Asian Fusion
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 8 (August 2005)

Asian Fusion

Picture a wondrous Chinese-style world that could have been, if all the ancient Asian myths and legends were true. That’s exactly what the team at BioWare, a game developer in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, did while creating its new crown jewel, Jade Empire, for the Microsoft Xbox console.

“This is our first intellectual property, and we set out to create worlds unlike any other,” says Ray Muzyka, who, along with Greg Zeschuk, shares the role of CEO at BioWare.

Since the company was formed a decade ago, it has been adding interactivity to a number of well-known kingdoms, including George Lucas’s intergalactic universe in last year’s record-breaking title Star Wars: The Knights of the Old Republic as well as the Dungeons & Dragons mythos within the Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights game series. Instead of crafting another real-time sequel, however, Muzyka and Zeschuk decided to revisit a concept that had been churning around in their minds since the company’s early days.

”Ten years ago, we thought it would be great to design a game where you could become a martial arts master,” says Zeschuk. “But at the time, we didn’t feel that there was an adequate technological foundation to build our vision; this was back when the consoles were 16 bit and the graphics were 2D and pixilated.” In his opinion, that was hardly enough to support what the company had in mind for its vision of multiple story arcs, rich visuals, and a significant amount of weaponry, magic, and compelling martial arts action. The duo also thought it prudent to wait until the right time in BioWare’s history as a company-when it had enough brand recognition to attract players to a universe and story line they knew nothing about-before attempting such a risky endeavor.

BioWare artists hired real actors to serve as models for the main characters in Jade Empire, including Furious Ming (above), one of seven player characters.

Their patience paid off. A few years ago, the men decided it was time for the rise of the Jade Empire, a single-player action role-playing game boasting a deep story line, lush graphics, and semi-realistic-looking characters whose fast-paced kung fu movements are supported by a real-time fighting system.

Jade Empire unfolds in an ancient, mysterious world based on mythical China, as a player assumes the role of a young warrior training under the watchful eye of a master while learning powerful martial arts skills and mystical powers. As the warrior leaves the tranquility of the monastery and begins a journey of exploration, the person discovers that something is amiss in the world when spirits and ghosts begin appearing frequently and, in some instances, start attacking villagers. During the search to uncover the truth behind this mystery, the young martial artist battles powerful human foes, amazing creatures, and supernatural beings as the student’s personal journey unfolds into an epic battle to save an empire.

“Our goal has always been to deliver rich story lines, and characters are a large part of that,” says Muzyka. To this end, Jade Empire is filled with unique characters, including seven main playable characters possessing a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses. There are also several “Followers,” each with a different personality and skill set-whether it’s strength, diplomacy, courage, or stealth-who interact closely with the player character. Additionally, there are a large number of non-playable characters (NPCs) with whom the player can interact. Some NPCs are simple citizens, though not all of them sit passively by, while others are more powerful and take particular interest in the player and the player’s quest. Still others are enemies, sometimes pretending to be a loyal agent.

Changes to Jade Empire’s story line often required alterations to the character models, as was the case for the monk Sagacious Zu, whose original design (left) differs from the final model (right).

Once BioWare approved a final concept for the characters, the art team began building the models by hand in Autodesk Media and Entertainment’s 3ds Max. Meanwhile, the group hired actors and actresses whose likenesses would correspond to all the major characters. Next, the artists photographed the actors, and applied the photographic textures to the CG models, resulting in fully detailed and believable virtual heads. “We used photo references for the textures whenever we could, especially on important story characters and player characters, though we always painted over the surface to give all the characters a unified, semi-realistic look,” adds senior artist Rion Swanson. For many of the other characters, the group used the photos as a reference while hand-painting the entire surfaces in Adobe’s Photoshop.

Soon after the character creation process, BioWare conducted a number of focus tests on the models to determine their potential success as virtual heroes. “Each important character had a back story and a history, and we revisited these characters, as well as the Followers and primary villains, at various points in development,” Swanson notes.

In fact, one of the more challenging aspects of the character creation process was dealing with frequent story changes, particularly during the earlier stages of development. This often affected the characters’ back stories, requiring the group to alter, or sometimes completely revise, the models. “In the case of Sagacious Zu, a late revision turned out to be very successful, though it was not the most efficient working method,” says Swanson of the character’s radical revision.

Artists added a lot of image detail to the main characters, such as Emperor Sun Hai, to coincide with their rich back stories.

The team origin-ally designed Zu as a portly, good-natured, optimistic monk whose diplomacy skills would enable him to assist the player as a Follower. Then, a story change transformed him into a disgraced monk who is called on to help the player exorcise corrupted spirits. To support this new role of an action-oriented fighting monk with a hint of a dark and mysterious past, the group remodeled the character to reflect the look of a tragic hero-tough and somewhat aggressive.

As it turned out, the group ended up using the earlier Zu model as another character, called Smiling Mountain, whose description, says Swanson, fit the original model perfectly. “Therefore, in the end, it was not the least efficient way of working, either,” he says.

Given the story-driven nature of its games, BioWare usually has a lot of dialogue in its titles-thousands of lines-and Jade Empire was no exception. All told, more than 350 characters speak in the game, though it is not an actual language, but rather an Asian-sounding dialect invented by a linguist specifically for the title.

Using Autodesk’s 3ds Max, the BioWare team created more than 350 speaking characters that appear in the game.

Each character has a custom voice set, unique appearance, and a combination of fighting styles. To deal with the sheer number of files and to get the best acting possible from the game’s characters, the team created an automated system to generate its lip synchronization and another for its facial animation data. The animation, explains technical animator Ben Hindle, was derived from the audio clip, where all the movement of the mouth, eyes, and eyebrows was generated. In addition, the group implemented several other processes that added emotions and extra drama to each line.

Without question, the artists spent more time scrutinizing and testing the player characters, which averaged approximately 6000 polygons in size, than they did for any of the others in the game. “They were the most difficult to create, particularly the females; we had a multitude of opinions on what they should be like, and we worked through many variations in both the concept and model stages,” says Swanson. Meanwhile, most of the Followers and the story NPCs, such as the emperor and the princess, range from 4000 to 5500 polygons in size, while the rest of the NPCs contained about 1500 to 2500 polygons.

To create these detailed, compelling characters, the artists drew on their experience with the Xbox, “wringing every last bit of performance out of the console,” notes Hindle. In particular, the team utilized the game machine’s pixel and vertex shader capabilities to create bloom and rim lighting on the characters, giving them more depth and a warm, fluid look. By building the Microsoft DirectX shader system into the Material Editor inside 3ds Max, the artists were able to preview the shaders while they constructed the models and textures prior to exporting them.

According to Swanson, the group took advantage of all the modeling tools within the software package, particularly its mesh-creation tools. In addition, the artists utilized a number of proprietary tools based on the MaxScript system within 3ds Max for speeding up artist work flow and automating tedious tasks, such as crowd generation.

Rendering, meanwhile, was done inside a completely new game engine that was fine-tuned to take advantage of the Xbox’s visual capabilities in terms of rim lighting and multiple render paths, and to accommodate the game’s action-packed combat sequences, which are not typically found in an RPG. The engine features a number of new improvements based on what the group learned while making the engine for Knights of the Old Republic. This includes a real-time physics-based cloth system (for capes, belts, ribbons, sashes, and so forth), which simulates the affects of gravity and wind, and generates various effects of cloth weight, such as heavy woven cloth or light silk, that interacts with collision volumes on the character.

In addition, the artists set up a physics-controlled bone structure for the hair that the engine interprets to simulate hair movement, allowing for a dangling ponytail on Follower Dawn Star, for example. “Building our own custom engine and our own set of export tools from 3ds Max enabled us to achieve these innovations, which, in turn, opened up more options in terms of our character designs,” says Hindle.

The human characters in Jade Empire are capable of a wide range of fighting styles, each representing a particular segment of martial arts, from karate to judo. To portray these intensive moves realistically, the team motion-captured martial art professionals, some from as far away as mainland China, while they performed an array of stunts. Then, the group applied those actions to a customized bone system created in 3ds Max so that the motion looked natural on the model. According to lead animator Deo Perez, the goal was to make each move look unique, polished, and accurate.

Although the group believed that motion capture would kick up the game’s action, BioWare had never used the technology in any of its previous titles. So before committing to the process, the animators tested it to see if it was worth the time and money, and whether the development team could actually work with the resulting data. Convinced that the technology would provide the animators with a viable solution, the group contacted Giant Studios, the Los Angeles-based company responsible for the motion capture used in The Lord of the Rings films.

During a nine-day shoot, the studio, using a proprietary 48-camera setup, recorded hundreds of moves performed by five actors, two of whom were stunt doubles for Keanu Reeves in The Matrix series and Lucy Liu in Charlie’s Angels. According to Ken Murano, motion-capture engineer at Giant Studios, the performers completed a full-motion library, including idle movement, walking, running, rolling, jumping, and, of course, fighting. The fighting moves, he notes, were specific to a particular martial art or included the use of one or more weapons.

“At the time, Jade Empire had more motion-captured props than other games we had done,” says Murano. “So, we had to be careful of the hand positions when retargeting the source motion to the skeletons, which often had different dimensions, either in height, body pro-portions, or both, than the performers.”

For the project, the crew used off-the-shelf video cameras along with Giant Studio’s proprietary image-processing software. During the session, the group used the studio’s real-time mocap software, which provided instant feedback to the director and the performers, allowing them to see the characters from the game, as they would appear in the actual scene. The studio then used its proprietary processing (Identify) and editing (Nuance) tools to deliver the final motion to BioWare. Moreover, licensed copies of Nuance were provided to the BioWare team so that the animators could modify the motion to achieve the desired style for the particular characters.

In Murano’s opinion, not only did motion capture save the BioWare team a great deal of time compared to keyframing the movements, but it also provided an in-creased level of realism. “Using traditional animation, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get all the subtle movements that a real human will do as part of his or her natural movement,” he says. “This motion-capture approach allowed BioWare to incorporate the number of different styles they wanted, instead of forcing them to settle on fewer options.”

In all, the capture session provided the group with more than 700 actions, which the group applied to the human characters. The monsters, animals, and creatures, meanwhile, were hand animated, since their motions were unique and nuanced. In addition, all the ambient motion-trees swaying in the wind, grasses waiving in the fields-were achieved within 3ds Max.

Jade Empire’s intensive, fast-paced martial art actions were a necessity for the game’s sophisticated real-time combat system in which every physical contact results in a reaction by the opponent, and a single button press by the player delivers a resulting punch or kick. This type of interaction-ideal for a martial arts action game-immerses the player into the activity by placing the person directly in the heat of battle, as opposed to on the sidelines.

This setup contrasts greatly with the slower rules, or turn-based, systems the group used in its previous games, whereby a player stacks up moves in a queue before they are performed. Although fine for action games, this detracts from the immersive action and, therefore, usually is not a good fit for a typical RPG.

“The new combat system detects col-lisions, so we could add the moves we wanted and get creative with the styles-martial art, magic, transformation, and weapon styles. The system then detects that fighting and collisions are occurring and, in turn, determines who is winning and who is losing a particular battle,” Hindle explains. As a result, players sometimes need to change their fighting tactics on the fly, switching between magic and weaponry, for example, in order to defeat a foe. Not only did this allow the artists to be more creative in determining the animation styles, but it also made the combat fun and unique for an RPG, he adds.

The people in the fantasy-based Jade Empire believe in two main moral concepts: harmony and discord. For the artists working on the game, harmony was the only path that could be followed when it came to creating the art. Indeed, the player characters and some of the Followers are heavily detailed, especially in the faces, giving them an appearance that is semi-realistic, while the environments are more stylized.

To bridge this visual chasm, the artists painted over the realistic textures of the photo-based models so they would blend with the environments. Additionally, the artists populated the game with characters that were more stylized than their semi-real counterparts or contained exaggerated features to emphasize their humorous qualities.

The 40 or so environments themselves range greatly in terms of their look and feel. From harsh, ice-capped mountains to lush tropical gardens, from the majestic Imperial Palace to the musty, labyrinth Quarry Caves, Jade Empire immerses gamers in an exotic land of intoxicating beauty. As Zeschuk points out, the Jade Empire is a fictional world that is not based on an actual setting. However, the artists drew inspiration from many sources, including certain geographical regions of Asia.

“We added as much detail as we could fit into each interior and exterior, as long as it fit the visual style defined earlier in the process,” says Swanson, noting that the locales ranged in size from 40,000 to 100,000 polygons. “We worked with different render paths, and the team worked to generate different specularities and feels for the textures and the effects, so the detail would be as believable as possible throughout the world.”

Just as the characters and environments in Jade Empire mesh together well, so, too, do its mixed genres, making this story-driven cinematic RPG title attractive to those desiring a strong action element. Yet, it also integrated a touch of morality a la the computer game Black & White: Players must choose whether to follow “the way of the open palm” or “the way of the closed fist.” Neither represents good nor evil, but rather defines a person’s reactions in relation to harmony with society, the world, and oneself. And, the player’s decisions will have consequences that precede him or her throughout the game, impacting the overall experience.

In the same vein, it appears that the BioWare team chose wisely while making its decisions for Jade Empire.

Because BioWare’s previous games were based on existing worlds, and popular ones at that, the artists and designers were never without adequate source reference. This was not the case, though, for Jade Empire, which the group was creating from scratch. “It is very stylized, very nuanced, very kinetic,” says senior artist Rion Swanson of the game. Instead, the team drew inspiration for building this unique universe from a number of sources.

Swanson notes that the group watched as many martial arts films as possible, from the “cheesy” kung fu movies of the ’60s and ’70s to the recently acclaimed features Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The team also reviewed a number of Asian-themed novels, including Outlaws of the Marsh, Romance of Three Kingdoms, and Journey to the West.

Furthermore, the team dug deep into the myths at the heart of Chinese culture that have existed for thousands of years. To ensure that the game’s large Western audience understood the more obscure Eastern elements, the group was careful to select imagery and concepts that would have universal appeal but still project the desired Asian flavor. “We collected folklore and mythology, reviewed them, and discussed what made them exotic and strange but accessible to Westerners,” says CEO Ray Muzyka. “Jade Empire is not a literal adaptation of those myths and legends, but rather a world inspired by them.”

While some of the game environments are based on actual Asian locales, many others, such as this Imperial Palace, are borne of pure fantasy and virtually constructed within Autodesk’s 3ds Max.

In addition, the designers consulted historical documents and references, many pertaining to China’s early dynasties, thereby infusing the story with a hint of reality. - KM

The artists took advantage of the Xbox’s pixel and vertex shader capabilities to create bloom and rim lighting on the characters, which gave the models a softer, more fantastical look.

BioWare’s newly created real-time combat system immerses players in the game’s fast-paced martial arts action. The system meshes well with the realistic actions of the characters.

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