Digic Pictures and Black Hole Entertainment Choose Maya and Alias MotionBuilder to Create High-end Graphics for RTS Game Armies of Exigo
Alias provides flexible and stable graphics solutions for in-game graphics and cinematics
Game Developers Conference, San Francisco, CA - Booth #230 - March 11, 2005 - Alias, the world's leading provider of 3D graphics technology, announced today that Hungary-based computer animation studio Digic Pictures and computer and video game developer Black Hole Entertainment, both subsidiaries of Cinergi Interactive LLC, choose Alias software solutions as their core tools to produce the real-time strategy computer game (RTS) Armies of Exigo™.
Armies of Exigo is a fantasy RTS game where the boundaries of the battlefield are broken and war is waged both above and below the ground. "The most outstanding feature of this game is the ability to wage war simultaneously on multiple levels," says Alex Rabb, executive vice president of Cinergi Interactive. "The player can send units below the surface into catacombs and caves and is simultaneously able to attack an enemy on the surface. This is a unique experience and has not been done before in the genre of real time strategy games. We believe this pushes the genre into a new and challenging experience."
Hollywood VFX Specialist Succeeds in Gaming
Digic Pictures' most notable work prior to Armies of Exigo was its 60 effect shots for the blockbuster movie Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. To date, it's been rare for a company with a Hollywood VFX background to make the leap into a complete game production. Powerful cinematics are an important part of the strategy genre, providing an effects house with an entry point into gaming, and Digic's work in this area has impressed both the film and gaming communities. Gaming reviewers note how the story came to life through "some really stunning cut scenes." The intro movie of Armies of Exigo was selected for the SIGGRAPH® 2003 Electronic Theater Program. And was the first Hungarian computer animated project ever to make it into the SIGGRAPH festival's Electronic Theater compilation.
"Digic Pictures goal is to produce projects that impress even the most prestigious professional forums bringing a good name to Digic and the developing professional Hungarian computer animation world," explains Gabor Marinov, VFX supervisor, Digic Pictures.
"We used a custom crowd simulation tool developed for Maya to create the closing shot of the Beast movie and transferred the mocap data into Maya with the help of MotionBuilder," says Marinov. "It played a very important role in the motion editing, as we had to refit the human actors' movements for non-humanoid characters with different proportions and body structure. For example, the "Beast" character in the Exigo movies had a 'chicken feet' structure, but the advanced controls in MotionBuilder allowed us to easily map the mocap data on him." For the amazing photorealistic intro movie, Digic used RenderMan® software for rendering, with RenderMan® Artist Tools providing the connection to Maya® software.
The most useful Maya features for this production proved to be the flexible node-based architecture, its customizable user interface Maya Embedded Language (MEL™) and application programming interface API. "Maya was chosen as our core package because of the great flexibility it offers. The characters in our cinematics are very complex. We developed a system in Maya that is able to mix motion capture with keyframe animation and display the results in real time," Marinov continues. "Creating digital characters of such complexity involves a lot of complicated tasks. Maya's features, flexibility and open architecture provide sophisticated solutions for these problems."
Flexibility Makes Maya the Core Production Pipeline Package
Character animation and special effects were two key areas during the production, but most importantly Maya served as the core 3D software in Digic's pipeline. Custom scripts and plug-ins were used to extend the functionality and provide access to other tools, so MEL and the API proved invaluable. "New tools and techniques were constantly developed and refined all through the production process, and we were able to create a pipeline that perfectly matched our requirements," says Robert Kovacs, lead technical artist at Digic Pictures.
The cut scene portion of the project consists of five high quality rendered CGI movies that include intro, outro and three shorter films to explain the story at each major plot point in the game. The particular challenge though was to create feature film quality CGI movies. The movies contain several highly detailed characters, with gigabytes of textures. For example, the human hero character contains over 2 gigabytes of textures in 96 texture files. The Beast hero character was built as a subdivision surface model with more than 230,000 polygons in the control cage.
Almost all the default animation tools in Maya were used by Digic while some tools were extended with special controls and user interface (e.g. facial animations). Rigs were setup which contained forward and inverse kinematics controls for the characters, blendshapes for facial animation with custom control system written in MEL and several built in and custom deformers to control the skinning. Digic Pictures also used the Maya TRAX™ editor to mix various motion capture elements along with hand-keyed animation. Custom tools were developed to manage animation transfer between various character rigs. Particle rigid body system from the effect tools palette were also used, as well as the dynamics system to create particle effects (fog, mist, smoke). The team used Maya Hair and converted with custom tools to RIB format to render with RenderMan® software.
MEL and Maya API Help Black Hole Entertainment To Streamline The Project
Flexibility, stability and the advanced animation tools were the key reasons Black Hole Entertainment chose Maya for its work on Armies of Exigo.
"We created many characters for Armies of Exigo, not just typical humanoids, but numerous fantasy-creatures. Maya's easy to use animation techniques helped us to create everything we had imagined," explains Istvan Zsuffa art director at Black Hole Entertainment. "Maya, especially in terms of animation setup, provides greater flexibility than any other program. We made extensive use of the animation constraints to create the game's very diverse fantasy characters."
MEL was used to speed up the mechanical work process of the project. "We were able to customize Maya to our needs, because of the flexibility of MEL, thus we reduced the set up time by at least 50% and had more time to concentrate on the animation itself," Zsuffa continues. "Thanks to the very simple, well-designed scripting system in Maya, time-consuming tasks can easily be customized and automated with even a very little knowledge of making scripts."
The API simplified the process of building custom exporters tailored to the creative vision and practical production needs of the game. "We created a complete exporter for Maya, so that the artists didn't have to use limited file formats such as .OBJ or .3DS. Our exporter is able to get any type of data directly from Maya and export it into the game," explains Zsuffa.
Armies of Exigo was published in November 2004 by Electronic Arts®.
About Digic Pictures
Budapest, Hungary based Digic Pictures makes computer animations and special effects and is a part of the Cinergi Interactive business group owned by the Hungarian born Hollywood producer, Andrew G. Vajna. Its goal is to produce projects that impress even the most prestigious professional forums bringing a good name to Digic Pictures and the world of the developing professional Hungarian computer animation. Its highest standards allowed Digic Pictures to be the first joining the blood circulation of Hollywood.
About Black Hole Entertainment
Black Hole Entertainment is a pioneer developer of computer games. Based in Budapest, the studio is home to over 50 developers: artists, designers and engineers. The company was founded in 2001 by Hollywood producer Andrew G. Vajna and seven game-enthusiasts. As anybody would expect, these founders are professional programmers and designers, but some of them also contribute their professional talents in various fields such as: physics, mathematics, economy and zoology. Their goal was to make a real-time strategy game that would be superior to all others. After four years of development the team has created "Armies of Exigo" which was published by Electronic Arts at the end of 2004. Black Hole Entertainment is a subsidiary of Cinergi Interactive LLC.
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