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It's Time To Take Gaming Seriously

As Jacquie Kubin relates the gaming industry is seeking more and more animators as new systems raise the aesthetic bar, making games faster, more realistic and well, animated.

It all started in 1972 when Nolan Bushnell at Atari created the two lines and a dot, Pong, that fostered the electronic gaming industry. That arcade game led to General Instruments creating a minute computer chip that allowed the arcade favorite to be played on consoles at home.

What followed were early pioneers such as Coleco, Radio Shack and Magnavox, but their games all had more to do with left brain programming than the right brain artistic creativity required to make a video game a million unit seller today.

Games like Shenmue aren't like your daddy's two-bit Pong. © Sega Entertainment.

It's Big...Really Big

Releasing more than twenty-five hundred arcade, platform, computer and on-line games per year, this industry represents a new outlet for experienced and novice animators alike as the development of interactive games has emerged as a more than seven billion dollar per year industry. "There is a tremendous demand for quality talent and with more than 2,500 various games being developed every year there are tremendous opportunities for animators," states Doug Lowenstein, President of the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA). "Everyone is looking for that extra advantage to put them ahead in a competitive market and that often relies on the creative side -- the qualities of the animation, sound, and look and feel of the game." With an eye toward working in feature films or television, many animators may overlook this lucrative industry -- which may be a mistake when compared to the film industry. Nineteen ninety-eight box office receipts grew by a modest 9.2 percent (source: MPAA), while the video and computer game industry grew more than 25 percent (source: IDSA). Furthermore where the feature film studios released 509 theatrical films in the U.S. (1998: MPAA), the video gaming industry sold more than 181 million units during that same year (Source: IDSA). In 1997, Mario Kart 64 for the Nintendo 64 system grossed $131 million, more than that year's box office takes of top ten hits Good Will Hunting ($130 million), As Good As It Gets ($130 million) and My Best Friend's Wedding ($127 million), according to reports of the IDSA.

With branded titles like Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog, the television production industry is just a hop, skip and a jump away for game animators. © Sega Entertainment

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs Opportunities exist both domestically and abroad with almost fifty development companies offering third party support to the big three game console creators -- Sony, Nintendo and Sega systems. This already successful industry is poised for greater heights and revenues with the advent of the Sega DreamCast, Playstation II, Nintendo Dolphin and DVD console games.

Experienced and novice animators may feel that a lack of game playing or computer experience precludes their entry into this lucrative new job market, but this is not so according to three industry leaders -- game developers Acclaim Studios, Disney Interactive and Sega.

"Animators need to come out of the box a little more savvy today than in the past, and 3D computer ability and experience can be important, but the skill of the traditional 2D animator is still the most important to have," explains Greg Thomas, Vice President of Product Development for Sega DreamCast. "If skilled 2D animators are willing to familiarize themselves and learn the computer aspects of the business, we are willing to completely train them because a great traditional animator is going to be an excellent computer animator."

Today's video game creator is going to carry numerous skill sets to the drawing board each day. There is the core understanding of 2D animation art that continues to be the underlying skill, yet an animator may need the left brain technical ability to work with motion-capture and computer generated three-dimensional sculpturing, as well as the creative right brain ability to develop characters from blue pencil sketches to finished, walking, talking personalities.

Motion-capture plays a big part in sports games like NBA 2K. © Sega Entertainment.

Sega's Current Cast

Released this past September, the Sega DreamCast surpassed one million units sold in little more than ten weeks. This new video game system boasts a peak graphics performance of three million polygons per second and 128 bit 3D processing power that allows games to edge closer to cinematic quality. The processor runs at sixty frames per second versus the twenty frames of past systems.

The system's increased storage capabilities allows developers more room in which to create compelling, story driven games with enhanced details. "This allows the animator to create so much more," says Thomas. "For example not only do the players in a sports title, such as NBA 2K, now have defined fingers, but they can actually raise them to signal to the other players the play they are calling."

With new technology, details and human movement have become impeccable in games like NFL 2K. © Sega Entertainment.

To support this new console game, forty games are slated to be on the shelves by Christmas 1999. These games combine core animation skills with technology to create a new level of game play.

One area of game development requiring new animation skills is sports games. These fast paced action games differ from others in that they are trying to provide a life-like experience that accurately reflects how known athletes play the game. Sega's NFL 2K features more than 1,500 motion-captured moves that put real life players into thirty-one accurately modeled and detailed 3D stadiums where the faces, backgrounds and crowds are still drawn using traditional 2D skills. The advanced DreamCast technology allows the animator to use twenty-one, versus the previous nine, body sensors to capture the physical movements of an athlete.

As an athlete runs, jumps, catches or throws a ball the sensors report back to the computer creating a detailed and accurate skeletal model of the athlete. The animator then builds onto that model clothing, skin and other details, such as the fingers.

"Motion-capture data does contain all the subtitles of human movement which leads to something very different than when an animator draws the entire sequence," says Thomas. "You might see the slight movement of a hand before a player begins a run. Remember, we are creating a game using real players that have certain trademark moves and actions and we need to capture that. "We don't just want an athlete running, but a run that is reflective of a certain player."

Here Comes Competition

While DreamCast may be on the market, the Sony Playstation II and Nintendo Dolphin are expected on shelves well in advance of the 2000 holiday season. Sony, who has announced plans to ship an initial one million units by September 2000, is promising video game fans a remarkable play experience through a combination of cutting edge digital graphics, superb sound and DVD video. Presently Sony is reporting that forty-six North American companies have signed letters of intent to create and publish games for the new console. At the heart of the Playstation II (PSX2) is a 128 bit CPU processor, dubbed the Emotion Engine. The resulting "Emotion Synthesis" will allow the system to not only simulate how an image may look, but how the characters and objects in a game think, act and behave. For the game player this means that the PSX2 will be able to process massive amounts of graphical data at the fastest speeds. For the animator developing a game for the PSX2, this means that real world physics and simulations of materials such as water, wood, metal and gas will be possible. Creators will be able to allow a "digital wind" to ripple the water on a still lake or the hair of a character.

Companies like Disney have found a wonderful new avenue to advance and market their film titles. © Disney Interactive.

It Will Take Talent

One company creating games for the advance technology consoles is Disney Interactive.

"With more polygons being available on the video game, we will start to see game animation that is as quality driven as what you see the brilliant people at Pixar creating," predicts Dan Winters, Senior Producer, Video Games, Disney Interactive. "This creates additional challenges for the animators to really push themselves to have new levels of expertise when it comes to how they are going to collect motion data that will be applied to the 3D character." Collecting that motion data may include using footage from the feature film. As game sales become a larger chunk of the overall marketing pie, Disney Interactive finds themselves in the position of not only creating titles to support feature films, but also to enhance those existing universes. For example, Winters reveals that for titles such as Tarzan and Toy Story 2 the developers are not only applying 2D and 3D animation skill, but also creating original characters to work within and enhance the game. Furthermore, the creators of Toy Story 2 the movie have a 90 minute window within which to work and build story lines. The interactive target is up to forty hours of unique story line and game play. A current Disney Interactive illustrator needs to bring to the project a variety of skill sets, the first being the ability to illustrate from scratch and shape things on model. "We provide support to our publishing partners, so the people we bring in must understand the animation, and between processes," Winters explains. "If the person understands animation and is a Disney quality artist, we will put them through the training and help them to learn the digital side of the business." Winters relates that computer entertainment development requires a varied number of artists such as digital artists who specialize in backgrounds or who have a specific skill in texture mapping.

Another skill for the animator's portfolio is that of acting and pantomime. "Often in the development of a game you have to get across a character's action within twenty frames without dialogue, and pantomime can play a lot in that," says Shane Tarrant, Assistant Director of Animation, producer of the Turok series for Acclaim Studios. "When we are creating characters we may not have a point of reference. For example in creating Turok, we don't know how a dinosaur walks or acts, so the animator needs to have some acting ability in order to create that movement in the real world and move it into the game."

Multi-player possibilities have brought a new level of fun and competitiveness to the modern video game. © Acclaim Entertainment.

In anticipation of the more cinematic, enhanced gaming experiences of tomorrow, Acclaim Studios has created a "Cinematics Department" that works with the voice actors and movie quality scenes, but in addition to the ability to draw, their animators are also able to act out, both physically and on screen, the roles they are creating.

The end of the day goal for most animators may be to work on films and television, but they may want to consider stopping off at the video game developer's studio along the way.

"Working in gaming provides excellent exposure to many different aspects of animation including the computer and special effects skills required by cinematic projects," remarks Tarrant. "Also I have heard that working in the movie industry is not always steady work, where if you are a solid animator you are in demand in video gaming."

And, it is reported to not pay badly either. Beginning video game animators can expect to command in the neighborhood of $35,000 per year and salary's upwards of $100,000 are not unheard of. This may encourage happiness in both the right and left sides of the brain.

The Major North American Video Game Developers Are:

7 StudiosAcclaim Entertainment, Inc.Activision, Inc.Agetec, Inc.American Softworks Corp.Atlus U.S.A., Inc..Bungie SoftwareCapcom EntertainmentCerny GamesCrave EntertainmentDigital AnvilDreamWorks Interactive, LLCEidos InteractiveElectronic Arts, Inc.Enix CorporationFox InteractiveGT Interactive Software Corp.Hasbro Interactive Inc.Humongous EntertainmentIncredible Technologies, Inc.Infogrames Entertainment Inc.Insomniac GamesInterplay Entertainment Corp.

Konami of America, Inc.LucasArts Entertainment CompanyMidway Home EntertainmentMindscape (The Learning Company/Mattel, Inc.)Namco Hometek, Inc.Naughty Dog, Inc.Neversoft EntertainmentOddworld InhabitantsRed Storm Entertainment, Inc.Shiny Entertainment, Inc.Sierra On-lineSquare Electronic Arts LLCStormfront StudiosSunsoft, U.S.A.Surreal Software, Inc.Take 2 Interactive Software Inc.TerraGlyph Interactive StudiosThe 3DO CompanyTHQ, Inc.Titus Software CorporationUBI Soft Entertainment Inc.Universal Interactive Studios, Inc.Working Designs

A Washington, DC-based freelance journalist, Jacquie enjoys writing about the electronic entertainment and edutainment mediums, including the Internet. She is a frequent contributor to the Washington Times and Krause Publication magazines. She has won the 1998 Certificate of Award granted by the Metropolitan Area Mass Media Committee of the American Association of University Women. Jacquie is a fan of animation and video games but admits to being unable to play them!

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