Britain's best bet for Olympic gold

The weight-lifting was wearisome and the high jump was a big headache, but the developers of 'Sydney 2000', the official Olympic computer game, are on to a winner.
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The Independent Online

As the Sydney Olympics approach, the computer games industry is packed with developers keen to cash in on Olympic fever. But only one developer was ever going to win the gold medal - the International Olympic Committee's endorsement to create the official Sydney 2000 game.

As the Sydney Olympics approach, the computer games industry is packed with developers keen to cash in on Olympic fever. But only one developer was ever going to win the gold medal - the International Olympic Committee's endorsement to create the official Sydney 2000 game.

Two years ago that elusive - and lucrative - licence was awarded to Attention to Detail, a Warwickshire-based company whose biggest title to date had been Rollcage, a futuristic driving game. ATD is new to the genre and the fruit of its efforts is soon to be pitted against seasoned competitor Konami's International Track and Field, and Sega's Virtua Athlete 2K.

Chris Gibbs, ATD's managing director, doesn't sound too worried though. The company's goal was to make the product as realistic as possible for all the major gaming consoles. As far as Gibbs is concerned, they've achieved what they set out to do.

"It is the most realistic sports game to date. It took six hours of stadium footage, 1,000 pictures of the venues, 8,000 commentary phrases, disciplined athletes and 30 people working for for two years on research and development to produce that authenticity," he explains. "Even the game's swimming-pool tiles are identical to the ones you'll see broadcast from the antipodes."

To reproduce the ultra-realistic athletes in the game, ATD used - and struggled with - motion capture. ATD's lead artist, Pat Fox, was involved in turning motion capture data into virtual athletes. "Some of the disciplines could be turned around in a matter of hours. The high jump, however, proved difficult because the motion capture area was too big for us to work from. The jump had to be broken down into its constituent stages and as a result, it would take up to three days to produce a realistic and complete jump."

Producing the different facial expressions on the wheezing and grunting weight-lifters didn't prove easy, either, and work had to be restarted several times. But their efforts paid off - even on the PlayStation, the athletes' movements are fluid and probably as close as graphics will ever get to realistic on the comparatively limited console.

Track and field games were established early on as a genre which the gaming community loved. Gibbs sees their attraction as purely visceral. "These are games where you know exactly what you have to do - be the fastest, the strongest and the quickest. The game comes as close as possible to matching the real physical prowess of a player with what happens on screen. So if you've better stamina and wrist action than your opponent, you'll win."

As with most game genres, you either love or hate track and field events. Pat Fox isn't an aficionado of the bash-the-keyboard-like-a-lunatic track and field genre but nevertheless can see its almost timeless appeal. "The genre's heyday was probably with Daley Thompson's Decathlon, but the instant satisfaction offered by the races and competitions means that this type of game is still popular."

But authenticity and popular genre doesn't necessarily make for a game that will sell. With a plethora of sports games currently on the market, ATD decided it had to differentiate its Olympic version from the others of the genre. Fox was involved from the very start of the development process and agreed that there had to be a "must-have" factor. "Track and field games generally work well as good multiplayers. We wanted to provide something which would make the game that little bit different and increase its appeal, so we decided on the addition of the Olympic training mode and virtual gym which is geared more towards the single-player."

The official branding, thanks to that IOC license, will also help the game to stand out among the crowd. But despite the quibbling over where those interlocking rings should go and what colour they should be, Gibbs says that the IOC was a delight to work with. "Unreservedly, the IOC really opened the door for us to work in harmony with them. We were expecting a nightmare, but it worked out well. They could hardly tell us how to make a game fun, but they drew a very clear line on certain things. If we didn't use the rings in the right way, we wouldn't have received approval."

Fox agrees: "There are an awful lot of things you can't do with their property: the rings are sacrosanct but that's the general problem with working on a game with a licence - yes, it has endorsement, but you have to work within strict limitations."

Therein lies the conundrum for the computer games industry, according to Fox. "It's an industry full of creative people bursting with ideas. But the difficulty is getting publishers to take any of their ideas one step further.

"Games are becoming more and more expensive in terms of time and money to produce", he says. "It would be a brave publisher who took a chance on a new game without a licence or which isn't a follow-up game, and I can't see that changing."

Yet Gibbs insists that innovation does still exist in the industry. "We are a creative company and are keen to produce unlicensed games because it's fun and rewarding to do crazy things without limitation. But unfortunately publishers aren't overly keen to talk to developers about wacky ideas."

The only way to inject innovation, Gibbs suggests, is by stealth and by increments. "Take a tried-and-tested formula and add a twist which will take it to another level. With Rollcage we took the idea of the traditional racing game and we tweaked it. With Sydney 2000 we took the existing sports game idea and added a more in-depth single player option. But remember that the industry is reactive. While the licensed and follow-up games continue to sell, you will continue to see them flood the market." The imminent arrival of new gaming platforms will undoubtedly bring an increase in development costs and by extension a reduction in the number of titles released. But all is not doom and gloom for the more discerning game player.

Chris Gibbs thinks that with the launch of new consoles, fresh ideas will start to filter through. Concurrent with more advanced machines are advanced graphics and better gameplay, according to Pat Fox. "Initially, we'll see a lot of very pretty-looking games on the market which aren't terribly good to play. But as the second and third wave of games arrives, so too will interesting gameplay."

It is to be hoped that ATD remain true to its word: it has won a six-year licence from the IOC which will cover the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. ATD is already hard at work on the Winter Olympics and Gibbs: "We created this game for the last of the old guard platforms. Winter will be for the first of the new and already we're looking for the wow factor. We've learnt a heck of a lot about the genre and we can apply that to [the Winter Olympics]."

In the games industry, it's survival of the fittest. It remains to be seen whether this relative newcomer can take the pace.