The Comic Connection
John Gaudosi
Issue: Volume 33 Issue 9: (October 2010)

The Comic Connection

Spider-Man. Batman. X-Men. Superman. They are the heroes of the comic-book world. And during the past several years, they have become box-office stars, as well. They have even proven their mettle in the video gaming realm. In the near future, we can expect other superheroes to join them on screens large and small as even more of these heroes and villains prepare to burst onto the film and gaming scenes.

As usual, superheroes were in vogue at this summer’s annual Comic-Con International show, where more than 126,000 comic-book, video game, and movie fans converged on the San Diego Convention Center. Indeed, Comic-Con is the place for all things superhero. And this year did not disappoint. For every big Hollywood spectacle like Thor, Green Lantern, and Captain America, there was a game (and film) in development, as game publishers, including those in the massively multiplayer online (MMO) arena, look to connect directly with comic-book fans.

At this year’s show, Sony Online Entertainment’s DC Universe Online made its final pre-launch appearance, as it prepares for its debut on the PC and PlayStation 3 next month. And Stan Lee, the man who brought some of the most popular comic-book characters of all time to life, has collaborated with Activision to bring the Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions game to PC, console, and handheld fans, who will have to wait a few years before seeing the new reboot of the web slinger on the big screen.

These latest 3D virtual escapades of characters—some of whom have been around for 70-plus years—are collaborations between existing 2D artists from the comic world and 3D artists from the game world. Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) has spent the past five years working with DC Comics to bring this universe to life in an MMO game that will, if successful, live on for decades with new stories and characters.

“The unique thing with this game is that you’re playing with iconic characters from the DC universe,” says Marv Wolfman, the longtime DC Comics writer who is crafting the stories for the new MMO. “Batman and Superman aren’t in the background in this game. Sometimes you’re fighting with them, sometimes you’re fighting against them, sometimes you’re just joining them on a mission. They’re right next to you. And you can be working alongside both the superheroes and super­villains, depending on the character you create.”

Wolfman developed an original story with Jeff Johns, DC Comics co-publisher, that focuses on a future catastrophe that impacts the present-day world. In order to prevent this outcome, super­heroes and villains must join together.

“Lex Luthor realizes that he’s made this horrible bargain with the devil himself, Brainiac, and knows he screwed up, so he actually comes back in time to the present to warn the heroes, and creates a whole new legion of heroes and villains,” explains Jim Lee, co-publisher of DC Comics and executive creative director for SOE’s

DC Universe Online. “Hence, in the game, you have all these players creating their own characters and jumping into the DC Universe to avert this horrible outcome. The thing is, we’re not sure if you can completely trust Luthor, and you don’t know if he’s playing everyone to build up to some other grand betrayal in the future where he, not Brainiac, ends up on top. There are a lot of different games going on, and there’s a bit of a mystery to it. That’s the story line that we’ll start off with at launch, and then we’ll explore it and, ultimately, finish it with the endgame.”

Connecting the printed comic-book world with the online game, DC Comics will publish a new comic book, also called DC Universe Online, which will follow the game’s central story and further flesh out the world. Lee notes that in addition to spotlighting mainstream characters—Wonder Woman, The Flash, Superman, and Batman—the comic will offer secondary characters more exposure. In addition, superheroes and supervillains custom-created by players will be included in the pages of the comic.

Holy 3D, Batman!

According to Mark Anderson, senior artist on DC Universe Online, today’s technology and software has made a huge difference in terms of artistic freedom, the ability to iterate, and the time it takes to create a game asset compared to when he first began in the medium. Anderson entered the game industry during its transition to 3D, and at that time, creating characters for a game was much more of a technical endeavor than an artistic one. Today, Anderson uses dual- and quad-core Dell PCs running Autodesk Maya, Adobe Photoshop, and Pixologic ZBrush. The character modelers and concept artists also use Wacom Cintiq tablets to work.

Under the watchful eye of DC Comics’ co-publisher Jim Lee, primary and secondary heroes and villains will fight crime and wreak havoc, respectively, in an online game world.

“With tools like ZBrush, the modeling process is much more like traditional sculpting, and it really allows an artist to make creative decisions rather than getting bogged down in the technical restrictions,” explains Anderson. “The level of detail and speed is incredible, and it allowed us to concentrate on breathing life into the iconic characters in a way that lived up to Jim Lee’s concepts. We wanted to make sure that we used the stylized proportions and forms that Jim Lee is famous for in his comics, to give the game a distinct look, and being able to rapidly iterate meant we could make sure we got every crease and fold right.”

Lee spent a lot of hands-on time working on the game. His own background as a gamer helped with his first entry into the development side of things. To this end, Lee spent a lot of time with the art staff, reviewing assets and collaborating on ideas with game artists. He also did a tremendous amount of thumbnail sketching during these visits. Anderson notes that having Lee work directly with the artist to create an asset really adds to the authenticity of the game.

Bringing Batman from the flat comic-book page into a living, breathing Gotham City was a major undertaking. The process started with detailed model sheets from Lee and the artists at DC Comics’ WildStorm Productions, the facility founded by Lee. “These are orthographic turnarounds that make sure we capture the correct proportions, costume details, and facial expression of all the key characters,” explains Anderson.

The model sheets often go through multiple iterations to make sure every detail is correct, Anderson says. At that point, the sketches are handed over to one of the character artists for modeling. They construct a high-resolution model in ZBrush, and once that is approved, they create a game-resolution model and transfer the data from the high-res model through texture and material parameters. From there, the model gets weighted to the group’s in-game skeleton, and the animation rig is attached. For an iconic character like Batman, the animators create a whole suite of custom attack and personality animations for use alongside the standard list of player animations. Finally, the power of a character like Batman isn’t complete without the effects that make every blow he lands feel like an event.

Big Cities, Big Challenges

Building the characters, in many ways, was the easy part, because there was plenty to work with. Turning Metropolis and Gotham City into “real” environments offered a unique challenge, especially since they never existed before, aside from in the movies.

Fighting Crime Online

Online game publisher Gazillion Entertainment is building a Marvel-ous world, aptly called Marvel Universe Online, which is a series of online game worlds featuring Marvel’s comic-book characters. The first game in the collection is based on the hit animated TV series Super Hero Squad and features some of the most iconic Marvel characters as pint-sized youngsters. Called Super Hero Squad Online, the massively multiplayer online (MMO) game has been brought to life by developer The Amazing Society. Rich Rowan, executive producer of the new game, talks about the technology and creative process behind this family-friendly MMO title.

How is today’s technology helping to turn 2D characters into 3D characters in this game?
It’s an amazing time we live in. We research online, we collaborate online, and we’re developing an immersive, visually-rich 3D experience that’s playable in a browser. I’m still incredulous myself [over this feat]. The Marvel catalog is especially character-rich, a challenge we wanted to meet head-on with carefully planned, emotive animations. Using Autodesk’s CAT animation rig and some fancy scripts from our tool engineers, we have one of the cleanest animation retargeting solutions I have ever worked with, enabling us to really bring these characters to life.


Can you walk us through how you created a character, like Iron Man, for this game?
Iron Man has a lot of fans, and no shortage of them work at our studio. It was important to us to capture the key attributes of the character and present them in a style that fits within the Super Hero Squad [intellectual property] as a whole. We did the initial character model with an eye toward the TV show and toys, textured and rigged the character in line with our own unique style, and then spent a lot of time on the details of his animations—inside and outside of combat. The characters really come to life through motion—whether that is awesome attacks with missiles and repulsor rays, or the way he zooms through Super Hero City. We’ve created an Iron Man that’s accessible to fans young and old.

What technology are you using to bring this world to life?
The most significant piece of technology that we are using for this title is the Unity3D game engine. It is a wonderful engine that lets us deliver a great 3D experience on the PC and Mac within the Web browser. In addition, we are using many industry-standard tools, such as Autodesk’s 3ds Max, as well as custom tools for editing gameplay data, like exactly how far Hulk can jump. The Unity3D Editor is used to assemble the art and design into a seamless whole that represents the world of Super Hero Squad Online.

What technologies will this game support as it pertains to today’s PC graphics cards?
Integrated into the Unity3D engine is the FMOD audio library, which we were able to make use of. Also, there is (Nvidia) PhysX physics simulation, custom shaders, and, of course, full-screen effects, like depth of field. These technologies are used throughout our game to create a rich experience for our players. –John Gaudiosi

“We had to create maps for cities that we never had before,” says Lee. “We had a map for Gotham City, but Metropolis was never laid out concretely. We had to create all that stuff in the game, and create a lot of headquarters and bases that were never fully flushed out in the comic-book universe because everyone kind of created their own version of what they needed for the purpose of the story they were crafting at the time. But, in a game space, it can’t be that fungible, so we had to go in there and nail things down and say, ‘This is the height of this sewer underneath Gotham. This is the size of The Legion of Doom.’ Even creating the map of Metropolis involved a lot of research and time, and I think we nailed it.” Now, all this information will be used going forward as the template for what these environments look like, not just in the game space, but also in comic books and other related merchandise, he adds.

Without question, building a virtual Metropolis was a huge undertaking. It was the first world built for the MMO game, and it’s absolutely massive, says Anderson—on the scale of the real-world area of Long Island. It has six distinct districts, each with its own style and feel.

“Much like the characters, we started out with concept work from both Jim’s studio, WildStorm Productions, and our internal concept artists to define the specific look of each building and each district,” explains Anderson. All these designs were approved by DC Comics as well, after which they were handed off to the environment staff to model, texture, and create in-game collision. The team used a modular approach that enabled the artists to mix and match parts from many of the buildings, giving them variety while allowing more time to concentrate on key landmark buildings, like the Daily Planet.

“It’s a long process to build the hundreds of blocks of architecture, but it’s a pretty cool sight when you fly high above the city and take in the skyline from high above the streets,”

Anderson says.

SOE used Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 3 technology to bring these worlds to life. According to Anderson, the Unreal Engine was a great way to get a proof of concept up and running quickly. Moreover, it has a lot of polished, artist-friendly tools, like the Material Editor and Cascade particle engine.

“Early on in the project, these tools made it easy to get a sketch of the game, which was used to sell the title to invested parties, as well as convey the general themes and directions to the team,” adds Anderson. “Since then, we have extended its functionality in many places for things like custom streaming our massive cities. Also, Unreal’s radiosity lighting engine, Lightmass, has made a huge difference in the quality of the lighting. With the scale of our spaces, we really needed something that we could use to lay down a good-quality base lighting pass quickly, and then tweak and tune it in a very localized way where needed. This added significant mood and intensity to the game’s visuals.”

Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions is the latest stand-alone game based on one of Marvel’s most popular characters. The new game, which features Stan Lee as its narrator, features four unique worlds from Spider-Man’s lore—Amazing, Noir, 2099, and Ultimate—within one unique story line. Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions transports players to a variety of locations, from lush jungles and dusty deserts, to a futuristic New York City, and allows them to employ unique gameplay styles for each Spider-Man in those worlds, including stealth moves in Noir, gliding maneuvers in 2099, black-suited tendril attacks in Ultimate, and innovative web combat in Amazing.

“The game begins in a New York City museum, where we witness the menacing Mysterio stealing a powerful artifact known as the Tablet of Order and Chaos,” describes producer Stéphane Gravel at developer Beenox. “Fortunately, the Amazing Spider-Man was in the neighborhood and confronts the thief. However, during their fight, the Tablet of Order and Chaos shatters, and the pieces are scattered across four different dimensions. In order to prevent his enemies from controlling the different realities, Spider-Man has to team up with other incarnations of himself to, hopefully, restore peace and order.”

Bringing the 2D exploits of four different Spider-Man incarnations to life in this game was aided by new technology, which made it easier to use techniques and shaders which can render imagery that is much closer to what is seen in comic books. Since the game has four different dimensions, Beenox decided to have four different art styles within the one title.

Beenox integrated four very different Spider-Man styles—all from Spider-Man comic lore—into each game level, whose backdrops and imagery is refl ective of that look.

In Noir, the artists used mostly black-and-white textures but with some warm yellow lighting, giving its levels a look similar to Frank Miller’s Sin City. For Amazing, they paid homage to vintage comic books, choosing washed-out colors and thick outlines, giving its levels a look that the crew likes to call “pen-and-ink treatment.” For Ultimate, they went with an approach that would be as close as possible to modern-day comic books by using cell shading and vibrant colors. Finally, for the future world of 2099, the team employed lots of complex shaders to truly make it look high tech and futuristic, with very detailed textures.

According to Gravel, Beenox was lucky enough to have talented artists who were inspired by the great work of likewise talented Marvel artists. Also, there was a very strong collaboration with Marvel in order to make sure that the game’s look was authentic and that any redesigns required by gameplay would still fit in the Marvel Universe.

“We would constantly submit art and builds to Marvel, and they would come back to us with beneficial feedback on how we could improve the game to better fit the Marvel brand, while working within the established design choices we set out for our game,” explains Gravel. “It was a good experience, and fans should rest assured that the game we’ve delivered is true to the character and spirit of the Spider-Man brand.”

Bringing Spider-Man to Life

Beenox employed its proprietary game engine to develop the title. The robust engine allowed the team to use a wide range of tools that all the current-generation games employ: normal map blending, rim lighting, edge detection, edge extrusion, cell shading, deferred lighting, fully dynamic lighting, HDR rendering, dynamic light beam, light shafts, rag-doll physics, soft-body simulation, IK, facial-morph animations, muscle-morph animations, and procedural animations.

“We have rag-doll physics and soft-body simulation, so when enemies are thrown into the air, you get reactions that are appropriate,” says Gravel. “For example, Vulture’s cape reacts well to his moves, because it is simulated instead of animated via multiple segments that sometimes might look unnatural.”

In addition, this technology allowed Beenox to develop the game for all three main consoles, with players getting the same experience on all three versions.

Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions is the third game the developer has created with its technology. And for each project, the technology continues to improve, resulting in better graphics and gameplay each time. “Using our own engine allowed us more flexibility in what we could do; if we needed the engine to do something, our tech team could easily find a way to implement that seamlessly,” says Gravel. “Also, being experts of the engine we’re working with helped us in the end when it came to bug-fixing and overall polishing the game.”

To bring Spider-Man Noir to the videogame world for the first time, Beenox dealt with a wardrobe malfunction that ultimately resulted in a new look for the superhero.

“If you have read the comic books, you might have noticed that he wears a trench coat,” explains Gravel. “We tried it in our game, but with all the web swinging and wall crawling going on, it was getting in the way too often (and not looking good while doing it). So, we suggested to Marvel that we should use a short leather coat instead, and they were open to that option. Then, since the mood of that dimension is much darker and grittier, we decided to place the emphasis on stealth. And, like a spider on a wall prowling and stalking his prey, you can get behind your enemies and take them down efficiently, without being detected or hurt.”

The team then built environments for this Spider-Man to fit the stealth gameplay. Since all the levels occur during nighttime, the team created locations that were creepy after dark. One example is the train-yard base for Hammer­head, which was chosen because he’s a gangster and his primary occupation is smuggling goods. By judiciously placing patrolling guards around the yard and hiding hostages within it, the team created puzzles that force the player to decide who to take down first and whether to remain stealth to avoid detection.

“We’re talking about Spider-Man here, an icon that is recognized all around the world by people of different ages, so we wanted accessible, fun, and responsive controls, and really good-looking characters and locations,” says Gravel. “Also, by keeping a unified control scheme, even though you get to play basically four different versions of Spidey, you don’t need to go through a learning curve every time. It makes the title easy to pick up and play.”

Superheroes’ Future

Moving forward, game publishers seem keen on going their own route when it comes to bringing superheroes to the small screen. Even upcoming comic-book games, like Sega’s Thor, will follow in Iron Man 2’s jetpack trail by blending the actors from the big-screen adventure with a new, interactive adventure. And with the latest MMO games, the virtual stories will never end—as long as subscribers support the titles.

New technology is allowing game creators to focus on creativity, allowing them to break through the lines and off the comic-book pages to appeal to the new generation of superhero fans.

Let the games begin!

John Gaudiosi has been covering the world of video games and the convergence of Hollywood and computer graphics for the past 16 years for a variety of media outlets.