Interview: Rockstar’s Rob Nelson on Max Payne 3

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We speak to art director Rob Nelson on the challenges presented during the development of Max Payne 3 and how Rockstar are looking to freshen up a franchise yet to be seen on current-generation platforms.

Q. What do you feel are the advantages of a third person shooter versus first-person when approaching a title like Max Payne 3?

Rob Nelson: We wanted to really take advantage of what separates third-person games from first-person games – the idea of becoming a character that you can see and become invested in rather than being forced to see the game world through a reticule. Max is a deeply story-driven game with a focus on really stylish, choreographed combat, so the way that Max’s character moves has a big impact on what you see on screen, pulling you into Max’s story.

It’s a combination of shooting and movement that’s designed to invoke the feel of Hong-Kong action movies, where gunfights turn into slow motion ballets of death that would be rendered pointless if you were simply looking down the barrel of a gun. That said, one of the goals was to make the shooting as fluid and precise as a first person shooter. Your character should never get in the way of where you want to aim, and moves realistically the whole time.

Q. How have the advances in technology allowed you push the boundaries previously set by the open world environments such as Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption?

RN: We’ve used our own engine, the Rockstar Advanced Game Engine (or RAGE for short) in almost every one of our games this generation, beginning with Table Tennis, and with each new release we’re able to push the technology even further. The great thing about Max Payne 3 was the chance to bring the kind of attention to detail we use in our open world games and apply it to smaller, more linear environments where we could really start to focus on more subtle things – everything from targeting to movement to the tiniest details in weapons or the environment – in order to make Max look and feel like something incredibly new.

We were able to use advanced particle effects so that everything that should break, shatter or explode does so in the most beautiful way. You’ll notice the most minute details of the weapons themselves: hammers cock back, slides move, shells expel from the chamber – and it looks amazing in slow motion.

Q. How did you go about ensuring that the new cover mechanic didn’t detract from the all-out action approach of the original games?

RN: It’s a combination of several things working together: a really intuitive cover system, the fact that Max’s health doesn’t regenerate, and highly intelligent AI. Max Payne 3 is the first Max Payne to have a dedicated cover mechanic, but the gameplay is designed so that cover is an option, not a requirement. We didn’t want the game to have the stop-and-pop pace of a traditional cover-based shooter that allows players to regenerate health while they hide in cover – it’s a game about using every tool you have to stay moving, taking down enemies with style.

A lot of work went into ensuring that enemies would aggressively seek you out, flanking you or smoking you out with grenades if you rely on cover too much. It makes for a lot of replayability as players discover new ways to take down groups of enemies.

Q. What specific technologies are used to maximise the combination of believable movement and precise shooting mechanics in Max Payne 3?

RN: With Max, we’re blending animations together in ways we never have before in order to allow players to move and shoot in any direction they want while still ensuring the motion feel responsive and believable.

In addition to this, we’re also combining animations with Natural Motion’s Euphoria System in new ways for things like Max’s classic shoot-dodge and his range of movement while in a prone position. The player is able to control Max in these situations, but Max also responds to his environment in realistic ways by bracing for crashes or compensating for obstacles while rolling.

The hope is that players will always feel in control and Max will always feel believable.

Q. Can you explain a little more about the advancements of AI and how this is demonstrated in the way they interact with each other, the environment and Max? Do different types of enemies act in different ways?

RN: In Max Payne 3, AI responds differently to player actions, and each type of enemy will have their own unique responses. Mobsters might not coordinate well with each other, while a group of paramilitaries might try and box the player in, laying suppressive fire while one of their members flanks you, or they might flush you out with grenades.

It has to feel as though the enemies are aware of your presence and your actions in the world. If you shoot their comrade right beside them they should react to that. If you’re firing at them heavily they may move into cover. Their behaviour should always reflect the situation around them, balancing their desire to rush you with the option to hang back and let you bring the fight to them.

Q. In single player, what were the challenges in getting the balance between real-time shootouts and Bullet Time right?

RN: The big challenge was ensuring all the components worked together flawlessly in real time and in Bullet Time. The guns are made up of individual components, and each bullet is individually modelled, so we had to make sure that every animation looked perfect when we allow the player to drop into slow motion and fire a bullet at an enemy. Everything needs to look incredible regardless of the speed at which you’re playing, so in some cases, we’d create new animations for actions that take place in Bullet Time because they wouldn’t look right if we simply slowed down real-time animations, or vice versa.

It’s another reason why we have so many animations blending together at once – subtle details that you might get away with in real time are much more obvious in Bullet Time, so it took a lot of extra work to make sure everything looked perfect. Also, enemies will react to multiple hits from bullets no matter how fast they happen. This has never been done at this level for automatic weaponry and is a direct result of upgrades to the integration of RAGE and Natural Motion. In Bullet Time, you’ll be able to watch them react to each single bullet in succession. It looks amazing.

Q. Are there different difficulty levels and can you summarise how they each work? Will AI be more challenging on a harder setting for example? What other mechanics will be affected?

RN: The game will feature a number of difficulty options in order to offer something for everyone from the most hardcore Max fans to newcomers to the series. We ramp up the realism on harder settings, making it easier to die, while providing less ammo and fewer painkillers scattered throughout the levels.

Q. Getting bullet-time to work effectively in multiplayer must have been technically very difficult. How did you overcome this and how pleased are you with the solution?

RN: It’s a bit of a mindbender to explain. We actually came up with around a dozen different versions of Bullet Time in multiplayer before finally deciding on the line-of-sight version that exists in the game today. In the end, we went for a line-of-sight approach because it meant we could emulate the way it feels in the single player while still accommodating 16 players in different positions across a large area.

Our system is tricky to explain in detail but feels intuitive and amazing. You could be diving off a rooftop in real-time in one area of the map, plummeting 30 feet and shooting at another player, while somebody else on the other side of the map is shoot-dodging in slow-mo and taking down other players, and yet it all works perfectly.

Max Payne 3 is available from 18 May 2012.

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