Exclusive: Rockstar Games talks about shooting for perfection with Max Payne 3

Max Payne 3 interview

Rockstar Games is gearing up for the return of the troubled detective Max Payne on May 15th for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and for PC on May 29th. Max Payne 3 sends the former New York detective to the streets of São Paulo, Brazil as a private security agent. When the wife of his client, Rodrigo Branco, is kidnapped, the game embarks players on an action-packed, cinematic adventure. Jeronimo Barrera, vice president of product development, talks about Max Payne 3 in this exclusive interview.

What were your goals heading into Max Payne 3?

We wanted to create the most cinematic and seamless action shooter that we possibly could, something that offered satisfying and precise gunplay alongside the kind of powerful storytelling that the series is so famous for. Most often, the cinematic aspects of games are left to the cutscenes – the non-interactive parts between gameplay, but our approach is to make the gameplay itself look and feel more precise and more visually polished and to make the transition between cutscene and gameplay disappear wherever possible so that the experience feels very integrated. We also wanted to keep moving the series forward in new ways, capitalizing on the incredible advances that have taken place in technology and game design over the past few years in the service of those goals. So whether it’s through using new approaches to animation that allow us to make Max move and behave in a much more realistic way, or finding ways to make a third-person game deliver the same kind of fluid targeting that was once only found in first-person shooters, we are using every tool we have to make the most seamless, detailed and compelling action shooter we can possibly make. Unlike a lot of shooters, Max Payne isn’t simply about a reticle, a target and a body count. Max Payne is about the artistry of the gunplay, about a sense of movement and style, like the Hong Kong action movies that inspired the original games. Bullet Time has always been the best embodiment of that – it’s about being able to slow down time and react to each individual bullet.

This is also the first Max Payne game in the series to feature a fully-fledged multiplayer component, and we’re excited about the ways we have managed to bring that same sense of artistry and kinetic movement within the gunplay into a multiplayer environment.

How have advances in technology aided you in bringing this character to today’s modern gaming age?

The most immediately striking way is in the level of detail we can now bring to every aspect of the game. We are essentially taking the same detail-oriented approach we use in our open-world games and applying it to the more focused environments of a level-based game. One of the reasons the level of detail is so crucial is because the game has to look amazing both in real time and in Bullet Time – we are literally slowing down time to the point where you can see and react to the trajectory of individual bullets, and every single bullet is individually modeled from the gun to its eventual target.

Max Payne 3 runs on a new version of our own Rockstar Advanced Game Engine–or RAGE–that powered Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption. This time around, that horsepower is working at a much more granular level–you’ll notice this in the subtle details like the incredible amount of destructibility in the environments, or the minute movements of the mechanisms of each gun.

max payne 3

We have also put a massive amount of work into the character of Max Payne and the way he moves and interacts with the world around him. We wanted Max to move less like a videogame object and more like a real person in a real place, and that required us to come up with new ways to combine motion capture work with in-game physics and traditional animation. We’re also fortunate to have a great partnership with Natural Motion. Their Euphoria system gives digital characters the ability to react in real time in lifelike ways, fighting for balance, responding realistically to shots and punches or reaching out to objects in the environment to brace themselves. The Euphoria tech was also a part of Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption, but with Max Payne 3 we’ve incorporated Euphoria into our lead character more heavily than ever before. The result is that Max looks and feels grounded in the environment–reacting to his surroundings with a real sense of place and self-preservation. Players will notice as Max dives through the air during a shoot dodge how he braces his fall and tries to shield his body from an impact. The combination of Euphoria, RAGE’s own physics, motion capture, and thousands of custom animations make Max and other characters really come alive.

Can you talk about the new technology behind this game’s Bullet Time?

Bullet Time has always been Max Payne’s special ability, allowing the player to slow down time and react to literally every shot fired. It also places extra emphasis on the way Max moves and sets up shots, rather than just focusing on the shooting itself, and the entire game is based around the variety of creative ways Max can use Bullet Time to move through each level. So rather than being one specific piece of new technology, it informs every aspect of design, from the targeting systems to level design to animation. How does the character move and behave in Bullet time? How does that vary from movement in real time, and what kind of animations are required to maintain the character’s believability? How do particle effects and physics when slowed down? We wanted to retain the essence of what made Bullet Time so groundbreaking, but also elevate every detail around it, so that the detail in character movement and environments lived up to the beauty of the shooting.

What type of Hollywood influences or inspirations were there for your team for this new game?

The primary influence on the Max Payne series has always been the slow motion ‘bullet ballet’ aesthetic of Hong Kong action movies. This was the original inspiration for the concept of Bullet Time and that’s still the heart of gameplay. In terms of a more modern cinematic vibe, movies such as Man on Fire, Elite Squad, and City of God share similar themes, locations and sensibilities to those we’re exploring in Max Payne 3. We’re also maintaining similar noir sensibilities and atmospherics of the earlier games, as well as a version of the graphic novel style cut scenes and Max’s classic inner monologue from actor James McCaffrey–although this time around, he’s also the basis for the physical look of the character.

Can you talk about the role storytelling has played in this franchise and how technology has enabled you to push that forward with this new game?

Storytelling and characterization has always played a huge role in the series, and that–alongside ensuring the shooting mechanics were complex and satisfying–are the two fundamental parts to a Max Payne game. The original Max Payne was one of the first action games to really invest in developing the protagonist as a fully developed character. At the time, most shooters were based around one-dimensional caricatures, while players came to understand Max’s fears and motivations through the use of his iconic monologue and the graphic novel approach to cutscenes. For Max Payne 3, we’ve kept Max’s inner monologue and we’re combining traditional motion-captured cutscenes with a version of the comic-book panel cutscenes to maintain the player’s connection to Max’s psyche.

But we have also done a huge amount of work on more subtle ways of driving the story forward, like creating seamless transitions between cutscenes and gameplay, or using a lot of contextual motion-capture on characters within the gameplay itself. All this works to make scenes feel unique, where a character’s behavior is always relevant to the action on screen rather than feeling like traditional wooden videogame characters, and the end result is a game that looks and feels much more cinematic.

What were the challenges of updating Max and introducing him to a new climate and environment in the Brazil portion of the game demo?

The shift in location was a way for us to continue Max’s story in a very natural and logical way. Remedy did a great job of tying up Max’s story at the end of the second game. There was little left for Max to explore in New York; it didn’t make sense for us to keep him there. It was a great opportunity for us to shift gears and introduce an entirely new setting. São Paulo is a fascinating place–a modern metropolis full of culture and history, and the most populated city in the Southern Hemisphere. At the same time, there is an underlying tension that comes from a city where the wealthy and the extremely poor live side-by-side. It’s the kind of place where crime and corruption tend to thrive. Local gangs and paramilitary roam the streets, providing protection for those who can pay. For Max as a character and for the style of gameplay, it makes for great material to explore.

max payne 3 gun

We also want to play up the idea that Max Payne is very much a foreigner in over his head. He only knows a handful of people, none of whom he can fully trust, he doesn’t speak the language, and he’s in a situation that’s quickly spiraling out of control. Unlike the people surrounding him, Max doesn’t speak Portuguese, so he won’t always be able to understand what’s going on around him, and any conversations in Portuguese will not be subtitled for the player either. The idea is that Max is a man out of out of his depth and we want players to get that same sensation when they play the game.

How did you design the game’s environments to enable more player freedom in the shooting action?

We knew from the beginning that the new setting was going to offer some very interesting environments for players, whether it was the back-alleys of New York or the high-rises and favelas of São Paulo, and it gave us a lot of options when it came to building out gameplay scenarios. We wanted to give players the freedom to tackle situations in a variety of ways, so for instance we have a dedicated cover system, but it’s not the focal point of the gameplay–it’s there to be used in conjunction with the rest of Max’s skill set, which is based on a combination of Bullet Time, creative use of his shootdodge move (where Max can dive in slow motion and shoot at the same time) and run-and-gun gameplay. We try to strike a balance between providing enough open space to maneuver and plan out your route of attack, and delivering the player tightly scripted action sequences. We also now have areas in every level that automatically trigger Bullet Time giving us over-the-top action set pieces that look incredibly cinematic but still leave the player in full control.

What do you hope Max Payne 3 brings new to the shooter genre through its gameplay experience?

Max Payne 3 is about the combination of fluid movement with precise and satisfying shooting in an immersive story full of characters that matter. Max isn’t in the armed forces, fighting part of a huge battle alongside hundreds of others–he’s a skilled but troubled ex-detective out looking for answers in a world that just wants him dead. Players get to invest in the physical character of Max and understand his motivations, instead of simply pulling the trigger as an invisible character fighting anonymous enemies. Max Payne 3 is about the beauty and the art of shooting rather than just the end result, and it gives players a sense of total control over every shot. While lots of games create epic cinematic moments, our goal has been to make the entire game feel cinematic, creating one intense, seamless, non-stop experience.

Get our Top Stories delivered to your inbox: