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Postmortem: HyperBole Studios' The X-Files
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Postmortem: HyperBole Studios' The X-Files

December 3, 1999 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

From its inception, The X-Files Game was expected to set a new standard for the full-motion video game genre. By addressing aesthetic and production-value issues generally neglected by FMV games-specifically the quality of the script, acting, and photography - as well as the technical compromises needed to have video play on a computer - The X-Files Game was to combine engaging gameplay with the narrative interest of an "interactive movie." With the genuine success of the X-Files television series, the game had a running start in achieving its ambitious goals. It already had a rich, fully-developed backstory to use, the same award-winning production company that shot the weekly episodes set to produce the game video, and a prospective audience that included not only gamers, but a much larger universe of people who both owned a computer and liked the X-Files.

The intended audience of The X-Files Game was - first and foremost - the fans of the show. Therefore, game design had to appeal to people who were not traditional gamers, and who would expect the same artistic quality that attracted them to the show to appear in the game. At the same time, we also wanted the game to engage the typical adventure gamer, and thus we had to be mindful of the need to include other aspects of traditional adventure games (combat sequences, interesting puzzles, explorable environments, etc). We essentially had to create two games in the same title: one that met both the standards of the fans of the show, and fans of adventure games.

FMV games, as a rule, are difficult to execute well. Traditionally, production standards for games have been mediocre to grindingly bad. As a result, the genre now suffers from an image problem. Many consumers avoid the concept of an exclusively FMV game simply because all previous examples have been so poor. Overcoming such ingrained market expectation was a daunting proposal, and convincing Fox Interactive of the wisdom of producing such a game was daunting in the extreme. Indeed, it's safe to say that it was primarily the X-Files' creator Chris Carter's interest in an FMV title, coupled with the strength of the license, that allowed the game to be made. HyperBole Studios had completed two FMV titles prior to The X-Files, Quantum Gate and The Vortex, so the company was well-suited to address particular needs of an FMV game.

Considerable effort was invested in creating a game that would be wholly consistent with the television show. Nearly a year of pre-production was spent in developing the story and writing the script; the central plot was developed by Carter himself, and the majority of the script written by Richard Dowdy, a writer from the show. The X-Files Game also melds relatively seamlessly into the greater X-Files mythology. The game was given its own "case number" (or episode number) - 3X99 - which placed the games' events, in X-Files dramatic time, somewhere between the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth television seasons.

The look and feel of the X-Files game was to be just like that of a television episode.

Many hours were spent to ensure that the video for the game was on a par - aesthetically and technically - with an X-Files episode. No corners were cut in the production; crew, lighting, and even smoke machines were perfect down to the detail. Our association with Chris Carter's production company Ten-Thirteen allowed us the use of A-list technical and acting talent from the outset. Our Director of Photography had worked on several of the shows from the series. David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, and the other actors from the show were secured for their appearances through Fox Interactive. Location shooting at realistic times of day was also made much easier by having a big-name production company on-board, and I think the results of shooting in actual warehouses or woods instead of on a sound stage speak for themselves. I feel confident in declaring the game footage equal to or better than that of most independent or mid-budget feature films.

But shooting on location was just the beginning. One of the largest technical hurdles was the creation of high-quality video that would both play well on a minimum-spec computer and fit on a reasonable number of CDs. Previous FMV games (such as Phantasmagoria and The 7th Guest) had been forced to significantly reduce image quality and frame rate to get playable video. The "postage stamp" phenomenon of a tiny video window surrounded by an immense border, or the "black-line" technique that interlaced active video lines with black, were both common solutions to the bandwidth problem. Everyone involved knew that the X-Files had to somehow achieve what no one had done before, which was to display full-frame, full-color video on a computer that real people actually owned. Anything less would undermine the quality of the game.

For the PC/Mac version of The X-Files, we concluded QuickTime was the best possible video playback format. We felt the tools this choice made available to our video team and its codecs would allow us the greatest hope of producing the first FMV game that made no sacrifices in image quality and gave the player a true cinematic experience. While we did letterbox the image, giving the player a cinematic and not a TV experience, that was the only concession made to bandwidth. In this pursuit of quality, we largely succeeded. If the player had a relatively new computer, we were able to provide video quality that was comparable to VHS. Players with older computers could achieve respectable video playback, as we provided a great deal of control over the image quality and video playback configuration. We correctly anticipated that players with older systems - or oddball BIOSes or video cards - would need to experiment to find settings that worked best for them. In this way, QuickTime also gave us many more options for dealing with nonstandard hardware than, say, AVI. As a result, we were able to achieve image quality that was simply the best we'd ever seen in an FMV game.

PSX video playback was also a challenge, as the Sony standard 16-bit video format didn't meet our quality standards. After several disappointing attempts, we had the good fortune of being introduced to Nick Pelling's FPQ library, a 24-bit video playback technology that gave us stunning results at a compression ratio that allowed us to stream off the CD at single-speed. We were the first title to use this new technology.

The interface for the game and the gameplay design were similarly refined over a long period, with much attention paid to finding the common ground between the seasoned gamer and the X-Phile. The game uses a proprietary in-house technology called VirtualCinema. VirtualCinema was designed to be an enabling technology for cinematic interaction that could be used to develop titles that were primarily composed of FMV sequences connected with video loops or static navigation views. Implemented as an authoring tool for directors, editors, and other end-users, VirtualCinema's intention was to allow developers to make sophisticated game worlds with minimal need for additional programming resources. VirtualCinema was also seen as being useful to education and WebTV, where it would allow teachers, advertisers or content creators to quickly make intricate, high-quality "interactive" story worlds.

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