A Knight to Remember
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 1 (Jan 2003)

A Knight to Remember

Game graphics have never looked so good, thanks to the new generation of graphics cards and processors, including those in the latest consoles. While most developers are using these advancements to increase the level of realism in their games, Dragonstone Software and Dragons Lair LLC are using leading-edge graphics technology primarily to advance the storytelling aspect of Dragon's Lair 3D: Return to the Lair, a 3D game that maintains its original cartoon-shaded look.

Dragon's Lair 3D resurrects the popular characters and creatures featured in the original 2D Dragon's Lair titles, as the bumbling but valiant knight Dirk the Daring again tries to rescue Princess Daphne from an evil wizard and menacing dragon. "The tremendous power of the new consoles and PCs enabled development options and sparked ideas we could only have dreamed of when we created the first Dragon's Lair game 20 years ago," says producer Don Bluth, perhaps best known for his work in a number of animated feature films, including The Land Before Time, Anastasia, and Titan A.E.

"The heart of Dragon's Lair always has been its compelling story. With Dragon's Lair 3D, we basically created an interactive animated movie," Bluth continues. "The game has all the plot twists and turns of a feature film. But, in this case, players are in control."

According to Thomas Konkol, director/art director, the new release—for the PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube—is a "retelling" of the original tale. "This time, though, the game provides more back-story to the histories of the creatures that live in the castle and why Dirk is chosen to be the princess's savior," he adds.

Since its introduction in 1983 as the first full-animation laser disc arcade game, Dragon's Lair has been raising the bar in gaming graphics with more than two dozen versions of the title, albeit all of them, until now, created in 2D. "With Dragon's Lair 3D, we needed to push the envelope for next-level gaming, yet we wanted to create something that the fans of the previous titles would enjoy," says Bluth. "As such, we worked hard to keep the look close to the original game, going so far as to use original, hand-painted backgrounds that were texture-mapped onto the 3D environments."

The artists built the Dragon's Lair 3D character models with Discreet's 3ds max and created the textures in Adobe Systems' Photoshop. They animated the characters using the bone feature in max and the biped feature in Discreet's Character Studio. When more control was needed than the Character Studio biped alone could provide, such as for animating the hair and cloth, the team linked the 3ds max bones to the biped structure. When a squash-and-stretch animation was needed, the group used just the max bone structure.

Although all-3D, the newest Dragon's Lair title retains its original 2D cartoon-style look, which was achieved with special shading and motion-blending techniques.

To achieve a smooth transition between different types of character movements (for instance, from running to jumping), the team employed a cross-blending technology developed in-house. According to technical director Todd Heckel, the proprietary system employs continuous real-time motion blending, or the combining of simple motions, to create more complicated movements based on the player's actions. "For example, we used six basic animation cycles of Dirk moving left, right, forward, backward, and diagonally forward to the left and right, and blended between them on the fly so that Dirk is able to move in any direction the player wants," says Heckel.

"We did this simultaneously for a complete set of walking motions and another set of running motions, blending between the two sets so the character can move at any speed between those two actions," Heckel continues. "This means that at any given time, we are tracking 12 of Dirk's movements, and we can cross-blend the resulting composite into a jumping or falling motion, for instance, with no discernable popping or jerking."

As a result of this new function, the 3D Dirk can walk, run, roll, jump, crouch, move sideways, and even fly—a far cry from the previous limitations of moving the character left, right, up, or down. In all, the animators created more than 150 moves for Dirk alone.

The levels in which Dirk and the other characters "act" were built with Tread3D (from Joe Riedel and Nicholas Randal), which the team used to animate simple objects and control the camera moves. The game engine itself is a modified version of Genesis3D (an open-source Quake clone offered by Eclipse Entertainment/WildTangent), which was extended to support the OpenGL format. It's also compatible with the Macintosh and the three console systems.

Additionally, the team grafted onto the game engine a physics engine, which is based on Dragonstone's proprietary character animation and motion-blending technologies. This gave the animators more control over the way the characters behave and interact within the game. "Motion from the animation system is submitted to the physics engine for collision detection and gravitational effects, and since the engine is based on our animation and motion-blending technologies, the end result blurs the distinction between the real and the cartoon worlds," says Heckel.

Despite the game's sophisticated graphics, it still retains a traditional cel style. This was achieved through the use of a proprietary cartoon shader that's based on a real-time silhouette-detection algorithm similar to that used for projected shadows, since the group could not export line primitives as part of its character pipeline in 3ds max. Heckel notes that the cartoon shader, which was designed to re-create the feeling of hand-inked cels, renders fully anti-aliased outlines around the models. "Anti-aliasing is crucial to good 'toon shading, because otherwise apparent motion in the outline would distract the user," he says.

The team also referenced much of Bluth's original artwork and even the animations while creating the 3D character models and environments, which Konkol describes as having a cartoon-like watercolor feel. The artists also used the initial models as a guideline to ensure that the proportions of the new CG characters matched those of the original cast. Furthermore, the artists re-created some of the earlier environments in the 3D space, though they also added more than 200 new ones. The model textures are based on those from earlier games, but they still had to be repainted by hand in Photoshop so they would tile correctly and fit properly onto the new geometry.

While the overall look of Dragon's Lair 3D may resemble the 2D versions in many ways, there is one tremendous difference that some Xbox players will notice immediately—crisper, cleaner imagery. That's because the Dragon's Lair 3D development team is the first to take advantage of the console's 1080i HDTV output. "The Xbox always had the built-in ability to show games in HDTV resolution, but no one ever [created a compatible game]," Bluth says. "We thought that having this ability would further enhance the game's cinematic quality." Since the game had been in development for the PC for some time, the group already developed most of the textures at a higher resolution than would normally be needed for a console. "So implementing HD support was not that difficult," says Heckel.

Bluth and the crew at Dragonstone are hoping that the expanded storytelling aspect of Dragon's Lair 3D and its new look will attract both new and previous fans. And, this release will not be the end of the Dragon's Lair story. Bluth has written a feature-film script for Dragon's Lair, the Movie, about which his company is now in distribution discussions. The medium in which the film will be presented—traditional cel, CGI, or live action with CGI—is also being determined...

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior editor for Computer Graphics World.

Images courtesy Dragonstone Software.

Adobe Systems www.adobe.com
Discreet www.discreet.com
Genesis3D www.genesis3d.com