CG Characters and Environments in Gaming

Gameplay demands more than just a hot hero and a fast thumb; Jacquie Kubin explores three unique game environments and the guys that live there.

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The Hulk game (left) had to deliver the same impressive character as on the big screen. All Hulk interactive game images © 2003 Universal Interactive Inc. Marvel, The Incredible Hulk, and all related comic book characters & ® 2003 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved. Hulk feature film ©2003 Universal Pictures. All rights reserved. Photo credit: Industrial Light & Magic.

There has been a lot of talk over the years proclaiming that video gaming will be the first choice of family entertainment; that people are demanding interactive past times; that they are bored by the linear, passive television and movie screens.

When I look at products like Final Fantasy, I think we will absolutely get to the point where we can portray a human being and environments so realistic that people are OK with it, said Ariella Lehrer, president of Legacy Interactive from her Los Angeles office. And while we are not there yet, when you look at the progress we have made with that, if you look at the behind-the-scenes, sometimes you really cant tell the difference between the digital and the real.

On the videogame hot lists right now are three games that are stretching the developmental envelope Hulk, released May of this year (Vivendi Universal), kill.switch (Namco Hometek Inc.), released this month and Shadow Ops: Red Mercury (Zombie Inc.) slated for the shelves in summer 2004.

VFXworld.com caught each of these games development teams looking toward the future of gaming and asked how they are able to create the visual worlds that our eyes are beginning to see as being all too real.

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Its Not Easy Being Green: Hulk by Vivendi Universal

To transform the image of Dr. Bruce Banner to the Hulk required ILMs best wizardry, along with 2.5 million computer hours and six terabytes of data. In the film, a team consisting of 69 technical artists, 41 animators, 35 compositors, 10 muscle animators, nine DB modelers, eight supervisors, six skin painters, five motion-capture wranglers and three art directors they worked with an almost limited number of polygons to create a realistic character.

But what a character he is: 15' of bulging, breathing, mass that transcends belief. He is The Hulk, in all his great, green glory that artist Jack Kirby first envisioned, and that has bound through comic books for more than the last four decades.

And he lives.

In the Vivendi Universal Hulk game, players expected to see no less of the real, bulging, breathing, blood-in-the-veins character that they saw on screen, only the Vivendi artistic team had far fewer polygons to devote to the character in any one scene.

In the game, we actually had 3,000 polygons to devote to the Hulk versus the unlimited number that the films artist could use, said Jeff Barnhart, producer, Vivendi Universal Games, in Los Angeles, So we focused the polygons on his face because when you first think of The Hulk, you think of bulging muscles, but it really is the ability convey emotions; for example, the sadness he feels when he rescues Betty. When you get to know him, it is the polarity of facial emotions that make him a believable character.

kubin04_killSwitch.jpgkubin05_killSwitch.jpgkill.switch introduces two unique elements for players: Blindfire and OCS. All kill.switch images & © 2003 Namco Hometek Inc. All rights reserved.

In creating the CG characters in the game version of Hulk, The Vivendi team was invited onto the film set and allowed to capture assets right from the movie where the look of The Hulk and his environment were defined.

The Vivendi Universal team was able to use concept art, maquettes created by the ILM team that showed body sizes, facial expressions, a 3D model of the Hulk, Eric Bana and the hulking dogs as well as cyber-scans of models and the actors.

In addition to the Hulk, capturing the overall scale of his world from the large honeycomb environment of the base to the un-ending expanse of the desert were key to the games acceptance.

Additionally, environments captured right from the set gave the game environments an added sense of realism, not only because they were familiar, but also because they did, indeed, once exist.

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We were set up right next to the film set and given access to the stages, Barnhart said. We sent photographers through the film environments to digitally capture the elements and textures of the film, which were given to the artists to interpolate into the game.

But what was really cool is that I literally walked through the sets, such as the huge underground military base, and got a real feel for them. When playing the game, the military base environment is so true to the film that I have the feeling this really exists I have been there.

Creating the games environments also required a bit of technology wizardry from the Vivendi Universal team due to the Hulks unique ability to morph in size that would also mean that as he grew from 5'10" human size to 15' Hulk size, polygons needed to be acquired from the environment to allow the Hulk to grow.

The Hulk game environments are not as static as you may have in a video game, Barnhart added. Instead each of our walls has several states of being from the solid, untouched wall, the wall that is slightly damaged, severely damaged and then destroyed as the Hulk gains more power and grows, chewing up those polygons.

The solution was for Vivendi Universal to create a cycling memory for the game that would be able to pull up any version of the wall into memory, dumping previous versions out of memory. This new bit of programming allowed the art team to parcel more polygons to the emerging Hulk as they were being released from the environmental art.

This is something totally unique that we crafted for the Hulk game, Barnhart asserted. But we knew the game would have to involve complete destruction and that it would be one of our biggest challenges so that it would satisfy the expectations of the gamer.

While the Vivendi Universal team culled art elements created for the film, the game required that they not use a middleware engine, but develop one specifically for the needs of the game that took about two years to develop. Development teams also used Maya software for the model creations, cut scenes and all the 3D aspects of the game.

Ouch! Bullets Hurt! kill.switch by Namco Hometek Inc.

Walls also provided a challenge for the Namco Hometek Inc. development team in the creation of the military third-person shooter kill.switch.

kill.switch lets the player use realistic cover tactics such as hiding behind environmental set pieces during gameplay.

kill.switch lets the player use realistic cover tactics such as hiding behind environmental set pieces during gameplay.

kill.switch hopes to distinguish itself in the military shooting genre by demanding that players employ traditional warfare tactics. The game employs two unique elements: Blindfire that allows the player to shoot at the enemy without being exposed to counter-fire, and a proprietary bit of programming termed an Offensive Cover System (OCS).

The OCS allows the use of realistic cover tactics, requiring players to take advantage of the surrounding environment as they assault the enemy.

The problem was not so much how to do it, but why it has not been done before, said Scott Crisostomo, assoc producer, Namco Hometek of San Jose, California. Once we figured out that this would be a fun thing to do, to use the environment in this way, it was fairly easy to implement, but it was on of those things that no one every thought of doing.

I think it was more of a creative, then technology, block.

The game provides an intensive experience as players take on six war-themed missions in locations such as the Middle East to underground submarine bases, laid out over 18 different levels. As players progress they must constantly assess their situation, reacting to the environment and the characters, which could be as many as either enemies and the player within any one scene, while keeping the game running at least 30 to 60 frames, with the goal being as high and as consistent as possible to provide a solid game play experience

Players are not meandering within a static world where it doesnt matter when and if they do a jig. In kill.switch bullets hurt.

Zombies Shadow Ops: Red Mercury team tracked down an elite collection of special forces military gear and cyber-scanned the details for the game. Courtesy of Atari.

Zombies Shadow Ops: Red Mercury team tracked down an elite collection of special forces military gear and cyber-scanned the details for the game. Courtesy of Atari.

If you look at games like Counter Strike or Quake, you are strafing to avoid cover or sidestepping from behind your cover in order to shoot, Crisostomo said. But in real life you dont do that and live. Our goal with kill.switch was to create a game that realistically portrayed a combat situation.

In order to create this heightened sense of environmental realism and warfare, the Namco Hometek team began looking at a collision system that tells characters that they are approaching a solid object such as a wall or tree. The collision system is important as it allows the environment to take up fewer polygons as it sees the wall as one artistic element.

It also allows a player to be able to use that wall as a solid defensive element as the games artificial intelligence (AI) sees it as a solid wall and cannot see the character behind it. In short, the games difference comes in the way the player takes, or uses, cover to avoid damage.

For example, instead of stepping all the way out from behind the wall, the player is able to first just peek out from behind his or her cover, not exposing the whole body, without the enemy seeing them. Once they determine their shot, the character then steps out a bit farther in order to actually shoot and is able to return to cover quickly.

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Ariella Lehrer of Legacy Interactive feels that Final Fantasy was the first step toward making general audiences comfortable with photorealistic actors. © 2001 FFFP. All rights reserved. Square Pictures Inc.

The challenge for the developers became how to create realistic behaviors for the characters by fine-tuning the games AI element.

The problem is that while a player will normally accept the AI, with kill.switch, the player needs to be able to peek out without the AI seeing him. An AI element that is too smart would see the players character with the first peek eliminating the players ability to take the second step, emerging slightly from cover to shoot.

However, the AI cant be so dumb that having an opponent too easy to beat frustrates the player.

The players character literally had to have super-human reflexes in order to avoid enemy fire, Cristomomo said. The solution was to code the AI [so] that two characters could only communicate within 20 meters of each other, and the AI- or enemy-driven characters would only react to the player if he saw the characters in two repetitive frames of play, allowing for a more realistic use of cover by the player that can now move about the environment.

To develop kill.switch the Namco Hometek team consisted of four managers, four designers, eight artists and eight programmers. The group used the Criterion Renderware engine and Maya software.

Is That A Bullet In Your Pocket? Shadow Ops: Red Mercury by Zombie Creations Inc.

Regardless of the game genre, the developer or the storyline, one thing remains true in game creation it has to look real even if the land it takes place in is nothing more than a fantasy.

For Zombie Creations Inc., photorealism is not good enough for the developing Shadow Ops: Red Mercury, which is slated for a summer 2004 release by Atari Inc.

In order to make this first-person military shooters environments realistic, the development team sent teams to the games actual locations in Morocco, Moscow, Croatia, Bosnia, Paris and the Hawaiian island Kauai, which is stepping in for the war torn African Congo, using high resolution, high-end Nikon cameras capturing material at the highest resolution/mega pixel count possible.

Early Shadow Ops photos show a detailed world with fantastic definitions and characters that will pass the visual muster of the most dedicated special forces game player.

What is still limiting us is processing technology so we cant really make worlds look exactly like what we went to, but we were able to capture the essence of the place and there are certain things about an environment that tell the players eye that it looks real, said Mark Long, ceo, Zombie. And it is not just surface things, it is the color of the air, particularly at the magic hour, and while you can capture the feel or the essence of an environment, you need to know that environment for it be realistic.

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Zombies Shadow Ops: Red Mercury team tracked down an elite collection of special forces military gear and cyber-scanned the details for the game. Courtesy of Atari. In search of authenticity, Mark Long of Zombie and his Shadow Ops team held a dress-up day where they were cyber-scanned for the game wearing military clothing and gear.

Zombies development team went much further than just taking a photo safari to some exotic locations. Long wanted to ensure that everything about their new Delta Force, first person military shooters, was as true-to-the-eye as possible.

This included finding one of the foremost collectors of special forces military gear in the world and visiting him in order to look over, cyber-scan and detail the equipment he had gathered.

This process resulted in a fun day of dress-up for the collector and Zombie folks, including Long, who donned all manners of gear for a bit of cyber-scanning a process that included loading a cyber-scanner into an 18-wheel truck and driving it to the collectors Los Angeles home, an effort not previously expanded for this genre of game.

We scanned our collector wearing his gear going to the detail of loading the ammo shells with powder because it weighs differently in the pocket, Long added. We also used a retired special forces member for the process of motion-capture so that we could get the size, the movements true-to-life.

This genre of gaming is one of the few spaces where the world needs to look real to meet the players expectations as they can be almost fetishistic about the equipment, weapons, uniforms face it the special forces guys are real superheroes with cool gear, fantastic weapons and very special powers.

Creating Shadow Ops Zombie relied on the Unreal middleware engine, 3ds max for modeling, the Karma Motion Builder for character animations and Lip Synch for facial animation.

The group additionally used a MathLab physics package to be able to realistically portray movement like things bouncing, sliding or falling that also allowed the developers to use a device termed Rag Doll. The rag doll effect is exactly as one would imagine a character gets shot and falls not unlike a rag doll suddenly let go.

In the gaming world, this equates to that when a character is shot and the AI turns on the rag doll physics the game responds differently because the physics element offers a variety of responses versus only the one or two animated sequences that may otherwise be available.

For Long, whose past work includes working with NASA, Stanford Research Institute, the U.S. Army and the Institute for Advanced Technology at the University of Texas where he has dedicated his research and expertise to the field of developing virtual reality, the most exciting aspect of gaming is not what he is working on now, but what the promise of the next generation of consoles promises.

The new consoles and the state of the art PCs have driven the players expectations higher and we are going to make a leap forward with the next generation of consoles that will begin to meet those desires, and more, Long said. Tomorrows graphics are going to be an order of magnitude times 10 that we have today. This means we will be able to physically model how light is reflected or absorbed by materials giving them visual life, not just creating a picture of an object.

And for those who are curious, that collector, both face and body, appear in the game which has to be the ultimate in cool.

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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