Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 5 (May 2004)

Double Coverage


Given the wealth of entertainment options available to us, our time and attention are divided amongst television, digital video recorders, DVD players, computer and console games, camera-equipped and video-capable mobile phones, and the World Wide Web. Despite all of these media and communication devices, or perhaps because of them, we as consumers are difficult to reach—at least from a marketing standpoint. Yet, one recent marketing innovation is impossible to ignore. Virtually all TV viewers have seen one of the many eye-catching, CG-based TV ads that end with a Web address. They compel us to visit the associated Web site, where we become privy to even more eye-catching CG elements. This combination of TV commercial and on-line games is the hottest marketing trend today, and a growing number of vendors are jumping on board. Arguably the leading pioneer in interactive advertising, sports apparel manufacturer Nike harnessed the power of CG and the Internet with spectacular results.

As part of a successful and synergistic marketing project, Nike turned heads with its CG commercial, "Gamebreakers." An awe-inspiring spot featuring NFL stars Michael Vick and Terrell Owens, "Game-breakers" was shot in CGI by renowned director David Fincher and his production company, Anonymous Content. Fincher, together with director of photography Claudio Miranda, employed a Grass Valley Viper FilmStream digital cinematography camera to capture the action. Done almost completely in CG, the commercial boasts visual effects—including 46 CG football players, a CG field and stadium, CG fans in the stands, snow, breath, and atmospheric elements—created by CG feature-film powerhouse Digital Domain. Whereas a motion library was used for character animation in 75 percent of the commercial, the remainder was animated by hand.





"The commercial itself looks like a video game, and that was the intended effect," says David Madden, executive vice president of WildTangent. "If you go out on the street and do a poll, people who don't play games will say, 'Hey, that's a really cool commercial of a video game.' People who do play games will say, 'I wish Madden Football or Sega Football could be like that.' It's just so over-the-top, and that was Nike's intended effect: to create some real buzz with it. And it does just that."





The fast-paced, CG-intensive spot, which ends with the Nikegridiron.com Web address, proved effective in garnering the attention of viewers. In fact, the TV commercial drove more than one million visitors to Nikegridiron.com, where they gained access to a set of video games made for Nike by WildTangent.





WildTangent worked in tandem with Nike and R/GA, the New York-based interactive agency that created the Nikegrid-iron.com site. R/GA's producers, in turn, collaborated with Wieden+Kennedy, the agency responsible for the TV creative. "The commercial and the games are very synergistic," says Madden. "The games have a classic, arcade style and, although they are not of the same production value as the commercial, they sync up well with the TV campaign. Nikegridiron.com is a prime example of what can be done with games that are custom-published for a particular vendor."





WildTangent's Custom Publishing Group, headed by director David Selle, created all seven of the mini-games on Nikegrid-iron.com. Whereas the studio typically prefers between four and six months to produce and release a game tied to a campaign, the Nike project was done under extreme time pressure. "The first on-line game was delivered about six weeks after we signed," recalls Selle. "The other on-line games were released in one- to two-week intervals after that. It was an incredibly fluid development process. The calendar time of actual development was roughly four months, from scratching your head to having everything done for all seven games. That gives you an idea of the intensity that the Nike project entailed."

In order to meet the deadline, the proj-ect required parallel development on several of the mini-games. "Sharing elements between games was absolutely essential given the timeline,".says Selle. "We had to be able to reuse stuff." The seven games share the same playing field, and the animated players were reused extensively. All character models were developed in stair-step parallel, where-by WildTangent would begin working on one before its staff was finished with the previous one. Selle's team changed the geometry or scaled models to accommodate a wide-receiver versus a fullback build, for example. The same process was used to create the star athletes: WildTangent started with the same skeleton and tweaked it to represent each player. "We'd take the Michael Vick model, pull the vertices around, shrink it or make it a little taller, and use it for the other players."





Each of the seven games incorporates the likeness of a famous athlete and a shoe and Pro Compression gear from Nike's elite sportswear line—created by WildTangent with the use of Nike marketing materials. "We took those likenesses and projected them," says Selle. "We built a 3D model in Discreet's 3ds max and Character Studio. Nike provided digital photos from the marketing shoots they had done for this campaign, and we used the information to model the seven athletes who were the centerpieces of the games." Nike also provided source code for the apparel—a variety of long-sleeve, short-sleeve, and tank-top versions of the Nike tops, as well as shoes—that the characters needed to wear.

"For on-line games, we have to model in very low poly so they can work in real time," notes Selle. "When you show a player model to, say, an athlete for approval, he or she typically says, 'Wow, that's not what I look like.' But we have to do it that way; we're shooting at computers that may be three years old, so we have to balance that performance. Optimizing our geometry and textures to address a performance-limit architecture is a specialized art form at which game companies in general are very good."
Nike's "Gamebreakers" commercial and those responsible for the eye-catching spot, including director David Fincher, have received awards and accolades. More important, however, the innovative commercial quickly grabbed viewers' attention and promp




After the character models were approved, Selle's team put them into the game environments. Having built the Michael Vick game from start to finish, WildTangent used it to begin at least three of the other games in parallel development. At the height of production, when four or five of the games were being produced at the same time, WildTangent had 12 people—including artists and programmers—working on it full time. WildTangent's proprietary Web Driver 3D plug-in powers the game engine. The production group used Adobe's Photoshop to create game-screen elements and textures, as well as the Microsoft Office Suite for project planning, design, and tracking. Microsoft's Visual Studio .Net Visual J++ environment was employed to develop the games, whereas NXN Software's Alienbrain enabled version control through asset management.

Nike's investment in the CG commercial and custom-published games is paying off, in spades. For his work on the project, director David Fincher won an award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Commercials for 2003 from the Director's Guild of America, as well as a nomination by the Visual Effects Society for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Commercial. Not only has the spot received both awards and nominations, but also the Nikegridiron.com site has attracted slews of consumers.

"Nike was extremely pleased with the results of this campaign overall," says Selle, "and we exceeded projections in nearly every category. The most loyal players have played the mini-games more than 2000 times, as evidenced by the leader boards on the site. And these are two-minute games. If you add it all up, that's 4000 minutes, or more than 66 hours, of brand exposure for Nike to a prime and hard-to-reach demographic."

Successful, custom-made campaigns such as Nike's are capturing the attention of various enterprises, indicating that this is just the beginning of customized games (see "Customized Content,".pg. 48). In fact, WildTangent's Madden expects the market to explode. "Given how consumers spend their time today, you're going to see a lot more product placement in games," he says. "You'll even see products in retail titles, such as those from EA and Activision. And you're going to see a rapid influx of custom-published games. Advertisers are likely to say, 'I want to make an interactive commercial that's so compelling, so rich, and so powerful that people come to the Web site again and again, talk about it, and invite their friends.' After seeing this," he contends, "they're likely to say 'I want to be like Nike.'"
Just as Michael Vick was the cornerstone of Nike's "Gamebreakers" commercial, he is the star of an on-line game called Blazing Speed, one of seven developed for Nikegridiron.com by WildTangent.




Courtney E. Howard is a senior technical editor at Computer Graphics World.


Adobe www.adobe.com
Discreet www.discreet.com
Microsoft www.microsoft.com
NXN Software www.alienbrain.com
WildTangent www.wildtangent.com
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