May 16, 2005

The Dawn of the Big Hair Era of Games

by Andrew Stern · , 2:02 am

Game development execs are smarter than you might think — they understand what’s important. From a new NYTimes article on the upcoming generation of game consoles:

Relying solely on wide-screen, high-definition images to sell a title creates “empty visual calories,” said Glenn Entis, a vice president and the chief visual officer for Electronic Arts. “We’re looking for an emotional impact.” The company wants to create characters “that feel like there’s a mind” inside, he said.

You might ask, what’s their plan to accomplish this?

Electronic Arts will develop facial effects that mimic reality, such as darting, watery eyes, characters that react more fluidly to situations and hair that flows naturally. “Hair is such a communicator of style,” Mr. Entis said. “In the past it was laughable. It looked like a helmet.”

This non-laughable hair will increase budgets upward of $15 million. To compensate, players will be charged higher prices for games, probably at least $59 per game, up from $50.

Can indie games have big hair too? Not a chance.

The high cost of game development means that only the largest companies can afford to be in the business. While low-budget movies can occasionally become hits, “it is now impossible to ‘Blair Witch’ this business,” said Jeff Brown, vice president for corporate communications at Electronic Arts, referring to the successful independent film.

27 Responses to “The Dawn of the Big Hair Era of Games”


  1. Jason Scott Says:

    I realize these articles are edited to provoke (the original one you’re citing from) and it works. I want to punch the EA guy in the face.

  2. andrew Says:

    Shave his head instead.

    Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green is worried indie games can’t compete, whereas Cory Ondrejka (who we had the pleasure of meeting at GDC) offers six ways to make games without EA, from a post he wrote shortly after GDC; a great discussion follows.

    I side with Cory, particulary on his points #1 and #6.

  3. Foopy Says:

    “While low-budget movies can occasionally become hits, “it is now impossible to ‘Blair Witch’ this business,” said Jeff Brown, vice president for corporate communications at Electronic Arts, referring to the successful independent film.”

    One of the big differences between movies and video games is that ticket prices for any given movie remain constant regardless of their budget, which means that low-budget movies carry the same financial risk for a consumer as high-budget movies, clearly giving low-budget movies a disadvantage. Yet it’s entirely possible for a low-budget game to cost $20, while the big-hair EA alternative costs $60.

    So it seems to me like indie games might even be more suited to compete with big-budget games if all this big-budgetness continues to drive the price of EA games higher and the prices of indie games stay the same.

    I still want to punch the EA guy in the face, though.

  4. andrew Says:

    indie games might even be more suited to compete

    Like, totally.

    In my GDC post I mentioned Ragdoll Kung Fu; hopefully that will be $30 or something. Created primarily by one guy (a professional developer) over many years in his spare time.

    Katamari Damacy, arguably the most enjoyable game of last year, is a Blair Witch of a game; it could been created by a few people on their own (a lot of work, but do-able). The team itself was small, 10 people. In fact it grew out of a student project; the multitude of little static objects in the game were created by students!

  5. Kenneth Stein Says:

    Andrew, you aren’t taking a turn towards sensationalism are you??? I was gladdened to see that the Chief Visual Officer of EA, Glenn Entis, represented EA’s intention to develop more believable characters. I disagree with Jeff Brown’s assertion that only the largest companies can be in the business. The fact that he made such a claim tends to indicate just the opposite. And what does that mean? The correlation between production cost and market success will begin to diverge. The introduction of certain game development and presentation technologies will signal the rise of the independent game from its current status to that of standard bearer. The large companies will fail in their attempts to hinder this from happening. We will see the introduction of geocentric and community based gaming. We will see the “community” emerge out of that which served to diminish it. Already we see signs pointing to such a future and I expect we’ll hear more and more nay-saying from those established and entrenched in the way we make games today. The more vocal their opposition, the more imminent the arrival of this new type of game. We’ve heard that ‘all news is local.’ Video games won’t just be local, they’ll be personal and many of them will be sensational!

  6. Louis Dargin Says:

    I agree with Mr. Entis that relying solely on hi-res, normal-mapped graphics is not enough. Facial effects and real-time hair may be nice, but I’d really like to see if they do end up creating characters “that feel like there’s a mind” inside. Also, I really doubt that facial effects and real-time hair are truly out of the reach of independent developers; techniques for making such effects are available in books and journals.

  7. Zach Says:

    I met Glenn Entis last year when he came to deliver a talk on exactly this subject. The technology that is being developed to deliver these characters at this level of detail is simply phenomenal. You can read more about exactly what he’s talking about here:

    http://www.virtualcinematography.org/

    The technology is unbelievable expensive and only seems applicable to a few, partciular situations. For instance a cut scene in a licensed title, where the high resolution character is neccesary to sell their reality.

    Not only that, Glenn’s talking about believable Human Characters, which are a unique challenge totally separate from the requirements of most games. Many or most Nextgen titles aren’t going to have to rely on this level of monetary expenditure on Tech and R&D to achieve that reality.

    One character that comes to mind as an example is The Stranger from Stranger’s Wrath. One high fidelity opening cinematic, a great vocal performance, top notch animation and you buy into the character (and his world!) hook, line, and sinker. You almost never see the character’s face, but his performance, the feeling that there’s a mind inside (even in the midst of the action) is totally believable.

    Also the “EA guy” is right and we all know it. He’s referring to AAA Mass Market Console Titles. Why anyone would want to get into that business is beyond me, but there it is. And the thing about that is that while they cost alot and have all kinds of marketing tie-ins and licensing and stars pimping their rides and rake in tons of cash (EA’s total profits are down 91% this year as a result of all of this nextgen malarkey, btw), none of the innovation occurs at that level. It all happens in the Katamary Damacies — where it’s art. There’s no glory or fame in art, only achievement.

  8. josh g. Says:

    Electronic Arts will develop facial effects that mimic reality, such as darting, watery eyes, characters that react more fluidly to situations and hair that flows naturally. “Hair is such a communicator of style,” Mr. Entis said. “In the past it was laughable. It looked like a helmet.”

    Relating hair to emotion is, well, odd, but it’s a reasonable thing to improve. It’s probably more applicable to, say, a sports title, where you want to recreate real people realistically so that the player can identify with their favorite players. (*ahemcoughstevenashcough*)

    However, it’s the bits I’ve bolded that I think we should be taking seriously. Improved character reactions and characters which intelligently model and express interest and perception (through eye movements) are efforts at improving non-verbal expression and believability.

    Sure, we need to work on verbal / literary expression of an agent’s intelligence – so let some improve the visual communication, while others work on the verbal side. Incredibly clever chatbots with horrible visual expression and no nonverbal emotional cues probably aren’t what we really want, are they?

  9. Dirk Scheuring Says:

    josh g. wrote:

    Incredibly clever chatbots with horrible visual expression and no nonverbal emotional cues probably aren’t what we really want, are they?

    I believe that these two aspects – the verbal and the visual one – are being developed and can be used entirely independent of one another, and that they tend to adress audience functions – roughly “consciousness vs preconsciousness” – that might be seen as orthogonal. Moreover, I think that there is a wide spectrum of visual styles, from the abstract to the hyperrealistic, all of which can be said to “work” in specific contexts. We don’t have that yet in the area of verbal expression, and my feeling is that what we buy or don’t buy verbally will turn out to be much more sharply seperated than what we buy or don’t buy visually.

  10. andrew Says:

    the Chief Visual Officer of EA, Glenn Entis, represented EA’s intention to develop more believable characters

    Folks, the truth is there is little or nothing that EA or any other major game companies have yet said or revealed publicly that suggests they are doing a substantial push towards deeper, more reactive character behavior. The line “characters that react more fluidly to situations” is just lip service at the moment, I fear. I put the question directly to EA exec Neil Young at my GDC panel, and got no hint of specific work being done on this.

    In fact, what may happen is that all this additional money and labor required to make dynamic, high-definition Big Hair and other complex physical objects will end up sucking time and money resources away from R&D in character behavior. Characters may become that much prettier and detailed looking, but that much more vacuous. Big Hair indeed.

    Further, if this is to believed (scroll down to “Chris Hecker”), the increases in computational power of the new generation of game machines are going all towards graphics rendering, e.g. to draw all that hair, taking away from general CPU needed for more complex AI.

    The point is, game hardware developers are focusing on more polygons, because that’s their business, and is also what is most technically straightforward and understood, and what creates tastier eye candy. Game software developers are struggling to keep up, where their efforts and increased budgets should instead be being spent on making deeper gameplay / characters / agency. Sigh.

    I met Glenn Entis last year when he came to deliver a talk on exactly this subject. The technology that is being developed to deliver these characters at this level of detail is simply phenomenal.

    Zach, this all looks like rendering for non-interactive cut scenes… There’s nothing here that suggests it will be usable in a real-time reactive way. From what I can tell, there’s no AI tech here, just visual rendering tech, perhaps not even real-time (in-game) rendering. The ability to render more beautiful cut scenes, even if rendered in real-time, is antithetical to “characters that react more fluidly to situations”. Cut-scenes are *not* interactive game characters; they’re movies.

    Note, Will Wright’s group is doing some work towards procedural, dynamic systems, but on a more general level, not really applied towards people characters. At a recent academic summit EA’s CTO said believable characters are on their long-term agenda; but again, what they may be doing now, if anything, hasn’t been revealed or hinted at.

    Now, eventually, perhaps the vacuousness of gorgeously rendered characters with no intelligence will get so annoying to players and developers, in fact so disturbing, that R&D will finally get the go-ahead. We’ll see…

  11. mark Says:

    I’m actually not so sure that they won’t succeed at least somewhat by focusing purely on the graphics side of “believable characters”. People have a remarkable ability to ascribe emotion to things that give them some possible way to do so. People may well be drawn in by the realistic faces and such and ascribe emotions and beliefs to otherwise fairly dumb characters.

    That’s not to say I don’t think richer story and character are the right way to go, because I certainly think they are, but I think the game industry’s approach might make some immediate gains. In particular, perception is a *lot*, especially to someone not immersed in the world of interactive story on a theoretical level—so I think a commercial game with some barely acceptable story/characters but with very believable realization can easily beat out an independent game that’s a great concept and has great innards but is realized too poorly for your average player to actually notice the great stuff inside.

    I still think it’s completely the wrong way to go, but if I were trying to think what would be most likely to get me advances in the next 2 years, I’m not sure it’s the wrong business decision.

  12. nick Says:

    I just hope this work on lifelike hair doesn’t get in the way of developing the realistic smoke, fire, and rope that is so critical for compelling dramatic situations.

  13. noah Says:

    It’s only going to work for me if the hair looks realistically wet, and drips of water fly off the ends of the tendrils as the character convulses with suppressed rage, each landing with a discrete splash on the inside of my monitor, refracting the action slightly as the camera pans lovingly over the scene.

  14. Kenneth Stein Says:

    Noah, you seem far more interested in the water than in the hair.

  15. chrisf Says:

    The comment about the impossibility of a ‘blair witch’ approach at this stage is the most galling, I think. Indie games are where any true innovation in gameplay and believable character tech will have to come from.

    However, Nintendo’s announcement about the Revolution’s development openness to indie games is encouraging to me. If they’re serious about it, of course.

  16. josh g. Says:

    Saying that indie games will have a difficult or impossible time pulling a ‘Blair Witch’ isn’t exactly saying that there’s no place for innovative indie games. Blair Witch was not just successful in the sense of keeping afloat and maintaining a cult following – it became mass market. Has any indie game actually transitioned to a mass-market level of commercial success recently?

    (I’m open to examples, I just can’t think of any. Katamari did come out of nowhere, but were they really ‘indie’, or were they publisher funded?)

  17. josh g. Says:

    Also, can you tell I like playing devil’s advocate?

  18. andrew Says:

    Via Slashdot Games, here’s a new GameDailyBiz article, EA Weighs In on Next-Gen, Transitions, Rising Costs and More.

  19. Dirk Scheuring Says:

    Thanks for posting this link, Andrew, I found this interview with EA SVP Frank Gibeau a strange read. The guy was so intent on emphasizing EA’s vantage point – “…midsize publishers, small publishers are going to find this transition brutal” – that I immediately wondered whether he doesn’t just try to deflect attention from troubles that EA might be having. I can’t, for the life of me, imagine that these people are stupid enough to just close their eyes and ears to the current wide-ranging discussion and believe in their Big Hair thing as the solution.

    No, I rate the fact that they hired John Milius to write the script for “Medal of Honor: European Assault” as a sure indication that EA is not stupid. I take it that they know very well that, on the markets they must be building now – as opposed to the markets they currently pwn -, the writing, and not the polygon count, will make all the difference. That’s a whole different ballgame, and I see no reason to believe that small companies are at any structural disadvantage in playing on this new field. And I won’t believe that Frank Gibeau sees any reason, either. And I do believe that this is why he makes that kinda noise: it’s a way to scare the (smaller) competition, so that they just fold without looking at all the new possibilities. Or they might actually try to compete in the Big Hair dimension, which makes their chances of leaving the market via buyout or bankrupcy increase tremendously. In any case, he tries to get everybody to play the game his way.

    I hope that he won’t succeed, but that will depend on whether small companies and independent developers can resist the sucker move, and start thinking on their own. And start thinking not only outside of the box, but outside of the building.

  20. mark Says:

    To answer Josh G.’s question, from what I can tell Katamari was indeed funded by a “major”, Namco—the behemoth behind Pac-Man and Tekken, among many other games.

    It may have had a more indie-style development, though I think it was more a case of cross-Pacific pollination than a case of an indie game out of nowhere.

  21. andrew Says:

    Via Slashdot Games, here’s a technical article on AnandTech called Examples of Poor CPU Performance on the new XBox 360 and PS3, further validating Chris Hecker’s predictions.

  22. andrew Says:

    Clive Thompson has written a Wired article about Uncanny Valley problems in the newest XBox 360 characters.

  23. andrew Says:

    via gewgaw, more on EA’s plans for innovation, in Business Week.

  24. Grand Text Auto » Dry Water in the Uncanny Valley, and more Says:

    [...] all, but me, I’ll go do something else. Clive again, on next-gen characters’ ever deeper descent into the Uncanny Valley. Reacting to a preview [...]

  25. andrew Says:

    Here’s a kind of funny tangent on resources for big hair in games…

  26. andrew Says:

    Steve Grand weighs in.

  27. Tale of Tales» Blog Archive » Next Gen games are NOT beautiful!! Says:

    [...] is indeed partly a technological problem but not one that can be solved by hair shaders (though I admit that these could be abused for good). [...]

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