It is one thing to make a game for a big screen. It is completely another case re-creating the same game world using a small handheld device.

Ian Bowden from Rockstar Leeds talked at the Nordic Game conference about what kind of challenges they encountered while developing the Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars on Nintendo DS. Chinatown Wars is the first GTA game for DS, and it is based in the world of GTA IV. You would think there is not much innovation in developing the twelfth sequel for a well-known game series. Surely, they had an established concept; they even had an already created city environment. However, as we heard at the Nordic Game, it takes much creativity and a bunch of innovative decisions to take a big-scale game and to convert it to a small screen and other limits of a handheld device.

The lecture started with a formal announcement prohibiting all cameras during the show. But when Ian Bowden got started, the atmosphere changed. He started by commenting the Eurovision song contest and both the Norwegian and the Swedish song got their share. He also showed some “mug shots” of himself, demonstrating how the game industry changes you. After the humorous start and some background information about how Rockstar Leeds was born, we got to the main point.

One of the biggest challenges designing the Chinatown Wars was making the game world and the characters convincing. It wasn’t just making things smaller and simpler; you had to make it look so believable that the player could identify with their character. They decided to use cartoon style graphics, not even trying to make it too realistic. They also had to decide what to leave really simple and what to polish more in the city view and how to make the characters and animations look real while still being easy to reproduce. They ended up using sprites with a few parts they could recolor, thus giving them an easy way to reproduce different looking characters to the game world. They also took notice on how to make game characters similar enough both far and up close, so they would be recognized as the same people. In addition, they made the close-ups of characters out of polygons and then added textures, making it easy to create new impressions of the same face while keeping the style. That way, they didn’t have to use exactly the same image of a face twice anywhere in the game. All this was in the purpose of making the game convincing for the player.

And you would say they managed it all pretty well, considering for instance the MobyScore, which is at the moment an astonishing 94.

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