Spectrum: Interactive Media & Online Developer News

19 December 2005
Reported, written and edited by David Duberman

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Editor's note: This is the last edition of Spectrum for 2005. It's been a rough year in many ways; here's hoping for brighter horizons in 2006. See you then!
- David Duberman


Today's Headlines (details below)

--Book Reviews: Two Softimage Books from Thomson
--Book Review: Game Design Complete

--Particle Effects Software Plays Role in Commercial Spots

--Game Trust Announces Casual Game Evolution Challenge
--Alias Publishes 3D Animation Beginners' Guides

--'06 IGF Finalists Announced
--Game Developer Named IT Week Top Tech Innovator

--About Spectrum



Softimage Books Review

If your 3D graphics software of choice is Softimage (or, more officially, Softimage|XSI 5), you have two reasons to rejoice: namely, two new books about the software from Thomson Course Technology. The first, Softimage|XSI 5 The Official Guide (TOG), is the fourth edition of author Anthony Rossano's beginner's guide to the software whose name most people mispronounce at first (the accent is on the last syllable, which is pronounced "ahzh"; think French). The book is intended as a textbook of sorts, to be used in a classroom situation, although, as with most such texts, there's nothi ng to prevent the dedicated student from using it for autodidactic purposes.

TOG starts out, as a good beginner's textbook should, with a thorough tour of the software user interface (UI). Rossano walks the reader through the global menus, such as File, and the specific menus and other UI features for the five workflow modules: Model, Animate, Render, Simulate, and Hair. Of course, he also covers such basic concepts as 3D space and view modes such as wireframe and shaded.

When you work in 3D, the first step is modeling (you can't render or animate without models), so it's appropriate that the next chapter covers this important toolset. Here the author introduces nomenclature such as points (also known as ver tices), polygons, splines, and talks about the basic modeling tools: polygons and NURBS. We also learn about selection, which is accomplished in Softimage via the spacebar and mouse. Next we're introduced to transforms such as rotation, and then comes the first tutorial: using box shapes to build a model of Stonehenge. The startup files for this and the remaining tutorials in the book can be found on the accompanying CD-ROM.

When you want to model and animate complex structures such as characters, it's important to know about organization and hierarchy, which are dealt with in the third chapter. It was interesting for me to learn, in this section, that Softimage's "branch applying" functionality lets you propagate operators and properties down a hierarchical tree from a branch to all of its children.

The next chapter returns to modeling, covering polygon modeling in greater depth. Here we learn about the operator stack, which remembers each step you perform in building a model, such as adding a vertex. This can add a great deal of processing overhead, so Rossano writes about how to freeze the stack, collapsing all operations into a single entity, and bypassing it altogether. The tutorial in this chapter teaches how to create a jellyfish, starting with a sphere primitive.

From there we move to animation, a topic that could consume an entire book if dealt with in depth. So, of necessity, the single chapter is more an overview, but it does offer a simple tutorial on animating a submarine. The next chapter covers materials, lightin g, and rendering, again in a superficial manner, and then we return to animation, this time in a brief chapter about moving object along paths. The remaining chapters cover building sets, using layers, deforming objects, using the animation editor, working with images, and adding hair, fur, and cloth to your models.

So the book jumps around a bit, but serves as a useful overview for aspiring artists who want to learn the basics of this powerful software. I have only one minor complaint: Given that the typical reader of a book like this uses it mostly spread out on the desk next to his or her computer, it's a pity Thomson couldn't see fit to bind it in such a way that it stays open; the binding is actually pretty stiff, so you need to put something heavy on one or both sides to be able to use both hands on the computer.



Once you've worked through the Rossano book, if you're still feeling ambitious about becoming a Softimage honcho, check out George Avgerakis's new book, Softimage|XSI 5 for a Future Animation Studio Boss. Avgerakis has been animating since the early '80s and has supervised animation since the mid-'90s, and does a great deal of writing about it on the side, so he's well-qualified to write this sort of book. To write the tutorials he recruited Tony Johnson, a certified Softimage instructor with a background in theater. The book is written in tag-team style, with Avgerakis and Johnson writing alternating chapters about business and the software.

In his boisterous introduction, Avgerakis mentions "maniaco," a state of mind similar to mania that's characteristic of animators of his acquaintance. He illustrates this with an example: It is not uncommon to see an animator burning through Costco-sized bags of [chips] at 4 in the morning, desperately trying to capture a certain kind of reflection, like an arcade video game freak with a trunk full of quarters. Obsolete analogies aside, Avgerakis does have an animated writing style, well suited to a book of this sort.

In his first chapter, Avgerakis discusses the life of an animator, both on a day-to-day basis and over the longer term. He covers not only the glamorous side but the nose-to-the-grindstone aspects as well; it's best not to go into such a career with any illusions. Next, he provides a lengthy discussion of the sort of equipment you'll need to get started animating with Softimage, plus an in-depth analysis of the different versions of the program. For example, according to Avgerakis, of the 60 significant features found in the high-end, $7,000 version, only 17 are missing in the basic version, and only four aren't in the mid-range version (so many versions!). There's also a free version, just for learning the software, but it's fine for the context of this book.

Following this (still Avgerakis), the book tells you how to get your first job in an animation studio. You create a resume and use it to get an internship position. Avgerakis spends a go od deal of time on the practical aspects of this pursuit, and makes it quite plausible, giving you a real leg up over the competition. The remaining business-oriented chapters in the book are equally real-world oriented; there's lots of good information here.

What about the tutorial chapters? They cover setting up projects, creating animation with keyframes, rigging characters, rendering, and more. It's a good overview and complements the material in Rossano's book well. They all start from scratch; no files are needed or provided.

Despite the schizophrenic approach, the book works well, and is recommended not only for aspiring Softimage pros but, considering Avgerakis seems to have provided the bulk of the co py, for Maya and 3ds Max animators as well.



Book Review: Game Design Complete

It's an audacious conceit to promise a complete course in game design in 430 pages (including index), but that's what the new book Game Design Complete from Paraglyph Press seems to do. The back-cover bio describes author Patrick O'Luanaigh a s a "senior figure in the European games industry." He has worked on such games as Micro Machines, Operation Flashpoing, and Prisoner of War, and is currently creative director at SCi Games in London, where he oversaw the two Conflict: Desert Storm games.

The author's stated goal was to select the topics that would help any game designer get a more "complete" picture of the skills and design techniques that any working designer would need to apply today; in other words, by "complete" he means "holistic." Okay, so it's probably not really complete, but there's a lot of worthwhile content here.

The book is organized into five parts. The first, Constraints or Opportunities, talks about real-world (as opposed to idealistic) design, creating licensed games, working with different platforms, and designing for gamers outside the "mainstream," including older folks, kids, and women. Each chapter concludes with a short interview with a pro game designer. For instance, in the first, Noah Falstein states that the most important skill a game designer should have is a love of learning (hear, hear!). Interestingly, he also refutes a prediction I saw in the newspaper today that gaming revenues will double next year to over $50 billion: Falstein thinks there will be an industry implosion next year, due to increased development budgets and the consequent unwillingness of publishers to take chances with new game concepts. Hence, Falstein predicts increasing homogenization, as games look or feel just like each other. He does hedge his bet, though: And of course I could be wrong, and 2006 will be a banner year.

The next section, Core Gameplay, gets down to brass tacks, with chapters on designing camera systems (when will they get this right?), control systems (ditto), designing characters, and game environments and level design. In his interview, Toby Gard, the designer responsible for Lara Croft, recommends that would-be character designers seek inspiration from anything except other games (um, like men's magazines, Toby?). Also, Andrew Oliver of Blitz games recommends adding depth to games by incorporating different play mechanics. Too much repetition of the same mechanic makes for a boring game, more often than not.

Following this is a section that aims to teach how to work with design challenges tha t come from creating more elaborate games. The first chapter deals with online games, covering such issues as designing one-off vs. persistent online games, and digital distribution. Also, how do you design a sequel, how do you deal with in-game advertising, and how do you use audio in a game? Important questions, no doubt. Regarding online games, the author went to one of the top names, Raph Koster of Everquest fame, who thinks that the best thing online games do is connecting people. Frankly, I believe the "communities" fostered by online games make a poor substitute for the real thing, but I guess for many of the young guys who play these things, it's better than nothing.

The fourth section is about designing smarter: using market research and focus groups; design teams and prototyping; and a brief look at the up-and-coming field of serious g ames. This latter area covers games for education, business, health, military, government, military, and more. Serious games typically require many major disciplines to work together, are funded by the client or a third party, must work on less-than-state-of-the-art platforms, and perhaps most important, they aim to effect some sort of change (often behavioral) or provide insight into a problem—that is, they have an agenda. In his interview, serious games specialist Ian Bogost states that video games are different from other media because they can simulate experiences and processes, which no other mass medium can do. Thus, games are uniquely positioned to help us understand the systems that structure our lives.

The last, one-chapter section covers disaster management: surviving a project from hell, a case study of fixing a game called JetPack J im, and common problems you encounter when fixing troubled games. Next, the last chapter discusses the top trends in gaming, such as aging gamers and converging platforms, and lists the 10 game-design commandments: you must have a hook (an addictive idea, which you should use to name your game); don't be afraid to innovate (hear, hear!); research, research, research; etc. Finally, the appendix offers a short game-design template, almost worth the price of the book in itself. Well, not really; this is a $40 book, although you can get it for $26.39 from Amazon.com.

I haven't read every book on game design, so I can't tell how well this one distinguishes itself from the competition, but O'Luanaigh seems to have succeeded in his goal of creating a book that deals with real-world game-design issues. And the interviews, for the most part, are great; th ere's definitely something right about an industry whose veterans are so willing to part with their hard-won secrets of success. If you want to be a game designer, or are simply interested in the process, this book belongs in your library.




Particle Effects Software Plays Role in Commercial Spots

San Diego animation and effects house Pendulum Studios relied extensively on wondertouch's particleIllusion 3.0 on two recent commercial campaigns for game developer Namco and cereal producer Kellogg Company, both which feature CGI and visual-effects creation sequences. The software has been in use at the studio for the past several years where it has delivered a wide range of particle effects for television, commercial and game-cinematic projects, including the Warner Bros. television series, "Smallville."

On a :30 international spot for the next installment in Namco's fighting game series, "Soul Calibur III," Pendulum turned to particleIllusion 3.0 to create critical effects that highlighted the game's character-customization fea tures, which allow players to build personalized fighters with which to do battle.

In a pivotal sequence, Pendulum created the idea of the `Blacksmith', to capitalize on the players' new ability to `forge' their own characters, who the viewer sees pulling a molten piece of steel from a blazing hearth, beginning the process of forging a magical sword. With each crash of his hammer the evolving blade emits a torrent of fiery and magical sparks which are a catalyst for the explosive genesis of a different warrior from within each preceding character.

Pendulum was responsible for 100% of CGI production. According to Rob Taylor, Pendulum president and executive producer, particleIllusion was used to create all of the sparks effects. It also used the dynamic wind tools in the software application to move particles based upon the motion of interacting 3D objects such as the swinging hammer.

"Using particleIllusion we were able to track and integrate the sparks elements by simply importing the final 3D rendered plates into particleIllusion as a background sequence and tracking everything manually - lining up the wind elements with the actual hammer and allowing them to simply blow the particles out of the way at the appropriate time. We were also able to move the overall particleIllusion `camera' by animating the layer offset and zoom parameters, therefore eliminating the need to animate each of the particle emitters and dynamics elements independently. This meant we could create the entire shot in one scene which was a great time saver."

For Kellogg Company and international advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, Pendulum completed three: 30 spots for the Choco Krispis cereal brand. The spots involve a detailed cliff-hanging plot, combining live action sequences with complex 3D CGI characters and environments, as well as traditional 2D animation. They feature an intentionally surreal crew of menacing, semi-photo-realistic 3D skeleton pirates that were integrated with live-action and 2D cell animation for Kellogg's hero character.

The explosion fx elements in the Kellogg's spot were created almost entirely within particleIllusion, in conjunction with Maya, to include the multiple layers of smoke, dust, embers, falling ash, and most importantly, related dynamic s such as exploding arcs of burning fireballs. These were then integrated into the 3D scene by matting out various blocking elements, like live-action characters, props and furniture, and composited in Adobe After Effects.

In a scene where two different skeletons collide, Taylor explained that the `super emitters' feature in particleIllusion 3.0, which allows for the automatic creation of other emitters, helped to … portray the pirates' explosive deaths and achieve heightened levels of realism. "The first pirate actually explodes just before the shot starts so we primarily see the arc of smoky fireball trails and falling debris. However, when the second skeleton blows up in the background, not only does it look really cool... and closely integrates with the actual 3D scene (thanks to tons of matte/roto work in After Effects), but the explosive p ower of that effect actually blows the smoke and debris of the first explosion off screen. This was a fairly subtle detail, but helped to sell the 'credibility' of the FX."




Game Trust Announces Casual Game Evolution Challenge

Game Trust, an infrastructure provider for online casual games, recently announced the second annual “Casual Game Evolution Challenge” by Game Trust. Open to any and all game developers, The 2006 Casual Game Evolution Challenge seeks to identify the best Java Web games for online, tournament and download play.

One grand prize winner will win a $20,000 “Game Plan” contract, distribution to millions of casual players worldwide, plus an eight-day adventure tour in Costa Rica for four.

Two finalists will win a “Game Plan” license offer worth $10,000, with a revenue share and guaranteed distribution to millions of casual players worldwide.

Any Java Web game in any playable form can be submitted, as well as completed and existing games. To see the official contest rules and to download the entry form, visit http://www.gametrust.com/contest. Entries must be submitted no later than March 1, 2006. The three finalists will be announced on www.gametrust.com March 8, 2006, and will have their games displayed and available for play at Game Trust’s booth at the Game Developer’s Conference, where attendees will play and vote for their favorite game. These vo tes will determine the grand prize winner, to be announced March 20.

The contest is designed to help developers successfully release their games and to help the casual game market evolve with innovative new game concepts. Last year’s contest resulted in more than 70 qualified submissions. Five finalists were announced and “Oshiro” by Walking Ideas won the 2005 Casual Game Evolution Challenge grand prize.


Alias Publishes 3D Animation Beginners' Guides

People new to 3D animation and computer graphics now have two beginners’ guides created by Alias, a developer of 3D technology, to help them discover the creative and professional possibilities Maya 7 and Alias MotionBuilder can offer. The Maya 7 Beginner’s Guide Bundle and the Alias MotionBuilder Beginner’s Guide are in DVD format and available online at http://www.alias.com/learningtools.

The step-by-step tutorials and demonstrations found in the five-part Maya 7 Beginner’s Guide Bundle give aspiring 3D professionals an introduction to the software’s interface and an opportunity to learn basic keyframe animation and rigging, modeling workflows, shading and texturing techniques, and to learn about rigid and soft body dynamics, particle effects and more.

The Alias MotionBuilder Beginner’s Guide introduces hopeful character animators to the various components and functions of MotionBuilder, Alias’s 3D character animation productivity suite. The basics of keyframe animation, control rigs, and pose-to-pose character animation are covered in the guide. It also allows people to learn how to reuse animation from one character to another, to apply shaders and materials to characters for added scene realism, and to work with pre-existing animation clips, and lights and shadows. As well, there is an opportunity to work with the particle shader and discover how to add effects, such as smoke, fire and dust.

The Maya 7 Beginner’s Guide Bundle includes Maya 7 Personal Learning Edition software and is priced at US $24.99. The Alias MotionBuilder Beginner’s Guide includes MotionBuilder 7 Personal Learning Edition software and is priced at US $19.99.




'06 IGF Finalists Announced

Finalists for the 2006 Independent Games Festival (IGF) competition have been chosen among a record-breaking 1 18 entries and will be on display at the 20th annual Game Developers Conference, slated for March 20 - 24, 2006 in San Jose, Calif. Winners will be revealed at the IGF and Game Developers Choice Awards gala ceremony on March 22 at the San Jose Civic Auditorium. A judging panel composed of 40 industry professionals, comprising mainstream and independent developers and independent journalists, was formed to single out the exceptional indie titles from the rest of the pack.

Cash prizes totaling $35,000 will be awarded during the ceremony, but only the following five finalists will have a chance to win the $20,000 Seumas McNally Grand Prize for best independent game, the largest award to date. The selected games are:

• Introversion's cult action-strategy title Darwinia
• Ankama's French strategy-RPG MMO Dofus
• Grubby Games' fiendish puzzle platform game Professor Fizzwizzle
• Digital Eel's innovative 'short' space exploration title Weird Worlds: Return
To Infinite Space • Pocketwatch Games' ecosystem-building Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa.

Best Innovation in Game Design category includes:
• Darwinia
• Rumble Box
• Strange Attractors
• Braid
• The Witch's Yarn

Best Web Browser Game category:
• Dodge That Anvil
• Moleculous
• Dad 'N Me.

Technical Excellence:
• Saints & Sinners Bowling
• Tribal Trouble
• Tube Twist
• Darwinia
• Crazy Ball

Innovation In Visual Art:
• Dofus
• Darwinia
• Putt Nutz
• Glow Worm
• Thomas And The Magical Words

Innovation In Audio:
• Professor Fizzwizzle
• Saints & Sinners Bowling
• Dodge That Anvil
• Glow Worm
• Weird Worlds: Return To Infinite Space

In addition, an Audience Award will be voted by the public from all the finalists.

“Games are now a mainstream form of art,” Simon Carless, IGF co-chairman, said. “As with any art, the independent scene flourishes. We're proud to be supporting inno vative indie games and giving them the spotlight they deserve with these awards.”

Finalists in the IGF Modding category and Student Showcase will be announced in January 2006.

The IGF was established in 1998 by the CMP Game Group to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize the best independent game developers, in the way Sundance Film Festival honors the independent film community. Past winners include Wik & The Fable Of Souls, Alien Hominid, Oasis, and Gish.

For more information regarding the IGF and finalists, visit www.igf.com.


Game Developer Named IT Week Top Tech Innovator

High Moon Studios, an independent video game developer, was named among IT Week Magazine’s “Top 50 Technology Innovators of 2005.” Chosen by IT Week editors, the list recognizes companies that have made significant contributions to technological innovation over the past year. High Moon is the only video game company named among 2005 winners, lauded for its adoption of Agile Methodology, and specifically the Scrum method, for production of video game titles for next-generation consoles. High Moon is listed alongsi de innovators ranging from startups to well-established companies operating in high-tech industries such as digital security, mobile technology, computer software and wireless communications. The “Top 50 Technology Innovators of 2005.” list is published in IT Week Magazine, and is available at the Web site www.itweekmagazine.com.

“We see High Moon as setting a timely trend in the video game industry,” said Ken Durham, reviews editor of IT Week Magazine. “They clearly recognize, and have very creatively addressed the growing complexity of developing successful, mass market video games. We hope more people in the game industry are inspired to take notice of High Moon’s approach to game development.”

The Scr um method is named after the tight formation in rugby where players huddle to move the ball up the field. As a product R&D method, the formation is applied in spirit by promoting small, non-hierarchal, interdisciplinary teams who work together to complete vertical slices of a project. Working in short cycles, called sprints, that last no more than 30 days, teams work to produce iterations of a project that can be demonstrated, tested and evaluated. Guided by the project’s broad objectives, Scrum gives its “customers,” such as publishers, the ability to define goals for each sprint. Teams are then given the ownership to achieve the goals, providing the framework for enhanced productivity during the course of a standard workweek.

“Agile Methodology is an ideal match to game development in many ways,” said Clinton Keith, chief technical off icer of High Moon Studios. “It promotes an incremental and iterative approach to game development, where interdisciplinary teams of artists, designers and engineers focus on ‘finding the fun’ rather than working from design and technical documents. Scrum, one of the major agile management tools, promotes daily communication, team ownership and product value. The benefits to product quality and team productivity can be enormous. In this era of skyrocketing development costs across the industry, Agile Methodology is something we evangelize for the sake of the game development community.”

In November, High Moon received the 2005 Workplace Excellence Award from the San Diego chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management, who cited the company’s adoption of Agile Methodology as underscoring its efforts to foster a close-knit culture and an environment designed to stimulate creativity. High Moon began implementing the Scrum approach in the final phases of development for its debut video game “Darkwatch.” The first-person shooter was released earlier this year for PlayStation 2 and Xbox




About Spectrum

Spectrum is an independent news service published every Monday for the interactive media professional community by Motion Blur Media. Spectrum covers the tools and technologies used to create interactive multimedia applications and infrastructure for business, education, and entertainment; and the interactive media industry scene. We love to receive interactive media/online-development tools and end product for review.

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