Above Par
Issue: Volume: 33 Issue: 3 (Mar. 2010)

Above Par

An online golf game exceeds the level of reality of most internet titles.

The origin of the game of golf is unclear. Some say that its roots date back to the Romans, others to ninth-century China. And then there are those who find parallels to games played in England, France, Persia, Germany, and The Netherlands. For the most part, though, the majority of folks accept Scotland as the birth place of this sport, with 12th century shepherds hitting stones into rabbit holes.
No matter the beginning, golf today is embraced by fans in nearly every corner of the world. For some, it is a competitive sport, dominated by players such as Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Phil Mickelson. For others, it is part of conducting business. For the majority, however, it is a leisure activity. Yet, not everyone has the time or money to play a round of golf weekly, let alone daily. Memberships are expensive, tee times difficult to obtain, and playing 18 holes can be time consuming as well as exhausting. Thanks to CG technologies, however, golf enthusiasts can eliminate those obstacles and get their fix—albeit in digital form—whenever they like.

Computer golf games first popped up on the scene about 25 years ago. Since then, they have evolved from the pixelated look of Accolade’s Mean 18, through the series of Microsoft Links, to the realistic Tiger Woods PGA Tour from EA Sports. Some developers have even taken the sport online. The inherent challenges of creating an Internet title, however, have kept the look of Web-based golf games well below par. World Golf Tour has found a way out of the Web sand traps that have handicapped other Internet golf titles, and using a host of tools within the Adobe Creative Suite, has built a game that features photorealistic courses modeled after some of the world’s most prestigious golfing locales.

The online World Golf Tour game lets players simply enjoy a round of golf or play competitively in tournaments for prizes.

Founded three and a half years ago, World Golf Tour’s strategy has been to create an online sports destination, starting first with golf. “In sports, there are always those who play professionally and the huge fan base that wants to get involved by somehow participating and following the action,” says YuChiang Cheng, CEO of World Golf Tour. “Fantasy sports is a very large market, and sports games on consoles have been successful, as well. We view the next step as the creation of large, online communities where people can play sports together.”

The company spent the first two years in R&D, trying to figure out how best to achieve its two main design goals. First, the game had to be visually compelling. “There is a visual standard that people are drawn to; games on consoles like the Xbox 360 and PS3 are really beautiful,” says Cheng. “We knew that if we were fighting for a person’s time, we needed to be as compelling visually as games on those platforms.”

To tackle that issue, World Golf Tour’s chief scientists and engineers believed they had found a picture-perfect solution by using high-resolution photographs. Says Cheng, “We made a mental leap. If you want the imagery to look beautiful and photoreal, why not start with photographs and work your way backward?” And that is what they did. In fact, the team merged a few techniques for its big-picture solution, including the growing concept of generating a real-world setting in 3D by stitching together large amounts of satellite imagery, aerial photos, and more—a la Google Earth and Microsoft Photosynth.

Second, the title had to be easily accessible for a mass audience; thus, the game had to be online and playable without requiring special plug-ins to be downloaded or a large software install—traditional obstacles for online game companies.

On the Green
When re-creating the greens for a specific course, the World Golf Tour team begins by gathering data that literally gives them the lay of the land. Using aircraft and helicopters, and armed with various surveying equipment, the group laser-scans the entire course. The resulting 3D point cloud is then transformed into an Autodesk Maya 3D model, on top of which the photo textures are placed.

Typically, the crew acquires more than 100,000 high-res photos of the entire course from all angles, while a proprietary system records the exact location of each shot and matches it to the virtual camera view during the world construction. However, dealing with so many pictures can be unwieldy. So, for importing, processing, and managing the plethora of pictures, the crew turns to Adobe’s Photoshop Lightroom.

Not every photo, however, is picture-perfect; after all, the pictures are acquired from real-world sources. Thus, the group uses Photoshop CS4 Extended to clean up and color-correct the imagery, such as smoothing out divots in the grass and removing unsightly power lines. Lightroom is used for color-balancing the imagery, after which complex scripts are used to automatically tweak the photos, giving them a consistent look.

World Golf Tour’s digital courses are realistic representations of actual locales. The crew laser-scans the sites, creates a 3D model from the point cloud, and adds photographic textures atop the geometry. 

To determine how the ball reacts when “hit,” the group runs various tests and simulations, gathering real-world data from impact and collision models, and then feeds that information into the company’s proprietary physics engine. The engine calculates the corresponding ball velocity and angle of flight with each player’s stroke, determining how the ball rolls and collides with the various surfaces. “Our greens are extremely accurate. Our contours are within 1.5 inches of accuracy, so when you roll the ball across the green, it acts and looks like it does in real life at that course, which is really important for a golfer,” says Cheng.

In addition to the physics engine, the title employs Adobe ActionScript 3 programming to provide unique gameplay responses based on the player’s input.

While the courses are the main attraction, the game also features player avatars, which are modeled, lit, and textured in Maya, then exported as sprites and modified within Adobe’s CS4. According to Cheng, enhancements to the JavaScript API in Flash CS4 Professional helped simplify the process of piecing together avatar parts, while improvements to the blend meshes made lighting the avatars easier.

World Golf Tour currently features a number of courses, including: The Old Course at St. Andrews Links, Kiawah Island Resort, Pine­hurst #8, Wolf Creek, Edgewood Tahoe, Bethpage Black, and Bali Hai.

Realistic effects, such as adding sunshine to the Ocean Course at Kiawah, are added through the use of the 3D transformations and the bones tool in Flash Professional.

In a Flash
To tackle the second challenge, accessibility, World Golf Tour chose to build the game on the Adobe Flash platform. “Flash turned out to be an excellent game engine and display client,” explains Cheng. “Its flexibility allowed us to merge our course photos with the 3D geometry, and that is really what made our company happen.”

And integration is done, well, in a Flash. The World Golf Tour team uses Creative Suite 4 Web Premium integration capabilities to directly import the files from Photoshop Extended into Flash Professional.

Prior to World Golf Tour, the closest online golf game in terms of experience and aesthetic required an 800mb download. “You’d start the process and hope that when you woke up the next day [the file] transferred without problems,” Cheng says.

The multiplayer online game was built using a range of Adobe products, including Flash.

So, why choose Flash to reach the massive multiplayer online audience? The answer, says Cheng, was simple: The numbers added up. The distribution of Flash is extremely wide; at last count, Adobe estimated the installed base at more than 98 percent of Internet-connected computers worldwide. Because Flash is already installed in most browsers, there is no need for players to download plug-ins, which is often a turn-off for potential audiences.

“Adobe Creative Suite Web Premium software offers us a comprehensive and integrated set of design and development tools,” says Cheng. “We couldn’t have achieved the same quality, realism, and reach without it.”

Moreover, the ability to develop quickly on the Flash platform, with its simple scripting language, enables the group to handle some very complex situations. Flash, maintains Cheng, is what facilitated the creation of the World Golf Tour games—as is the case with nearly all social games. “Social games could not have happened if it weren’t for Flash,” Cheng adds.

A total of six million rounds of World Golf Tour were played in the first six months of the game’s inception, with the average player spending 38 minutes and completing 10 to 12 rounds of virtual golf on the site each week. It is now a popular gathering place for golf enthusiasts who want to simply play a round or those who want to up the ante by competing in tournaments for prizes. It has also become a destination for actual golf vendors—including the USGA, PING, SkyCaddie, and TaylorMade—to advertise their real-world wares, and for players to test out new equipment virtually.

No one expects virtual golf to take the place of the real thing, but an experience like World Golf Tour shows that the grass can be almost as green on a computer screen as it is on the local fairway.