By John Gaudiosi
With over 11 million subscribers worldwide, Blizzard Entertainment keeps online gamers coming back for more World of Warcraft (WoW) by consistently adding to the virtual world of Azeroth. Cataclysm is the most ambitious expansion to date for the massively multiplayer online (MMO) fantasy role-playing game. While most of the attention has been focused on the new 3D facelift that the game has undergone, Cataclysm is pushing the linear aspect of interactive entertainment forward with its Hollywood-inspired, in-game cinematics.
Much has changed at Blizzard Entertainment in a short period of time. “In the early days we were a much smaller group that came through school studying film,” says Jeff Chamberlain, project director at Blizzard Entertainment. “As we’ve grown, we’ve brought in a lot of the Hollywood talent, and they’ve been able to bring their experiences from those studios. It’s created a melting pot of Hollywood studios and video game developers, which has been very beneficial for us.”
One such person who migrated from Hollywood to the game world is Terran Gregory, associate director of Cataclysm. Gregory says that films’ 100-year history, including its more recent venture into computer animation, has given the craft a large head-start over video game storytelling. But the team at Blizzard has learned a lot from those years of filmmaking. “I would say gaming has probably learned about storytelling from Hollywood, and maybe Hollywood has learned a little bit about technology from gaming,” says Gregory.
Blizzard’s biggest endeavor yet on the cinematic front was introducing Deathwing to the WoW faithful and establishing what has become a very important character in the game universe. Marc Messenger, director for cinematics at Blizzard, says the role of pre-rendered cinematics goes beyond just watching the mini movies.
“We want the player to remember the cinematics and how they inform the in-game destruction to give a truly epic sense of what it would be like to stand in the presence of a thousand-foot wave or see fire streak across the sky,” explains Messenger.
The process for bringing cinematics to life starts with brainstorming a vision and idea. In a nutshell, Messenger says it’s about finding a way to succinctly convey the character of the current expansion and make it as cool as possible. “We just sit down and roll through a bunch of ideas,” says Messenger. “On Cataclysm, in the first meeting, the game team had a strong idea of what the expansion was going to be and we were able to get in sync pretty quickly.”
“Once Marc and the crew had their idea down, we functioned as a normal Hollywood animation studio,” says Chamberlain. “We storyboard everything, have a fast iteration process and then go through a series of reviews and approval processes. Once we are locked down on something we like, we start working like a normal animation studio with animation, modeling and the typical artistic departments.”
“One technology that we developed for Cataclysm was a new camera approach where we could actually get our 3D world using a motion-recorded camera so the director could film his subject in real time,” explains Chamberlain. “That added a little bit of flavor to the experience and made it more like a Hollywood project.”
“New tools have helped us make things more cinematic in the game through the use of cameras, as well as the control and manipulation in real time of actors that we can work through,” says Gregory. “It’s a different world working with the game itself, instead of just 3D. Being able to walk around the environment as if you’re on a set with the actors, and really have a feel of the space as you move them around, was important. We even had people piloting the characters around so it was like working with talent, instead of just working with objects.”
These new advances have allowed the team to improve the visual fidelity of the characters in cinematics. Improved facial animation was just one element that brought more believable characters to life in the game. And Gregory says technology is constantly evolving, which means the next round of cinematics will push the bar even higher.
Cinematics Going Forward
The ultimate goal of Blizzard’s cinematic teams is to get the player emotionally involved with the characters they’re interacting with as the story unfolds. Technology plays a crucial role in helping the programmers, artists and effects wizards conjure more believable and higher-fidelity characters to which gamers can connect and identify.
“It’s fascinating that we are at this place in time where we can move people emotionally through a video game,” says Chamberlain. “I don’t know if that could have been said 20 years ago at the dawn of video games. Now it seems like that line between simple gameplay and embracing a story is getting increasingly blurred. They’re becoming one and the same thing.”
The other line that’s becoming more blurred in video games is the one between cinematics and the gameplay experience.
“For in-game cinematics, there’s always the challenge of making the cinematic presentation not exclude the player,” says Gregory. “Technology plays a lot into that as we try and look for more ways to make the transition a seamless experience. With StarCraft II and Cataclysm, we’ve started to include the player’s character in the cut scenes. We’re just getting into that now, and the future looks really bright with new technologies allowing us to achieve that.”
John Gaudiosi has been covering video games for the past 17 years for media outlets such as The Washington Post, CNET, Wired magazine and CBS.com. He is editor in chief of GamerLive.tv and a game columnist for Reuters and RhMinions.com .