Pioneering souls who operate at the frontiers of technology aren’t always the ones that get remembered for their efforts. It’s a safe bet, for example, that you know the name of the company that first mass produced the vacuum cleaner and made it a household essential, but do you actually know who invented it? (Melville Bissell of Grand Rapids, MI). There’s no point being first if you’re not also the best.
Take Eugen System’s World War II-based strategy R.U.S.E*. It will get a well deserved place in the annals of gaming history for its headline innovation: It’s the first Triple-A PC game designed from the ground up to work with the multi-touch features of Microsoft Windows* 7. It won’t, however, become a landmark game simply because you don’t need a mouse and scroll wheel to play through it. R.U.S.E. can be successfully completed entirely using the pinch/zoom and other gestures familiar to high-end smartphone owners, but that’s not all it has to offer hardened RTS fans and newcomers to the genre alike.
That being said, the game’s release in 2010 couldn’t come at a better time. All of the major PC manufacturers have recently launched multi-touch monitors, all-in-ones, and laptops to capitalize on public enthusiasm for the new features. While a multi-touch interface won’t do much for first-person shooter fans, picking up units in a real-time strategy (RTS) game to direct them around the screen with your fingertips seems like a natural evolution for a genre well suited to a form of interaction that is more direct than what the keyboard and mouse can provide. By staking its claim early, R.U.S.E. won’t just be using the emerging control method, it will in some ways be defining it.
“The game is structured around a ‘war-room’-like table which makes you feel like you’re a real general pushing units around a map,” said Mathieu Girard, senior producer for R.U.S.E ’s publisher Ubisoft. “For our announcement trailer we wanted to have two guys playing together on a ‘real’ table, so we worked with a French company, IntuiLab, which produced an amazing IntuiFace* demo using a surface computing tabletop.
“We did some focus group work and a multi-touch monitor was high on everyone’s must-buy list. Realizing that consumer computers with Windows 7 would be coming onto the market around the time of our release, and that they would have the same multi-touch capabilities, we knew we had to keep it.”
Incorporating an entirely new type of controller mid-way through a project might sound like an enormous task, but two factors helped Eugen implement a successful multi-touch system. The first is that, for better or worse, the team wasn’t held back by traditional design documents. The second, more important, reason is that they’d already committed to radically overhauling the familiar RTS interface and had the engine technology in place to perfectly complement the multi-touch screens.
With R.U.S.E., we really wanted to capture the feeling of being a real strategic commander. We wanted a huge battlefield . . . we wanted to create maps that are 100 times bigger, that gave you the feeling you’re in complete control, like a god of war.”
—CEDRIC LE DRESSAY, TECHNICAL DIRECTOR AND FOUNDER, EUGEN SYSTEMS
Where the Old Meets New
Located inside a Knights Templar fortress, which dates from the thirteenth century, Eugen Systems is just a few blocks from the world famous Pompidou Centre in Paris. The majority of its 60 employees are engine coders, who report to Technical Director and founder, Cedric Le Dressay. Their job is to translate the creative team’s vision into working builds as quickly as possible so that ideas can be tried out, then pursued or abandoned as appropriate. Thanks to the continual dialogue between designers and programmers, new ideas like multitouch can be demonstrated and refined or discarded relatively quickly.
“We don’t believe in the ‘design bible,’” Le Dressay explained. “We work better when everyone talks and can see a live version straight away. Ideas come from the creative team, we implement on specification, and these get tested by the creative team. By doing that kind of iterative process we believe we have a better chance of creating a great game that will appeal to our fans.”
While the iterative process is often frowned upon by many in the industry, largely because of the effect it has on hitting deadlines, it is practiced by some of the best known names in strategy development, such as Firaxis’ Sid Meier. Getting an early prototype up and running is absolutely vital to this game’s success. Initial versions of R.U.S.E. were based on the company’s existing game engine, which was used for its previous game, Act of War*. Right from the start, Le Dressay knew that he wanted to make an engine capable of running a game that’s very different from the standard RTS.
“With R.U.S.E.,” he said, “we really wanted to capture the feeling of being a real strategic commander. We wanted a huge battlefield. Compared to our previous game, Act of War, we wanted to create maps that are 100 times bigger, that gave you the feeling you’re in complete control, like a god of war.”
That vision became the IrisZoom*, the code base at the core of R.U.S.E. that is designed to move seamlessly between macro and micro tactical control. At its most extreme scale, the game is represented as a giant tabletop in a military HQ. Generals stand impassively by the walls as stacked units with abstract markers are dragged around during the issuance of new orders. When played from this perspective, it might as well come with a long stick and a wonky Bakelite headset in the box. IrisZoom, though, makes it possible to take the player down from that atmospheric overview to an almost first-person camera on the front line in a single, swooping zoom. Importantly, at this level the control system remains unchanged. Every command and gesture is available at any point on or above the battlefield.
The result is that R.U.S.E. not only looks different from other strategy games, it has an internal continuity that makes it play differently too.
“The technology we have is very important,” Girard explained. “It’s how we can express everything without breaking the immersive factor. We are able to scale up visual effects as you zoom in and zoom out so you can always read them, and that’s not a simple thing to do. You have to continually re-spawn particles, for example, and keep them consistent as you simplify or make them more complex depending on whether you’re moving up or down to ground level.”
Immersion, not multi-touch, is the big idea behind R.U.S.E.. That’s what influences every other part of the game’s dynamic.
Building the Fourth Wall
In R.U.S.E., every effort is taken to keep incongruous elements from breaking your involvement in the world. There’s no mini-map, for instance—why would there be when you can quickly zoom out to space for a tactical overview? There’s no overview panel with unit information sitting at the bottom of the screen either. If you want to issue an order, just point a cursor or finger at the spot where you want to interact and the right context menu pops up. In other words, it was an interface conceived even before the arrival of multi-touch controls.
Perhaps the most significant innovation is the absence of the health bars that float above a soldier’s head in traditional interfaces.
“There’s no static panels as in other games,” Girard said. “We want you to focus on what is on the battlefield. There are no life gauges on the units. If there’s smoke or fire trailing from them, you know they’re in trouble. You don’t have to keep going back to bases to order constructions either. If you’re fighting a battle and need to build some more, you just click to produce them and they’ll turn up depending on your logistics.
“We’re removing all the tedious tasks that hold RTS games back, but at the same time keeping all the elements that players enjoy—like building bases and units, building an economy, and gathering resources. We want you to feel like you own your army, because you’ve earned it.”
This approach takes a cue directly from classics such as the Black & White* series, but it’s made possible on this epic scale thanks to the multi-threading capabilities of the IrisZoom engine It’s this that makes the game fluid and fast regardless of the PC you’re playing on, and allows important contextual information to be displayed as and when necessary.
“Without multicore,” explained Le Dressay, “R.U.S.E. couldn’t exist in its current form. As a reference, Act of War had around 150,000 individual elements on the map, but in R.U.S.E. we up that number to 25 million objects. Computers aren’t 1,000 times more powerful, but spreading the load over multiple threads has the same net effect.”
Multi-threading coding is still difficult. It’s easy to make mistakes. But it’s the golden path to performance, and if you want to get the most out of your game you have to think in terms of multicore processing. Like most developers, we divide the workload between AI and 3D, but it’s a bit more complex than that. Both parts of the engine have a lot of asynchronous tasks, like gathering information about which elements need rendering, or making pass-finding requests that analyze strategies.”
—CEDRIC LE DRESSAY, TECHNICAL DIRECTOR AND FOUNDER, EUGEN SYSTEMS
From the outset, Le Dressay knew that he had to make his engine multi-threaded, not only for the benefit of R.U.S.E. but also to guarantee its future. Thanks to this foresight, IrisZoom can scale up into as many cores as it has available. Getting that granularity right and splitting the task load into as many separate parts as possible means that future versions of the engine won’t have to be rewritten from the ground up.
“Multi-threading coding is still difficult,” Le Dressay said. “It’s easy to make mistakes. But it’s the golden path to performance, and if you want to get the most out of your game you have to think in terms of multicore processing. Like most developers, we divide the workload between AI and 3D, but it’s a bit more complex than that. Both parts of the engine have a lot of asynchronous tasks, like gathering information about which elements need rendering or making pass-finding requests that analyze strategies.”
In R.U.S.E., the more threads that are available, the more detail the player will see on the battlefield. Processor cores dictate how far certain effects are visible and where texture calls occur.
“You have to be able to see clearly what’s happening to every unit on screen, no matter how distant it is, and the level of detail we use is dependent on the processor,” explained Le Dressay. “If you have a single core, the FX will be basic but effective, while on a quad core you’ll see everything in great detail.”
Le Dressay knows that the technology is scalable into the future, thanks to the six-core Intel® processor code-named Gulftown working in the office. He is also developing exclusive bonus visual content for gamers who make the investment in the next generation of Intel® Core™ i7 processors.
A Mutually Beneficial Connection
“Our relationship with Intel has been mutually beneficial,” Girard told us. “We have a technology that’s a perfect benchmark for multicore, because R.U.S.E. isn’t just broken down into three or four threads, it’s made up of lots of small tasks that can be balanced across the whole CPU regardless of the number of cores.”
Throughout the development process, Intel has provided Eugen with early access to forthcoming hardware for testing and analysis. Most important, though, has been the constant feedback from software architects with well-established skills in multi-threaded applications.
“Intel’s engineers receive regular builds,” Girard said, “And help us find the bottlenecks and what we can optimize. They’ve really helped us get the game running well on low-end hardware.”
For Le Dressay, the Intel relationship has been important because, as he puts it, “the PC is the home of strategy gaming.” Despite the fact that R.U.S.E. will be a multiplatform release, every member of the Eugen team is kitted out with a high-end Intel Core i7 processor-based machine for development work.
“That makes our compilation times much shorter and helps productivity,” Le Dressay said. “It makes the daily job of every programmer more enjoyable. It’s simple: the faster your PC is, the better you can fix bugs or add features and the easier it is to achieve your goal: making great games.”
It doesn’t, of course, have anything to do with the lunchtime games of Left 4 Dead* or the amount of time the team spend simply playing their own game to perfection. Honest.
Merely a R.U.S.E.
Considering the intricacy of its underlying technology, the most interesting thing about R.U.S.E. for many players will be the counterespionage system from which it takes its name. As a battle unfolds, generals are rewarded with cards that can be brought into play to launch a subterfuge tactic against the enemy.
“We used the World War II settings as inspiration for the R.U.S.E. tactics because there were lots of examples of subterfuge,” said Girard. “There was the enigma machine, fake cities burning in the night to lure bombers, disguised commandos in the Ardennes. We interpret those with specific skills that allow you to create decoy buildings and units, to hide information like the position of an army and steal information like what orders a general is giving their units. Finally you can manipulate the psychology of units, by making them flee or fight to the death and so on.”
It’s an original way of varying the traditional RTS mechanic, especially in the promising multiplayer environments, which can support up to eight players in team-based or free-for-all combat.
Girard demonstrated the deception system in action. Stabbing an index finger at the infantry unit in the middle of the multi-touch Sony Vaio* L screen that sits in the middle of Eugen’s office, he ordered the unit to vanish into a nearby forest. Hiding troops is the most basic of several deception cards you can play.
On the surface, it would appear that the deception cards have little to do with the rendering pipeline. That, said Girard, is exactly how it should be. Players should be unaware that the large view distances, single map view, and gesture controls are vital to making this element of the game work.
And that’s the point, he concluded. It’s not a question of how clever you can make your engine, but what you do with it. And with huge battlefields, innovative controls, new interfaces, and intriguing tactics, R.U.S.E. is doing more than most.
Founded in 2000 by brothers Alexis and Cedric Le Dressay, Eugen Systems is based in a building complex that once served as the European headquarters for the Knights Templar and a prison for the royal family during the French Revolution. The company is best known for its 2005 PC RTS Act of War* and is currently focused on the multi-platform release of R.U.S.E.*.
About the Author
Adam Oxford is a freelance writer who specializes in games and technology. The former editor of PC Format magazine in the U.K., he has written for PC Gamer, TechRadar.com, Edge, GamesMaster and more.
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