Special Report: Neon â?? Codemasters and Sony's illuminating next-gen engine

Special Report: Neon â?? Codemasters and Sony's illuminating next-gen engine
Michael French

By Michael French

October 23rd 2006 at 1:30PM

With help from Sony's tech group, Codemasters has built a brand-new next-gen engine called Neon - and in a curious move it will even power new 360 games.

Everyone knows that making games for new formats has brought with it a slew of challenges and that the step from, say, PS2 to PS3, is for some more painful than that from PSOne to PS2.

Codemasters arguably knows this better than any other studio, having managed to pretty much wing it in the current generation. By development VP Gavin Cheshire’s own admission, PS2 games for its leading Colin McRae series were based on repurposed PSone technology. This wasn’t an approach possible for making the next version, subtitled Dirt.

“One of the things we thought long and hard about was how we were going to exploit the next-gen cycle. One thing that Codemasters didn’t do particularly brilliantly in the last cycle was get ready in time” admits Cheshire.

“We didn’t want to make that mistake again, so for this gen we’ve had to restructure, plan, and gear up for what’s coming next. It didn’t catch us off guard, but we’ve really had to focus our efforts.”

Knowing that much of future development will demand a reliance on tailored middleware solutions, Codemasters shopped around, but couldn’t find exactly what it wanted.

Explains Chesire: “We looked at the middleware solutions we could use - we had no axe to grind, frankly, and just wanted to find the technology we could have ready for th next-gen so we weren’t left catching up in ten years’ time. We looked around at the Renderwares and the Unreals, but nothing really fulfilled our requirements – specifically for the PS3, anyway.”

So what do you do when your ideal platform is PS3? The answer is to speak to Sony. And together, Codemasters and Sony have come up with another answer: Neon.

A new next-gen engine built from scratch over the past year and a half, it’s been a significant investment – and is a new tool with an unique and interesting backstory.

“Sony knew early on that it was going to be hard to get the very best out of the PS3 early on, so the Japan office commissioned a team in Europe to start devising new technology and tools,” says Cheshire. “We really only found out about it because a guy on that team is friends with a coder at Sony, but our guys have worked very hard on building that relationship with them. What we were able to do is exploit something that Sony was internally, which we were the first to see – and since then we’ve worked very closely with Sony. It’s a two-way street.”

According to Cheshire, “Sony isn’t into exploiting” the relevant component that makes Neon work, allowing
Codemasters to do so instead. Wholly-owned by Codemasters (Cheshire says 30 of the in-house programmers have been responsible for build building 80 per cent of the result), Neon will eventually power all the Codemasters in-house next-gen games – and that includes titles for 360.

Having Sony provide the springboard for next-gen development on another platform isn’t as unlikely as you may think, however.

“The odd thing is that we wouldn’t have wanted to use it if it wasn’t crossplatform,” explains Cheshire. “But Sony said that was fine. Sony realises that the only way to make next-gen viable for everyone was to allow everyone to exploit technology.”

Of course, the two-way street has provided Codemasters with an invaluable glimpse into the PS3 earlier than the other third-party developers that will prove beneficial to Sony in the long-run.

“We’ve had a very good look into PS3 knowhow and ethics,” adds Cheshire. It’s therefore not unreasonable to think that Sony’s playing it cool is just another of the platform holder’s views to investing in the future of its machine – especially when you realise that the high potential for Neon to join Sony’s tools and middleware programme could be a coup for the format holder.

The first game to benefit from Neon is Colin McRae Dirt, due in June 2007. About to hit its first playable milestone, the game utilises Neon for everything from shading effects, through to terrain, damage models and even simulation of real wind.

A next-gen exclusive – there will be no current gen version – Dirt’s conception, and the part it has played in Neon’s creation, has been lengthy. At one point last year, when new ideas were being prototyped, Colin was potentially going to appear in a version more suited to the street racing genre popularised by EA Canada’s Need For Speed Underground and Criterion’s Burnout. But, unhappy with what was just a reaction to the market rather than what the game needed both conceptually and technically, the team put its foot on the breaks.

“We fought quite a bit for when Dirt would come out and compromised – we didn’t want to rush it out with out the polish it needed to carry it through, and of course all our other games will use this technology.

Indeed, that’s the key – Dirt has driven Neon which will soon drive the whole studio. While projects such as Brian Lara Cricket are currently managed using the engine acquired from previous developer Swordfish, the engine devised for creating racing environments will set the tone for locations in other games and set the tone for the whole studio’s development environment. The tool, says Chesire, “Allows us to exploit not just the racing genre, but it has been designed to exploit the huge open terrains you need for all our games.”

This is an adapted version of a report published in the October edition of Develop. The issue in its entirety can be downloaded here.