[Pixar and developer Avalanche Software talk to Gamasutra about their surprisingly detailed collaboration on a Cars 2 video game, and the delicate balance studios must reach with deceptively complex licenses.]
License-based games sometimes have difficulty garnering respect from gamer audiences -- and even occasionally from game developers.
But often, video games based on film and animation can be an interesting challenge, the product of highly-detailed, even fond collaboration between a company that considers a property its "baby" and a developer that shares its viewpoint on creation.
That's what Disney's Avalanche Software studio will tell you about its work with Pixar on the upcoming video game based on Cars 2. Impressed with the studio's work on the Toy Story 3 game, Pixar's Cars team wanted to work with Avalanche on its own film tie-in.
Both companies talked to Gamasutra about the complex creative process of developing a game based on a digitally-animated film with a strong identity, and where the brand's relationship to its audience is paramount.
"We worked very closely with Pixar from day one," Avalanche senior producer Jon Warner tells Gamasutra. "We want to ensure we're developing an authentic experience that plays like the movie, so that when you come home and play the game, it's like stepping into an extended universe."
There are a surprising number of considerations in that goal that might not be immediately evident-- the translation from film to a video game seems fairly straightforward.
But, for example, what fans, even general-audience gamers, might expect from a racing franchise isn't necessarily consistent with Pixar's carefully-built Cars universe. In the world of the films, the vehicles are characters -- ostensibly sensitive about damage or mishandling. Not many developers of racing titles have to think about how the "characters" on the track should be treating one another, either.
Luckily, the Cars 2 film's "international espionage" themes provide a neat opportunity for the corresponding game world, and Pixar and Avalanche discovered a solution: Players operate under the conceit of a holographic spy training simulator, where it's not beyond the realm of possibility that all manner of fun gadgets and guns could be attached to the car characters, and where the friendly cars oppose simulations of one another.
Developing the game is less about literally translating the film's events and more about "taking factors from the film that would be fun to play with in a game context," Avalanche's Warner tells us.
That it was important to both teams to create that "layer" in order to keep the property's friendly fiction intact is illuminative of how seriously Pixar takes its work -- and how innovative Avalanche had to be to maintain the integrity of the films.
Warner says the teams found a balance: "When we work with Pixar, we've developed a good enough relationship with them that when we say, 'hey, we really want to do this because we think it'll be a really great design', they want to work with us to make sure that the game is great, too. We don't have to compromise there."
The team works closely with Pixar on each aspect of the game's development throughout, from scripts to the subtle details of animation and mechanics. There's even some asset sharing: Avalanche gets most of its models and meshes from Pixar, and applies its own proprietary rigging system and tool chains. There's a lot of cross-visiting among animators from both teams to ensure that everything is staying consistent in the game.
The entire process for the Cars 2 game, which releases on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii, PC and Nintendo DS in June, was just under two years. At the team's largest point, 180 people were involved in the game's development.
Pixar says it's also enjoyed the collaboration process. Jay Ward, Pixar's franchise manager for Cars, was optimistic since first meeting Avalanche, and felt the team understood the company's view toward quality: "They said, 'look, we don't want to do anything on this game that's going to bum you out or not represent your film well,'" Ward tells us.
"We worked together on everything, the cutscenes, all of the animation, every single little detail," says Ward. "Obviously in a game you kind of have to go beyond the scope of the movie... they had to take some creative license, and we helped to keep it in the right realm of the world of Cars while keeping it exciting for players."
For every Cars-related project Pixar does, from games to consumer projects to Disney California Adventure's in-progress Cars Land theme park, the studio focuses on "truth in material," in Ward's words. That means there actually isn't a lot of wiggle room for the developers as involves the movie's vehicular characters themselves.
"It is a car, it's got to come alive -- but if it gets too bendy it gets fake and unreal, and you're like 'that's not a car anymore.' It took us two years to find that in the discovery of the first movie Cars, how much of the mouth moves, how much the brow deforms, and it's not easy. It's deceivingly difficult," he reflects.
"And so [Avalanche animators] worked with us on that, two of our animators... went out and worked with them on how you position the eyes, and how our characters blink, and those really specific animation notes," Ward adds.
That vehicles in a game must be considered as "real" characters presents a unique challenge for the racing genre, where often the player gets a behind-the wheel view and generally sees only the back bumpers -- not the "faces" -- of the other racers. Although THQ's Cars games maintained that convention, it was important to Pixar to go further this time.
"I said, 'look, guys, I don't really want that full-time for this game; I want face time, I want to see reactions and hear things... I want to have a cut-away where you see the character's face. So they worked really hard on that," says Ward. "Our world is unique, because they are fully cars and yet they are also fully characters, and yet you have to be both."
There are other standbys in video games that aren't quite right when dealing with a property like Cars. Guns are a little bit out of place, for example: "You don't want to see cars getting blown in half, or getting blown up. So in the game, the car flips, and he bounces right back," says Ward. "You don't shoot the cars, you shoot the tires. We did dial them back on some of the weapons."
But a common thread between Pixar's film development approach and game development is a high degree of iteration, which meant immediate points of relationship between the two development teams. Another thing that's the same? Comprehension of resource management: "It's very labor- intensive to build the models, shade articulate and light them -- all these things are very intense, and there is a cost for each, both in terms of people power and then in terms of the rendering capabilities."
Game developers inherently understand that: "Whenever you add something, you have to take something else away to maintain performance, so that aspect is very much the same," Ward says.
But game developers have specific concerns the Pixar team's never had to deal with: "We have the benefit of staging a shot exactly to the camera; we control that, and the camera can't move. In a video game, the player's moving and he can turn around and look backward... so they have to make everything as good as possible so that the players have an open world," says Ward. "I respect them on the fact that they have to do that, and that they have to think in terms of how many hours players can get out of the gameplay."
But in Pixar's view, says Ward, the collaboration worked best of all because the developers at Avalanche "care so much about quality... they never tried to pull the wool over our eyes, they showed us everything knowing full well we are picky, that we would give notes. They were really cool about that."
Transparency on process should be a goal for any developer who hopes to work with a high-profile licensor. "You're working with someone else's IP," says Ward. "It's someone else's baby, and you have to treat it with that respect."
"From our standpoint, I also had to learn that they had to take some artistic liberties for a kid to want to play in it," Ward adds. "That's the halfway point."