The Art of Maya: An Introduction to 3D Computer Graphics: MEL Empowers Oddworld Inhabitants for Stranger Results [2005]

Date: March, 2005

Source: Alias Learning Tools. The Art of Maya: An Introduction to 3D Computer Graphics (pp. 221-222). 3rd ed. Sybex.

The past 10 years have seen remarkable changes in the games industry and for Oddworld Inhabitants – the award-winning game company behind the Oddworld Universe. This universe has spawned three games and in its 10 year anniversary, Oddworld just got Stranger. In this new chapter of the Oddworld series, players step into the role of the Stranger, a mysterious bounty hunter who tracks down outlaws for cash. With the task of creating new intellectual property along with a new game engine and new in-house team for an early 2005 launch date on the Xbox, the Oddworld game team chose Maya over other 3D game development tools to be their backbone. “Any one of these things is difficult on its own but we took the challenge to attempt all three simultaneously,” comments Ryan Ellis, lead realtime artist at Oddworld.

Enter Maya

The Oddworld team began developing Stranger with two different development tools – Maya and another software package. “We realized very quickly that we had a fractured pipeline and to speed up the development process we needed to consolidate,” comments Ellis. “We switched to Maya because it could handle the large date sets that our game required and it was capable of handling everything we needed; animation, level design and level and character modeling, in one package. This meant quicker turn around time for our artists and less work for our programmers.”

MEL Makes it Easier

Ellis admits that MEL was used for, “just about everything.” When the team made the decision to use Maya as their level editor, they realized they would have to build a large suite of custom tools and pipelines and MEL became the cornerstone of that process. They created scripts for everything from asset management to in-level artificial intelligence tools. Ellis explains: “For example, when an in-game model is created, it needs to be exported into the correct location, preference files need to be made and hooked up, animation settings need to be applied and all of this needs to be checked into our data management system. This is a time-consuming process for our artists.” He continues: “However, with MEL this is automated down to a simple click of a button. It saves us incredible amounts of time in just asset handling alone.” Another example is how the team uses an advanced decorator render for grass, plants and small trees and with Stranger, they needed control of the placement of these assets to achieve a natural sense of realism. “This meant hand-placing hundreds of thousands of small models which was impossible due to timing,” explains Ellis. “So we turned to the MEL scriptable Artisan tool set. It allowed us to paint large amounts of decorators quickly and also to randomize scales and rotations for a natural feel. Our game simply would not have been achievable without such a quick and flexible system.”

The API Saves Valuable Development Time

Another key tool for Oddworld was the API. The team used it to create a plug-in that could export their scenes into the formats used by their game engine. Also in that process were a number of optimizations that allowed their engine to render the gemetry faster. “By creating a plugin that would convert natural Maya objects into game assets we saved a ton of time for our levels artists,” describes Ellis. “It meant that the artists could focus on making the art look good and not have to worry about the behind the scenes date – this is an absolute necessity for our artistic team.”
“For Stranger, our goal was to make something that people had never quite seen before and that is a lofty goal to attempt,” summarizes Ellis. “To achieve a goal like that you need a solid, easy to use toolset that will help to get there, not hinder you. Maya was the tool to get one step closer to achieving this.”