Dressed for success
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 6 (June 2008)

Dressed for success

Superheroes seldom disappoint, whether on the paper pages of comic books or in action-packed scenes on the silver screen. And most of the time they do not come up short in the interactive world of computerized gaming.

When Iron Man appeared in theaters last month, audiences were thrilled by the drama that unfolded as weapons manufacturer Tony Stark built a “power suit” that enabled him to escape the grasp of terrorists. Realizing that such an iron suit could be used to further battle evil, Stark refashions two subsequent versions of his unique costume, and his new career as a superhero takes off (see “Power Suits,” May 2008). As exciting as it was to watch Stark evolve into his crime-fighting persona, viewers, nevertheless, were relegated to a passive role. But with the debut of the Iron Man video game from Sega, another role reversal was in order—this time, with the viewer (player) stepping into the interactive role of the superhero.

The third-person action game im­merses players in the world of Tony Stark, the industrialist/inventor who both created and became the world’s toughest superhero. Iron Man is one of Marvel’s most indestructible superheroes, though the game character is based more on the star from the feature film than from the comic books.

Players control Stark as the industrialist and as the suit-clad hero. In fact, to help generate the metal armor for the game, Secret Level (the Sega-owned developer that created the Iron Man game) worked with the CG character model created by VFX studio Industrial Light & Magic and used in the movie. The game artists also received all three versions of the digital suit: the Mark I, II, and III. “Throughout the project, we were given iterative updates of those suits and used them primarily as the basis for baking out the normal maps for our in-game models,” says Mick Buckmiller, lead artist at Secret Level.

The majority of the character modeling was done using Autodesk’s Maya installed on Dell workstations running 32-bit Windows XP Professional. Some character and environmental artists also used Autodesk’s 3ds Max. In addition, the team relied on Autodesk’s Mudbox, Luxology’s Modo, Pixologic’s Zbrush, and a number of proprietary applications developed in-house.

“We try to allow our artists to use the tools they feel comfortable with, and also learn new tools that could help increase their productivity,” Buckmiller notes.

The artists created high-polygonal models of up to several million polygons, and used those to generate normal maps for the in-game models, Buckmiller says. For instance, the in-game model of the Iron Man Mark III suit contains approximately 10,000 polygons.

One big feature in the game is the ability for players to customize the advanced technology in Iron Man’s suits, enabling them to take advantage of a wide array of high-impact weapons to strategically blow up and destroy any enemy force and fight to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction. This amount of customization for the main character required the artists to devise a complex UI solution that allows the player to choose different components between levels. The artists also generated custom shaders and models for those items.

Because Iron Man’s actions are superhuman, the animations were atypical. One moment he is running on the ground, and the next he is flying through the air. He also can easily change speed or direction. The freedom of being able to fly high into the sky and land on the ground presented the group with several challenges.

 “Because Iron Man can fly at speeds higher than 200 mph, we had to make some compromises with his speed on the ground,” explains Buckmiller. “He moves at 15 meters (16.4 yards) per second while on the ground, which is much faster than the fastest man in the world can run. We created animations that work to make him look as though he’s running at a realistic speed, while still allowing him to run at the speed the design team desired.”

Most of the character models in the Iron Man computer game were generated in Maya, while a good deal of the complex animation was done using the new Havok animation system.

To create complex and fluid animation for the characters in the game, the Secret Level employed the Havok animation system. In fact, Iron Man is the first computer game released to incorporate the new Havok Behavior system for creating event-driven characters. Furthermore, Havok was used for all the physics simulation within the game.
The title also features massive landscapes generated with new proprietary tools for expansive, realistic levels in a short amount of time. The open, outdoor environments range from sandy deserts, to rolling green hills, to crowded urban settings, to white-washed Arctic areas. Players are free to explore the environments and can choose their own paths. “Probably the biggest challenge we faced from a production standpoint was to create the vast worlds in the game. From a design standpoint, the larger the world that we could provide, the better,” remarks Buckmiller. “We wanted to make the best decision possible to help craft a beautiful and realistic world that would also allow our design team to create the unique experience they desired. But, we were under an extremely tight deadline, so we wanted to be absolutely sure that we didn’t commit to anything that was unachievable. In the end, we were able to create a game that is both visually appealing and fun to play.”
Like in the movie, the hero has the abilities of a jet plane, helicopter, and tank, all rolled into one, and can seamlessly transition between ground combat and open-air fighting while engaging fighter jets, cannons, and more. According to Buckmiller, the crew basically needed to create a flight simulator mixed with a hack-and-slash ground combat game. “Most flight sims involve only flight combat, leaving the ground sparsely populated and low resolution,” he says. To overcome this challenge, the engineering team developed a streaming system and world-building tool that allowed the artists to create vast amounts of detailed terrain that fits into memory and transitions seamlessly between different levels of detail.

To light the scenes, the group used an in-house solution that simulates global illumination with skylight and bounced light. “Lighting is typically the part of the process that can unite the composition and, if implemented correctly, can evoke an emotion that will make the world feel more real,” explains Buckmiller. “We use it to create mood and atmosphere in the world.”

Sega has released the Iron Man title in four flavors: for the Xbox 360/PlayStation PS3, featuring photorealistic graphics, nonlinear gameplay, and huge, open worlds in which gamers can travel as far as the eye can see; the Nintendo Wii/PS2/PC, with large exterior environments and dark indoor areas that can be fully explored and systematically ripped apart; the Sony PSP, with exclusive mini games and unlockable suits; and the Nintendo DS, touting an arcade-style 3D multidirectional shooter and open navigation that takes advantage of the stylus and touch screen. 

Karen Moltenbrey is chief editor of Computer Graphics World.