Lights! Camera! Computer game! (similarities between computer games and motion pictures) (Column)
by Gregg Keizer
They shoot on location; they put actors on the set. They work from scripts and storyboard nearly every scene. They employ teams of creative people, from musicians and background artists to writers and animators.
Moviemakers? No way.
Not even the best computer games look like movies--not yet, anyway--but their creators have cribbed notes from film school, because as time goes by, more and more games are made like movies.
Computer game makers have played the movie analogy card for years. Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts, hammered home "The New Hollywood" theme in the mid 1980s when he assembled a game company around a group of producers--people who would develop and guide independent programmers, artists, musicians, and writers just as a film producer leads a director, actors, and cinematographers.
Dynamix was once one of those independent shops that contracted work for the big boys. Dynamix created titles like Ghostbusters II and Arctic Fox for publishers like Activision and Electronic Arts. In 1989, Dynamix went solo, and a year later Sierra bought the company. Today, Dynamix has several serious hits on its hands, from Red Baron to the hard-to-pigeonhole Adventures of Willy Beamish.
The infrastructure needed to produce state-of-the-art software titles is both impressive and sophisticated. Teams of specialists--artists, animators, programmers, and musicians--work on projects in a ballet of scheduling, deadlines, and cost controls.
Dynamix's payroll includes not only the programmers and computer artists you might expect, but also writers, musicians, animators experienced in cel-animation techniques, a full-time photographer, and even a costume designer.
Disney-style animators? Acostume designer? Sure. Their expertise comes in handy because of the way Dynamix produces much of its work. When the way games look is so important, you have to start with the realistic and the professional. In a game like Willy Beamish, for example, the cartoon-world adventure is created in much the same way as an animated picture. Backgrounds are drawn and painted by hand. Individual cels--one for each frame in an animated film--are drawn and painted, too. So far, like a movie. But rather than photographing each frame, with layers of cells atop a background, artists at Dynamix scan these handmade images into the PC with a Targa scanner and then touch them up electronically.
Dynamix's costume designer outfits the live actors--actors, not models--who portray characters in some of the company's adventure games. Aces of the Pacific, a flight/combat simulator based on the successful Red Baron model, incorporates digitized photos of actual WWII aircraft, shot on location at an air show. Even the background clouds come from a photograph, not an artist's imagination. Videotape taken at a semipro football game will end up in an upcoming sports title.
Not only its dependence on such real-life images and Disney-style animation mark Dynamix as a studio kind of shop. the nuts and bolts make you think of films, too.
To kick off an adventure game at Dynamix, a designer submits a treatment--a description or proposal composed by the game's designer. Next, writers flesh out the game's story line. If it's an animation-based title, character studies are drawn for months; if live actors are needed, screen tests take place. A shooting schedule, complete with multiple and overlapping deadlines, is compiled, while in the art department, storyboards of sketches that outline each shot and scene stretch across entire walls. finally, when as much as possible has been done away from the computer, teams of programmers, artists, and writers work simultaneously on the program, each team completing its own piece, which is then bolted together near the end. And all the while, a production budget (a major game at a major publisher typically carries a price tag of over half a million dollars) looms overhead.
Are games made just like movies? Hardly. They're games, after all, not cinematic art. Game designers aren't pressing the flesh at Cannes, putting hand prints in cement, or punching out the paparazzi. But give them time.