Gamers’ Republic: Munch’s Oddysee [2000]

Date: May, 2000

Author: Edd Fear

Source: Gamers' Republic, Issue 24, pp. 40-42.

With the recent release of the PlayStation 2 in Japan, and the impending arrival of the new system in the U.S. rapidly approaching, GR has the good fortune of giving you a peek into the development of what will be one of the hottest U.S. launch titles, Oddworld Inhabitants’ Munch’s Oddysee. We’ll be updating the progress of their work with a monthly visit to their busy den. This month: cameras, and the virtual idiot.

A few days before the launch of the PlayStation 2 in Japan, GR had a chance to visit the San Luis Obispo offices of Oddworld Inhabitants and have a peek at the progress of their groundbreaking PS2 U.S. launch title, Munch’s Oddysee. Although the office was sprinkled with monolithic PS2 development systems, these were still recent additions to the landscape, so there were no demos on the new system; in fact, the game itself was still in pieces spread across a dozen or so PCs throughout Oddworld.

What we did get to see, however, was a testament to the vision and talent of the inhabitants of Oddworld. Their promise to us, the loyal fans of Abe and his misadventures, is to broaden the story of the Mudokens, Glukkons, and the like, add many new faces, names, and quests, and deliver it all in full, free-roaming indoor and outdoor 3D, replete with the next generation of GameSpeak and groundbreaking camera mechanics.

In fact, one of the top concerns in converting the Oddworld experience into a 3D environment was the camera system. “We looked at it and said, ‘Camera is at the top of the list of problems of free-roaming 3D worlds,'” said Lorne Lanning, president and chief creative force at Oddworld. “That, I think, is the biggest hurdle: just figuring it out. Conceptually, how do you solve this problem? It’s a bitch, but then when you figure it out, it’s like, BAM! It’s the creative that’s really challenging, and figuring out how to translate the creative into technical processes that then can be built by engineers, by programmers, and they say, ‘Oh, these are the rules you want. I can do that.’ Then you start winding up with the solution.”

In our visit, we witnessed a sample of the camera system in action, which caused us to comment that it seemed like the Oddworld crew had definitely done their homework, and stand poised to deliver exactly what they’ve been promising. “Well, we have to,” countered Lanning. “You guys don’t give anybody any slack. We looked at it and said, what’s the number one problem in 3D games? The camera. I mean, I get motion sickness. People said, ‘Yeah, Zelda’s really cool.’ Well, I couldn’t play it, man. Could not play it. I can’t do POVs anymore. Maybe it’s because I’m 35 years old, I don’t know.”

“It also doesn’t help that we come from the theme park industry, where we studied motion sickness, we studied inner ear problems, because we were making simulator attractions where, if you don’t understand those things, you’d better have a lot of sawdust outside the attraction, because people are going to throw up. If you want an example, go down to Disney World in Florida and ride ‘Body-Wars’, done by ILM, and smell the air. You will smell all the vomit and see sawdust everywhere, and it’s all because of this bad relationship between image and inner ear.”

A considerable amount of time, planning, and programming resources have gone into creating this character-following camera system that is less hands-on and more cinematic than the 3D games of today like Mario, Crash, and Tomb Raider. What they’ve come up with is a fluid, Hollywood-movie-style camera system following the main character that is built around a series of zones. Within each zone, the camera pans left, right, up, or down as you move your onscreen avatar, and as you move from one zone to another the camera shifts to a new position to let you better observe the area. The Oddworld team has built a tool for tweaking these moves, so that the shifts from zone to zone can be as quick or as slow as the level designers deem necessary to achieve the cinematic feel that the area and action require. And a major part of developing their camera tool (as with all of their programming tools) is the simplicity of tweaking the parameters in order to perfect this cinematic feel.

Lanning describes the camera systems in more detail: “We have two types of camera systems that had to be developed: one that works inside the facilities, which is different from how the one outside works. On the outside, we need to see the whole landscape, and with the other we need to see really specific framing and to give you specific information. So there’s two different camera systems built that follow similar philosophies but operate very differently.”

To the gamer, however, they will seem the same, because they work with the same principles—to ensure proper framing of the surroundings, whether indoors or outdoors. “Yeah, the camera’s a huge problem, and we’ve solved it,” explains Lanning. “We have so much control over our camera system, it’s extremely exciting.”

The number two problem identified in bringing the Oddworld experience into a 3D environment was what Lanning termed the “virtual idiot phenomenon.” In 16-bit side-scrollers, he pointed out, you could pick up items effortlessly. But current 3D games are a different story. “Mario 64 is an example of 3D done really well, and to this day, they still have the best camera in a 3D game, I believe,” he said. “In fact, our outside camera operates similar, in principle, to Mario’s, but you’ll see and feel the difference right away. But, when I wanted to read an information sign, I was going up to it, running into it, and I’ve gotta go a little this way, or a little that way, but in 16-bit this didn’t have the same degree of tedium. It wasn’t part of the gameplay, I could just easily get that sign. It wasn’t a problem.” But the 3D “virtual idiot” doesn’t know what your intentions are, it only looks for a narrow field of input and responds only within that area, regardless of what the player really wants. Lanning continues: “Then the other thing was, you try to walk down hallways—look at Resident Evil—and the character’s constantly running against walls. I mean, you’re not controlling a life form, you’re controlling this virtual idiot. And this virtual idiot doesn’t know that he’s walking into the wall constantly, and he doesn’t know that it’s a tight area. A kid can sit down and really get control and navigate pretty well, but most people right off the bat, they’re clonking and getting all hung up. So we call that the virtual idiot phenomenon, where we’re controlling these little virtual idiots that aren’t really aware of their environment, let alone how they feel about it, and all the characters around them, how they feel about each other. We said, what has to happen is, the character has to know where they are, and anything you want to do, whether it’s pick something up or look at a sign, shouldn’t involve any more tedium than a 16-bit game. It should happen fluidly and naturally and you shouldn’t even know the problems we’ve had to solve to make your experience flow more smoothly.” Their answer to these problems is what they jokingly call “cruise control.” It’s another set of tools whereby the game designers define the relationships between the main character(s) and their surroundings–other entities, walls, trees, or anything else you might come across. “All you’ll know is, ‘I have total control. I can take this wherever I want,'” said Lanning as he showed off a basic demo. “Then I’m going to turn off cruise control, and then you’re going to see the virtual idiot. So we built a whole system to help our characters become smarter in the environments, and they know more of what your intentions are, and you don’t notice that they’re just doing the right thing.”

What we do notice, though, is that the folks at Oddworld are doing the right thing. More details to come in when we visit again next month.

You can find a full transcription of this month’s interview with Lorne Lanning at www.gamersrepublic.com.