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Event Wrap-Up: Playing On The Boundaries – NTI*


July 13, 2005
 

Introduction

Despite the tragic events in central London, the Non Trivial Interaction game-related arts festival, the first of what's hoped will be regular event in the UK gaming calendar, got off to a enthusiastic start. Held at the spiritual headquarters of the UK 's independent movie establishment, the National Film Theatre on the South Bank, the first theme of NTI* (as it's labeled) was an exploration into growing closeness between the game and movie industries. And there were certainly plenty of luminaries on hand to give their personal opinions, as well as unpick examples of how they've got the best out of the game/film interface.

Molyneux On Zombie-Human Love

Appropriately, considering the title of his next game, first up was Lionhead's Peter Molyneux. Already three years in development, but finally due for release in November, The Movies has been something of a departure from his classic god-style games. More of a cross between The Sims and Theme Hollywood in terms of direct gameplay, The Movies cuts both ways, thanks to its built-in machinima package.

"Making sure any slapped-together movie looks good has been one of the hardest parts of the game to get right," Molyneux explained.


Peter Molyneux, Director - Lionhead

Since making movies is part of the gameplay - there's even an AI system that will judge the virtual commercial success of your movies using a complex conglomeration of the plot and the movie stars that you choose, as well as more artistic elements - the game has to ensure automatically generated content looks neat. But for those players who really get into the directorial mood, there will be plenty of opportunity for expansion from importing the faces of friends and family, as well as props and scenery. There will also be an official website for The Movies-generated films. Molyneux also revealed that there will be a monthly competition for the best films, sponsored by The Hollywood Reporter.

As an example of how easy these were to produce, he finished up by showing some of the 50-odd films produced by Lionhead staff and testers. And there were some odd examples too, with a zombie-human love story to the tune of "I Will Survive," and a gay twist on one classic wholesome American series that unfortunately must remain nameless.

"We won't enable the models to be naked but they are anatomically correct, so I won't be surprised if someone releases a naked patch," quipped Molyneux, also pointing out the one area of films with which games to date have seldom got involved is what he described as "the light eroticism of mainstream action films." Maybe that's something The Movies can change.

Smith, Fristrom Talk Games To Movies

Two very different approaches to games based on movie licenses came courtesy of Jonathan Smith and Jamie Fristrom. Respectively creative director on Giant Interactive/Travellers Tales' Lego Star Wars game and the technical director on Treyarch's Spider-Man 2 game, both described the careful reinterpretation that's required to make a successful license-based game.

In the case of Smith, he said it was the combination of the Lego and the Star Wars licenses that provided the necessary synergy. "Lego is all about the concept of playfulness, so when we were pitching to Lucas, the concept was that this will be a game set in the films' universe, not a game of the films," he explained. The non-realism of Lego also gave the developers the chance to do things that wouldn't work in other games, such as letting players switch between any unlocked characters at any point in the game, as well as taking the stars of Episode I into Episode III's scenario, for example.

Fristrom's take was different. Having worked on both of the Spider-Man games, he said that one of the biggest issues was that games take longer to make than films. The result is it's often hard to know what you're supposed to be putting into the game. One example was Spider-Man's web swinging technique, which the developer was only told about late in the process.


Jamie Fristrom, Creative Lead - Treyarch

"We'd secretly been working on a pendulum-style experiment but we just didn't have time to get it into the game so in Spider-Man 1, he seems to be firing his webs into thin air or maybe low-flying helicopters," joked Fristrom. Another problem is plot. If players have already seen the film, they know what's going to happen, which reduces the developer's opportunity for drama. "With future projects, we're looking to incorporate more minor characters to get around the issue of the known main plot thread," he stated.

GoldenEye Revisited

Film inspiration, of course, was the cornerstone of David Doak's retrospective look at GoldenEye but surprisingly, 007's exploits weren't top of the list. "We'd constantly listen to the soundtrack of Heat while we were making the game," he said, while more direct choreography came from the films of John Woo; GoldenEye being notable as one of the first games to enable dual wielding. "We called it double guns back then," he sniffed. "We were obsessed with double guns."

Despite being one of the most success games based on a movie license - 8 million units sold - Doak said back in the mid-1990s the team had plenty of leeway. "At the time Nintendo picked up the license, games were as important as mugs in terms of the Bond license," he said. More problematic was the team's attempt to add all the previous Bond actors as multiplayer characters. "Nintendo pointed out we'd have to pay them," he said, although revealing screenshots with Sean Connery in his classic white suit had slipped out.


David Doak, Director - Free Radical Design

 

But perhaps one of the most significant points was also one of the most subtle. GoldenEye remains one of the few significant Bond experiences where you regularly see him die. "We just left the camera attached to the head when the player was killed, kept the game system running and then cycled through different cameras," Doak said. "Bond never dies in the films so I think when you see it, it makes you want to go back and do it right next time."

Van Buren's Animation Approach

The final talk of NTI* came from Bill Van Buren, Valve's lead animator for Half-Life 2. Entitled "Acting in an Interactive Environment," Van Buren picked apart the processes which led from the casting of waiters and janitors as the visible basis of game characters, through to Valve's innovative runtime eye simulation, facial animation and procedural skeletal systems. The result is in-game characters who will always look at the player, no matter where their position, even to the extent of twisting their torso or rotating their entire bodies if necessary, to ensure the plot drama remains immersive.


Bill Van Buren, Lead Animator - Valve

"One of our goals was to create characters you care about," Van Buren said. "And it's something we're still working on. With Aftermath [the Half-Life 2 expansion] we're trying to get a character who will stay with you throughout an entire game, and remain useful, not annoying." Another example of the developer's desire to continue pushing the boundaries is the recent hiring of Bay Raitt, the facial animation lead for Gollum in Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings trilogy. He'll be working on improving the facial animation system for the characters being primed for Half-Life 3.

_____________________________________________________

[Photographs by Jon Jordan.]


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