Collaborative Connections: Teamwork Unleashed

May 1, 2007

By W. Haden Blackman
Project Lead on The Force Unleashed

Even with monthly articles like this one and Brett Rector's biweekly diaries, we'd never be able to spotlight all the talented and dedicated people required to make The Force Unleashed a reality. Long hours and borderless collaboration are shaping the look and feel of the next Star Wars chapter, and ideas flow in all directions, not just from the top down.

Most of the team is spread out on the ground floor of one of the buildings at Letterman Digital Arts Center, the combined home of LucasArts, Lucasfilm and ILM at the Presidio in San Francisco. The groups within are spread out by discipline, but nothing happens in isolation. I wanted to call out not only some of these roles, but also the connections between roles that make this game possible.

Some of them seem obvious -- the animation group bleeds into the character design team, which is a stone's throw away from the cinematics team, who takes their work and directs the characters and settings to perform the cutscene animation that propels the story of The Force Unleashed along. The cinematics director is responsible for making sure the pacing and the camera cuts come together, while the lead animator is responsible for actually approving the animation -- like the way Juno Eclipse flips her hair. It's a very tight interaction between the groups.

The cutting edge technologies being folded into The Force Unleashed demand a stable bridge between the content artists and the engineers. One group envisions the incredible scenarios and breathtaking worlds to be explored in next-generation gameplay, while the latter is knee-deep in code. Connecting these disciplines are the art TDs (technical directors).

Their role is very complex and multilayered, but in a broad sense, they're the glue that holds everything together. On one side of the spectrum, you might have an artist say, "I want to have a slug-like creature imbued with Digital Molecular Matter (DMM) so that it is slick and slippery on one end, and really sticky on the bottom." An art TD would be able to crack and solve that request by working with the engineer to serve up a work-flow and pipeline to the artist, so they can create that experience in the game. Another example where art TDs are very helpful are in the shapes we use to get really accurate faces for the characters in the games, or shaders that make the characters' eyes scintillate and reflect in truly realistic ways.

Other technical directors are the Character TDs, who bridge similar worlds. The concept art and character designers define the shape and look of the character, like one particular diminutive warrior who enhances his otherwise small shape with a swirl of mechanical limbs. This goes beyond a standard humanoid shape, and requires some extra care when it comes to taking his physiology and applying handles and control points for the animators to be able to move him around. The character TD essentially rigs the character for animation, but also builds the pipeline and works with the artists to establish how to build, animate, control and export the characters.

Strolling through the Unleashed workplace, you'll pass environment artists defining Kashyyyk or a TIE fighter construction facility as a level. The multiplayer designers lead teams defining what arenas and events await gamers playing across remote connections. They work with network engineers to make sure all those features are actually online and functional.

Systems designer are responsible for the underlying mechanics of gameplay like experience points, camera movement, player metrics, AI, damage output -- things that are used across levels. They work with content designers who are the more traditional level designers, who map out the levels and the kind of interactions to be found there.

The concept artists are kept busy throughout the process. As I briefly touched upon last time, their role is not strictly a pre-production one, as this next example illustrates. One level in the game currently is set, quite literally, in the belly of the beast. You actually explore the innards of a titanic creature, and that offers up a lot of interesting gameplay possibilities, especially when you factor in some of the squishy reality to be served up by DMM technology. In blocking out the level, a content designer works in rough shapes to simply map out the contours and confines of this creature's gullet. To see him test it out, it looks pretty primitive. The shapes are geometric, simply textured with a repeating pattern. It's like a crude animatic that nonetheless gives a clear idea of what the level is supposed to be.

A brainstorm results with an intriguing concept: what if a detour brings the character into the creature's bronchial passage? The player is buffeted by the beast's foul breath as it slowly inhales and exhales, pushing the character along as his feet skate along the slick surface. A series of pillars, meant to represent natural growths inside the beast, acts as fleeting shelter for the character, who must work his way from pillar to pillar in between the monster's breaths.

Now, this was not an idea that first sprung from the concept department; it came out of developing the level. So now the concept team sees the level block-out in progress, and understands the kind of forms, feels and textures required to make this icky environment a reality. It's up the producers to corral these requests, so they can track where each asset is at in development, and who might be waiting on art to proceed to the next step.

It's just one example of multidirectional collaboration that you'll find throughout the team. It bridges companies, too, with ILM technicians developing tools and rendering solutions, and people from Pixelux and Natural Motion sitting here with the LucasArts team, maximizing the power of the new technologies to be Unleashed.

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