The official website of Lexington, MA-headquartered game developer Cecropia Inc. handily explains of the company's name: "A Cecropia is North American's largest moth, with a wingspan of 5 to 6 inches… because a Cecropia moth is colorful as well as large, when you do see one for the first time, you will remember it forever!"
It's a striking name for an intriguing game developer, formed by ex-Papyrus Design Group co-founder Omar Khudari, and most recently in the news because of the opening of Cecropia's animation and production studio in Orlando, Florida. This 20-person Orlando studio is staffed by 2D animation industry veterans, many formerly employed at Walt Disney Feature Animation's recently closed Florida animation studio, and who work in collaboration with Cecropia's gaming staff and engineers in the company's Boston headquarters.
So, from co-founding Papyrus, best-known for the PC racing game technology behind Grand Prix Legends and the NASCAR Racing series, to working with veteran Disney 2D animators on what the company describes as "interactive films [based on original IP] that allow players to act in the role of animated characters and control their behavior, expressions and reactions to other characters" is quite a range. How do you get to here from there, and what were Cecropia's plans for the very non-digital stylings of the Disney 2D animators, in a world where even Disney is abandoning its 2D animation in favor of Pixar's CG sophistry? We talked to Cecropia founder and creative director Omar Khudari, alongside president and CEO Ann-Marie Bland, to find out.
Cecropia's Florida office
Firstly, Khudari explains the genesis of Cecropia: "The company was founded in 2001. It basically grew out of an old idea I had had many years for how to approach the problem of creating a videogame that appeals to a broader audience than the standard core of the videogame market. Our first step was to create an authoring system; a piece of technology; a tool that we could use to build a prototype with, and our second step was to build a prototype, an example of the look and feel, or what the interactivity of such a product might be. And that prototype was finished at the beginning of 2003."
He continues: "Then I sort of had to make a decision when that project came to an end, whether (or not) to move forward and to turn it into a product. So I decided to move forward because I think it's a very promising example of how this idea actually could work. And that's when Ann-Marie [Bland, former Hasbro Interactive/Atari manager] came onboard, and started building the development team and the necessary trappings of a company around it, to create a product and bring it to market."
But the first thing people are likely to focus on when seeing the in-progress artwork for the game is the relatively 'old-fashioned', but good-looking 2D drawn approach to the art style. Khudari explains just how far the company went along this road: "All the artwork in the game is hand drawn animation, there are no computer generated images. It's something we could've done with CGI, just as animated films are being done in CGI, or less and less in 2D. But we chose the hand-drawn look because what's important to us is the personality of the characters; the emotions, and something that's called in the industry, which we didn't know before we started this project, personality animation. Personality animation is the kind of animation where you can tell what's going on in the character's head from their facial expression and their body language and that kind of thing. You can really read their emotions from the artwork. When we started this project, and we continue to feel this way, that the very bleeding edge of CGI is only just starting to approach what 2D animators have been doing for decades, in terms of personality animation. So we're using 2D animation, because that's what does personality animation the best."
Production still of a yet-unnamed Cecropia title.
Ann-Marie Bland expands on this idea, noting: "I don't know if you've seen any of the reviews of [Robert Zemeckis-directed CG movie] Polar Express, but they talk a lot about the characters, and how life-like they are, but they look like there's nothing between the ears. Their eyes look dead. These characters, even though the technology is so advanced, the characters themselves don't really act, or emote, or feel very realistic."
But how does traditional 2D animation really fit into today's gaming market? Khudari admits it may not, but is quite happy that it doesn't, explaining: "Well again, our raison d'etre is to try to broaden the market, to expand it beyond what is a very healthy and growing business still. That is the core of the market. The way I would put it is that it goes beyond what is appealing to the core of the market. It goes into a region that may appeal to an entirely different kind of person." He also points out that Disney's ditching of much of its 2D animation may not be a death knell for that medium: "You know, it's a cyclical business. Animation has died more than once before. As a matter of fact, when Walt Disney did Snow White, animation was considered to be dead, and that was the era of animated characters that had rubbery hose-like arms. And it was reborn when Disney did Snow White, and it died again later, subsequently, and was reborn with the Lion King, so it's died and been reborn a number of times. One of the most important things about the appeal of any animated feature film is the story. And a lot of people say, and I tend to agree, that recently the computer generated leaders have done a much better job of developing appealing stories. So it's not just about the look."
Ultimately on the quest for personality in animation, Khudari suggests, "There's a woman at MIT who teamed up with a make-up artist to create a robot, and they chose a very non-human looking design for the robot because of this very issue. Something that looked human would be perceived as creepy, whereas something that looked like a creature could be more appealing. That's a problem that the Polar Express had. Now, different teams are doing different types of work in CGI, and some of the teams are doing really awesome jobs at the personality animation, and they're really getting there, but again, that is the bleeding edge, it's the state of the art, and so rather than bleed along with them, we chose to rely on the tried and true."
Another possible risk and benefit for Cecropia is its decision to go with an original IP for this 'mass market'-aimed title. Khudari explains this move: "There are a lot of reasons. For one thing, if we develop our own IP that has some potential to have some value beyond the initial product, that it gets shipped with, obviously if you can build your own IP, from a business standpoint, it's preferable. And it may or may not be more expensive or cheaper. IP can be very difficult to acquire. And it can be expensive to develop. It's certainly risky to develop it yourself, but it's a risk we're willing to take. But there's another reason too, which is that the structure of our product, while it's related to a film, the story that we've developed was developed hand in hand with the interactivity, and it's a little more difficult to apply interactivity to a pre-existing story."
But in order to understand the company, you need to grok the idea. Cecropia is not yet showing a playable demo or even specifying a target platform for their work, and Khudari is helpful, but still somewhat elusive in defining the concept behind Cecropia's games: "In general, it is an approach to synthesizing storytelling with videogames. Which is in itself nothing new at all. Something that has been tried a lot of different ways and with varying degrees of success."
He attempts to be a little more specific: "Remember our overarching goal is to appeal to a broader audience than the typical videogame audience, and we identify as one of the problems of the appeal of videogames with this audience is just how daunting they are. A normal person, we use that word, a normal person, I mean you hand them say a PlayStation controller or an Xbox controller, and it's the controller itself that freaks them out. They're just not interested in doing something that requires them to manipulate this very complex thing. It makes the game seem complex, and it's just not something that's appealing to most people."
"So one of our principles is that is has to be very simple, which we translate as 'accessible'. We take as our inspiration the first commercial videogame; Pong, which had a very simple controller. It was a game that anyone could walk up to, and feel like just by looking at it and seeing what happens on the screen, what the controllers look like et cetera, that this was something that they might be able to do."
"So that's principle number one. Principle number two, we are taking the approach, and this is just our choice, of trying to synthesize storytelling and gaming. Principle number two is: as much as possible, we want the stories to be the kinds of stories that appeal to mass-market audiences, and we want as much as possible for the action of the games, or the game part of the product to be central and germane to the story. So to me if you take those two things together, the interesting kinds of stories that the mass-market is interested in are stories about characters, about relationships, about people. And if you're going to have the action of the game be central and germane to that kind of story, the action of the game has to be about characters, relationships, emotions, people and that kind of thing."
Model sheet of a yet-unnamed Cecropia title.
But is the game about relationships, or is there action? Khudari explains: "There's a little bit of action, just as there's action in a lot of films. What we're trying to do is make an experience that's as much, in terms of entertainment, like a film as possible. It's like interactive film. We don't like to call it that because a lot of people have called what they're doing interactive film, and our fear is to be confused with those other things."
"That kind of entertainment is what we're shooting for. So we want to make it as much as possible like watching a movie, in terms of the storytelling experience. So you know, our challenge is, how do you make that interactive, how do you interact with the interesting parts of the movies, which isn't always action. It's not always physical action. Sometimes it is, but for the most part, the broadest mass-market movies are about characters, and their relationships and their emotions."
Oddly, the art released so far for Cecropia's game end up reminding some observers of classic LucasArts-style adventure gaming. Khudari is keen to point out the differences, however. He expounds: "We've got a lot of similarities with a lot of different things. The structure of our games is not the structure of an adventure game. An adventure game, broadly speaking, is a game about an environment you explore, whether it's a physical environment or a logical environment, and there's a network of places that you can go, and you have some control over what direction you want to go, and initially it's limited by gates, essentially, and those gates get opened by unlocking puzzles, typically logical puzzles, and in that sense our game is not an adventure game. It doesn't have that structure. Our structure has much more in common with Donkey Kong than it does with that. It's much more like an action game, where you are in direct control over a character, immediate control over a character, so you're not making choices from a menu, taking objects from one place to another, you're not solving logical puzzles. You are controlling the actions of a character, controlling it directly with the interface."
What about competitors? There must be some game, series, or genre that's in some kind of more direct competition with Cecropia's products, surely? Khudari is even somewhat guarded on this, arguing: "Ann-Marie is just reminding me that our competition is any form of entertainment that is competing for entertainment dollars, but in term of competitors who are taking an approach that is similar to ours, very closely, not really."
How about a target market for a product such as this? Well, Khudari has an answer: "Basically, [we're targeting] the film audience. We've been looking at a lot of Chaplin, a lot of old movies, we're movie buffs here, and we're definitely trying to make a film-like experience."
Ann-Marie Bland continues: "If you went into a movie theatre today, and surveyed everyone that came into that theatre about whether they'd played a game, not purchased a game, but actually played a game themselves, I don't know what the ratio would be, but it would definitely be more that people had not played a game. And yet they still love good story, they love characters, and that's the audience that we can appeal to."
So it seems that Cecropia, like the moth it's named after, is flitting along a singular, if guarded and oblique path - the company has not yet officially announced a publisher for its launch title, but indicate it will be released during 2005. And when you read Cecropia's site in a little more detail, you'll see another reason for the company's name.
Specifically, it reads: "In the 1960's, there was a trendy gift shop in Harvard Square, Cambridge, named "Zecropia." It was owned by Margie Born, a friend of Omar's family. To Omar, the name has always meant 'hip & exotic.'" Are Cecropia really finding the path to the gaming mass market in retro craftsmanship, like the '60s gift shop the company was named after? They're certainly taking a different route than many of the more obvious 3D, licensed titles out there on the games market today, and that, at least, should be lauded.