Making movie games more faithful than ever

A new technology from virtual world platform developer Multiverse may forever change the way promotional games for movies look.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
Using a technology called Remix, McDonald's was able to produce an 'Avatar'-themed game based on the actual theatrical assets from the smash-hit film. The technology may change the way such games are made in the future. Twentieth-Century Fox

Thanks to a new technology that allowed people to drive a rover across the world of Pandora from the smash hit film "Avatar," we might soon see a wide range of games or other projects that use the exact same 3D models as the films they're based on.

In December, McDonald's launched a game called PandoraRovr, in which anyone could explore James Cameron's fantastical moon. While an otherwise normal Flash-based promotion put together on behalf of one of the film's corporate partners, what made the game unusual is that the imagery in it was created using the movie's actual theatrical assets rather than models built from the ground up.

This was the fruit of a technology called Remix built by Multiverse, a Mountain View, Calif., virtual world platform developer, and which in theory, may change the economics of these types of projects forever. Though in its earliest stages, Remix may soon make it possible for film partners to put together Flash games like this in a matter of a month or two and for a fraction of what it would have cost in the past, even as their look and feel comes closer than ever before to the films on which they're based.

According to Multiverse Marketing Director Corey Bridges, Remix has the potential to flip the world of re-creating film assets on its head forever. In the past, he explained, anyone wanting to re-create the imagery from a movie would have only been able to use the actual theatrical assets--the 3D models of its characters, landscapes or vehicles, for example--as something from which to base entirely rebuilt digital copies.

"That's the general state of the art," said Bridges. If "someone makes a video game based on a giant robot movie, they can't use the robot models because they're too complex. So the video game company says, 'We're going to rebuild and remodel from scratch to fit into this lower-quality medium. Or a toy company says, 'We're going to make some computer-generated art for the box. Okay, our guys will have to build that art.' You end up with all these promotional partners...having to reinvent the wheel."

The problem, Bridges continued, is that there has previously been no way to effectively render the kinds of lower-resolution objects directly from the super high-res original assets. Those models, such as, say, an incredibly detailed avatar of a nine-foot-tall Na'vi warrior, could require tens of thousands of polygons while a Flash version of that same Na'vi for a game might be just hundreds of polygons.

But Remix solved that problem, he said. Essentially, the technology, which emerged directly from Multiverse's existing virtual world development platform, is a rendering engine which allows for directly processing a high-resolution model and producing a low-polygon Flash version of that object.

In other words, Bridges said, Remix is a translation machine, and one that Multiverse is hoping will appeal to movie studios across Hollywood, as well as to their promotional partners.

So far, the company has impressed the partners it has worked with on projects involving Remix.

In PandoraRovr, the game built by McDonald;s using the assets from 'Avatar,' players can drive a rover around the fictional moon of Pandora and take snapshots of imagery geared to look more like that from the film than has been possible in the past. Twentieth-Century Fox

"A big part of what (Multiverse's technology) did was make (PandoraRovr) look and feel just like the film," said Andy McKinney, the group account director at AKQA, the strategy firm that oversaw the production of PandoraRovr for McDonald's. "That was a big piece of excitement around the program, because we were letting people enter the world of Pandora in a way they couldn't elsewhere."

Using PandorRovr, "Avatar" fans can drive around the fictional world, getting a first-person and up-close view of what the moon looks like, and being able to control where they go and at what speed. When they find a vista they enjoy, they can take a snapshot, which comes out as a big, beautiful image suitable for using as a computer wallpaper, or for sending to friends.

And McKinney added that Remix's unique ability to translate the original "Avatar" assets, something he hadn't seen done before, was crucial to the eventual outcome of PandoraRovr.

"I think the nature of the program was so unusual because the film itself is so unusual," McKinney said. "So even the idea of replicating a magical unique world that has been created specifically for a film, that's such a unique challenge. So it required a unique solution like Multiverse was able to offer."

Widely available later this year
For several years, Multiverse has made its virtual world platform available for free to anyone who wanted it. The company has only made money from other developers' use of the platform through a revenue-sharing agreement in which it gets 10 percent of any fees generated by games built using the technology. If someone uses the platform to build a free game, Multiverse makes nothing.

Recently, however, the company has also been building commissioned games using its own technology, and in such cases, the developers who build the games have access to the very latest versions of the platform. The public version is usually many months behind.

Remix, then, emerged from an existing, but not yet released version of the technology, and it was only in the last few months that the company even realized what it had on its hands. In part, it seems, that was because, handed the opportunity to work on "Avatar" games for McDonald's and the Coca-Cola Company--almost certainly because both James Cameron and his Oscar-winning producing partner, Jon Landau, are on Multiverse's advisory board--Multiverse discovered that the asset rendering engine that was already part of the platform was capable of converting very high-resolution assets into Flash-capable low-res objects.

An image created using PandoraRovr based on the actual theatrical assets from 'Avatar.' Twentieth-Century Fox

Now that the company has utilized Remix for both PandoraRovr and a Facebook "Avatar" game for Coke Zero, Multiverse is faced with the question of how best to deploy Remix. Bridges said that based on the excitement in Hollywood around what was being done for the "Avatar" games, he's been taking meetings with many film studios eager to see what can be done for their movies.

Still, while some--such as the company's own investors--might expect that Multiverse would spin Remix off into a separate product that would be sold to film studios or the developers who work on promotional projects for them, presumably for a pretty penny, Bridges said for now the plan is to stick to the company's long-standing business model and roll Remix out with a later version of the virtual world development platform.

That might not happen for six months or more from now, he predicted. For now, a small number of beta testers are working with it, and the company is holding on to Remix and may focus some of its energy in the interim on developing side projects for paying customers.

And those customers may well include the studios. While nothing concrete is in the works, Bridges sounded hopeful that films coming out this summer or winter will be accompanied by promotional games built using Remix. That would obviously please him as a Multiverse executive. But Bridges is also a self-professed fan boy, and because of that, he said he's excited about what might be coming down the pike.

"For those people who are like me, just huge consumers of (alternate-reality game) type content around movies (who are) seeking out more interesting promotional games," he said, "I think we're entering a golden age (and) a whole lot of creativity."