When ESPN released the first screenshot of "NCAA Football 11," EA Sports was flooded with e-mail from disbelievers. Was the image real?
Well, as they might say on Seinfeld, it's real and it's spectacular.
"When that first screen came out, everyone thought it looked so good that it must have been done in Photoshop. But that screenshot was straight up out of our engine," explains NCAA Football 11's art director Jean Adams. "One of the big pushes for us this year was to make the game look and feel very different, new, and fresh. So when people saw that screen and we got such a big reaction, we knew we were on to something."
And "big reaction" might be an understatement as that screen was the subject of blog posts and message board debate for weeks. So much so that EA Sports has actively been defending their screen as legit to anyone who will listen.
From the lighting to the way the player is leaning, there is just so much to dissect, you almost need to break out last year's game for the full comparison. And according to Adams, that's exactly what fans of the series like to do.
"As soon as our consumers buy the game, one of the first things they always do is take screenshots and compare the new game to how last year's game looked," Adams says. "Over the last few years, fans have complained a lot about how our game always feels the same and looks the same, so one thing we wanted to do this year was re-light the game in a very dramatic way."
So the art team at EA Sports went in and added new skies for every time of day and night, including various weather conditions, to help give their game that fresh stylistic look they were after. And the difference is staggering. "We want it to still look realistic, but dramatic at the same time," says Adams. "So we picked dusk skies that were just over the top, and even our overcast skies are looming over the stadiums. And this all led to new lighting on the players, fields, and stadiums.
"We added a new technology called linear lighting which allows us to tune the game to whatever range of values we want," Adams continues. "So years before, we tried to get some really nice contrast into our game, but instead, all of our whites would blow out and the game would look dark and flat. So what we did this year was add the lighting to our real-time rendering shaders, and this allowed us to tune everything in a more realistic way. I think it really paid off. Now when you see all of those great moves and it's highlighted by this linear lighting, it's going to add up to deliver a great-looking game."
"NCAA Football 11" producer Russ Kiniry agrees. "Lighting is one of those things that if you see it on paper, you're just like, 'Yeah, you have new lighting.' I didn't even understand the difference the lighting makes on the game until we were done," Kiniry says. "But when we were working on this and as the different pieces of lighting started to come in, the game really started to look brand new. It's unbelievably different when you're comparing how last year's game and this year's game look. You can look at the exact same situation, the exact equipment, and time of day, but the lighting just makes everything look ten times better."
Adds Adams: "It's like a coat of paint for the game. If you're selling a home, the first thing you do is paint it. You're not changing the studs, you're not changing what's underneath, you're just making it feel new, and that's what lighting is doing for us right now. It's not just that fresh coat of paint, it's that really dramatic fresh coat of paint."
And one of the biggest differences gamers will notice upon closer inspection is the new-look player skin. "This year is about getting all the details done right, and when you do that, anything that's wrong really stands out, and for me, one of those things is skin," explains Adams. "So this year, we added a new shader that reacts to lighting in a more realistic way. We were able to tune the skin to look different during different times of day so it's more realistic. In the past, we've shipped the game with skin that looks too shiny or too rubbery or looks like plastic, but that hurts the believability of our game. It hurts the suspension of disbelief. So once we started to get the lighting right, we realized that the helmets looked amazing and the jersey looked great and the new Nike shoes are cool, but that skin just doesn't look right. So we felt that we had to unify the entire game in terms of quality. So while skin might not be a big deal on its own, improving the way it looks and making it the same quality as the helmets and jerseys just gives it a more unifying feel. It just shows how we're really giving a lot of attention to how everything looks and plays in the game.
"Now you'll be able to notice skin pores, the hair on the legs, sweat trails on the arms ... little details like that, so when people see the new screenshots that are about to come out, they're going to be blown away. No Photoshop. These are images from our game that we're really, really proud of. No bait and switch. This is our game."