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The CIO's pioneering role in video game creation

Video game studios' IT leaders are digital pioneers in a high-stakes business that's larger than music and movies combined. They work in a microcosm of technological development on a grand scale, one from which all CIOs can learn practical lessons.

The video game industry is a commercial juggernaut and a cultural force. Industry CIOs and CIO equivalents service 2.5 billion gamers in a hypercompetitive space with a 2018 global market value of $135 billion.

The IT leaders responsible for game development drive creative projects to captivate players. Their technical successes and failures are evident in the end product available to a massive and extremely vocal public.

The CIOs and CIO equivalents at leading studios such as DigixArt, Fatshark, and Ubisoft have learned compelling lessons through the crucible of video game design. Their strategic insights are highly applicable and transferable across industries, with focus areas including: 

Nurturing a creative vision. Video games are artistic as well as technological products. They must capture an audience like any blockbuster or page-turner. DigixArt creative director Yoan Fanise says it took 18 months of intense collaboration to realize his creative vision for the game "11-11: Memories Retold." 

Given their direct role in technical execution, video game IT leaders like Fanise have a vital impact on how their organizations develop an original narrative using technology. This is especially true in smaller studios such as DigixArt, where technical and creative roles overlap. 

Iterating based on customer feedback. CIOs in every industry recognize the critical importance of improving processes and technologies to satisfy their customers. For Joakim Wahlström, a video game technical director at Sweden's Fatshark, this was crucial during work on "Warhammer: Vermintide 2," a sequel to a highly regarded action game. 

According to Wahlström, the project was an opportunity to hook players with more of the attributes they were looking for: to double the number of enemies, to generate a greater variety of items, and to finesse an updated "patrols code" that allows for a multitude of enemy formations. This painstaking work was based on a strategic assessment of customer input, from play test groups to reviews on digital distribution platforms such as Steam.

Strategically investing in emerging technology. While all CIOs assess the potential value of emerging technology, video game CIOs obsess about it. At Ubisoft, one of the world's largest video game publishers, technology group director Chadi Lebbos analyzes and implements emerging technology that will equip his colleagues with differentiating advantages. He says the company's technology group acts as "an accelerator, a facilitator, and an innovation partner," with a particular focus on the ways in which artificial intelligence provides players with realistic environments and choices

Video game CIOs are digital pioneers. They oversee the production of games that take inherent narrative and technological risks. Major bugs, or even an unconvincing AI algorithm, can invite instant reputational damage for a studio, provoking aversion in an industry in which players' attention is the most precious commodity of all. 

As such, CIOs seek to mitigate problems early on, while working to set their games apart from the pack. The processes they cherish, such as bold experimentation and creative collaboration, are central to the growth of a singular, young industry. Thanks to their marriage of science and art, video game CIOs are increasingly well equipped to entertain and edify players—and, through their games, even compel their customers to contemplate what it means to be human.

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DigixArt and 'the violence of the brush': Realizing a daring vision through technology 

"Video games are probably the most advanced medium to blend all kinds of technological and artistic evolutions," says DigixArt creative director Yoan Fanise from his studio in the south of France.

DigixArt's "11-11: Memories Retold" is a work of historical fiction, depicting a friendship across enemy lines during World War I. Fanise and his team dedicated themselves to refining multiple technical systems, such as animation and AI, to tell the story in a convincing and authentic way. 

Fanise has deep personal connections to the war: Two generations of his family were directly involved in the fighting. His great-great-grandfather died in World War I, and his great-grandfather returned an amputee. Fanise still has all of the wartime letters sent back home. 

The player experiences the game as German soldier Kurt Waldner and Canadian war photographer Harry Lambert—sometimes in alternating vignettes and sometimes in concert as they work toward a shared objective. The game's technical underpinnings allow the player to make impactful choices. The player chooses which photographs Lambert takes for his sweetheart back home, for example, and also how candid Waldner is about the war in his letters to his young daughter. These choices help shape the narrative and determine the content of the letters these protagonists receive in return.

During one sequence, an anguished Waldner evades French soldiers in a last-ditch attempt to find his son's dog tag. Photograph fragments serve as collectible items throughout the story; if players find enough of these fragments in this section, they are presented with a bonus. They can view an actual photograph of a WWI dog tag, and they are provided with an explanation of its real-life significance. Fanise took the photo himself and scanned it into the game. It was another way of honoring these soldiers, of bridging the gap between entertainment and heartfelt homage to the millions of lives lost. 

"I wanted to pay tribute to them, not to celebrate the war but the end of it," Fanise says. "To show the human side of normal people like you and me who were thrown in the mud to kill other humans."

The game is profoundly cinematic, and its visuals are portrayed with a painterly effect, akin to the broad impressionistic brushstrokes of Monet or Renoir. DigixArt, in partnership with famed British studio Aardman Animations, designed an algorithm that inserted metadata into all of the game's 3D assets, from soldiers to toy zeppelins. This metadata determined the complete set of characteristics for a 2D-shader overlay, from the size of the digital brushstroke to color. The effect is striking.

"11-11: Memories Retold" is a meditation on human nature in the cauldron of war. A 2D-shader overlay creates a dreamlike, painterly effect. Image credit: DigixArt

"We used the strokes of the painterly effect to express the feelings of the characters, the violence of the brush," Fanise says. "We are lucky to work in a small indie studio supported by major companies that enable creativity without boundaries. Maybe that's the key word here: We hate all boundaries, such as the ones between science and art but also the ones between countries."

Fatshark and the quest for endless replayability

Fatshark's "Warhammer: Vermintide 2" transports players to a dark fantasy universe. In this cooperative multiplayer game, an evil seer has opened a mystical portal, flooding the world with fiendish rat-men known as the Skaven. Four players assume the role of heroes, dispatching the Skaven as well as fearsome Chaos Warriors with a host of spells, arrows, and unique abilities.

For Fatshark, this sequel was not only an opportunity to create a new entry in an esteemed series but also a chance to hone critical AI and dialogue systems. The effort was in keeping with the studio's all-consuming drive toward "endless replayability," according to Joakim Wahlström, a video game technical director at Fatshark.

Combat is visceral and frenetic thanks to a variety of technical disciplines coming together as one, Wahlström says. 

"To make a hammer impact on an enemy feel really meaty and heavy, you need both art and code," he explains. "You need perfect hit detection. Physics with rag dolls. Thousands of animations and hit reactions. Camera movements timed with sounds and particle effects. If one of these parts is missing, then something doesn't feel right, like you are hitting air."

Combat in "Warhammer: Vermintide 2" hinges on multiple interrelated technical systems, from artificial intelligence to physics algorithms. Image credit: Fatshark

During production, the Stockholm studio made game replayability one of its foremost goals. Because "Warhammer: Vermintide 2" is a multiplayer game, the game's long-term success depended on players, in the guise of virtual witch hunters, battle wizards, and slayers, repeatedly logging on as battle parties across the globe. The company's proprietary AI framework, known as the AI director, fosters game depth and attendant replayability. It was designed to help game designers maintain a fair and enthralling mix of the game's enemies, from low-level grunts to the toughest bosses. 

"We knew early on that having fixed-place enemies would never do, since it is the death of replayability," Wahlström says. "Once players learn and master something, it quickly becomes boring. On the other hand, pure random spawning of enemies is never fun either, as it means there is no control over pacing or difficulty."

Fatshark rewrote the game's AI director, essentially slicing each level into hundreds of small segments that flow through a main path. In the level "Against the Grain," for example, the player's party is on a quest to rescue humans from a bile troll at Morgensloft Farm. Party members can make a side trip through a barn for power-ups, but to progress, ultimately they must make their way through an orchard. The AI director simultaneously analyzes such side trips and main-level progression. 

The AI director then sprinkles enemies across these areas to create moments of intense action, followed by calmer respites where players can take advantage of healing draughts or ammunition drops. The software takes travel distance and land area between levels into account, so no mission feels too easy or too difficult. At the same time, the game accounts for team achievement, using real-time metrics such as damage taken and enemies slain, to modify enemy densities and keep players engaged at an appropriate clip.

"Warhammer: Vermintide 2" creates a genuine sense of camaraderie between its epic heroes. The game's dialogue system is dynamic. Avatars call out necessary items ("Help yourself to ammunition!") and weigh in during certain events, such as the death of an enemy boss ("That was their champion?"). Wahlström and his colleagues worked closely with sound designers and writers to create a believable and entertaining system. They enabled the AI to track all manner of game states, such as "player is last hero standing" or "player is standing on stairs," to randomly select fitting dialogue, remembering how often a line has been used and chaining it with quips from other characters when appropriate.

These systems combine to engross the player and maintain the illusion of legendary battle. For Wahlström, there is no dividing line between art and technology on a project such as "Warhammer: Vermintide 2."

"They go hand in hand," he says.

Ubisoft's 'huge adventure' defined by ever-increasing realism and choice

In Ubisoft's team-based tactical shooter, "Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege," realism reigns supreme. Bullets obliterate drywall and turn desks into splinters. Each blast is unique, relying on complex algorithms based on real-time physical calculations.

Chadi Lebbos, technology group director at Ubisoft Montréal, helped lead the development of Realblast, the game's singular destruction engine. In partnership with an international team of approximately 300 employees, the technology group's primary goal is to provide internal services, tools, and middleware to the game production teams.

"We worked with [the 'Rainbow Six' production team] from the beginning, and [the engine] became basically their breakthrough," Lebbos says. "And this is one of their signature gameplay elements. That has been a huge adventure, for the Realblast team and the 'Rainbow Six Siege' production team."

One of Lebbos' primary concerns is the creation of responsive systems for ongoing projects, such as "Watch Dogs: Legion." The game is set in a dystopian, near-future London, a crime-ravaged city under constant government surveillance.

"Bloody drones are everywhere," in-game character Ian Robshaw mutters during the "Watch Dogs" premiere trailer, as a surveillance drone hovers a meter above the entrance to the Underground. The AI team within Ubisoft's technology group developed volumetric AI, creating a navigational mesh that permits such game drones to float and fly realistically in the 3D environment.

Government drones hover menacingly over Big Ben in "Watch Dogs: Legion." Their behavior is determined by Ubisoft's volumetric AI. Image credit: Ubisoft Montréal

Artificial intelligence is a key focus of the cross-game technology group as well as La Forge, the company's prototyping space, which combines deep insights from production teams and university researchers. These AI and AI-influenced technologies include procedural generation, which uses algorithms to generate game content spontaneously. Such advancements expedite the creation of larger game worlds. 

Machine learning is even helping Ubisoft avoid the bane of programmers everywhere: bugs and errors. 

"When a programmer starts to commit a change to his code, machine learning comes in," Lebbos says. "[The inference pattern] jumps in, sees his code, and essentially tells him, 'You have X percent chance of creating a bug, and here are the solutions that we propose.'"

Lebbos and his team provide tools and middleware to game teams, essentially a series of systems designed to enhance the game-making process. In turn, game programmers develop software that inherently is a collection of player-facing systems. These game systems are designed to follow a general narrative framework, Lebbos emphasizes, while allowing players to create and live their own unique stories. 

Video games are yet another realm of the imagination: the intersection point of the cinematic and the fantastic. The IT leaders at DigixArt, Fatshark, and Ubisoft are digital pioneers at the dawn of a creative renaissance in interactive experience. On the surface, the studios may seem self-contained as they work on proprietary engines. In reality, however, their goals and concerns—nurturing a creative vision, iterating effectively, and strategically investing in emerging technology—are immediately relatable to those of every IT leader. Video game technologists and players worldwide will continue to embrace the endless narrative implications of technological advancement while looking, ever onward, toward the horizon.

More on gaming:

6 ways AI is making an impact on video games

The gaming statistics technology innovators should know

Gaming the future (Washington Post/HPE)

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.