Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 3 (March 2001)

It's an Odd, Odd, Odd, Odd, World

Developers turn a 3D 'Oddysee' into a cinematic experience for the upcoming Xbox

By Karen Moltenbrey

In stark contrast to the countless "run around, shoot 'em up" computer games, a title under development by Oddworld Inhabitants (San Luis Obispo, CA) for Microsoft's new Xbox platform will take advantage of real-time 3D graphics to simulate life-no matter how "odd" it seems. In Munch's Oddysee, the second title of the company's planned Oddworld Quintology series, the designers are sticking to their game plan of creating an entertaining yet logical interactive experience within a cinematic context. But unlike the first title, Abe's Oddysee (for the PlayStation One and PC), Munch's adventure-to be released this fall with the Xbox-will no longer be confined to the 2D realm.

"For the player, the experience will be more like visiting the world of Odd world," says Lorne Lanning, president and creative director. "Munch's Oddysee is focused on world simulation and the behaviors of the characters and ecosystems in a kind of twisted world. I expect that once people start playing the game, they'll find themselves becoming interested in the subplots and subgoals-going off and treating the game world like it's a habitat or terrarium that's full of living creatures."
The Oddworld development team spent more than three years making Munch's Oddysee. To create the main character, Munch, the team worked for a number of months to find an ideal balance for the organic being's characteristics. -- Images courtesy Oddw

Oddworld, formed in 1994 by Lanning and Sherry McKenna, former "inhabitants" of the film and television industries, had planned from the get-go to produce a five-game series that collectively formed a larger epic. Each game, says Lanning, introduces a new hero who, de spite belonging to the lower spectrum of the food chain, struggles to succeed in a carnivorous industrial world. In Abe's Oddysee and its sequel, Abe's Exoddus (not part of the Quintology), that person is Abe, a slave laborer in a meat processing plant who discovers the true price one pays for a delectable 99-cent burger and, in the continuation, a highly addictive brew. For Munch's Oddysee, Abe meets Munch, the last of his species, who has just escaped from a scientific research lab where he had been languishing as a laboratory test animal.

"Truth is stranger than fiction," Lanning says of his plots. "We thought it would be ironic to show how things might look from the point of view of the tens of millions of laboratory test animals that we throw away every year."

The essence of the game play will revolve around Munch's quest to save his species, which requires him to invoke the aid of others whom he must first assist in their various dilemmas. As the story progresses, the environments become richer and the tasks more complicated. "We're simulating full ecosystems and life cycles, so if factories are running on a landscape, they're sucking up water, which is creating difficulty for the creatures that live in the water. As the water table gets lower, the ground, trees, and environment become more arid," explains Lanning. "So every choice you make affects your situation and environment."
Oddworld animators applied the graphics skills they learned while working in the film and broadcast industries to create dynamic image textures, lighting effects, and other imagery for every scene in the game.

Developing graphics for these situations required the artists to create multiple color schemes and the programmers to write the texture-map interpolation code needed to create the chemistries of various health conditions, which are all choices for the game engine to select from.

The developers used Numerical De sign's Net Immerse game-engine technology as the game's advanced API, but functions such as those affected by the player's game-play choices-color schemes, texture-map variations, and health conditions, for example-were written separately by the group. "As a result, we needed to art-direct the same landscape, for instance, several times to accommodate the multiple possible conditions," Lanning explains.

Numerous cinematic-quality animated films pop up within the game to introduce the player to the next challenge, or in this game, dilemma. Their purpose, Lanning notes, is to enhance the game's storytelling aspect. To achieve the film-quality resolution of the movies required up to 95 minutes per frame for rendering.

In fact, the 3D cinematic sequences in Abe's Exoddus were so superb that in 1999 the film sequences were on an Oscar nomination short list (see Computer Graphics World, February 1999, "Cooking up an Oscar?," pg. 23). However, with the release of the Microsoft 128-bit Xbox platform (versus the 64-bit PlayStation One), developers are no longer confined to creating innovative 3D content for just the cinematics within the game.
Munch's Oddysee is a life-simulation experience in which the player's choices affect the ensuing action and graphics. For instance, this scene will transform into a lush, flourishing landscape or a drought-plagued region, depending on how the play

The Xbox is promising 64mb of memory, a 733mhz processor, and an 8gb hard drive, which is expected to be the most powerful gaming console available, delivering three times the graphics performance of its current rivals. In comparison, the PlayStation 2's 128-bit platform has only 32mb of memory and a 300mhz processor.

"We're now able to use more on-screen characters, more elaborate behaviors that emulate life, larger worlds that have more AI running underneath, and more Game Speak," explains Lanning. GameSpeak is a language that the characters learn during the course of game play that enables them to communicate with other characters; it is activated by the user pressing control buttons, much as he or she would do to fire weapons in other games.

"We've spent a great deal of effort in the areas of advanced behavior, simulation, and social chemistry models-the simple things that happen in the real world, like becoming happier after receiving a paycheck-that rarely happen in the game world," Lanning adds. To accommodate a wide range of these behaviors within the game required the team to develop numerous animations and databases that would accommodate the choices affecting the game's "life forms."

For Abe's Exoddus and Abe's Oddysee, the animators used Alias|Wavefront's Power Animator to create the models and animations for the prerendered movies and the sprites (pre-rendered flipbook models) for the 2D game. "The characters looked rich and they moved on the screen, but the [background screen] didn't move," Lanning says. For Munch's Oddysee, the artists migrated to Alias|Wavefront's Maya. Additionally, they used Para form's modeling package, Nothing Real's Shake for compositing, and Adobe Systems' Photoshop for painting and texturing. The programs ran on a variety of SGI workstations, with Linux machines sharing some of the rendering chores.
Using Maya and Paraform, the artists created the game's odd-looking characters, such as the villainous scrabs that search for Munch.

"In those [movie] sequences, you'd be looking at about 100,000 to 200,000 polygons for high-resolution characters," Lanning explains. "But to achieve the real-time action for a game that demands dozens of characters on screen at one time, you'd need to bring that down to 300 or so because you don't have a gigabyte of RAM on the game machine like you do on an SGI. If you were building a fighting game with only two characters on the screen at one time, then you could push the polygonal count of each to 100,000 or more in real time on the Xbox platform."

To build the real-time databases for the game play, the group is using Discreet's 3D Studio Max to convert the higher quality film content created in Maya from the SGI workstations into lower resolution 3D models running on Macintoshes.

"The same run-cycle animation from one of our characters in the prerendered movie is the same motion data that's used for the character in the real-time database, so visually they look the same," says Lanning. "It's just lighter-instead of a heavy NURBS model, it'll be only about 2000 polygons, because you don't have to rely on facial expressions and things like that. If the motion's really good, the sense of life is there."

Originally planned for the Sony PlayStation 2 platform, Munch's Oddysee will now be an exclusive release for the Xbox. "The change from the PS2 to the Xbox was a huge breath of fresh air for us," says Lanning. "The Xbox is much more of an artist's machine-artists want more memory and more ways of pushing more textures and databases through the system." According to Lanning, the Xbox's 64mb of memory can be sliced up by the user for textures, while the PlayStation 2 has just 4mb total for texture, minus about 1.5mb for the screen buffer.

"A digital artist doesn't want to be constrained to having only 2.5mb for texture," explains Lanning. "It's extremely limiting and totally compromises the image quality, unless you procedurally generate your textures, which means taking the process away from artists who want to create more realistic graphics."
Munch's Oddysee contains a variety of game environments, from dark industrial settings such as these laboratory scenes to colorful outdoor surroundings.

To make the transition to the Xbox platform in the middle of the game's development meant the Oddworld group had to rethink its graphics structure so it could take advantage of the platform's offerings. The upside, says Lanning, meant the artists could use far more textures at variable resolutions, higher polygonal counts for many of the game databases, and overall more characters on the screen with more dynamic and complicated effects, and even more complex AI.

To provide a more cinematic experience within their newest game for players as well as those watching the action, the developers are focused on eliminating what Lanning describes as "the wild, roving" camera activity that plagues most games. "Our smart camera system feels more cinematic in its delivery-like a director is staging the action, even though you can go anywhere inside the world," he says.

Another shortcoming in real-time 3D games, Lanning points out, is a lack of character orientation, where the character can't quite find a trigger item or even the doorway, for instance, without first bumping into it. "What was easy for a character to accomplish in a 2D gaming environment has become more difficult in 3D because you are now also using the Z axis," he says.

"This type of tedium is something that made the 3D gaming experience more frustrating for some people," Lanning says. However, he believes Oddworld has overcome these types of basic navigational issues in Munch's Oddysee by making the character "smarter." So if the character is within proximity of a key element, the character then becomes aware of the player's intention. "As a result, the player only needs to achieve partial alignment of the character and element, and the character takes care of the rest," he explains.

According to Lanning, consumers' expectations of the Xbox are running high, which in turn has added more pressure on Oddworld to push the limits of game graphics and intelligence-and creativity. "Munch's Oddysee is a 'gene splicing' of action, adventure, strategy, and emulation, with Hollywood storytelling and production values sprinkled all over it," he says.

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