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Can Videogames Be Made Truly Cinematic?

Peter Plantec digs deep into EA's plan to push the boundaries of games and make them more immersive and emotionally engaging like movies.

Consumers and game developers alike want players to get into the game, suspend disbelief and have an immersive, entertaining experience. All Medal of Honor Airborne images © Electronic Arts. 

Ever since my daughter and I used to play the old Sierra Ent. games, I've yearned for a videogame experience that was a lot more cinematic: You know, one that not only immerses you in the story and the action like a movie, but also puts you in the center of it all and makes you the driving force that determines the outcome. For this to happen, I need quality realtime graphics, smart game cohorts, foes and crowds, and believable camerawork. More than that, I need to be able to suspend my disbelief just as I do in the movies. That's the gaming Holy Grail.

Electronic Arts is probably the biggest player in game development and they've attracted a lot of people from the film industry to help drive their game development process. I thought it would be an easy start, to chat up a few of their people, here and in Europe. I've also known Henry LaBounta, director of art, EA Games, who has a 20-year vfx background. LaBounta's been involved in many big movies from the Star Trek franchise to Artificial Intelligence: AI and more. He was even nominated for an Academy Award for Twister with now-fellow EA colleague Habib Zargarpour, who is senior art director. Clearly these were the guys to interview.

EA vet Henry LaBounta foresees his company using less non-interactive elements in games in the future.

But, the very first thing LaBounta said to me was, "If you're asking what are we doing to make our games more like cinema, then my answer may be very short -- games are an interactive experience, and, if anything, I think you'll see less non-interactive (cinematic) elements in them in the future. We're actually trying to find ways to keep them interactive while telling the story and trying to cut back on non-interactive/non-realtime cinematics, not add them." I had to agree, but clearly this was a matter of semantics. I think we're all talking about players getting into the game, suspending disbelief and having an immersive, entertaining experience.

Meanwhile, Zargarpour was a pioneer in film vfx and worked with Christophe Hery to build ILM's legendary pipeline. Zargarpour is one of those people who has talent in both artistry and technology, so he brings a lot film experience to the game design table. Note that LaBounta persuaded him to leave ILM and join him at EA. What's going on here? Obviously a lot of cinema know-how is migrating to the game world.

So I asked LaBounta to explain why he sees film and games as basically different entertainment genres: "In film there's a screenplay that kicks off the creative process of making a film. This is a well-defined process. That screenplay is a pretty good indication of where the film is going -- if it will be funny or scary or whatever. When we're developing games, the goal is 'fun' and unfortunately there isn't a well-established process for this. You have to play and feel something to know if it's fun."

Both LaBounta and Zargarpour discussed how complex the process of developing cutting edge games is. They talked about the enormous number of possible scenarios that need to be created and about improving game AI so that the game itself is more aware of what the player is doing and how to respond most effectively. Clearly, from my point of view, EA wants to re-stimulate burned out game players who are getting tired of sequel after sequel. Things need to be stepped up a notch and with better realtime render engines, better platforms and high-def DVD technology capable of handling mega game material. But all this talk about making games smarter didn't give me a vision of anything seminal.

As a psychologist, I was curious about emotional engagement. I know it's possible for humans and virtual humans to bond emotionally; I've seen it happen with a wide variety of people from kids to business people to residents of a retirement home when I was designing virtual humans at Virtual Personalities Inc. I have a feel for just how smart you can make them and it's a lot more involved than most people think.

I wanted to find out about game play where I can bond with other characters as if they're real people. I want to have feelings about the villains that are mixed. Really well conceived villains have vulnerabilities, even admirable qualities. I hope we even see bad guys that are redeemable, if we play the game right. Perhaps we'll even see monsters that can be converted into allies as well.

Enter Steven Spielberg and his "cinematic" project at EA. Code named LMNO, this project was started about a year-and-a-half ago. ZZargarpour is art director of the project but, of course, is sworn to secrecy. The only thing that's been reported is that LMNO "focuses on a touching and ever-changing relationship between you and a mysterious female character who holds the key to many futures." Now you're talking!

EA seems to want to re-stimulate burned out players who are tired of sequels. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix © Electronic Arts.

At the kick-off of the project, Spielberg commented, "Having watched the game industry grow from a niche into a major creative force in entertainment, I have a great deal of respect for EA's understanding of the interactive format. I'm looking forward to working closely with the team in Los Angeles." But it's what Neil Young, VP and general manager at EA, has to say that I found particularly exciting: "He (Spielberg) shares our vision for the potential of the medium and has the passion and creativity to help us finally deliver on the promise that a game can not only engage and compel you with its interactivity, but can also move you emotionally."

What can we expect from LMNO? Well, what I've gleaned is that Spielberg really wants to develop virtual human players that are a quantum leap ahead of what we've seen so far. He's personally involved, showing up at the studio on a regular basis to oversee development. I've been able to piece together a picture of LMNO from published info, speculation and logic.

I would speculate that the central hub of the game is the collegial relationship between the player and a virtual human cohort. Male players will have females and it's possible that female players will have males, but the male part is unconfirmed. Outcomes in the game will be tied to how the relationship between player and partner develops. I'm projecting here, but such things as establishing trust will surely be an issue. Together they will have to solve problems and figure out situations, often involving puzzles of varying difficulty.

Habib Zargarpour, senior art director of EA Los Angeles, admits that the process of developing cutting edge games is complex, with an enormous number of possible scenarios that need to be created.

Much like Spielberg's films, the action and outcomes will be engaged in by a small group of characters, all emotionally bound to each other in some way. I believe it is this emotional interconnectivity throughout the game that becomes the basis for much of its uniqueness.

What's making all this possible is that we finally have the super-computer engines needed to pull it off. Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 have remarkable power. Do you know that the cell engine in the PS3, is probably the most powerful computer in the universe at the moment? Astrophysicist, Gaurav Khanna, hooked eight PS3s up in an array and it outperformed his Cray II supercomputer. On some tasks it was reportedly 200 times faster.

Having developed advanced virtual humans myself, I can tell you this is a very challenging process, and nobody has ever really done it successfully at this level in games before. If anybody can do it, EA probably can. They've got the people and the backing necessary, and clearly with Spielberg's involvement, they've budgeted some serious development time.

And with current advances in virtual human brain design, we will soon come full circle. We'll soon see believable avatars connected to real-people as well as to wandering virtual human brains, and they'll be indistinguishable in games both on-line and off. It'll open up a whole new world of possibilities.

Peter Plantec is a best-selling author, animator and virtual human designer. He wrote The Caligari trueSpace2 Bible, the first 3D animation book specifically written for artists. He lives in the high country near Aspen, Colorado. Peter's latest book, Virtual Humans, is a five star selection at Amazon after many reviews.