|With so many console and PC game titles available, why would a person spend time playing advergames—on-line mini-games created by vendors to promote their product lines? The answer, simply, is that they provide an entertaining way to learn about a particular company or product. And, more important, they are free. Now, because of enhanced streaming technology, users have another reason to play them—they offer high-quality content and gameplay.
The Island Rally Racing Series from the Chrysler Group, one of the latest advergaming titles to employ next-generation compression and streaming technologies, delivers a console-quality racing title over the Internet in real time. Created by on-line game publisher WildTangent, Island Rally is the first Web game to utilize WildTangent's recently released Web Driver 4.0 platform, which includes a robust game engine originally developed in partnership with Microsoft for its popular Xbox Music Mixer title, along with WildTangent's re-tuned compression and streaming technologies.
The custom-published game series, created to help promote the launch of the car manufacturer's new lineup of vehicles, features separate titles for the Chrysler, Jeep, and Dodge brands. Because the main focus is to advertise the vehicles, it was imperative that the games portray the true design characteristics of each car and truck, in appearance as well as performance.
To accomplish this feat, the WildTangent artists began with the actual CAD data that Chrysler's engineers created when designing the vehicles. Each of these Dassault Systemes Catia files comprised millions of polygons, which had to be converted into lighter Discreet 3ds max versions for use within the game engine. After the conversion, the data still proved too large, forcing the artists to further reduce the information. In some instances, though, they simply used the CAD information as a reference for re-creating the game models, each of which is approximately 1mb in size.
|WildTangent used its Web Driver 4.0 platform, which includes a sophisticated game engine and integrated compression and streaming technologies, to create a set of high-end advergames for the Chrysler Group.
Using Adobe's Photoshop, the group applied photographic textures to the car models, then added reflection mapping and various particle effects, "all the things you would expect to see in a high-quality console/PC game," says producer Jay Minn. After the team completed the models, Chrysler checked them to ensure that the colors and various details, such as the headlights and taillights, were accurate.
Additionally, Chrysler provided gear ratio and torque information, as well as a plethora of technical and engineering details, that were then programmed into each model's physics. "As a result, every vehicle in the game handles and performs as it should," says Minn. "You can tell the difference between a vehicle with rear-wheel drive, front-wheel drive, and four-wheel drive." In all, the group created 11 vehicles for the series.
The cars and trucks were then put on the virtual road in an island setting. Each game title (Jeep 4x4 Adventure, Chrysler West Coast Rally, and Dodge Racing–HEMI Edition) can be played using a keyboard, game pad, or gaming wheel on one of three unique tracks: coastline, metro, and outback/off-road. To better educate consumers about the various vehicles, each model performs optimally on the track that is better suited to its particular characteristics. For example, the Jeep Wrangler 4x4 handles best on the rugged outback course.
To play, users must follow a link on Chrysler's Web site or log on to one of the game sites: http://chrysler.games.yahoo.com, http://jeep.games.yahoo.com, or on to http://dodge.games.yahoo.com. Next, the user chooses a vehicle as it spins around for 360-degree viewing, and then selects a color option, a driver (a unique man or woman is available for each brand), and a track. If, for example, the player chooses a four-wheel-drive vehicle, then a previously closed section of the off-road mountain course will automatically become available.
After users choose a vehicle and a track, WildTangent's proprietary Web Driver compresses and streams the information to the user for fast, efficient delivery. Then, while the players are scrolling through that information, the remaining car and track data is streamed to them. The entire game, compressed at a 10:1 ratio, is approximately 12mb in size, and can be played on a 56k dial-up connection. However, users must have a PC with at least 120mb of RAM, 16mb of video RAM, a 3D graphics card, Windows 98 or 2000, and Microsoft DirectX 8 or higher.
After all the selections and the downloads are complete, the driver hits the road, earning credits while navigating the course and racing against other on-line players. The points then are spent at a virtual car shop, where players can upgrade the vehicles. This capability excited the brand managers, Minn notes, because it highlighted specific vehicle features, like the HEMI engine for the trucks that enable players to drive faster and, in turn, earn more credits.
Points also can be used to add Mopar accessories, such as chrome tubular bumpers and a chrome grille. Mopar, a major parts supplier for Chrysler vehicles, provided the artists with catalogs and pictures of the various items to ensure that the models and the effect each would have on a vehicle were presented accurately.
Although the vehicles are the focus of the game, just as impressive are the lush, realistic courses, complete with reflections on wet city streets and sun glare on the open road. So, when a person drives under a tree, the branches are reflected in the car's windows. In addition, the artists generated dirt particles that spray from the tires during a speedy getaway.
"The amount and quality of the terrain is unexpected for an advergame, with all the graphic touches and polish," comments Minn. "In the city level, for example, we added animated billboards and neon signs." These high-end effects, he notes, are generated through the hardware-acceleration capabilities and features available in DirectX 8.
Moreover, players can select from either a first- or third-person view, and race accordingly. A hotkey allows players to take quick backward glances at the vehicles behind them. Additionally, there is a rearview mirror feature with a limited viewpoint—a unique option but one that requires the game to be rendered twice.
"The goal of the game is to build up all the cars to their maximum upgrade," explains Minn. "You have 11 vehicles, each with 12 upgrades, operating across three tracks—that's a lot of content." And it's a good deal of gameplay—more than 15 hours total. Users can play the first game without registering, but after that, they must answer a few questions, provide their zip code, and register with the Chrysler Group. Then they can continue playing, still without charge. In return, the car manufacturer collects valuable customer information, including a tally on the favorite makes, models, colors, and more. "Gaming provides a fresh alternative to the usual marketing approach," says Jeff Bell, vice president of the Chrysler Group. "It immerses the user in the brand while delivering key marketing messages. It's also a realistic way to let consumers experience the performance capabilities of our vehicles. We're not just doing games to do games."
So, does advergaming work? Bell believes so, attributing the sale of more than 1000 Jeep Wrangler Rubicons to the 2001 on-line advergame EVO, created for the Jeep brand. As of last summer, Chrysler's previous advergames have logged more than a million users—and that was before Island Rally, the latest and most sophisticated title yet, which Bell expects will boost those figures far higher.
Minn concurs. "The Island Rally Racing Series is competitive with the best racing games out there because it plays well and looks fantastic. I believe it's the greatest free game of all time, and players are proving this to be true."
Karen Moltenbrey is a senior technical editor at Computer Graphics World.