Riddle of the Sphinx II: The Omega Stone - Creating History and Adventure with CINEMA 4D

Cris Palomino

Jeff Tobler and his wife, Karen, started Omni Creative Group, Int'l in 1991 and premiered their award-winning first game, "Riddle of the Sphinx", in 2000. I had received the game we would be discussing prior to our interview and had the opportunity to play it beforehand. The graphics are rich and highly detailed. I have always had an appreciation for the graphic-intensity of these puzzle games and the thought process behind any game that can captivate and engage you as this game did with me. Speaking with Jeff from his home and office in St. Louis, Missouri, we started by talking about CINEMA 4D and what prompted him to consider it to use it to create everything in his well-received sequel, "Riddle of the Sphinx II: The Omega Stone".

"CINEMA 4D was getting a lot of mention in the community and was really known for its stability more than anything and that was really a key for us almost more than anything. Of course it had to have great image quality and had to be usable, but stability was the most important thing. We had tried so many applications that were not stable that we really needed a good workflow. 3D takes forever anyway. It's a job that you just don't put in a few hours and when you have crashes, it can be painful at times. I think it was a combination of that and the press, at the time, which got us looking at CINEMA 4D when we were ready to do the sequel to our first game. We looked at other applications, one which was blurted out of everybody's face that I talked to, but I really didn't want to get into it because first, they didn't have a Mac version and second, I'd heard a number of things. Stability was the number one issue. Then we looked at CINEMA 4D. It was very stable and then there was the ease of working with the company. In other words, I think we had narrowed it down to CINEMA 4D and one other program, both of which were on the Mac. There were issues with the other application with technical support, pricing and dongles and though stability wasn't bad, it was not rock solid either. So at that point, we decided to go with CINEMA 4D."

"Normally, we jump into software and learn it ourselves, but we had a terribly short timetable to turn this game around and we were all switching to this new software, so we brought in Frank Cords of Elite Imaging, to train us and he was wonderful. I now work, pretty much, 100% in CINEMA 4D and though there are things that other applications do that CINEMA 4D does not, I will find a way to do it because I really prefer the way they've constructed the application in that everything is reusable - the splines, the NURBS and so on. It just fits my personality and the stability…well; I can't stop talking about it. It's so wonderful to be able to work and work and work and it just doesn't quit. It's comparable to Photoshop in stability. I mean, looking at it that way…at the whole marketplace…it's that stable, and that's saying a lot."

"When starting an adventure game, Karen and I will sit down and do key points and then I will work up a gaming document with a few sketches. It's loose and rough…. mostly legal pads; no sketchpads at this point. We will storyboard linear things like the openings, but when we start working on the environments, we will build from macro to micro. We put in components and keep working and refining, making little changes here and there while new ideas come as we build. The process becomes more like sculpting." "This type of game has quite detailed artwork as opposed to the other type of video game where you're building levels and have all your characters done. It can take two years to complete a game. Some people try to do it in one, but that is awfully difficult. Some of the bigger games can take three years." I wondered about the amount of playtime such a game was estimated to have and Jeff took a moment to look it up. "It says here over 50 hours of playtime. Of course that can vary." I assured him I knew that and that it was an underestimation in my case. I will definitely enjoy it for a lot longer than that!

This served as a segue to Jeff's pride in the game for serving more than just game entertainment. "It's kind of like a virtual vacation because you can go and explore the places in the game and feel like you're there. It's a fact that there are a lot of places in the world now where you can go, such as Stonehenge, for example, but you can't walk around it. In the game you can walk under and through the middle of the Stonehenge and those stones are modeled to exacting detail."

With such dedication to detail, I inquired if they had made use of any Satellite or Geological Survey material for accuracy. "We used the satellite images for overhead positioning and the topography, but heavily relied on books and old-fashioned math as well. Satellite imagery was probably the most accurate and for something like the Giza plateau, it was pretty crucial to get it right. Still they have to be used as general placement tools and some adjustments needed to be made for the play of the game, but we were pretty true to what was there."

Jeff and I discussed the use of CINEMA 4D and what about it helped facilitate his workflow in making all the models for Riddle of the Sphinx II: The Omega Stone. "What I probably loved the most was the dynamic nature of all the building blocks and tools because I'm an 'undo' kind of guy. I like to play around with things and not feel like I have to make a copy of this model in its raw state before I make a change. I had to do that in so many other programs. In CINEMA 4D, if you don't like it you select on a spline and make a change, real-time. I know other programs are now getting like this, but I just think the way that CINEMA 4D was designed and engineered…well, it might take a little more to wrap your head around it, to get into it, but it's far more worth it in the end." "Rendering is very fast and the image quality is great. We had gotten the Studio Bundle for the NET Render license. The Rendering farm was huge. Frankly, it is what allowed us to get the game done in time."

"The ability to layer textures is a huge advantage in the way textures were set up. I'm a real perfectionist when it comes to texturing. With some of these things, we really needed to be accurate or at least hyper-realistic. The stones, for example, at Stonehenge look very realistic. The play screen is still 640x480 like a lot of games are, so you don't get all the detail that is there. On a lot of the stones we had something like 18-20 textures on just that one layering. We would do quite a bit of random feathering. You would have one type of stone texture feathered in different areas on another type feathered in different areas with a different type of noise. What it came out looking like was a really natural, organic-looking rock instead of something with a tiled texture. It was the same on so many other things; we rely on that quite a bit and I just really love that."
MAXON also publishes BodyPaint 3D, so I was curious if it was used as well. "We use BodyPaint. Love it! I don't know that there's much to say about it other than it does what it says it does. I like to set up and organize my UVs the way I want to and then paint on that. Everyone does it differently. In general, I just think the tool set is very useful. It's a time-saver, but more than that, it provides intuitive creation that you just don't get when you're back and forth to Photoshop. You know, put this in and see if it works. It's a tremendous tool, really."

There are always things to overcome in any project and doing well-known historical sites will bring its own set of problems with which to contend. Riddle of the Sphinx II: The Omega Stone was no different in this aspect. "When I had traveled to research Chichen Itza, which was to be in the game, I was climbing 'El Castillo', their great pyramid, and halfway up I start to see this canopy of trees. The tree line was going to be difficult and as I reached the summit of the pyramid, I found myself saying, 'Oh, no, how are we going to do this?' as the trees went on and on. They call it a jungle, but it's really a jungle forest. If it would have been a still shot, we might have been able to make a matte painting. Instead, we used TreePro by Onyx to create the trees we wanted, with our own textures, and took a planar view of that, pasting them sort of billboard style. We did quite a bit of playing around with that until we got a look that was acceptable and then put in some real trees where you're close enough to them, so that it came off looking believable. It's always a judgment call, but sometimes you have no choice. It worked, and that's all that really matters."

"I know we really pushed CINEMA 4D to the limit. I'm sure of that. We had quite a few files - sizes and polygons and all that - and rendering was an issue, of course. We had to keep trying to optimize things. But we've done two entire ancient cities that are big enough to walk in and through and CINEMA 4D was able to hold its own, compared with other applications, and made all of it a reality."


Riddle of the Sphinx II: The Omega Stone
Omni Creative
Frank Cords
Cris Palomino

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