Tempting fate
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 5 (May 2005)

Tempting fate

Once upon a time, an evil wizard cast a spell that prevented role-playing games from entering the casual gaming arena. So for years, RPG titles grew in popularity, especially among males, as players created virtual alter egos, gave them certain powers, and sent them on thrilling, magical adventures. Meanwhile, in another realm far, far away, casual games attracted their own loyal following, predominantly among females. Then, one day, a wise inventor and an adventuresome group decided it was time to break the spell separating the two game genres. After six months of toiling, the small but determined bunch found a solution that once again sealed casual gaming’s “Fate,” this time by making RPGs accessible to the casual gaming world.

Later in the month, this fable will become real when online game developer WildTangent unveils Fate, a full-size, downloadable, single-player fantasy role-playing game (RPG) geared to the so-called casual player.

While casual gaming is far from new, it is only now becoming visible within the general computer-game industry, no doubt because of its large user and revenue base (see “The Lowdown on the Download,” pg. 22). Yet, these games-predominantly puzzle and card titles-are very different in form and style than those of other genres. Most are fully downloadable from the Internet; therefore, their file sizes tend to be small to facilitate installation. As a result, these titles cost approximately $20, far less than the $50 price tag for triple-A PC and console titles. Also, the games in this space do not require a substantial time commitment from players, thus they tend to attract a wider demographic.

While most developers of role-playing games and first-person shooters would think these characteristics extremely odd, it is a formula that has served the casual gaming area well over the years. So why, after “playing” in the casual gaming space for more than seven years, would WildTangent tempt the market’s fate with a mixed-genre title? As WildTangent CEO Alex St. John explains, this type of offering allows the company to push the envelope in casual online gaming by combining the best of both worlds: the lower-priced, compact play of a casual game, and detailed, contemporary 3D graphics and compelling action of a “hardcore” fantasy RPG.
WildTangent is entering the realm of online adventure gaming with Fate, a downloadable fantasy RPG whose action and graphics are styled for a wide audience.

But it’s only recently that the casual game market has matured to where it can accommodate more complex graphics technology, higher production values, and richer gameplay than is present in a virtual chess game, for instance. In fact, nearly all the titles in the casual gaming space have been, and still are, 2D. Indeed, they usually have attractive imagery, concedes Stuart Moulder, vice president of WildStudios, the game development segment of WildTangent. But, as he points out, they could have been done 10 years ago in terms of the technology that is used.

Touted by WildTangent as the first fully downloadable fantasy role-playing game, Fate uses mouse-click commands rather than keystroke combinations, as do many RPGs. And its gameplay is straightforward, so there is no need to read a manual before proceeding. By offering a friendly entry point for the casual gamer, Fate enables players to customize their characters and play intuitively, while completing the quests quickly.

As a result of streamlining the fantasy role-playing experience in terms of both play and delivery, the developer is opening the door to a new audience not only for Fate, but for RPGs in general. And there’s little doubt this audience will embrace such offerings, given the current popularity of fantasy titles, fueled by such franchises as The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

“But fantasy gaming can be daunting to the casual player, with most of the current retail games requiring a significant cost and time investment,” adds Travis Baldree, Fate’s lead developer. “What Fate delivers is an opportunity for casual gamers to jump into adventures of exploration and treasure hunting that can be completed during a coffee break­­-or an all-night session.”

Baldree adds this qualifier because he believes that more sophisticated RPG players also will be drawn to the fantasy/adventure game, which he claims is similar in scale and scope to retail role-playing games that ship fully or partially on CD-ROMs. Also, Fate features detailed 3D imagery, real-time lighting, gameplay depth, and extended play achieved through a random generator that changes the layout of the game when a new character is created.

Yet, fully installed, it occupies only about 25mb on a computer’s hard drive, accomplished through the company’s compression technology, developed in parallel with its scalable Web Driver rendering engine. The Web Driver leverages the DirectX gaming platform, an advanced suite of multimedia APIs for Windows development that was co-created by St. John, while he worked at Microsoft, to take advantage of the hardware present in current PCs for delivering advanced gameplay and graphics.

Compared to RPGs delivered on CD, Fate’s footprint is small; nevertheless, it is larger than WildTangent’s other titles, which are about 8mb. While broadband users can download the entire game in 30 seconds to 2 minutes, depending on their Internet service, those using a dial-up connection will need about 20 minutes for full delivery.

Compared to most RPGs, which are dark and threatening, Fate has a lighter tone to the gameplay, supported by characters that are young and sympathetic (as opposed to the usual RPG character that is middle-aged and battle-worn). Also, helpful pets accompany the character on missions that are given to the player by friendly, rather than hostile, non-player characters. Furthermore, the monsters are more Disney-esque than grotesque, making the content more appealing to a wider audience.

Once players download the game, they begin by choosing a cat or dog companion. Before they do so, however, they create a personalized character, male or female, whose appearance is customizable, from the shape of the face and the skin tone to the style of the hair. Later in the game, players can further customize their characters by choosing specific armor and weapons.

After the character is created, he or she is dropped into a pleasant town, which is brightly lit and colored, where the player learns the back story to the adventure and the ultimate mission, which has a familiar ring to that of most fantasy/adventure RPGs: find the hidden artifact at the bottom of the dungeon that’s being held by an evil wizard. The theme, however, is deliberately unoriginal, notes Moulder. “One of thekey elements of Fate is that it generates a new dungeon layout each time a person plays with a new character,” he explains. “Thisenables the player to have a new experience each time without getting lost or confused by a complex story or quest.”

Containing a total of 40 levels, the entire game can be navigated by an average player in 20 to 30 hours using the same character.

The game’s characters and monsters, which comprise about 1300 polygons each, were built using Autodesk Media and Entertainment’s 3ds max and textured with Adobe’s Photoshop. However, the WildTangent team had to develop custom plug-ins in order to use the 3ds max functionality for creating, lighting, and exporting the models in the highly compressed format required by the Web Driver game engine. The proprietary compression algorithms, which take advantage of the mathematical nature of the polygons, retain the original poly count of the models, but at an overall 10:1 size reduction.

“For our audience, we needed to scale the experience so it would run well on a wide range of PCs,” says Baldree. “So we had to figure out how to deliver real-time lighting, shadows, and particle effects on hardware that provided little to no 3D hardware support for those features. And we had to scale these features in ways that allowed the game to still look good on low-end boxes.”

Mostly this task was accomplished through further development of the company’s Web Driver to ensure that it could handle the game’s dynamic, real-time lighting, reflections, and shadows without incurring performance or frame-rate degradation. So, if a playable character casts a spell by throwing, say, a fireball, the object will light the hallway as it travels down the corridor, and when it explodes, the resulting flash of light will momentarily illuminate the surrounding area. The game also contains water surface effects and translucency that enables the player to see fish below a pond’s surface-a key feature in a segment of play that enables the character to feed his or her catch to the pet, which in turn gives the animal magical powers.
Fate’s bright settings, friendly characters, and Mario-like monsters, crafted in 3ds max, allow casual players to test the usually rough RPG waters.

Within each environment, every object is interactive, and any action is recorded and retained in the game’s memory, tracked by the world environment. So, if you break an urn, for instance, the shards will continue to lie on the dungeon floor until you complete the game, explains Baldree.

Betting on a positive reception for Fate, WildTangent is already looking ahead at an upgrade to the world and the engine for early next year, possibly including multiplayer capabilities in addition to single-player action. “Most people who play casual games like to cultivate friendships, and adding online, multiplayer functionality will appeal to them,” contends Moulder. And while the present release is available only through download from sites such as WildGames, Shockwave, Yahoo, AOL, and others, the company is not dismissing the possibility of also offering the sequel on CD-ROM.

Until then, the fate of the game will be in the hands of the players.

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

In the booming gaming market, casual gaming is big business, and is getting bigger all the time. Presently, casual games are more about checkers, bridge, and canasta than guns, death, and mayhem. Designed for people of all ages and gaming experiences, the titles tend to draw more women than other gaming genres, with 35- to 54-year-old females composing half this growing audience.

Today, there are more than 90 million online casual game players in the US alone, 30 million of whom are broadband customers. And by 2007, that number is expected to increase to 150 million, accounting for $3 billion in anticipated revenue, making this space extremely appealing to developers.

Another attractive aspect of this market is the relatively short development cycles for the titles, which take about six months for a group of five or so to build, compared to 18 months for a triple-A game from a studio using a team of 50 or more. And because the development costs are so minimal, if a title does not do well, it will not bankrupt the company-an ever-present danger in the high-end market.

With this genre offering so few risks and so many potential rewards, expect other developers to venture into this market and bring with them novel or other mixed-genre offerings that will continue to expand this space. -KM

Players begin the game by customizing a character (above), whose appearance further evolves through the acquisition of various powers and weapons earned in battle (below) that will be useful as the player progresses in the game.