ACE COMBAT 7 soars high with UE4 to become franchise’s best installment
To see how Bandai Namco Studios was able to reignite the series’ success, we interviewed Kazutoki Kono. The ACE COMBAT producer elaborates on the great lengths that went into getting the jets to feel authentic, talks about designing gameplay that straddles the line between feeling fun yet realistic, and speaks to balancing what hardcore fans expect from the series while introducing new innovations.
Kono also expounds on the implementation of ACE COMBAT 7’s critically-praised VR mode and discusses how the studio achieved arguably the best graphics for a combat flight game to date. Thanks for your time and congratulations on the release of ACE COMBAT 7: Skies Unknown. Can you talk about the research involved to ensure the jets and flight mechanics felt authentic?
Producer Kazutoki Kono: It’s my pleasure to talk about ACE COMBAT 7: Skies Unknown. Regarding the aircraft visuals, we made the ailerons, flaps, and rudders move authentically by synchronizing their motions to the player's controls. In order to achieve that, we did extensive research on the subject.
To get the specifications of our aircrafts right, we researched and collected a lot of data and made sure that each aircraft’s unique characteristics had been properly implemented in the game.
Regarding the authentic flight mechanics, striving for extreme realism would have conflicted with the enjoyable flight feel that we were aiming for, so we prioritized creating gameplay that felt fun.
But we still wanted to provide realism, so we implemented input from real-life pilots regarding the risks associated with flying into clouds and into bad weather conditions.
Can you talk about your approach in creating gameplay that strikes a balance between being fun, yet realistic?
Kono: While crafting missions, our initial approach was to think about what emotions would be evoked from the player when experiencing a certain mission and how much enjoyment that would provide.
Then, we designed missions to account for those anticipated feelings to match the kind of experience we wanted players to have. The military strategies, the movements of allies and enemies, and the mission’s meaning within the game world were decided at this stage.
At its core, we put together missions to introduce weapons that aligned with each assignments’ purpose and themes.
Even if some situations are not tactically viable or realistic, we always tried to present them in a realistic, believable way.
How did Bandai Namco Studios balance offering new features while keeping the core identity of what fans love and expect from the series intact?
Kono: Features such as being able to fly freely in 360 degrees, fighting strategically to defeat enemies, and capturing objectives have always been core pillars and part of the franchise’s identity, which is why fans expect them to be included in some shape or form.
In the latest game, we added new features such as dynamic clouds and air flow, which widen strategic possibilities. These new elements can be used to gain an upper-hand by strategically-minded players, but can also be ignored by players who rely more on raw flight skills.
In other words, we always carefully balance any new features that we implement as to not break away from the core pillars and identity of the ACE COMBAT series that fans around the world have grown to love.
ACE COMBAT 7 features gorgeous graphics with arguably the most impressive volumetric clouds ever rendered in a video game coupled with detailed jet models and cityscapes. How did the studio achieve the polished look of the game?
Kono: The flexible material system within Unreal Engine 4 and the trueSKY weather rendering software created by Simul Inc. were vital to achieve our desired level of graphical fidelity. High-fidelity graphics provided weight to ACE COMBAT’s fictional world “Strangereal.”
Our art team researched a wide variety of real aircraft and also various cities in order to create elements that appear in-game and predicted how technology and warfare could evolve in the coming years in order to portray the near-future with a convincing degree of reality. This is where Physically Based Materials (PBR) was extremely useful, as it made it possible for us to visually represent elements such as the matte and metallic bodies of aircrafts under indoor and outdoor lighting conditions in a realistic fashion. All of these elements are also affected by various shapes, sizes, colors, and types of clouds. For example, players will notice this when flying under cumulonimbi or a sea of clouds. Being able to build volumetric clouds in 3D has also innovated CG skies.
It was a challenge for us since having more graphical elements present could make optimization more difficult. We had to find a solution that would allow us to achieve our vision for the game while delivering a consistent frame rate. We managed to achieve this goal by the end, but it required work. The end result is a smooth and gorgeous-looking game thanks to our engineers’ abilities and experience.
ACE COMBAT 7 has been lauded for its realistic weather effects such as rain, wind, and lightning affecting the way jets handle. Can you talk about how you designed and incorporated these immersive weather systems?
Kono: In order to have weather affect gameplay in the most realistic way possible, we interviewed active Japan Air Self-Defense Force pilots and air-traffic control officers. We asked for their thoughts regarding concept videos that we created in order to provide the most realistic and satisfying gameplay for players.
One element of flying that constantly came up was that fighter pilots would tell us that diving into clouds is extremely dangerous. Clouds don’t only decrease an aircraft’s performance drastically, but can also lower visibility to the point where pilots have to fly blind. As it pertains to the design of our game, clouds became a way to escape from enemies.
We made sure that natural phenomena such as rain, thunder, and air flow affect not only aircraft, but also materials. Additionally, we added unique touches by including realistic elements such as vibrations in the cockpit and various sound effects when players fly into clouds. These elements have been praised by fans around the world.
In addition to the game's amazing visuals, ACE COMBAT 7 has been praised for its sweeping orchestral score. Can you talk about what it was like working with series composer Keiki Kobayashi to create the game's amazing soundtrack?
Kono: We have had very detailed discussions with Mr. Kobayashi regarding every mission in the game and how we should proceed with music production. It was very important to compose music that matched the theme and visuals of each scene. This time, we also attempted something new. In order to improve the gameplay experience and tug on our audience’s heartstrings, we opted for a more controlled approach that doesn’t loop the score. Instead, various tracks are played in tandem with the events on screen. In order to achieve this, we disassembled a song recording and re-adjusted it based on the player’s progression. Kobayashi-san is extremely talented and his skills have been amplified by new technology, producing a very dramatic musical presentation.
The PlayStation 4 version of the game offers three exclusive VR missions that really make you feel like you’re sitting inside a detailed cockpit and piloting a jet. Can you elaborate on how you designed and incorporated VR into ACE COMBAT?
Kono: We designed it with three elements in mind. First, we wanted the player to always experience the game from a first-person pilot perspective. The second consideration, which is a technical one, is we made the game run at 60 FPS in order to have consistently fluid movements. Consistent movements along with our lighting effects within the clouds and environments create an illusion that makes the player feel like they are truly inside the cockpit of a fighter aircraft flying above the clouds. This is helped by cockpits that have been crafted with extreme care, down to the last detail. In addition to these elements, we also designed and included situations that we felt would fit the fantasy players want to experience in the VR version of ACE COMBAT. We didn’t just want to deliver what fans expected from us, but we wanted to exceed their expectations.
Can gamers expect to see more ACE COMBAT VR moving forward?
Kono: We’ve achieved our VR goals with ACE COMBAT 7's VR mode. We think that moving forward, both the technological progress and strong demand by players are key factors that will determine the probability of future VR projects. I can say, as game developers, we are very excited about the future of VR technology.
What was the game’s biggest development challenge and how did the team overcome it?
Kono: The first challenge was delivering a “main series” ACE COMBAT game entry after a 12 year absence. We also wondered if we’d get enough support from our fans around the world, and we knew we had to deliver a highly-satisfying experience with the finished product. Also, we had to work on new platforms with different architecture within a market that was significantly different than the last time we released a “main series” ACE COMBAT game. It was also challenging to create a game experience in VR, which was a first for our team. Although challenges are different every time, the way we face them are quite similar; we create an experienced team, study the market, come up with some breakthroughs, and refine our project until we are satisfied with the end result.
With ACE COMBAT 7 being the first game in the series to use UE4, how was the transition to the engine?
Kono: Flight models from previous ACE COMBAT games, which determine the behavior of aircrafts, were easily imported into the engine. After that, we had a base from which to create gameplay that contained the iconic feel the series is known for. However, from there, it took us quite a long time to get the "sky innovations," high-performance spaces, extremely vast maps, and free flying with an overwhelming number of NPCs tuned. However, the end result speaks for itself, so I can safely say that switching to Unreal Engine 4 was the correct choice for the series.
Did the studio have any favorite UE4 tools or features?
Kono: It is difficult for me to give an accurate and complete answer, but our senior engineer says that the “Play In Editor (PIE) feature was very helpful in streamlining the creation process during development.” He added that the “Profiler is an essential system for task optimization. And there were many times we would have been lost without the Reference Viewer.”
Did the studio leverage Blueprints in any way?
Kono: We used Blueprints to design our levels in ACE COMBAT 7. It has given our design work a very important boost. When play-testing, the development staff were able to make many improvement suggestions. With Blueprints, we could rearrange the level design in order to implement our ideas. It was extremely helpful during our tuning phase. I also have to point out that our level designers are very innovative and inventive. I think we were blessed with a great team who made great use of Blueprints.
Was it helpful having access to UE4's source code during development?
Kono: Our engineers were able to read the source code directly, giving them an intimate understanding of the game engine, which is much more valuable than any technical documents.
As a result, we could develop the game more effectively and it allowed us to fix bugs and problems more efficiently.
Thanks again for your time. Where can people learn more about ACE COMBAT 7?
Kono: We have a lot more info about ACE COMBAT on our official website.