Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 11 (November 2000)

Time Travel

During the past decade, Michael Crichton has dominated a wide range of media outlets with his creative works. Perhaps most recognized as a best-selling novelist, Crichton has won international acclaim with such works as Jurassic Park, Congo, Disclosure, and The Lost World, books that also resulted in box-office hits. A few years ago, he conquered television with his top-rated drama series ER. Now he's ready to step into the next great entertainment medium-gaming.

In November, the author/director/producer will release the first fruits of his new venture, Timeline Computer Entertainment: a 3D, first-person interactive game based on his most recent best-selling work of fiction, Timeline, now in film production with Paramount Pictures. "Interactive entertainment is one of the fastest growing segments of the entertainment industry, and [Crichton] sees it as a tremendous opportunity to bring his story lines to life," says Matt Langie, vice president of marketing and business development for Timeline. The company's focus will be on creating innovative game titles based on Crichton's novels. (For more on interactive fiction, see Viewpoint's "Fiction for Foxes" on pg. 22.)

Like the 1999 book of the same title, Timeline the PC game is set both in the present day and in feudal France during the Hundred Years War, as researchers at a secretive company called ITC unlock the door to the past, using quantum physics to travel through time. When an archaeology professor working at a dig site in the Dordogne River area in France is called back to ITC's New Mexico headquarters to discuss funding and timetable issues for his project, he uses the time-travel technology to transport himself back to the site's 14th century feudal period in hopes of gaining insight that will hasten his archeological efforts. Returning to present day, though, proves far more difficult and dangerous, as a group of eager graduate students subsequently discover when they step backward through the centuries to rescue their "missing" professor.

The novel describes the group's undertaking, but the game enables the players to experience the adventure firsthand. "We consider ourselves an entertainment company, not necessarily a game company," Langie says. "We're trying to do something unique by creating a diverse, interactive, story-driven world that appeals to a much broader segment of the population rather than strictly hard-core gamers."
Timeline Computer Entertainment, a game company founded by novelist Michael Crichton, uses cinematic-quality computer graphics to create "interactive fiction" that immerses game players into a rich, detailed 3D environment. Based on the writer's most

Crichton, who is Timeline's director and designer, enlisted top Holly wood talent, including conceptual artist and de signer Ron Cobb (Star Wars, Total Recall) to help the team achieve a compelling look for the game's diverse worlds and environments. "Through Crichton, we got [Cobb] to help us kick-start our artists by helping them form an early vision for the game," says Bob Griswold, vice president of production. Adds Chris Haire, Timeline's art director, "With Ron's experience in movies and visual storytelling, we now had the perfect mix of artistic vision to set the stage for the game."

Also assisting the Timeline team was Matt Uri, a lighting director (Toy Story 2, A Bug's Life) who conducted a mini lesson on scene lighting for the art team. "Most of the animators had little experience with actual studio lighting, and Matt showed us how to direct the player's eyes and emotions through effective lighting," notes Haire. "We wanted to make this a cinematic experience where the player is engaged in the world through camera perspective."

According to Griswold, the game developers even started using film terminology to describe their work. "It was a known language that we could use to speak to Crichton and those from the film industry who were helping us establish Timeline's look," he says. "Lighting, set dressing, costuming, hair styling, make up-we researched all of it from the film industry's perspective to make those aspects look more cinematic and less 'gamey' in Timeline."
To create a realistic yet stylized look for all the game images, the artists hand-painted the model textures using Photoshop. This helped maintain a cohesiveness for the art throughout the game's diverse environments.

Creating realistic characters in diverse locations-from inside torch-lit structures to sunny outdoor jousting tournaments-presented a tremendous challenge to the artists, as did the contrasting time periods. "When Michael and [game de signer] Deanna Edwards showed us their game design, it seemed incredibly daunting," says Haire. "Not only did we have to establish a convincing transition from our world to 14th century France, but we had to make them both appear believable. That was a big issue for Michael-like all his projects, he wanted this game to be historically accurate, yet artistic and compelling."

Before creating the game models, the artists spent months researching the period, using a vast library of materials covering dress, social structure, and cultural activities. The artists even reviewed videos of the Dordogne River valley, shot by Crichton, so they could accurately portray the landscape. Then, using Discreet's (Montreal) 3D Studio Max running in a Windows NT environment, the animators began re-creating the age of heraldry and ruthlessness. In one of the game levels, for instance, the artists created an authentic look for an inn by giving the windows a translucent appearance to mimic the pig gut that was actually used for windows at the time. "The inn is also sparsely decorated, just as it would have been during that period," Langie notes.

For the characters, the artists used a loose form of photorealism by employing an artistic style, says Haire, so that the diverse game art would blend together well across all 20 levels. "We created what I think are some fairly realistic characters that make you feel like they belong both in 14th century France and in the present day, wherever the locale happens to be," he adds. To ensure that the art remained consistent, the group created all the textures by hand using Adobe Systems' (San Jose, CA) Photoshop. "We studied period art to determine what the images and textures should look like stylistically, but we didn't use any scans or filters," Haire notes. "Rather, we developed a painterly feel to our textures, which makes all the models blend seamlessly across all the environments."
In Timeline, the use of weapons is limited, forcing characters to interact with one another to achieve their goals. As a result, the game contains a great deal of lip syncing, created with LIPSinc's Echo.

To add another degree of realism to the characters, which interact a great deal within the game, the artists used LIPSinc's (Cary, NC) Echo software to generate realistic mouth movements. Before using Echo, the animators had begun scrubbing through the animation files to create the phonemes for the lip sync but soon found the task tremendously labor-intensive. In contrast, Echo generates timing and lip-position data from recorded voice input files automatically. "We went from spending up to an hour for each piece of dialog to no time at all. I took all the dialog for a particular level and dropped it into Echo, came back 10 minutes later, and it was ready to go," says Griswold. In his estimation, using Echo saved the animators hundreds of hours of speech synchronization work. As a result, he did not have to limit the amount of dialog in the game.

To ensure that the character motions were also realistic and consistent throughout the game, Timeline incorporated nearly 500 movements-from jousting to horseback riding-that were captured in four sessions by Giant Studios in Atlanta. Using the studio's eight-camera Motion Reality optical system, Giant captured actors' movements and then displayed them in real time on the Timeline models.

"With so many varied environments, we had to come up with some moves that would be useful throughout the entire game, like walking, running, jumping, and other standard motions," says producer Paul Wirth. "We also needed some unique motion, like realistic broadsword fighting." Rather than direct an actor to perform this specialized action, the company hired martial arts experts and a swordsman help the animators acquire the highest degree of authenticity. In addition, the group captured "idle" motions for background characters, who are always performing small, everyday tasks rather than standing completely still.
Giant Studios captured and incorporated a wide range of motions into the game, including a person riding a horse, which added a higher degree of realism to this jousting scene.

Because the team was capturing motion for more than 100 characters (not all of which made it into the final release of the game), the actors had to use accentuated body positioning to eliminate penetration problems on the CG models. Making this more difficult was the 14th century clothing, which varied greatly among the royalty (who wore numerous layers of garments), the bourgeoisie, and the peasantry.

Deferring to the experts once again, Timeline provided the team at Giant Studios with its proprietary programming code, called Alchemist, so the motion-capture data could be "fixed by the specialists as it was being developed," Griswold says. "Then we just plugged it right into the game." At Timeline, the group created a motion-capture pipeline that included Winged Edge Technologies' (formerly Nichimen Graphics; Santa Monica, CA) Mirai, which the animators used to import the mocap files, build skeletal models, and affix the models to the 3D Studio Max game models. The animators then used Mirai's game-exchange format to export the data to Alchemist, Timeline's game development tool, with which they attached the motion to the full Max characters, all in about four hours per character.

"We needed a tool that could pull together all the different elements of our game-the motion, models, texturing, lighting," says Griswold. "We didn't want to make a traditional game editor because there were already tools that were well equipped to do those tasks. Our intention was to let the professionals-the artists-do the art using their particular tools, rather than the engineers, who usually end up doing it because the tool set is too complex. So we created Alchemist, which is basically a scene-assembly tool that enables the artists to place all the textures, effects, lighting, and models into the scenes, while the engineers script the behavior and game play." Adds Haire: "Creating the most direct path from the content creators to the game itself means less interpretation of the data, so it's going to look better."
After the models, textures, and animation were created, the developers assembled the scenes using Alchemist, Timeline's proprietary game tool.

Alchemist also offered the team the speed it needed to export a scene from 3D Studio Max for review by Crichton. If he required changes after reviewing the scenes, the artists could then go back into Max, make the necessary adjustments, and re-import the data without destroying the original lighting or scripting. "We spent a lot of time up front preparing tools that were broad enough so that when Crichton wanted to see the characters jumping up on objects, for instance, we could make that happen quickly," says Wirth. "Timing was crucial, because we only had 10 to 11 months to focus on the game." (The game will be released with the paperback version of the book, and will be bundled as a package.)

According to Griswold, working so closely with the various industry specialists and Crichton, a proven storyteller, has resulted in a unique product that immerses the player into a story, not just the game action. "The rules and techniques we determined would best tell the story in Timeline were primarily pulled from Crichton's cinematic and storytelling experiences. 'It's like a silent movie,' he would say, 'you have to show the story,'" says designer Edwards. To achieve this type of "interactive fiction," the designers and artists had to draw the player to places and events that moved the storyline forward. "We used cinematic techniques and implemented a simple goal-delivery structure with immediate rewards. We also used cut shots to safeguard the player from missing critical plot points," explains Edwards. "Thus, the players are moving through the world as they choose, but ultimately, they can't alter the storyline."
Geared for a wide range of players, the game uses a simple keyboard command set for moving through the 3D world.

"It's an action game in a story-playing world, not a shooter game," says Griswold. "And we rubbed elbows with people who taught us how to do things the right way to make this a unique experience for the player."

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior associate editor for Computer Graphics World.