WITH OVER 11 MILLION SUBSCRIBERS WORLDWIDE, Blizzard Entertainment keeps online gamers coming back for more World of WarCraft* (WoW) by consistently adding to the virtual world of Azeroth. Cataclysm* is the most ambitious expansion to date of the massively multiplayer online (MMO) fantasy role-playing game. While most of the attention has been focused on the new 3D facelift that the game has undergone, Cataclysm is pushing the linear aspect of interactive entertainment forward with its Hollywood-inspired, in-game cinematics.
Much has changed at Blizzard Entertainment in a short period of time. “In the early days we were a much smaller group that came through school studying film,” said Jeff Chamberlain, project director at Blizzard Entertainment. “As we’ve grown, we’ve brought in a lot of the Hollywood talent, and they’ve been able to bring their experiences from those studios. It’s created a melting pot of Hollywood studios and video game developers, which has been very beneficial for us.”
One such person who migrated from Hollywood to the game world is Terran Gregory, associate director for Cataclysm. Gregory said that films’ 100-year history—including its more recent venture into computer animation—has given the craft a large head-start over video game storytelling. But the team at Blizzard has learned a lot from those years of filmmaking. “I would say gaming has probably learned about storytelling from Hollywood and maybe Hollywood has learned a little bit about technology from gaming,” said Gregory.
Bringing Deathwing to Life
Blizzard’s biggest endeavor yet on the cinematic front was introducing Deathwing to the WoW faithful and establishing what has become a very important character in the game universe. Marc Messenger, director for cinematics at Blizzard, said the role of pre-rendered cinematics goes beyond just watching the mini-movies. The team wants players to also see the cataclysmic events that are happening and then remember them later on.
“We want the player to remember the cinematics and how they inform the in-game destruction to give a truly epic sense of what it would be like to stand in the presence of a thousand-foot wave or see fire streak across the sky,” explained Messenger.
The process for bringing cinematics to life starts with brainstorming a vision and idea. In a nutshell, Messenger said it’s about finding a way to succinctly convey the character of the current expansion and make it as cool as possible. “We just sit down and roll through a bunch of ideas,” said Messenger. “On Cataclysm, in the first meeting, the game team had a strong idea of what the expansion was going to be, and we were able to get in sync pretty quickly.”
“Once Marc and the crew had their idea down, we functioned as a normal Hollywood animation studio,” said Chamberlain. “We storyboard everything, have a fast iteration process, and then go through a series of reviews and approval processes. Once we are locked down on something we like, we start working like a normal animation studio with animation, modeling, and the typical artistic departments.”
“One technology that we developed for Cataclysm was a new camera approach where we could actually get our 3D world using a motion-recorded camera so the director could film his subject in real time,” explained Chamberlain. “That added a little bit of flavor to the experience and made it more like a Hollywood project.”
Gregory said that for the in-game cinematics, at some point during the production of Cataclysm, the development team saw an opportunity to have a couple of movies play within the gameplay experience. The team’s goal was to introduce Worgen and Goblin, the game’s new playable character races.
“We were tasked with making sure these were an appropriate introduction to the characters,” said Gregory. “We wanted it to draw upon their entire kit, their mood, and their environment. The game introduces new places in the world never before seen, and we wanted to establish very succinctly in a cinematic art form what these races were like in those worlds and how they feel, so people would know what they had gotten into.” To bring those goals to life, Blizzard relied on an in-game pipeline that has evolved over the past six years. The technology was originally developed to produce game trailers and gameplay footage, but in recent years the team has received additional support and tools from the gameplay team.
“New tools have helped us make things more cinematic in the game through the use of cameras, as well as the control and manipulation in real time of actors that we can work through,” said Gregory. “It’s a different world working with the game itself, instead of just 3D. Being able to walk around the environment as if you’re on a set with the actors, and really have a feel of the space as you move them around was important. We even had people piloting the characters around so it was like working with talent, instead of just working with objects.”
These new advances have allowed the team to improve the visual fidelity of the characters in cinematics. Improved facial animation was just one element that brought more believable characters to life in the game. And Gregory said technology is constantly evolving, which means the next round of cinematics will push the bar even higher.
The World Ends Better with the 2nd Generation Intel® Core™ Processor Family
World of WarCraft* players who experience the new Cataclysm* expansion on a 2nd gen Intel Core processor-based PC or laptop will be able to enjoy the full vision of the teams behind the massively multiplayer online (MMO) games’ cinematics and gameplay. Intel worked closely with the engineers at Blizzard Entertainment to ensure that the new expansion takes full advantage of the advanced processing power of the 2nd gen Intel Core processor.
Throughout the development process, Intel provided Blizzard with access to architects, engineers, graphics specialists, and experts across different product groups to enable collaboration. Together, the technicians went through the online world frame by frame to make the most of the interactive experience.
“We captured key frames using Intel® Graphics Performance Analyzers and evaluated the most expensive components of that frame to find the bottlenecks,” explained Josh Doss, senior graphics software engineer at Intel. “We then worked with Blizzard to find ways to mitigate those bottlenecks. In doing so, it often increases the performance not only on our hardware, but also across the board on discrete hardware and for a general increase in performance.”
The end result benefits everything from the game engine to the final gameplay experience and the visual fidelity of the game. Even the game’s cinematic performance receives a boost through this enhanced speed.
Intel continues to work with Blizzard to ensure that its game developers are well informed about current and future technologies to help make the MMO world essentially future proof. For gamers, that means Azeroth will continue to grow in size and scope. And for 2nd gen Intel Core processor-based PC or laptop owners, this world has never looked better.
The Future of Cinematics
The ultimate goal of Blizzard’s cinematic teams is to get the player emotionally involved with the characters that they’re interacting with as the story unfolds. Technology plays a crucial role in helping the programmers, artists, and effects wizards conjure more believable and higher fidelity characters to which gamers can connect and identify.
“Hopefully, if we get better at doing that along the way, someone playing the game may end up getting so emotionally involved that they end up crying or cheering,” said Chamberlain. “We received a really nice e-mail from a fan recently who said that after he watched one of our cinematics he had to run around the block pumping his fists and cheering, so that’s just awesome to know.”
“It’s fascinating that we are at this place in time where we can move people emotionally through a video game,” added Chamberlain. “I don’t know if that could have been said twenty years ago at the dawn of video games. Now it seems like that line between simple gameplay and embracing a story is getting increasingly blurred. They’re becoming one and the same thing.”
The other line that is becoming more blurred in video games is the one between cinematics and the gameplay experience. While there was once a huge downgrade in fidelity when the game transitioned to its playable form, PC gamers are able to more seamlessly wade into interactive experiences such as WoW today.
“For in-game cinematics, there’s always the challenge of making the cinematic presentation not exclude the player,” said Gregory. “Technology plays a lot into that as we try and look for more ways to make the transition a seamless experience. With StarCraft* II and Cataclysm, we’ve started to include the player’s character in the cut scenes. We’re just getting into that now, and the future looks really bright with new technologies allowing us to achieve that.”
Gregory said storytelling challenges remain, including how to tell a story that keeps the player involved around every corner. He said it takes a lot of creative solutions from a lot of creative people to make it a fun and engaging experience. Blizzard has been doing that well, to the tune of over 11 million devoted subscribers over the years. Looking ahead, advances in technology will allow for more cinematic experiences both in-game and outside of the gameplay to push players further in the fantasy world of Azeroth.
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