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July 12, 2007

E3: Games gain cinematic qualities

Posted by Benjamin J. Romano at 5:37 PM

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- For years now, developers have been trying to incorporate more cinematic elements into their video games. Some of the games on display this week at the E3 Media & Business Summit are starting to reach the goal of looking and acting like immersive movies.

Today I talked with a couple of developers to find out how and why they're doing it.

I should note up front that the guys I talked to are squarely within the Sony fold and they spent a lot of time explaining how none of what they are doing would be possible without the expanded storage capacity of the PlayStation 3's high-definition Blu-ray discs and the processing power of its Cell Broadband Engine.

Tam Antoniades, co-founder of studio Ninja Theory, drew the most direct parallels between film production and the forthcoming "Heavenly Sword," an action-adventure game that was hands-down the best looking title at E3, to my eyes anyway. It's exclusive to the PlayStation 3 and one of the titles Sony hopes will attract hard-core gamers to the platform.

"'Heavenly Sword' was shot over six weeks and it was shot just like a movie," Antoniades said, noting that the budget was comparable to that of a mid-sized motion picture: somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million.


Sony

Performances by actors, including one playing Bohan, were recorded through digital motion-capture technology to give the game "Heavenly Sword" a cinematic feel.

As many as five professional actors were on the set, each covered with hundreds of diodes that allow the digital capture of their movements and facial expressions. In addition to facial expressions, the actors voices and full-body movements were captured as well. While games such as "Tiger Woods Golf" have captured facial expressions using this technique, "Heavenly Sword" marks the first time that actors' facial expressions, movements and voices have been captured simultaneously for a video game, Antoniades said.

The actors rehearsed their parts and "actually played the entire game as a [theatrical] play," before filming began, Antoniades said. The scenes were shot with multiple actors on stage together, allowing them to "play off each other as they would in a movie or a play," Antoniades said, adding that this too was a first for the industry.

The performances are then rendered for the cinematic sequences that carry along the game's story -- evil army invades, red-head heroine gets magical sword, starts kicking butt -- in between fight scenes that are animated in a more typical way, but still look awesome. The appearance is not photo-real, but that's by design. "We did go for a stylized look," Antoniades said. The skin tones, textures and details of the characters were impressive.


Sony

Another richly rendered character in "Heavenly Sword" is Nariko.

The cumulative effect of all this detail and content is to provoke empathy for the characters in the game, creating a more immersive experience. "Just like when you watch a big movie, you feel for the characters," Antoniades said. "... I think that from this point on, a lot of games are going to have to go down this route if they want to have great stories."

It's still not quite on par with the special effects we see in movies -- think Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Antoniades said the movie industry uses equipment costing millions of dollars to create a frame of action with a computer-generated character in it. (Gollum, not coincidentally, was played by Andy Serkis, who has a starring role in "Heavenly Sword" as the invading King Bohan.) Video games, on the other hand, have to generate their images with technology that costs far less.

"The fact that you can approach almost cinema-level [quality] on a home console is amazing even to us," Antoniades said.

The technology inside the PlayStation 3 is by far the most powerful of the current generation of game consoles -- and also the most expensive. But it's the high-capacity Blu-ray, along with the powerful processor cores, that allow developers like Antoniades to cram in the rich detail that makes their games so beautiful and realistic. "Heavenly Sword" is a 29 gigabyte game. A typical DVD can hold about 9 gigabytes.

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