Oddworld Inhabitants proves that gaming can be exciting - and intelligent with great characters, stories and animation. Jacquie Kubin pays a visit.
The cinematic backgrounds of creator Lorne Lanning and company co-founder Sherry McKenna may be the element that has given Abe's Oddworld an edge in the competitive video gaming world. The game combines the emotional response of the player with compelling game play, melding two different creative universes perfectly.
"The story to the game is key to everything we do here, giving the world and the characters so much more background and depth than just characters whose sole purpose is to carry a gun," explains Scott Easley, Senior Animator Oddworld Inhabitants and winner of an Emmy award for animation. "Even in the species of the bad guys you have sub-categories. All the Mudokons or the Slig guards are not the same. This gives the characters an illustrious palette that makes them fun and challenging for us to work with."
Oddworld's first two games, Abe's Oddysee and Abe's Exoddus, put gamers into a first-person world lorded over by the Magog Cartel, with Abe and his fellow blue Mudokon's slaving away as underfed and overworked labor at Rupture Farms.
At the end of Abe's Oddysee, the gamer has destroyed the Glukkon's factory and their store of Mudokon bones used to make their favorite beverage. As one can see, this places the hapless Mudokons on the very bottom of this world's feeding chain. It also presents a unique challenge to the animators in the "skinning" of the characters who are nothing but skin and bones.
"Skinning refers to assigning the skin to follow the bones, or the skeleton, of the character so that it follows the limbs and moves realistically," says Angie Jones, Oddworld animator and co-author of 3D Studio Max 3 Professional Animation. "I have heard this process can take from four to nine months at feature houses, but in this game world we normally get a month to do each character."
That might sound as though Oddworld Inhabitants is being run by the demanding Glukkons, but nothing could be further from the truth. Working for the San Luis Opisbo group sounds almost like going to animators heaven as the environment has been designed to foster creativity, health and happiness among its sixty plus employees. They even have a pool table.
However, the support necessary to create the best game possible may be the animators favorite perk. "With other companies there were always shortcuts, but here if it is important to the story it will be done, and for me that is important," says Jones. "Even though I never am completely happy with my animations, I know the standards are so high here to start with, that my work is best. I can create within the time constraints."
Following the first two games that sold nearly four million units worldwide, the Inhabitants of Oddworld are working hard to deliver OddWorld: Munch's Oddysee for the PlayStation2. "Our deadline is Fall of 2000 and we have never missed a deadline. Sherry and Lorne originally come from Hollywood and the mentality there is if you say the production will be finished by a release date, then you deliver by that date," explains Jones. "Oddworld is known for its timeliness with their games which is important in an industry where other games have missed their promised deadlines consistently."
Enhanced PlayStation2 technology lets Munch's Oddysee bring new layers to Oddworld by adding realistic world simulations, character behaviors and a controllable eco-system to create a "living, game impression."
Where Abe's Oddysee and Exoddus were two dimensional platform games that allowed the person to scroll up, down, left or right, with Munch's Oddysee, players become Abe in a first-person play scenario.
"Munch's Oddysee is a huge feat with some incredible storytelling and game play," says Easley. "It is amazing what the real-time people are doing. They are amazing. What they are doing is matte painting on a computer a beautiful tree and then putting it onto four polygons. Wait until you see a 4 polygon tree."
Munch's Oddysee is promising an environment that is effected by more than the occasional explosion. It is a living, breathing place where things live and die. Where gamers will use their moral conscious as well as their game playing skills.
Throughout the Oddworld sagas and new technical abilities, the moral under story or objective is there, even if it is not always obvious to the player. For Oddworld Inhabitants, the goal is to tell the story in a manner to suspend disbelief, to make believe that the characters exist with a sense of life that brings the player into new levels of environment immersion.
For a universe to continue and grow, the artists of Oddworld have to believe in what they are creating as well. "A lot of people think that video games are only a sophomoric medium, but I don't believe thats true," says Easley. "I think that gaming will evolve into a medium that, on any number of subjects, will bring forth a social consciousness that can teach as well as entertain."
Oddworld retains its story continuity thanks to Chris "the Storyman" Ulm, who works closely with Lorne Lanning on the continuing development of the characters and game play story. FarzadVarahramyan, leader of the production design department, then takes the story elements and conceptualizes them on paper, figuring out how they look, the structure underneath, and a little bit of how they move. At Oddworld, up until this developmental point, the process is all on paper. A computer hasnt even been touched.
From there, every animator has his own way of developing a scene. But before approaching the animation task, the animators need to have thumbnail sketches and have figured out how they are going to approach the scene. From sitting and thinking about it to acting it out in front of the mirror, the animator needs to be able to get inside the character as much as an actor preparing for a screen role.
"In a way an animator is an actor, but it is more contrived because you have to continually react to the same scene over a period of its development," says Jones. "Walt Disney is quoted as saying, The mind is the pilot. This means that the emotions have to be made available through the mechanics. For instance, if a character is feeling proud, I would move his center of gravity into his chest, where if he is feeling sad I would move it down to his lower legs so that his whole body slumps over as he walks."
Munch's Oddysee promises to be as popular as Abe's Oddysee or Exodus, with additional anticipation due to the new PlayStation 2 platform. Though Abe was introduced in 2D, the goal was always to evolve the characters into a 3D world as the technology was made available.
"The creativity and the conceptual qualities of Munch's Oddysee are completely in sync with the universe we've developed thus far," said Lorne Lanning, creator. "In the final analysis, we believe that existing fans will be much happier about the oddness of Oddworld in 3D than they ever could have been in 2D."
The Tools For the development of Abe's Oddworld and Exodus, animators Scott Easley and Angie Jones used Maya software. For the real-time games found in Munch's Oddysee, the group is using 3D Studio Max, first creating all master animations in Maya, then porting them to 3D Studio Max because it talks directly to the Oddworld game engine.
The group continues to use a database of characters that they began creating is Alias five years ago. "This database has led to vast bestiary of characters and objects that we have used as models from day one," says Easley. "We always try to create new characters with extended shelf lives that will be in the company for years to come."
Oddworld Inhabitants: Weird Name, Great Game (continued from page 3)
Game movie backgrounds at Oddworld are created using a computer-based matte painting process before the sets are created using computer graphics. These sets are then worked into the backgrounds.
"Sometimes these painted backgrounds are used in the movies as well as the game screens," explains Easley. "The paintings are done using Photoshop, then we add the 3D elements to give it depth and so that you can move about in the world." For example, if a scene shows a monorail moving into Necrum -- Necrum is a matte painting while the monorail is a 3D element created using 3D Studio Max.
For animators who want to learn more about 3D Studio Max, McMillian New Riders Publishing has just released The 3D Studio Max3, Professional Animation Book written by Angie Jones and Sean Bonney with Brandon Davis, Sean Miller and Shane Olsen (ISBN 0-7357-0945-9 $49.99). The book, for intermediate to advanced users, provides an extensive, relatively easy to follow and understand, tutorial through the 3D Studio Max3 animation process.
Through this book animators can learn how to use 3D Studio Max to create characters that walk and have facial expressions, and use lighting to create atmosphere. The book uses Jones creation, The Spicy Cricket (www.spicycricket.com), to teach modeling, materials, lighting, setup, animation, rendering and other necessary skills within its more than 600 pages.
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!