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Caprice Bourret



When we saw Shiny Entertainment's Messiah in 1998, all the public relations agents in the universe could not have pumped us up more for the eye-popping experience. At the Electronic Entertainment Expo in June, we were ushered into a small room accommodating a computer running the game. Essentially, a characteristic real-time 3D environment was home to numerous detailed polygonal models. What popped our eyes, however, was what the engine was doing with those polygons. In the corner of the screen was a sum that showed the number of polygons being rendered in the scene; as characters moved closer to the camera or more entered the room, polygons were added to create more detail or subtracted to maintain the high framerate. The question that wrapped around our heads was not how the engine accomplished this -- the code-based acrobatics were inconsequential. Our foremost thought was, "Imagine this game in one year. Or two. Or three." According to what we were seeing, the engine could render unlimited detail, and a year could do wonders.

Install most 3D action games made today in 2001 and what will you get? Perhaps a faster framerate and higher resolutions, but with Messiah, you get all that plus added detail and more sumptuous graphics. This is because the engine has been infused with a certain algorithmic brilliance that enables it to leverage all the strength contained within its partnered machine. This means people with less robust computers can achieve something playable, while those brandishing the home equivalent of a Cray-2 supercomputer will be privileged to a whole new reality, even on tomorrow's hardware. I write, "even on tomorrow's hardware," because there is a certain prejudice among gamers that a game cannot be technologically competitive unless it is the latest code de jour.

The Messiah engine was born in 1997, long before curved surfaces were a glimmer in id Software's eyes, and Shiny was aiming to instigate an insurrection. Its less-than-subtle spearhead, David Perry, claimed 3D programmers had grown lethargic and uninventive, and insisted his team had come up with a better approach to rendering 3D environments. It was called RT-DAT, a hip acronym that stands for "real-time deformation and tessellation." Anything that sounds so abashingly technical has to be advanced, though an explanation is simple enough: Real-time deformation models all the attributes of a living being so characters appear as realistic as possible, and tessellation scales a scene's polygon count to maintain a high framerate without a loss of detail.

How does real-time deformation act upon the game? Each character has an animatronic frame held together with muscles; a membrane is stretched over the top to simulate clothing and other coverings. The membrane creases and pulls tight as characters move. The individual animations, such as a leg bending and an arm swinging, are motion captured, then combined during run-time to create limitless movements that adapt to even the most unpredictable situations. This process actually saves memory and accentuates gameplay because the processor does not have to store and manage multiple frames of animation. Although this approach has become commonplace in the 3D genre, with other upcoming titles such as Nocturne also supporting it, Shiny was at the vanguard of its creation.

Things get a bit more cunning with the tessellation component of the Messiah theorem. As stated, tessellation enables the engine to scale a scene's polygon count in real-time with no loss of speed. This means the game adds and subtracts polygons depending on what is happening. The more characters there are on-screen, the less polygons there are per model; the detail in the scene does not significantly degrade because the polygons are removed from unnoticeable, or perhaps unmentionable, places. For example, the prostitute -- this is a mature audiences only game -- might have a polygon removed from her inner thigh and remain equally alluring. When she steps up for a smooch, though, her facial detail increases, augmenting the realism of the model in real-time.

Still, with other developers implementing advanced technologies such as curved surfaces, has the window of opportunity slammed shut on Messiah's technology? Will Voodoo3 and TNT2 users be scratching their heads and wondering what the big deal was supposed to be? Scott Herrington of Interplay says no, and not only due to the inventive tessellation code, which will be adding polygons to the game for as long as they remain the principle rendering primitive, but also because of their support of the sugary tools gamers will be using this fall, including AGP, 3dfx's Voodoo3 and nVidia's TNT2. "We have a great relationship with both 3dfx and nVidia, and were among the first developers to receive cards from them," Herrington boasts. "While most other companies brag about jumps in framerates, we realize once you get over 60 frames per second, the point becomes rather moot. There really isn't a huge jump in visual quality between 60 and 90 fps."

Thus, Shiny is striving to increase the visual quality rather than just the speed. Characters with greater polygonal detail is one of the main benefits the next generation of 3D hardware offers, so coupling the Messiah engine with a Voodoo3 or TNT2 will be a match made in heaven -- and it will create some hellish environments. AGP is a huge bonus as well, as the programmers are using it for expanded texture RAM. According to Herrington, Messiah already runs on the Voodoo3, and there will be special versions for the PowerVR and other cards. We inquired about the upcoming S4 and its gorgeous texture compression, and he said a special version might be available as a patch after the title releases.

The animation and unique 3D rendering process are not the only cutting-edge components to Messiah. Volumetric lighting, which creates shadowing effects in real-time based on position, so shadows stretch and retract as characters move away from or approach a light source, is also included, as is an incomparable AI system. However, technology is a means to an end, and with the extended engine development, the obvious question is, have the design and technology been able to evolve in tandem? The game actually started development in early 1997, and much has happened in the 3D genre since then, including immersive stories and interactive environments.


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