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Wargame Provides Visual Content for History Channel Documentary

by Glen Emerson Morris
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One of the newest content sources for advertisers is the computer game section of the nearest electronics store. In retrospect it was inevitable. Computer games have been moving towards motion picture quality graphics for years. Though not there yet, the quality is good enough now that game graphics have been used as a substantial part of documentaries broadcast by The History Channel and the BBC.

Both PBS, the BBC and history oriented cable channels have been quick to take advantage of the revolution going on in 3D computer animation. CGI has become so inexpensive that today a history program with only a modest budget can feature CGI scenes that many movies could not have afforded only a few years ago. Vast, sweeping aerial views of ancient cities, in photographic quality, have become common. The revolution here is that now the CGI scenes can come from a PC war simulation that costs less than $50.

The History Channel's 13 part miniseries Decisive Battles of Ancient History used computer graphics battle sequences generated from the popular wargame Rome: Total War. About half the total time of each episode, or 10 to 12 minutes, is entirely from the video game. The rest of the show is a series of talking heads and a narrator on a few locations, with a little stock footage tossed in.

The idea that a desktop computer could create 3D battles isn't new of course, Apple's pro grade 3D animation program Shake was used to create battle scenes for Lord of the Rings. And like many modern wargame simulations, Shake allows each individual animated character to have its own artificial intelligence, including ratings for bravery and fighting skills. To "film" a combat scene, the characters aren't choreographed, they're simply turned loose. (In an initial test of the mass combat programming, two armies charged each other, stoped when they got to about 50 feet from each other, stared at each other for a few seconds and then turned around and ran like hell. The problem was resolved by increasing each units bravery rating.)

Like Shake, Rome: Total War allows armchair generals to play Caesar by determining battle strategy and tactics and then sitting back and watching as thousands of individual soldiers fight for their lives. At any time the armchair general can zoom in for a closer view, all the way down to following the progress of a single soldier amid thousands. The graphical quality isn't anywhere near photographic quality, especially in the close up scenes, but it's totally adequate for a documentary.

RTW's success as a content generator comes from the fact that it is really a "game engine" rather than just a game. As a game engine RTW is customizable to the degree that it can be used to simulate any major battle from early Egyptian through late Roman Empire.

Like many of the current generation war and sport simulations, from Age of Empires III to Microsoft Flight Simulator X, RTW allows buyers of the game to create additional components for the game, including terrain, vehicles, combat troops, weapons, maps, and even new formations and tactics. A game editor enables users to place the troops on the map, and, in other ways, set up how the game will start. Game fans post their additions on the Internet, often as complete packages, or scenarios, designed to recreate some major battle not included the original TRW release.

This "open source" approach to simulations has proved to be a win-win situation for game publisher's and for the game's fans. By going to the additional expense of making the game expandable, the company gets the benefit of all of the free work done by the game's fans which helps sell the game. For instance, though it is sold as a Roman era war simulator, because of it's expandability RTW can be sold to people only interested in Greek war simulations. All they have to do is download any of the free Greek scenarios on the Net and they have a ancient Greece era war simulator.

The ability to customize RTW makes it also quite suitable for creating the epic battle scenes required for any documentary feature on battles from a time period covering over three thousand years. Other wargames will allow documentaries on other time periods, if they haven't already.

Recently Enterprise Rent-A-Car sponsored a mini-series on the History Channel about the WWII aircraft carrier Enterprise. The president and founder of Enterprise Rent-A-Car served on the carrier Enterprise, and named the company after her. The series uses a lot of computer animation of about the same quality as RTW based Decisive Battles of Ancient History. It's not sure it the animation is coming from a game or not, but it could well be.

Given current CGI costs, the series on the Enterprise would not have been economical if it had been done to Lord of the Rings quality animation. However, by using game quality animation instead, the series was indeed viable, and it brought Enterprise Rent-A-Car some well deserved visibility and goodwill.

Over the next decade the types of simulations available will increase, and their graphic quality will increase to near motion picture grade. As a by-product, there will be a vast new source of content for programs to sponsor and for commercials and other promotional material. And the content will go well beyond history.

For instance, there are a wide variety of 3D based computer sports simulations available now including fishing, hunting, sailing, car racing, and the usual team sports. An expandable fishing simulation could be used by a manufacturer of fishing equipment to cost effectively demonstrate how to use its gear to go after specific types of fish. It could also be used by a fishing resort to create a video that models the resort's lake and shows what kind of fish are in the lake and how best to catch them.

A ski resort could use a ski simulation to create virtual versions of its own trails, giving skiers a chance to try the trails in cyberspace before they visit the resort in real life.

Eventually the potential uses of game based content will be near limitless. Even now, it's impressive, and best of all, it's affordable. You can check it out now, on The History Channel, or on your kid's PC.

Glen Emerson Morris was recently a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law. He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.

Copyright İ 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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