It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, MadWorld
Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 6 (June 2009)

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, MadWorld

Legendary game developers turn  the page with a graphic - novel look.

It was banned in Germany, ignited a global firestorm of controversy upon its release, and was hailed as one of the most graphically innovative games of recent years (see Guest Editor’s Note, pg. 2). It comes from four of the brightest minds in game development today. Their combined credits include some of the most successful and groundbreaking games of our time: Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, Okami, and Viewtiful Joe. So when legendary developers Atsushi Inaba, Shigenori Nishikawa, Tatsuya Minami, and Hideki Kamiya joined forces under the banner of the newly formed Platinum Games, expectations ran high for the first effort from the four creative powerhouses.

What they unleashed upon the gaming world this spring left the market’s collective jaw on the floor: a visceral, violent, visually stunning action game for the Nintendo Wii that unfolds like a Frank Miller graphic novel in blood-splattered black and white. Released to widespread critical acclaim and controversy surrounding its over-the-top comic-book sadism, MadWorld puts players in the boots of Jack Caymen. A mechanic and former marine with a retractable chain saw affixed to his arm, Jack fights his way through a hyper-stylized city where citizens are pitted against one another in a blood-sport game show called “Death Watch,” a la Stephen King’s The Running Man.

The third-person action game is the first of its genre for the Wii platform, following Jack via a traditional, behind-the-back point of view. What isn’t traditional is the gameplay. Inaba and his team tailored the action, the story, and Jack’s fighting repertoire to remain true to the physicality of the Wii platform, focusing the gameplay around close-combat, melee-type weapons, and fighting styles, rather than the more common aiming and firing.

“We didn’t use the infrared pointer. We didn’t want a game where the player had to carefully point and click,” says Inaba. To that end, players control Jack with the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, using his hands or whatever object is at hand, including street signs, garbage cans, and telephone poles—to impale, dismember, and so forth—foes in ways befitting the most extreme Itchy & Scratchy cartoon.

Aesthetic Violence

The game, however, is not just about killing. Beneath the absurd violence lurks a story line that is deceptively labyrinthine and full of surprises. Nishikawa says MadWorld’s development was guided by two creative objectives. The first was to create a stark, illustrative, black-and-white graphic-novel look as a backdrop to emphasize the violence, represented by red blood. The second key objective was to make the violence more comical than perverse—an outlet for the game’s beautiful and boldly different universe, rather than an end in itself.

While Nishikawa admits that the team drew inspiration from Frank Miller’s Sin City, Inaba says they had a broader agenda of emulating the “American comic-book style,” though borrowing from both Japanese and international comic-book artists to create a visual identity unique in the history of gaming.

“The project came from a desire to not only make something fun and attractive for the Wii, but to introduce a level of violence that would make it unique among titles for the platform, where violence has been taboo,” says Inaba. “From the outset, we were not aiming explicitly for a graphic-novel aesthetic, but for a simpler, more elegant art style. To accomplish this, we immediately chose a black-and-white art style. We were also intent on heavily stylizing the violence, making it humorous with cartoonish characters, rather than nauseating. That was important to us.”

When asked if the hardware limitations of the Wii led in any way to the stripped-down simplicity of the graphics, Inaba is quick to protest. “Absolutely not. We wanted to create a powerful visual impact, a brand-new and wholly original art style,” he says. “That was our mandate.”

MadWorld uses a black-and-white aesthetic in which the game’s stylized violence plays out. While visually different, the look challenged the artists in maintaining visual clarity, particularly with the sweeping camera moves amid detailed imagery.

Death Watch

As outlandish as the violence is, it is motivated by an intriguing story line that corkscrews though a roller-coaster ride of twist and turns. In the game’s back story, terrorists, called The Organizers, have besieged the fictional Varrigan City, cutting off the island transportation and communications links to the rest of world. After releasing a virus upon the population, The Organizers announce that any person who kills another will be inoculated with a vaccine, thus turning the city into the stage for the twisted game show Death Watch, complete with color commentators Howard “Buckshot” Holmes and Kreese Kreeley calling all the action.

As soon as Jack enters the game with the help of a sponsor named Agent XIII, The Organizers—led by the mysterious Noa—realize that Jack’s mission is not merely to win, but to expose the secrets of Death Watch and bring down the nefarious cabal of high-powered politicians and pharmaceutical CEOs behind it. First, he tries to rescue the mayor’s daughter trapped within the city, but when he finds her, she refuses to leave with him. Next, he saves a doctor named Leo, who was also trapped within the city but mysteriously managed to obtain the vaccine. The two become allies, and as Jack comes closer to unravelling the truth and becomes the darling of both viewers and advertisers alike, the organizers conclude that they must eliminate him from the game.

In the final battle with reigning champ The Black Baron, Agent XIII reveals himself as Lord Gesser, a powerful politician. He explains that Death Watch was created to quench mankind’s thirst for blood and was orchestrated by a pharmaceutical company named Springvale. The company lost billions of dollars in the last presidential election and saw the virus as a way to recoup its losses. As it turns out, Leo’s father was the head of Springvale Pharmaceuticals. And so the plot thickens.

For Inaba, the plot was crucial. “We didn’t want the violence to come easily to the player; we wanted it to be motivated by something deeper than mindless blood lust,” he says. “In the end, we also wanted to give a message that says no to the violence. That’s what we tasked our writer with.”

Inaba concedes that the plot is reminiscent of The Running Man. “What was more important, from our very first script meeting, was to show the contrast between the people who have to fight and survive in this closed-off space, and the mad people who exist outside the violence, cheering it on, enjoying it as a TV program,” he adds. “Also, with a game that’s so relentlessly exciting and frenetic—both visually and physically—we were afraid the player would become exhausted quickly, grow accustom or even bored with the pace of the action, and lose the motivation to play. To prevent this from happening, we needed a good story to keep their eyes on the game.”

Visual Restraint

As awe-inspiring as the graphics may be, the visual presentation increased the challenge of maintaining visual clarity. In early stages of the game, disorientation would set in quickly, especially with the sweeping camera movements, which often led players grasping at thin air rather than the golf club or signpost in their midst. “In these early builds,” says Inaba, “the black-and-white graphics led to considerable eyestrain. The key to solving the problem was to control the on-screen movement and fine-tune the texture maps into subtle gradations of black and white. This eventually alleviated the eyestrain. Thankfully, we never had to alter the gameplay or shorten the time limit on the levels to combat the problem.”

Despite the monochromatic color scheme, which could potentially flatten out the images, the industrial and urban environments are sculpted three-dimensionally with complex lighting effects. From the building-lined streets to the industrial interiors paneled with computers and walls of spikes, the environments are bathed in real-time lighting. Because of the hardware limitations of the Wii, however, it was too expensive to employ light maps or extremely complex layered texture schemes for the environments. Instead, the team used normal maps as often as possible to paint details into the monochromatic sets, because, according to lead character designer Masaki Yamanaka, “if the geometry gets extremely complex, with too many vertices, it can take forever to load in the Wii.”

Even though the game has a comic-book style, the imagery is three-dimensional and contains complex lighting effects. Normal maps gave the artists more control over the visibility of the backgrounds and helped them balance the use of black and white.

Using normal maps instead of complex geometry also gave the artists much finer control over the visibility of the environment and the balance of black and white. They also tried very hard to implement real-time reflection mapping, but in the end, couldn’t find any way to stylize it to fit with their comic-book sensibility. “So, we ditched it,” says Yamanaka.

When Jack walks into a well-lit area, his face blanches with sudden illumination; entering the darkness, his face blackens as stark-white highlighting lines accentuate his chiselled features. “To apply the black-and-white art style to Jack Caymen, we created two types of black-and-white textures: one for well-lit areas, and another for dark ones,” says Yamanaka. Both were created in Autodesk’s Softimage.

In fact, the entire project, from modeling to effects animation, was helmed in Soft­image, and driven by a custom game engine rather than the popular Unreal Engine 3 from Epic. All the environments and characters are rendered with simple black-and-white shaders. However, one of the biggest challenges involved maintaining the graphic-novel look in the effects animation, especially in the smoke and explosions, since particle animation tools are typically tailored for lifelike realism.

“We studied the look of explosions and smoke in graphic novels intensely,” says Yamanaka. “To prevent the smoke from looking like a group of particles, we used a post filter in Softimage and did extensive edge extraction to each smoke-effect group, eventually creating the comic-book style smoke shader.”

All about Character

The game’s relentless carnage was an ever-present challenge to the character modelers. According to Yamanaka, the violence was the foundation of the game’s macabre humor, so the modelers and programmers worked tirelessly to make the flesh as destructible as possible. Programmers handled the severing of limbs, while modelers created the remaining stumps and guts in Softimage.

Creating bold, striking, unique designs for each of the main characters was crucial for differentiating them after they’d be rendered monochromatically. “We were afraid they would blend into the background,” says Yamanaka, “so we really had to focus on creating clear designs, especially for the enemies.” Using the texture maps to individualize the main characters—Jack, Lord Gesser, Noa, and Leo—was a constant struggle that resulted in almost obsessive-compulsive finessing right up to the release date.

“We would twist the black-and-white balance, shadows, and shadow textures endlessly until we ran out of time,” Yamanaka adds. “If we had any more time, I’d still be adjusting them!”

Using Softimage, modelers created the main characters and the end-of-level bosses using approximately 2000 to 5000 polygons, limiting characters of lesser importance to around 1500. For much of the writhing, wriggling, and detaching of body parts, the team used Havok IK, which was also employed for the hard-body destruction. To handle more extreme effects, such as bodies being crushed in the compactor of a garbage truck, the team wrote original programs.

All the environments and characters are rendered with simple black-and-white textures, while the effects, such as smoke and explosions, required a post filter in Softimage.

Making Jack’s movements mimic those of the player and the Wii Nunchuk demanded an extreme degree of flexibility, rotational freedom, and realism in his animations. With a swiping motion of the controller, the player can hack through an opponent with the chainsaw. By twirling it, the player can swing a foe over Jack’s head before hurling him into an object. “It’s a constant challenge,” says Yamanaka, “to link the character’s movements to the player’s so that he responds perfectly.”

To meet that challenge, the team created nearly 2000 animation cycles for all the bipedal main characters, including Jack, in Softimage. About 60 percent of those animations were motion captured using systems from Vicon and OptiTrack. To blend those cycles smoothly, Yamanaka says riggers used Hermite interpolation, a method of interpolating values between key points to form smooth curves, in the blending system.

Aside from linking Jack and the gamer’s movements, another constant challenge was maintaining movement in the nonplayer characters. When the movement stops, the character dies, as the old animation adage goes. “We had to keep the enemies doing something all the time,” says Yamanaka, “be it making them punch each other, act frightened of something, or just laughing. There isn’t a single moment anywhere in the game where the enemies are standing totally still.”

Effects in Red

“Polo with chain saws” is how Jack describes the game he finds himself part of. From golf clubs to baseball bats, spiked clubs to lampposts and knives, Inaba and his team developed Jack’s arsenal around melee weaponry designed for close-quarter combat. During the conceptual stage, Inaba analogized Death Watch to a baseball game, wanting the player’s actions to feel like those of a batter, which would, in turn, be organic to the Wii.

“To accomplish this, we avoided guns and the infrared pointer. We wanted the gameplay to be more intuitive and refreshingly different than other titles for the Wii,” Inaba says. “Gun violence is too common in video games, and worse, it’s visually boring. Over-the-top violence was our mandate, and the only way to achieve it was through an increasingly creative and sometimes bizarre set of weapons.”

Such weapons, however, are bound to make things messy. Blood is cheap in Varrigan City; it’s everywhere, not just as a consequence of violence, but as the linchpin of the art design and the central metaphor for the game’s theme of bloodshed for entertainment. The group created the blood splatter in Softimage using a combination of meshes and particle animation. However, because there were so many variations in the kill moves, the team had an especially difficult time making the trajectory and movement of the blood flow unique to each move.

“Imbuing the blood with a sense of realistic movement was extremely challenging, because in a world that is only black, white, and red, the only tool you have to create movement is movement,” says effects designer Yoshikazu Hiraki. “If you want something to stand out in a monochromatic world, you have to make it move. To that end, we often had to increase the volume of the particles and the rate at which they’re duplicated.”

For the splashes of blood that stain Jack and his enemies, artists modeled several meshes in Softimage, which are then laid over the character geometry during gameplay. For rain, smoke, dust, fog, wind, and fire, the artists again used the same system of particles and polygonal meshes. To create the smoke, fog, and dust, they duplicated the particles, created meshes from which to emit them, and then added wind effects to make the particles drift along the vectors. For the huge plumes of billowing black smoke, they added a silhouette to each particle aggregate to separate them from the rest of the smoke cloud. 

Programming the blood spray from one body to another or from one surface to another was crucial to the game’s success. That challenge fell to programmer Masumi Tarukado. If the spray reaches a wall or trickles to the ground, Tarukado’s program uses four collision detections to determine if the liquid hits the receiving surface. If all four are affirmative, then the surface is stained blood red with a texture map. If blood splashes against another character’s body or if Jack is struck by a backlash of blood, Tarukado’s program searches the character’s mesh for the polygons that would be stained, and then creates UV and vertex indexes for them, which are then used to place the blood meshes onto the character.

With the Wii, it is possible to also have unique indexes for each vertex or set of UV coordinates. Therefore, the engine can create the blood mesh using vertex information derived right from the character mesh, or it can use UV information, which it then uses to draw the blood mesh using newly created UV coordinates. Using UV information, however, can cause Z-fighting, in which the blood mesh can penetrate the character’s mesh. By using the vertex information of the character’s mesh, however, the vertices of the blood mesh will be the same as the character’s, which means the Z-scores are exactly the same, eliminating any intersection between the two surfaces, explains Tarukado.

To ensure that the lighting remained consistent with the visual style, Tarukado and his fellow programmers additionally created a system by which the artists could quickly adjust the grayscale gradation on the particles, meshes, and other lighting effects. They also added blooming effects to enhance the fireworks and other electrical effects. 

Maintaining Control

The game’s control scheme is a combination of button mashing and wild flourishes of the Nunchuck that often can send the camera reeling around the on-screen action. To combat the unruly and disorienting camera, the team included a “reset camera” feature so players could reset the view behind Jack. According to Tarukado, the developer had to keep the player’s camera controls simple for two reasons. The first reason was to help the player maintain the breakneck pace of the game’s play­ability. The second was the limited numbers of buttons on the Wii compared to other platforms. “We choose to give the player control over camera reset functions only after they’ve performed an attack maneuver, rather than completely devolve control to the player throughout the game,” he adds.

The broad, exaggerated, almost Looney Tunes-esque style of animation nearly precluded the use of ragdoll physics for the NPCs. “Because Jack has so many attack variations and can be almost infinitely creative in his kills, we had to be equally creative in crafting the enemy’s reactions to the trauma. We spent a lot of time, in the early stages of development, trying to perfect those reactions using Havok physics, but could never quite attain the right exaggeration in the movement, so we created most of them manually,” says Tarukado. “However, you can still see ragdoll animation in some places—like when the enemies are hit by a bat and sent hurling into a rose bush (wall of spikes).”

Whether or not the violence in the game will negatively impact sales will become apparent in the months to come. Or, perhaps, the unique graphic-novel look of the title will attract players who are growing tired of the same types of first-person shooters that are currently dominating the market. Either way, the designers deserve kudos for thinking outside the same-old game box.

Martin McEachern is an award-winning writer and contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. He can be reached at