Second Act
Issue: Volume 35 Issue 5: (Aug/Sept 2012)

Second Act

In the early years of the new millennium, computer game developer/entrepreneur Omar Khudari began looking for a new adventure and founded the game company Cecropia, mixing his experience with PC racing titles from his former company Papyrus (known for Grand Prix Legends and the NASCAR Racing series) with 2D animation. At Cecropia, the technical team was based in the company’s Boston headquarters, while 2D animation veterans (many formerly employed at Walt Disney Feature Animation prior to its closing) were situated at the firm’s animation and production studio in Orlando. The objective was to create an interactive film in which players could perform an animated character, controlling his or her behaviors and expressions.

The timing could have been better.

Computer gaming was taking off, fueled by increasingly powerful PCs with robust graphics cards and by souped-up consoles. CGI was taking over the animation industry—even 2D animation giant Disney was heartily embracing the medium. Nevertheless, Khudari believed that 2D was the ideal genre for Cecropia’s project, a video arcade title called The Act, since it would make the characters more expressive and bring out their personality more than CGI could at the time. After all, this was in the early days of CGI, and many 2D films shared theaters with computer-generated features, as audiences showed their appreciation for both mediums: the unique look of CG animation and the timeless beauty of handdrawn cel animation. Dan Kraus among them.

React Entertainment resurrected The Act using its new, commercially available technology suite, including an advanced state-defined editor specially tuned for 2D artwork.

Scene I: Serendipity

While working in the 2D animation field at Bauhaus Software, Kraus visited the Florida studio of Cecropia and was immediately taken by the aesthetics of the game under development there. “This was during the dark days for 2D animation, in 2003/2004, when there were tons of layoffs and CG was taking over everything,” he says. “The industry hadn’t come to realize how unbelievable classical animation really was.”

Kraus later learned that the Cecropia game more or less had been completed (about the time that the video arcade revolution was ending) but had never launched, “despite having a tremendous animation team and building a great game.” So the title was shelved, and Cecropia turned its attention to other projects (before eventually shutting its doors).

Fast-forward to 2009, when Kraus, along with 2D/3D game technologist Alain Laferrière, formed React Entertainment as a next-generation game studio focused on “transforming classical 2D animation into an interactive gaming experience.” The first order of business was to develop the technology necessary for creating and delivering 2D animated games. The second order of business was to deliver React’s first title. The Act offered opportunities in both areas.

Kraus and Laferrière approached Khudari, who now serves React in an advisory role, hoping to resurrect The Act for the next generation of gaming on mobile devices. “The mobile revolution wasn’t really there yet [in terms of gaming], but we believed it would eventually come,” Kraus says, noting this was prior to the rise of the iPad and tablets. “We wanted to evolve and transform The Act to run on new platforms.”

As Kraus explains, The Act had not lost its attractiveness; the timing just wasn’t right before, as it fell between the market gap for waning arcade games and rising mobile titles. And the game’s underlying technology could be used to ultimately transform almost any 2D art and animation into an interactive experience.

Scene II: The Story

The Act is a classically animated romantic comedy that requires active participation rather than static viewing. It stars Edgar, a well-meaning window washer, and Sylvia, the woman of his dreams. The goal is for players to control Edgar as he attempts to rescue his hapless brother, save his job, and romance Sylvia throughout the various scenes.

The game contains many different “scenes” (levels) in which Edgar must complete a task. For instance, in the first scene, the Dream Sequence, the player’s task is to maneuver close to Sylvia in a bar. If the player acts too quickly, Sylvia is turned off and moves away; too slowly, and she becomes bored. The next sequence challenge requires Edgar to ensure that his brother does not fall asleep on the job and to keep the boss from firing them both. Between the scenes are interstitials that help complete story threads. The challenges become more difficult as the scenes progress through a cartoon world that is rich in detail. However, through it all, players can see the character develop and learn.

“You are building a relationship between the characters,” explains Kraus. “From a gameplay standpoint, it feels like you are ‘playing’ a movie [in the active sense] and guiding the expressions and emotions of the character. What happens in the scenes is totally predicated on what you do with your character, the actions and emotions you invoke—whether you get to take her hand and dance with her, for example.”

This interactive comedy can be “played” in a little over one hour—less for those who have played it before. “Each scene has a number of variables and variances depending on the reactions between the characters,” explains Kraus. “I’ve been playing with this for a while and am still discovering some of them. I saw Sylvia do something recently that I never saw her do before. It’s fun to explore the depth of the characters.”

Scene III: The Technology

Not only were Kraus and Laferrière intrigued by the game design and gameplay, they were also taken by the proprietary technology used to integrate and manage all the elements of the 2D interactive title—tech that would be extremely useful to React. “It was propriety, built from the ground up, and integrates all the art, music, video, and game logic into one platform,” says Kraus. The challenge, however, was re-writing the technology inside the game engine, which he says was “incredibly complicated.”

There are two components to the technology: the authoring platform, which is the interactive editor for the 2D content and the game logic, and the runtime engine. Both had to be revised before this game—and others like it—would work on the new mobile platforms.

And that was the first order of business for React. “There are many more elements needed for a modern mobile game than for an arcade video game. The technology elements had to be rewritten, and that required an enormous effort,” says Kraus, noting that the company spent nearly a year and a half working on the production tech. “The touch interaction, the graphics design … all this had to be restructured.”

In terms of building assets, the processes of editing them, exporting them, and pulling them into the runtime engine are basically the same as with any game. According to Kraus, there are four steps to creating game content using React’s technology. First, of course, involves authoring the assets for the character animation and music/sound. Here, teams can use vector images or hand-drawn art that is digitally scanned into the computer. Using the React authoring tool, users then create and load the various scenes, define the sequences, and build the logic between the characters. Next, they export the data, and then the runtime engine loads the game logic, assets, and so forth, which enables the triggering and interaction.

The runtime engine is a compositing system with an integrated game engine that combines backgrounds with various characters and triggers music and sound effects. The biggest differentiator in React’s technology is in the advanced state-defined editor, which is designed for 2D artwork. “Specifically, the system allows you to draw characters and character interactions, and express those and interrelationships between two characters,” Kraus says.

Kraus explains the way the engine handles two characters meeting. “You have two sets of character loops containing actions and interactions. Each loop you create contains a few hundred frames, and the engine ties those loops of action/reactions together according to the logic that is assigned,” he says. “For example, in the first scene, if Edgar moves too far forward too quickly, Sylvia backs away.”

From a modern production perspective, studios likely will create the imagery in a vector animation system, like Flash, Toon Boom, or their own proprietary software. Cecropia, meanwhile, had hand-drawn every frame of The Act and later scanned them into the computer— 230,000 drawings in total, and React had to come up with a solution for compressing all that artwork while maintaining its high visual quality.

As Kraus points out, this is a completely proprietary platform, and React continues to look for opportunities for the tech suite, such as in professional animation studios where the artists could quickly and cost-effectively produce and deploy interactive 2D titles or develop interactive episodics.

Scene IV: Mobile Debut

So, what made Kraus and Laferrière decide to embrace classical animation in the age of C GI? Kraus says there are two reasons why this style works and pulls people into The Act. First is the animation itself, which was created by the original artists—the simplicity and elegance, the beauty and motion that goes beyond 3D. Second is how the game is played.

Rather than moving between scenes, in The Act the player is moving the character’s position. This is done simply by swiping left or right on a tablet or iPhone, or via a mouse for the Mac version—the controls are so simple, Kraus says, that a five-year-old can learn how to do it in a matter of seconds. “You are controlling the position of Edgar during the game, and by that interaction, you cause dynamic interactions with other characters,” he says, noting that one of the more powerful aspects of The Act is the sound—the system triggers music to coincide with the game states. “Many classical animations are tied to music themes. That relationship is very important,” he adds.

Kraus believes that if The Act, which was released at this year’s E3, had come out a year and a half ago, most phones wouldn’t have been able to push it. “Now they can, for the most part,” he adds. React hopes to tune its technology for other delivery platforms as well.

Again, it’s all about timing. Kraus contends that because of the way the characters are drawn, the iPad is especially conducive to this type of game experience. “We were ecstatic when the iPad came out. We believed that was where Edgar and Sylvia would truly shine, and we were right. There is so much depth and richness to the original color scheme. The fluidity and transitions … you fast become the character. The suspension of disbelief happens quickly. Our biggest challenge was to make sure the user experience was as beautiful as it could be.”

Despite using all the inherited artwork for the game, some additional graphic design was needed to fill in gaps left by the new technology, and Khudari made sure that the crew remained true to the spirit and intention of the game as established by the Cecropia team.

Kraus points out the obvious, that mobile games have grown in epic proportion, and adds, “This is a new genre of mobile game, building on the legacy of Dragon’s Lair. It’s a character-focused game with much more interactive gameplay [than most current mobile games].”

Khudari’s vision, a few years ago, was for The Act to be a game for consumers, and React was able to adhere to that vision, albeit on tablets and the iPhone rather than a coin-operated machine. So while the game’s hand-drawn animation style may be traditional, it certainly looks in vogue on these new platforms.

“We are excited about what the authoring pipeline can let us do in terms of expanded content for serious production, and how that opens the door for cloud-based gaming,” Kraus says.

So it seems that the sky is potentially the limit for hand-drawn animation. Or, at the very least, React has opened the door once again to this traditional art form. “Omar’s initial vision was that 2D would become interactive, and you could preserve the legacy and extend it to other genres. We agree, and with The Simpsons and Family Guys of the world, there are many possibilities.”