectively take an old game and use little or none of the original source code in order to create a brand new product. It can take far longer to complete than a remaster, and in some ways can be treated as a new game (at least from a timescale approach).
Here is the original Metal Gear Solid 2.
Remastering, on the other hand, takes the original source code and adapts it for a newer system, so you’re effectively playing exactly what you were playing when it first came out, albeit with an (often, depending on the developer) far prettier sheen.
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition and Metal Gear Solid: Twin Snakes are good example of remakes, while Ubisoft and Bluepoint’s collections are examples of remasters.
“One of the most important things to ask is: do people actually want to play this?” continues O’Neil when we asked him about why these remakes and remasters happen.
“Is there something that this game is doing that warrants a remaster? Does it make sense to do this? We also look at it from a technology standpoint. We’ve got this machine called a performance analyser.
“We get the original retail disc, stick it in this PA tool and it looks at every bit of information playing around the PlayStation 2. Just from a snapshot, you can take a look and see what problems might occur if it was to run on a PlayStation 3.
“What problems are we going to run into? Is there a lot of assembler? Is it doing something really weird? Is it using a lot of Fill Rate (which means is it drawing a lot of transparency stuff) and is it using a lot of Assembler that’s going to be difficult to convert?
“You get a good idea from the technology side, so you can then decide if gameplay is going to be affected if it’s moved over to HD. Time is also a factor. A lot of the time, publishers have a specific timeframe, so if we can’t get something done to a good enough quality in the time we have we won’t take it on.
“And if there is a comparable game already available on the PS3? It doesn’t make sense to work on something if an alternative is already available.”
O’Neil once again points out time as a factor for many of the remasters, as it can vastly effect how a project turns out. One of the most impressive updates we’ve seen recently is Iron Galaxy Studio’s excellent version of Street Fighter III: Third Strike.
The HD remake has seen a number of improvements, texture quality and resolution being the most impressive.
A number of different versions of the game already existed, but the available timeframe ulitmately decided the version that would be ported.
“We started with the PS2 port from the arcade version,” reveals the studio’s CEO, Dave Lang. “There were a lot of reasons for this, but mostly it came down a pretty simple choice: would we rather spend our time re-doing a lot of work that was already done for PS2, or start with a very known thing (the PS2 port) and spend our time fixing the things that are inconsistent with the arcade version?
“In the end it was pretty clear to start with the PS2 code. Another benefit of this was we got a leg-up on our Training Mode, which fans will probably recognise from the PS2 version.”
“Another issue to remember is that some of the games in question are very old or in another language completely, which can be a huge problem in itself for developers to overcome.
“The code for Street Fighter III: Third Strike was almost 100 per cent in C, so that was straightforward, but the comments in the code presented a problem as those were in Kanji,” continues Lang.
“We ended up making a tool to translate the comments to English in-place in the source files. This was pretty helpful, but there are also a few mistranslations that were pretty amusing.
“At the end of the day it was more the age of the code than the language barrier that made it difficult. Coding styles and standards have evolved a lot in the 12 years since the game’s original release.”
It’s an issue that also caused problems for Bluepoint when they were converting Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus. Further problems were also found due to the work ethic that some Japanese developers have, which can feel extremely alien to a Western developer.
“The Japanese have a completely different way of working compared to western developers” continues O’Neil. “They all use Linux, no Windows in sight, so everything is encrypted.
“When we first got the Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus source code dropped we were like: ‘What have gotten ourselves into?’ Plus it’s a Japanese version of Linux, so just getting the code off is actually quite tricky.
Surprisingly, the iPad has become a breeding ground for classic games being remade.
“They also use older builds. Ico started development in 1997, which is nearly 15 years ago, and code has changed. Linux is really, really powerful, but it’s not the most user-friendly, so imagine that ten years ago and in Japanese. We bring it all over to Windows and we make a PC version first, because on a PC we don’t have to swap all the data.
“Japanese work is also pro person centric,” O’Neil continues when asked about the different programming techniques used. “Whereas we might have a renderer file named Renderer in our work, they will have the name of the person who originally wrote it.
“It’s just a load of folders with people’s names in them, so you can have functionality spread all over the place. This makes it hard to identify where something might be.
“I think though that this is where the Japanese polish comes from; so one person owns it and they polish it. They also write lots of custom code. More code means more work and potentially more bugs. But the polish they put in at that process is the Japanese difference, I believe.”
Even when developers don’t have to contend with different languages and games being coded using different operating systems, they can still take a large amount of time to finish – hopefully silencing those who accuse most companies of simply throwing out quick-and-dirty ports for maximum profit.
“It very much depends on the size of the team and the game,” begins Ubisoft’s Abbas when asked about the length of a typical remaster. “The Splinter Cell Trilogy, for example, took around ten months from start to finish.
“On such projects usually the biggest challenge is working on technologies from two different generations. In Splinter Cell the most challenging aspect was adapting and porting the existing engine (Unreal 2.x) to PS3.
“This was a complicated and time consuming process. Another challenging part was adaptation of the graphics pipeline; we had to migrate from DirectX to OpenGL.”
A project like Third Strike or Halo Anniversary can take even longer, although this should be expected due to their remake status. Halo for example has been a particularly long and lengthy project, but somewhat understandable for Microsoft’s most important franchise.
For years, Ico was the most often requested HD game from fans.
“Since we finally put paper to pen and really got moving on it and say [the game has taken] about a year and a half,” reveals Halo Anniversary’s executive producer Dan Ayoub.
“Obviously, the development was led by a publishing team here, and we worked with two external development partners – Certain Affinity for the multiplayer and Sabre for the campaign – so that’s been the primary team driving development of the project.”
Of course, even when time is a factor, the approach that a developer takes to a project can potentially make or break it. The God Of War Collection, which was turned around in a staggeringly short 3 months, was deemed by many at Santa Monica Studios, the creators of the original game, to be impossible (there was a bet on as to whether the collection would be completed in the strict time line).
Bluepoint’s approach though not only ensured that it won the bet, but also set a standard that few other collections, with the exception of their own, have since matched.
“We have a different model to many other studios,” explains O’Neil. “Instead of hiring lots of people, we just know lots of really good programmers.
“So we got in touch with them and said: ‘Can you come and work on contract on this?’ So we ramped up lots of really talented people, really quickly in order to get it done in that three-month period.”
And it’s a lot of talented people that do a lot of work behind the scenes. One problem with many of these high-definition collections is that the games themselves tend to look a little washed out, with dull textures that look more like upscaled PC ports.
Bluepoint’s games on the other hand never look like this, recapturing the look of the original PS2 games. This drab look comes from the way palletised textures are handled on the PS2 and how they are ported to the PS3.
“Say you have a 16-colour waterfall texture,” begins O’Neil, relishing the chance to get a little bit techy. “We have to turn those small textures into massive uncompressed textures that are eight times bigger (due to the difference in resolution of the PS2 and PS3) just to make it work.
“A PS2 loads at 6 megabits per second, whereas a newer machine is about 50 per cent faster. You’ve got eight times as much space to fill, but it only loads about 50 per cent faster. So you have to find a way to make that big data smaller, but load just the same as the Playstation 2 did.
Shadow Of The Colossus has benefitted well from the switch to HD.
“There’s a cheaper way to do that and I’ve seen a lot of other remasters do that. They don’t use high quality textures, they used compressed textures. They use XP1, which is eight times smaller.
“It fixes the problem, but PS2 games are palletised with lots of bright, vibrant colours and in order to do that compression it makes the textures look all muddy.
“We don’t do that, unless we absolutely have to and then we do it by hand. A lot of these textures are really, really small, so when you blow them up they look quite blurry.
“On Metal Gear we had 37 people redoing the textures for three months. Scaling them up, touching them up, but in such a way that you can’t really tell, so the game still looks like it did. What we’re basically trying to do is make the game look on the TV as it does in the gamer’s head. Like they remember it being.”
It’s a lot of work, but for Bluepoint Games, it’s all about doing something properly or not doing it at all, a mantra O’Neil tells us several times throughout his interview.
In many ways Bluepoint Games do for videogames what Criterion do for Blu-Rays and DVDs, lovingly restoring past classics, so that they are just how the buyer remembers them (or maybe a little better).
“We haven’t consciously modelled ourselves on them,” begins O’Neil, pleased with the analogy. “It’s more to do with, if you’re going to do something; do it the best you possibly can. We don’t want to be George Lucas and continually change everything.”
This last note is important because O’Neil is quick to point out that these games still belong to the original owners. Bugs, some minor, some less so are occasionally found when a game is being analysed and play-tested, sometimes a developer decides to leave them in (as with The Legend Of Zelda: The Ocarina Of Time) but other times they are taken out. Providing of course, the original developer is happy with the new changes.
“We don’t change anything to do with the game without talking to the developer first,” reveals O’Neil. “Even if it’s really minor stuff we’ll always ask them first, because it’s not our place. We’re like film restorers.
“Just because you can fix something it doesn’t mean you should. An example was the jump cheat on Ico on the EU version. If you swung the stick and pressed the jump button at exactly the right time you could make a super jump. We fixed this so it wouldn’t break the included trophies. We didn’t think we’d upset that many people by fixing it.”
Does turning classics into HD versions make them just as good?
Even so change can sometimes be a good thing, particularly if it comes in the forms of extras or enhancements that can improve the core gameplay experience.
Halo features a wonderful trick that enables players to effortlessly switch between the original visuals and those of Halo Reach, Street Fighter III offers online support and a number of new modes that weren’t in the original game, Ubisoft and Bluepoint both add stereoscopic 3D to their compilations, while Just Add Water are making all sorts of tweaks to the PSN version of Stranger’s Wrath.
“Well why not?” finishes Gilray when we ask him about the number of additional extras that Stranger’s Wrath will feature. “I do not stand for a HD remake if it’s literally just the original game running at 720p or 1080p with no updates – what is the point?
“We are bringing this game to a new platform, and indeed an entire new audience who have perhaps never heard of Oddworld or Stranger’s Wrath, so why would we give them just the Xbox original with little or no updates?”
Regardless of how you feel about high-definition updates their continued popularity means they’re here to stay. As long as future collections and remakes continue to offer great value for money or genuinely improve upon the original versions, as Bluepoint’s titles constantly do, we’ll continue to buy them.