The Making of the StarCraft II Cinematic Teaser
The Insider recently sat down with Nick Carpenter, Blizzard's cinematic creative director, for a behind-the-scenes look at the StarCraft II cinematic teaser recently released at the Worldwide Invitational, as well as to discuss the challenges involved with continuing the single-player storyline from the original game...
Insider: One of the things that really made StarCraft stand out when it was first released was the epic scale of events unfolding over the course of the original game and the Brood War expansion, told in large part through the game's cut-scenes and beautifully crafted cinematics. Of all the possible scenarios for a cinematic teaser, why did you decide to focus on the genesis of a marine?
Nick Carpenter: The idea of turning the creation of a marine into a cinematic has been on my mind ever since we started working on the cinematics for the original StarCraft. When you click on that button to build a marine, what does that mean? Actually showing the marine being built gives us an exciting opportunity to show that in the StarCraft universe, even something that's normally very mundane can have a truly epic feeling to it.
"Actually showing the marine being built gives us an exciting opportunity to show that in the StarCraft universe, even something that's normally very mundane can have a truly epic feeling to it."
When you see all the intricate pieces of the armor coming together, you really get to appreciate the power and the toughness of the marine unit from a whole new perspective. But this is only the most basic unit; this is your cannon fodder, your red shirts. If the creation of a mere marine is already this cool, just imagine what it must be like when a goliath or a siege tank is assembled. Essentially, we picked this scene because we felt it was a great way to return to the StarCraft universe - open up with something small, but finish with something really big.
Let's talk a little bit about how your team and the game design team for StarCraft II work together to create the cinematics. What role does each team play in coming up with ideas, and how are they then transformed into the actual movies?
There's a great deal of collaboration going on between all the teams that work on StarCraft II. We have a lot of brainstorming sessions where people from my team, the StarCraft design team, and our creative team sit down and throw around story ideas, character ideas, and just general thoughts of what's going to happen next.
For example, as we were coming up with the concept for the teaser cinematic and fleshing out the details for the marine portrayed in it, that marine evolved over time into a character, named Tychus Findlay, that features prominently in StarCraft II. Ultimately, the creative process involved with working Tychus into a certain role in the plot and fleshing him out helped us give him even more character depth in the cinematic.
Also, one of the big advantages of the cinematics team working directly with the game design team is that the cinematics are completely consistent with the game we're making, which isn't always the case when you're hiring an external company. Since we're part of the creative process, there's always a strong sense of consistency and continuity between the actual game and the cinematics.
It's been almost a decade since StarCraft and Brood War were released. What do you think your team has learned since then, and in what way is that growth reflected in the way the story of StarCraft II is told by its cinematics?
"To stand out, you can't just tell a story - you have to tell it well."
There's actually a lot of things we've learned since then, both in terms of technology and craft. Back then, things that we consider easy now were huge obstacles. If we want to have a talking character today, that's not that big of a deal. Back then, a good-looking facial animation was really difficult to achieve. So, this advance in the state of the art gives us a lot of freedom to tell our story, but good-looking 3D graphics are pretty much the standard that players have come to expect from games by now. To stand out, you can't just tell a story - you have to tell it well.
With every game we do, we try to take the cinematics to the next level. The cinematics of Diablo II were a huge step forward from Warcraft II, and Warcraft III raised the bar even higher. The cinematics for World of Warcraft and The Burning Crusade pushed the limits even further, so there are a lot of expectations for StarCraft II. We're improving our cinematics' quality by taking full advantage of the latest video rendering technologies, but at the end of the day the main goal still is to put all that technology toward crafting an epic story with a terrific cast of characters.
Aside from the pre-rendered cinematics, StarCraft and Brood War also relied on the actual game engine to deliver in-game cut-scenes to advance the plot. How does StarCraft II balance cut-scenes and pre-rendered cinematics? Also, what do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of each storytelling technique?
StarCraft II will have cut-scenes just like the original StarCraft games, but one thing I'm really excited about is that this time, the controls for these scenes will be much more intricate than before. Since our graphics engine for the game itself can display a wide range of effects, such as normal mapping, we can actually create in-game cut-scenes of near-cinematic quality. And since we have more control over camera movement, unit animation, and lighting, our only limitations here are the engine's limitations. A good part of the plot will unfold through in-game cut-scenes, but the most pivotal scenes are still being told through cinematics.
Using pre-rendered cinematics has the advantage of giving us almost unlimited freedom in what we want to show and how we want to execute a shot. In-game cut-scenes still don't quite offer the full range of freedom we have with cinematics. On the other hand, creating art assets for pre-rendered cinematics can be a time-consuming and difficult task, and rendering a cinematic takes time as well. So while we are able to show almost anything we want in a pre-rendered cinematic, the price we pay for that is time. The new cinematics for StarCraft II are really testing the limits of our technology, but at the same time that lets us explore how we can still grow and overcome these limitations.
What technologies did you use to create the cinematic
"I think the polygon count on the marine ended up being well above five million. So when we tried to render the cinematic teaser, we actually broke our renderer."
Traditionally, we've used off-the-shelf software to create our cinematics, but as I said previously, we're reaching the outer limits of what that is capable of. For example, the 3D models used in the cinematic teaser are the most complex and detailed models we've ever done. I think the polygon count on the marine ended up being well above five million. So when we tried to render the cinematic teaser, we actually broke our renderer. It refused to render the scene; it was just too much. In the end, we had to do separate passes to render the cinematic, but this experience showed us that we're approaching a point where our current software might not be able to help us in all rendering tasks.
Now we're looking at other solutions, and one solution is to switch over to RenderMan, a renderer that was developed by Pixar. Doing so means a lot of in-house development, which is fairly unusual for a computer games company, but it's really just the next logical step for us. We have a lot of extremely talented people on the cinematics team, and all that skill and professionalism is being put toward making sure that the cinematics of StarCraft II will meet the players' expectations.
Speaking of in-house software, can you tell us a little about the tools you use to create the in-game cut-scenes?
Our plan is to make all the tools we use to create the in-game cut-scenes available to the players with StarCraft II. It's always been our tradition to ship level-editing tools with our games, and I think that adds a lot to the success and longevity of games like Warcraft III and the original StarCraft. Even with World of Warcraft, there are a lot of really great fan-made machinima movies out there. There is a desire among the players for software like our level editors, and we're really excited to see what they'll do with these tools.
Thank you very much for your time, Nick. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
The only things I'd like to add is that we're really excited to be working on StarCraft II and we hope players will have a great time with it once it's finally released. Also, I'd like to thank my whole team for their hard work and the outstanding job they're doing. They're an amazing bunch of people, and I appreciate everyone's dedication and energy.