San Mateo County Times

Game's star doesn't cash in

By Liz Garone

Monday August 30, 1999

REDWOOD CITY -- Punt doesn't have long before his screen debut and he's almost ready. He's got the attitude and a look that's sure to turn heads -- goggles, belly and a pair of stag antlers.

But Punt's a little shorter than your average movie star -- actually he measures only a few inches tall. But that's OK for Punt's role, hurtling through computer-generated landscapes on a super-charged motorcycle for the newest ver sion of "Road Rash," Electronic Arts' No. 1 cycle racing video game.

Animated stars like Punt don't demand $20 million con tracts or a personal masseuse, but in lots of other ways, video games productions have come to resemble feature film sets. Creating a video game involves a slew of creative characters and a full production schedule, complete with scripts, deadlines, huge bud gets and a producer who over sees it all.

"There once was a time when all you needed was one designer and one pro grammer," said Michael Becker, EA's creative director, who has seen the process of building a game move from a two-person weekend operation to what can now often be a 100-plus person, multimilliondollar, year-long project.

For the latest version of Road Rash, designed for Sony's PlayStation and sched uled for release this winter, Hunter Smith is the lead pro ducer. His team includes seven artists, eight programmers, three world builders (the people who create the game's landscapes), two game de signers (who create the game's layout) and a handful of people in production management.

The team is six months into the project, with about three more months to go, Smith said.

"It all starts with an idea or concept," he explained. "Then, it builds from there." In the case of Road Rash, Smith's team already had a concept: fast action motorcycle racing. The original idea for Road Rash was created a decade ago at Electronic Arts by a bunch of guys who liked to race mo torcycles.

"The core idea was simple," said Smith. "If you're on bikes, you want to drive fast."

The game pits two motley crews of motorcycle riders -- the DeSades and the Canyon Traylers -- against each other as they race at top speeds on highways around the United States. In their travels, they cross through three environ ments: alpine, desert and urban. Gang members come armed with a wide array of nasty weapons, including chains, crow bars, mace, base ball bats and cattle prods.

The one instrument of de struction they don't possess is a gun. That distinction allows Smith to argue with a straight face that, "Road Rash isn't about the violence."

Despite a number of ap peals from younger game players, Smith and his team decided not to include them in the weapons arsenal. "They think they want it (shooting), but we know they don't," said Smith.

Of course, after the killing spree at Columbine High School in Colorado, carried out by two teen-age boys who enjoyed playing shoot-'em-up video games, the topic of vio lence is a sensitive one with video game makers. No one on the Road Rash team wanted to say anything more about vio lence, and Electronic Arts, like a number of the big video game publishers, has an em ployee policy which keeps them from talking about it.

Maybe there aren't any guns, but there's lots of pum meling and knocking other riders off their bikes. "Wrestle weapons from hostile racers," advises a brochure from an earlier version of the game. "Use them and abuse them."

Players don't start with any weapons; they have to grab them from the other gang members before they can bang away. "It's just a crazy bunch of guys who like to race," said Smith. "Nobody ever gets hurt in Road Rash."

Working from earlier ver sions of the game, the de signers had both advantages -- a lot of work has already been done -- and challenges -- ad justing it enough to make going through all the work for a new version worth the money and time. "We take an old idea, and we turn it on its head," said Smith.

The newest version has a sidecar mode, which allows two players to ride together and battle it out against the opposing gang: One steers while the other commands the weapons' post, battling off at tackers, from a sidecar.

It also features a splitscreen option so players can race and duel each other on the same screen at the same time. Riders can play cop if they want, their goal being to pull over as many thugs as possible.

Once the concept and the new features are thought out, the producer, just as in Holly wood, has to pitch the idea to the money guys. In this case, that's the marketing and sales department.

Once the team gets manage ment's blessing, both technical and game design plans are drawn up, and everyone moves into the production phase.

For artist Lori Washbon, that means designing Puck and the game's other charac ters. "I just sort of came up with Puck out of the blue," she said. "Eventually, I just gravi tated toward this midget in stag horns." To create Puck's image, she used a composite of four photographs -- and her own creative license. "A piece here, a piece there," she said.

For a cop character, she took the face from a photo graph of one of her father's old college buddies and molded it with a rotund body.

In a nearby cubicle, world builder Joel Wade poured over U.S. Geological Survey maps, trying to figure out which roads would make the coolest rides for the bikers -- and where best to place an oak tree.

Programmer Mike Lopez la bored intensely over a few lines of computer code, playing and replaying one scene where a rider takes a sharp turn. Each time he re played the frames, the rider leaned slightly more. And, each time, he returned to the code, tweaking it ever so slightly.

"I'm tuning thousands of variables," said Lopez, "a rider's weight, how fast he's going, what he's fighting with."

Lopez's goal is to let players project themselves into the characters and have a dif ferent ride each time they play, according to Smith. "Pick which character you want to be," he said. "You can do 100 races, but you'll never get the same experience twice."

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