Becoming More Cinematic and Interactive: A 2003 Overview of Video Games

Over the last year, with more sophisticated vfx and direct movie tie-ins, video games upped the eye candy and game play quotient.

kubin01_rotk-gandalf_wall.jpgkubin02_rotk-gandalf_swing.jpgThe Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King game makes use of assets from the feature such as the original score and cast voices. A bonus includes high-quality vignettes that mesh the game and movie together. © Electronic Arts.

When Magnavox first introduced the Odyssey Video Game system in 1972, it did little more than allow early game developers to create a moving blip on a blackened screen, but it did catch the eye of a generation of game players that has lead to a nearly $10 billion a year industry that is gaining ground on the movie industry in both entertainment value and choice.

Though not a scientific comparison, looking over the video games released for the Xbox and PlayStation 2 (PS2) systems for the years 2001, 2002 and 2003 is a very telling exercise.

And, of course, where they are going is not just about who is buying them, but why. Video games are all about eye-candy and game play. To be successful, the game must not only engage the player but it also must look good, and game buyers expectations have grown significantly over the last 20 years.

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The new consoles and the state of the art PC have driven the players expectations higher as they are looking for more realism in an almost 100% computer-generated world, said Mark Long, ceo Zombie Games. And we dont have to look that far back to remember what it was like when you could see the details, the jagged edges of the pixels, the disappearing walls, that said thats how they (the game developers) did it. But that is not how it is now, or it will be in the future. The visual effects that we can do now are only a fraction of what we will be able to do in the future.

Todays leading consoles, the Xbox and PlayStation 2, both have substantial and fairly equal power.

The PS2 features the 194.912MHz 128-bit Emotion Engine with a 24KB cache, Sony Graphics 147.456MHz Graphics Synthesizer, 32MB total memory and a 3.2GB per second memory band. Polygon performance runs at 66M per second with a 2.4G per second fill rate.

The Xbox, on the other hand, mimics the computers of the day with an Intel Pentium III central processing unit featuring 733MHz with dual 32KB and 128KB cache and a 250MHz custom-designed X-Chip. The system boasts 64MB total memory and 6.4GB per second memory band. This gives the Xbox a bit more polygon performance power at 125M per second with a pixel fill rate of 4.0G per second leading to increased graphics clarity and movement speed.

Which means when it comes to processing power and visual depth of field, the Xbox is clearly the technical winner. However, PlayStation 2 retains superiority due to its market penetration title library, or by virtue that they have been around longer and just have more stuff.

What it has become is a contest of creating games marketable to fans of both consoles.

Taking the Field Are Your Favorite Players

Video games are divided into a series of genres, including action/adventure, arcade, combat, fighting, sports-racing and role-playing, and each has its own visual demands.

While role-playing games are usually set in a total fantasy environment that has no recognizable elements, a good sports title is not only robust enough to allow for realistic game play, it is also as recognizable as the game on Monday Night Football.

The hash-mark system shows that more than 170 sports and racing titles for the PS2 were released over the three-year period 2001-2003, while Xbox was close behind with approximately 150 sports and racing titles.

Sports/racing games have long been pioneers in motion and face capture technology, technologies that were pioneered early on for the Sony PlayStation 2 and the Madden NFL franchise titles.

Looking back at early sports titles, particularly those for the PS1 (released September 1995), the stands were little more than a vaguely detailed blurring while the players were often pixilated and chunky.

Today, however, players expect game play to be true to life, while being able to recognize favorite NFL, NBA, NHL, racing, skating and snow players not only by how they look but also by trademark moves, knick-knacks and special little nuances that make the individual player stand-out from the crowd.

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Fast-paced action plus great visuals highlight Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. All Prince of Persia: Sands of Time courtesy of Ubisoft Entertainment.

I think we will absolutely get to the point where we can portray a human being so realistic that people are OK with it, but we are not there yet, said Ariella Lehrer, president of Legacy Interactive. If you look at Madden NFL, they have made unbelievable graphics achievements, and they should. They enjoy expansive budgets and they have had more than a dozen chances to get it right. But all that makes it one of the top brands of all time.

These advancements all required the increased pixel power of the PS2 and Xbox along with some good old-fashioned CG trickery.

A Smarter, Friendlier Game

Game developers have also taken a look at the games Artificial Intelligence to not only enhance game play, but also the visual look of that play.

On the NASCAR Track with EA Sports NASCAR Thunder 2004, players are experiencing new levels of realism with a bit of enhanced A.I.

The EA Sports Racing A.I. now incorporates a Grudge and Alliance system that enhances game play and while teammates and allies drafted with you may not battle as hard for post position, if you bump into a rivalry team car, you can expect the "favor" to be returned with a little retaliation this race or the next.

Combat games, while far fewer in number, with only a handful for the Xbox and few dozen for PlayStation 2, are harder to tally as they are often listed with the fighting and action genres.

For Xbox and PS2, Medal of Honor Rising Sun, released fall of 2003, continues the combat genre franchise begun in 1999 with the eponymous titled Medal of Honor for PlayStation One.

The Medal of Honor franchise has long strived for realism in all things, thanks to franchise art director, Matt Hall of Electronic Arts. We wanted a more realistic approach, because we wanted a realistic experience, Hall said. We wanted to go beyond a gaming look and create dynamic characters and experiences more true to life.

Which is all the more important as the gamer is immersed in the real-life story of World War II and the Allies fight against the Nazis.

What brings added realism to the Medal of Honor franchise is the developers commitment to massive game play with Rising Sun taking players on five missions reaching across then levels or game play in their quest to stop Japanese forces from control the Pacific Theater.

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The developers put increased levels of exploration into Rising Sun, allowing characters the ability to explore the Pacifics jungle environments in search of paths hidden behind dense foliage, an enhancement that required visual polishing of the environments that included enhanced background art and lighting teams to make areas obscure, not obvious, to the player while still keeping them findable without having to destroy the entire jungle.

However the game also includes secret objective reward for players who put the time and effort into looking behind just one more outgrowth of jungle fauna.

Which is a telling tale of where vfx development has gone. Using technology readily available, such as XSI by SoftImage, OpenGL and DirectX gives the gamer a bit more depth of play even if it is just hacking away at undergrowth.

Another group using technology already in place is Namco Hometek Inc., which is presently working on kill.switch. The revolutionary aspect of this combat game is two unique elements: Blindfire, which allows the player to shoot at the enemy without being exposed to counter-fire, and The Offensive Cover System, a proprietary bit of programming by Namco that requires players to use the environment for cover when engaging the enemy.

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This underground lair, borrowed from the feature film, gives The Hulk game added legitimacy. © 2003 Universal Interactive Inc. Marvel, The Incredible Hulk, and all related comic book characters & ® 2003 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

kill.switch does provide an intensive military experience across six war-themed missions all taking place in exotic locations laid out over 18 different levels of game play. The challenge for developers was to keep the game running at 30-60 frames as highly and consistently as possible while giving the player the ability to work and react within the gaming environment.

Another excellent example of developers using the same ole technology to create something new is Ubisofts Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, a swashbuckling action-adventure game that blends fast-paced arcade like action with highly visual storytelling.

But what is really cool about this game that was nominated for Best Game of E3 at the 2003 Entertainment Expo extravaganza is the way the Prince of Persia can so gracefully run up and around the sides of a wall before leaping to a column to slide down.

Technically, an easy trick to do, no harder than having that same character run across the floor and over the abyss, but done within a lavish environment with a bit of character narration, Eastern imbued soundtrack and deep game play, it becomes an entertainment bonanza.

Looking For a Bit of On-Screen Action

Looking deeper in the action/adventure genre of gaming, I found that Xbox and PlayStation 2 are running a little closer in title count, though PlayStation 2 still enjoys a bit of a lead in overall titles, Xbox is definitely enjoying a lead in titles that are associated with the vfx magic of the big screen.

Xbox gamers enjoy at least 15 crossover titles including special effects blockbusters such as Enter the Matrix, The Hulk and the highly successful Lord of the Rings games, including The Two Towers and Return of the King.

Electronic Arts latest release, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King shipped in November for Xbox, PlayStation 2 and GameCube, takes advantage of the digital assets acquired from the film.

Adding to the games believability, developers also utilized the movies musical score and original cast voices.

As the game released prior to the movie, fans were delighted to find more than 20 minutes of DVD-quality vignettes from the film.

EA intelligently used the clips not only to move the story along or to divide chapters, but as an integral part of the game that literally morphs right into the game-play enhancing the cross-over elements from movie to television screen.

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The Madden NFL titles represent a huge franchise for Electronic Arts. The outstanding graphics for these games make the game come to life. © Electronic Arts.

To bring Two Towers to life required a team of more than 100 over a period of a year a truly massive manpower commitment for EA Games to have made.

Acquiring assets also made the video game, The Hulk, true to Ang Lees movie adaptation of the popular comic book hero first created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the early 1960s.

Director Lee paid great homage to the comic book series using split-screen images to show multiple views of the on-screen action, and even offered a brief nod to the 1970s television series with an appearance by Lou Ferrigno, but The Hulk movie was definitely a pop-culture work of art of its own merit.

Fabulous underground lairs, characters that destroy buildings as they morph and grow into larger-than-life behemoths or a Hulk larger than an elephant flowing gracefully through the air as he bounds effortlessly across the desert plains were all elements developers at Vivendi Universal needed to emulate within the confines of the video game consoles limitations.

Making this feat a slight bit easier was their ability to access The Hulk movie sets, acquiring assets from character models to digital scans of actors.

And, as film studios recognize the value of tying their theatrical movies to the video game and, in reverse, the video game industry learns the power of acquiring the many cross-over elements that can be taken from the studio lot to the development desk, this emulation of the big screen may be where the future of video games lies.

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Next generation consoles, PS3 and Xbox 2 are promising to be more robust allowing for greatly increased environments, vfx and game play. Future video games will be directly tied into the deep game play that takes gamers further into an already established and well branded world to experience the action first hand, whether they wish to take on the role of the diminutive Frodo Baggins or the larger-than-life wizard, Gandalf.

Only in future generations, the gamer may also be able to sit in the directors chair as they determine the action on screen by not only choosing the character but also an unlimited number of actions that the character will be able to take.

Jacquie Kubin, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist, enjoys writing about animation, pop culture, electronic and edutainment mediums as well as music, travel and culinary features. She is a frequent contributor to the Washington Times and winner of the 1998 Certificate of Award granted by the Metropolitan Area Mass Media Committee of the American Assn. of University Women and 2002 HSMAI Golden Bell Award.

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