Pandemic Studios Gets Busy with LucasArts Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction
August 22, 2006 11:52 am
Westwood, California-based studio uses “kick-ass” SOFTIMAGE|XSI modeling, texturing, advanced normal mapping, real-time shaders, non-linear animation tools and customer service to blow the games world away.
Pandemic Studios Gets Busy with LucasArts’ Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction
By Michael Abraham
Such is the response of independent soldier and ExOps agent Chris Jacobs upon being asked to covertly “clean up a mess” in North Korea. His response nicely summarizes the vicariously violent world of Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, a new third-person shooter adventure from LucasArts and Pandemic Studios. So, how does one go about creating some sort of coherence in a game based almost entirely on mayhem, maniacs and messes? In LucasArts’ case, you hire Pandemic. In Pandemic’s case, you assemble a huge amount of animation talent and you get them to use SOFTIMAGE|XSI.
To create the sort of mesmerizing environment and characters that has earned Mercenaries some of the best game reviews that this reporter has yet seen, Pandemic relied heavily on SOFTIMAGE|XSI’s modeling, texturing and animation tools for creating the game’s pulverizingly playful world.
“SOFTIMAGE|XSI’s excellent modeling and texturing tools, advanced normal mapping and realtime shaders, and non-linear animation were all just extraordinary on Mercenaries,” says the colorful Carey Chico, Executive Art Director at Pandemic. “More than that, however, the clarity and simplicity of the XSI interface has provided our company with a fast, solid and streamlined set of modeling, texturing and animation tools that have significantly increased our iteration time in development. No doubt about it, SOFTIMAGE|XSI has been a great fit for us.”
PLAYGROUND OF DESTRUCTION
Created simultaneously for Sony PlayStation 2, Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo GameCube and PC, Mercenaries allows players to assume the role of one of three mercenaries attempting to control chaos by creating it following a coup in a future North Korea. In addition to the enigmatic American embodied by Jacobs, players can also choose the role of hyper-efficient, highly controlling, irredeemably insecure Briton Jennifer Mui, or that of the emotionally erratic, belligerently brutal Swede Mattias Nilson.
Backed by an incredible array of weaponry and military resources, the ExOps trio is battling evil genius and erstwhile North Korean General Song, described simply as “the most dangerous man on earth.” In addition to being ruthless and highly-disciplined, Song just happens to be in possession of his country’s considerable collection of nuclear weaponry.
As if that isn’t enough, the ExOps team must also deal with series of other fighting forces, any of who could prove to be friend or foe depending on the circumstances. The South Korean and Chinese armies, the Russian Mafia, and even the Allied forces are potentially vulnerable to the chaos that pervades the country and the region.
It is up to ExOps to stop Song and bring things under control. Ironically, their mission to restore calm will require that they blow the living snot out of all kinds of building, vehicles and opposing forces. And they haven’t got a lot of time to spare. In more ways than one, the very real task encountered by the Pandemic team of animators mirrored the contradictory challenges facing the fictional ExOps team.
“The biggest challenge we faced on Mercenaries was completing an ambitious project on a very tight deadline,” says Chico without hesitation. “Luckily, the consensus amongst our animators is that they can work much faster using SOFTIMAGE|XSI. Softimage has worked really hard to meet the requirements of next generation technologies as quickly as they arrive. With the advent of XSI’s Real-Time Shaders and Normal Mapping tools, Softimage has kept us at the forefront of what we can do in today’s games. Being able to previsualize our normal maps and see the effects of our realtime shaders has significantly benefited the iteration time on our projects. It allows us to see our work earlier in development, so any mistakes or potential problems can be taken care of early on. This gives us a big boost when it comes to getting the look we want, prior to actually investing the necessary time in writing our code for the engine. We have the experience and talent, and the software just works. That’s all we need to get the job done.”
POWERFUL ANIMATION TOOLS
“For me and my team, SOFTIMAGE|XSI’s animation tools are extremely powerful, especially on a project like Mercenaries,” says Austin Baker, Lead Animator on Mercenaries. “Simply put, XSI has improved the quality and quantity of our 3D work by providing stable, intuitive animation tools to work with together with the ability to create our own specialized tools through the intuitive UI, scripting tools and Net View. Personally, I use XSI for keyframe animation, IK, constraints and expressions, and I am currently exploring the possibilities of shape animation for our next project.Net View has eased the creation of custom interfaces by allowing me to create tools using WYSIWYG HTML editors. This has increased productivity by giving me a means to create a hub for tools and utilities that is easily accessible by anyone on my team. Relational views have reduced the time required to get the information that I need.Even more than all of that, the performance increases have meant faster interaction with characters, tools and scripts, and the open construction history has gone a long way toward opening the bottleneck that often builds up between artists and animators by allowing revisions to characters to easily and quickly propagate straight through to the envelope. This alone has greatly reduced our production time.”
More specifically, Baker joins the growing number of converts in pointing out the non-destructive strengths of the SOFTIMAGE|XSI Animation Mixer:
“The Animation Mixer has allowed me to quickly and easily create mockup animations as proof of concept for game mechanics,” says Baker matter-of-factly. “We also use it to speed up the process of lip sync and for applying key poses across multiple looping animations. What’s great is that we can copy poses from one animation to another, blend between two or more animations at one time and easily change the sequence of events in an animation. The fact that the Mixer is so similar to a traditional NLE means a reduction in the learning curve and a further increase in productivity. In particular, the Mixer’s non-destructive nature is very important to me. I am able to keep a database of animations that are used by multiple characters without ever worrying about further work in the Mixer forever altering those saved animations. It does a lot for my peace of mind.”
In addition to the Mixer, Baker proves to be quite keen on the Animation Editor:
“I rely heavily on the Animation Editor,“ Baker emphasizes. “It is my primary means of creating and editing individual animations. The High-Level Editing tools saved me a great deal of time on Mercenaries. In addition, the marking sets have allowed me to quickly set keys for only the attributes I want, keeping my f-curves clean and the Animation Editor uncluttered. These tools have virtually eliminated the various headaches associated with character setups. With these tools, I am able to explicitly control how each rig component is used, manipulated and keyed. I am also able to create rigs that can accommodate multiple animation styles while being consistent and easy to work with. I really do believe that SOFTIMAGE|XSI to be the best character animation system there is.”
"I've said before that Softimage has excellent customer service. We periodically interface with their LA studio as well as the Montreal home office. This allows us to make requests, get quick fixes on issues we may have, and generally understand the software better. Softimage has always addressed our needs in consecutive releases. Softimage customer service is, bar none, the best that I’ve experienced with any company. Softimage makes you as a user feel part of a community of users; part of the team, you might say."
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About Softimage Co.
Softimage Co., a subsidiary of Avid Technology, Inc., delivers innovative, artist-friendly character creation and effects tools to animators and digital artists in the film, broadcast, post-production and games industries. Its product line includes SOFTIMAGE|XSI, the industry's only non-destructive digital character production software, and SOFTIMAGE|Face Robot, the first production toolset that multiplies face animation productivity by simplifying the complex process of preparing the face for animation and by giving artists precise control over the results.
August 21, 2006