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New tech delivers cinematic effect

New consoles allow publishers to deliver movielike experiences

At the core of next-gen vidgame systems from the likes of Sony and Microsoft are advanced graphics technologies that will make characters and environments not only look sharper to players, but also feel downright cinematic.

In fact, by the time game developers figure out how to fully exploit the potential of platforms like PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and Windows Vista PCs mature, “we’re going to be delivering experiences that are very much akin to the movie experience from a visual standpoint,” says Steven Pearce, VP of technology for Activision.

As DreamWorks Animation’s go-to games partner, Activision has already developed versions of “Shrek,” “Madagascar” and “Shark Tale” for play on Xbox, PlayStation 2, and Nintendo’s GameCube. The team releases “Over the Hedge” for the current-generation systems May 9 and has plans for a “Shrek 3” offering next year.

To date, game versions of CGI titles have poorly mimicked the cinematic experience. On film, CG characters like Shrek are composed of hundreds of millions of tiny polygons, making for rounded lines instead of jagged blocks. Characters’ clothing has the look of fabric because every pixel of the CG garment is tweaked to respond to the lighting of the scene.But developers for conventional platforms, Pearce explains, have only had a few thousand polygons to create characters with.

What’s more, only basic lighting f/x can be done with broad strokes. “The traditional workflow has been to come up with as close a facsimile (of a film character) as possible within our limited polygon count,” he says.

All of that changes with new and forthcoming consoles and PCs, which are pimped out with ultra-fast graphics processors and data-transfer rates.

Game characters can be made up of 20,000 polygons — and with new shading techniques, developers can make light interact with surfaces and textures in real time, just like it does in film images.

Such wherewithal will enable production synergies between film and vidgame.

While they’ll still be building a lot of characters and scenes from scratch, game developers will also be able to receive film elements from movie studios and effectively shrink-wrap them for use in the vidgame world.

Accordingly, the game production also will become more sophisticated, with dedicated texture designers and lighting effects specialists — similar to the production teams for animated feature films.

“Rather than simply convert a feature film property directly into a game, we will use the environments, storyline and other key elements of the property to create a compelling interactive experience,” says Dave Miller, director of global brand management for THQ.

The publisher, whose Hollywood collabos include an adventure game for Disney and Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” recently struck a deal with HBO to bring “The Sopranos” franchise to game platforms.

Games companies expect the advanced graphics capabilities of the new consumer hardware to foster a deeper relationship with Hollywood for new titles, whether their roots are in CG animation or live action.

“We haven’t had the technical ability to convey emotion or mood in our characters to the same level that films have,” Pearce says. With the new platforms, “I think we’ve got the ability now to do that.”

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