The greening of America. (Access Software's series of golf games and add-on software)
by Richard O. Mann, Ramona R. Mann
Building a virtual golf course that feels like the real thing is all work--and all play.
In a darkened office, surrounded by The Eagles' Greatest Hits from the CD player, Bruce Carver, president of Access Software, does trees. He spends as much time on trees as he can, without totally ignoring other minor duties such as determining the direction of the company, deciding whether to license its products to Microsoft, and tending to other pesky details. No one digitizes images as well as Bruce Carver. And few probably enjoy it as much, either.
We're thankful for his talent and dedication. The results, seen in Access Software's series of add-on golf courses for the company's line of golf games, are best-selling, ultrarealistic renditions of famous courses around the world. Banff Springs, a recent release, is on the software bestseller lists at press time. By the time you read this, Tarpon Springs, a Florida course, will probably be the latest success.
Anyone with a PC and an interest in golf--and certainly any faithful COMPUTE reader--knows about Links 386 Pro and its junior partners, Links and Microsoft Golf (Links for Windows). These games perennially win the Software Publishers' Association's Best of the Year Awards, COMPUTE Choice Awards, and countless other prizes. The games' success lies in the seamless marriage of an unmatched golf game engine with actual golf courses lovingly and meticulously digitized to provide an almost real sense of the course as you play.
All three games use the same course disks, but the courses are most spectacular in Links 386 Pro's 256-color Super VGA mode. That game's basic interface provides all the information you could possibly want, from scrollable, zoomable aerial views and reverse views from the green to an incredible array of statistics on your play. Balls behave precisely as they would on a real course, rolling down hills, bouncing off paved golf cart paths, and careening widly if you should be unfortunate enough to hit a ball washer. We don't know what happens when you hit an alligator with a hard two-iron shot, but we'll find out as soon as the Tarpon Springs course ships. (The alligator will be on the course in the exact spot it was the day the design team shot the video used to create the course disks.)
As important as the game's basic play engine is, the golf courses themselves provide ever-fresh excitement to the game. The stunning beauty and realism of these courses never cease to amaze us, even now that we know how they're created. Access routinely receives calls and letters from golfers who have played the actual courses and are astonished at how much the computer version simulates reality.
These courses duplicate the real thing, down to the placement of each tree and bush, ball washer, bench, boulder, and yes, even alligator. These are magical worlds that are so like reality that it's easy for you to totally lose yourself.
What's even more amazing is that Access pumps out these enchant-ing courses every few months. How can Ac-cess produce such realistic courses so quickly? How can it convert miles of verdant terrain into such an accurate computer simulation? We spent a day with the members of the Links design team at Access in Salt Lake City to find out what sort of magic they use to accomplish these seemingly impossible tasks.
The Magicians Take the Stage
It all starts with course selection. The folks on the Links course design team are avid golfers who study golfing books and magazines when they're not actually out on the links. They watch for famous courses with outstanding features, such as picturesque settings or particularly interesting or challenging hole layouts.
Once the team obtains the rights to use a course, it swings into action. John Berven, who shoulders the overall responsibility for the project, and Zeke McCabe, a professional photographer, travel to the site and play a round to familiarize themselves with the course. If it doesn't rain, the next few days are spent taking videos and still photos of the course. "Golf course managers call us whenever things get too dry--it always rains for four days when we show up," says Berven.
The Show Begins
Berven straps on a battery pack and a special video camera and then walks the entire course with the tape running. He walks down the middle of each fairway, pausing frequently to make a 360-degree turn for the tape. He also makes sure he gets a thorough set of shots of any special objects noted during the previous round of golf. Unusual trees or shrubbery, buildings near the course, animals, boulders, and so forth--all of these need to be specially shot.
Meanwhile, McCabe takes still photos of trees and other objects. Trees, we learned, make or break the visual portrayal of a golf course. McCabe works diligently to identify 50-60 trees that exemplify all the generic trees on the course. He also shoots all the small identifying features of the course, such as the flags on the flagsticks, so that every detail will show up in the game.
Finding and shooting all the objects can be a challenge. It was at Tarpon Springs that McCabe decided to photograph a six-foot alligator that was sunning itself just off the fairway. As Berven tells it, McCabe nervously crept closer and closer to the gator, snapping shot after shot. Finally, about ten feet from the gator, he was satisfied that he had enough good shots. He relaxed and turned to walk back to the golf cart. As he did, the gator slipped back into the swamp with a loud smack of its tail on the water. "Zeke jumped ten feet when he heard that. He thought the gator was after him," says Berven, chortling.
The next day, McCabe strapped himself into a rented helicopter so that he could hang out the door and take 35-mm photos with his fast-winding Nikon F-4. The chopper flew down each fairway sideways, with the door McCabe was hanging from tilted to let him shoot the photos directly down, without any obstructions. When developed, these stills were taped together to give a four-foot strip photo of the hole from above.
The pair also obtains a topographical map of the course. If none is readily available, they have professionals create one.
Back in Salt Lake City, digitizing begins in earnest. Technicians scan the topographical map into a special course architecture program developed for this purpose. It reads the information into a course database, capturing essential information about every square foot of the course's terrain: elevation, nature (fairway, green, rough, sand), slope, and so forth.
>From there the course goes to the smoothers, a half-dozen experts who compare the computer's rendition of the course from the topographical map with the videotape and aerial photos. Using the architecture program, they can do virtually anything to the terrain, from smoothing the curves of the edge of the fairway to creating hills or holes anywhere. Primarily, they convert the somewhat roughly mapped information into smoothly flowing terrain that matches the image on the videotape. Splitting up the course among the staff of smoothers makes it possible for them to finish this painstaking, inch-by-inch work in five or six weeks. At the conclusion of smoothing, Berven polishes the transition between holes, making sure everything matches up seamlessly.
The Magic Is in the Art
While the smoothing is in process, some other things are happening. McCabe's shots of trees and objects go to the best Kodak Photo CD lab he can find; there they're converted to CD-based images. With those CDs in hand, Bruce Carver starts his month's work of perfecting each image.
Photos, of course, have an unlimited range of colors. To convert them for SVGA, Carver has to refine each image to a palette of only 256 colors. Building the palette that gives the best results is the key to Carver's arcane art. He is meticulous, working pixel by pixel till the images approach perfection.
Outside the president's office, the word is that courses are often held up for weeks while Carver refines that last pixel. In his office, Carver says with a gentle grin, "I have to hustle to keep from holding things up."
Planting the Illusions
Once Carver is satisfied, the object files go to Berven, who "plants" the trees and other objects. With the object files at the ready, Berven works with his overhead photo strip to precisely place each tree and other object in its proper place on the terrain. He can place a tree within one square foot of its actual location and plot terrain within two inches of its actual elevation. He places each unusual tree and object in its appropriate square foot, then works with the representative generic trees and shrubs, sizing them according to the videotape's image and planting them where the overhead photos show them.
After completing this process, Berven plays the computer course, comparing each hole to the videotape as he goes. "Even though we've placed each tree, sand trap, and other feature in exactly the right place, sometimes they simply don't feel right. In real life, things occasionally look different than they really are, so we have to tweak things to achieve the real look and feel, even though it results in a tree being slightly out of place or a hill being higher than it really is," he says.
Then the course goes into intensive play testing. Many minor problems show up at this stage, mostly in the smaller details. The team continues to refine the course until Berven is satisfied that the course seems exactly the same as the course he's played and videotaped. Around 2-1/2 months have passed from playing the opening round to sending the product to manufacturing.
The course design and production teams have this process down to a science. They've created a dozen courses so far and routinely produce new ones approximately every two months. As they work, however, they come up with new refinements in the technology. In fact, almost every course has shipped with a new version of the core game program with minor changes, adding features needed for the new course.
A Real Fantasy Course
Perhaps you've seen calendars or posters featuring the most difficult golf holes in the world. One pictures the green on a tiny ledge halfway down the cliff at Niagara Falls; others are similarly outrageous. The Access golf geniuses couldn't resist the challenge to create their own fantasy course.
But Links courses are real, based on actual terrain. They must allow you to actually play the course. For a setting for his make-believe course, Berven went to the U.S. Geological Survey map repository to search for the ideal topography. He selected an area near Kings Peak in the rugged High Uinta mountain range in Utah.
The course is well under way; we saw fairways in the bottoms of canyons, tees on cliffs, and greens a hundred feet above the fairway. This is going to be a wild golf course--but rest assured, it's almost real. If you could get the land rights, you could build this course up there in those rugged mountains.
The fantasy course will be released as part of a promotional tie-in with Access's upcoming state-of-the-art interactive movie game, Under a Killing Moon, a two-CD thriller due in the first quarter of 1994.
Devotion and Passion Make the Magic
You don't often encounter executives spending their time digitizing trees in darkened rooms. Bruce Carver's passion for his work is evident, as he eagerly explains the intricacies of trees, 256-color palettes, and searching for the best Photo CD lab. Here is a man who pushes the limits of technology and human effort in order to achieve the highest quality possible. The result is a seamless, magical illusion which so closely simulates reality that you have to remind yourself you're sitting in a chair at your house and not in some faraway place chipping away out on the links.