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Q&A: Softimage's Schoennagel Talks Free Mod,  Dead Rising

Q&A: Softimage's Schoennagel Talks Free Mod, Dead Rising

January 2, 2008 | By Jeffrey Fleming




Earlier this year, art and animation software developer Softimage released its XSI 6 Mod Tool for free to independent and aspiring developers. Based off version six of the company's modeling and animation software tool, it integrates fully with XNA for both Xbox 360 and PC development.

Gamasutra spoke in-depth with Schoennagel about the mod tool, the details of its XNA integration, and some of the unique opportunities the free tool offers up-and-coming developers, and also discussed the company's approach to workflow and its innovative GATOR technology.

Could you give us some more details on the XSI Mod Tool?

Mark Schoennagel: The mod tool is based off of XSI version six, and it's designed to allow any artist for free -- which is the nice part -- to modify a lot of the popular games out there. Right now, we support XNA for both Xbox and PC development. We support the Source engine by Valve, and we have some other companies showing some pretty good interest in that as well.

The idea there is that you'll be able to design props and characters for all these different games, and be able to put them in-game. There's a lot of documentation on the web, and it's designed for the novice. When you first load the software up, it comes with a much simplified interface, but once you feel comfortable with that interface, you can switch into pro mode, which puts you in the exact same interface that release XSI is in.

All the tools in XSI are available, so it really allows an artist... well, not just an artist, it allows any enthusiast who wants to get into 3D to start to learn 3D, as well as take you all the way through to being a professional, to then hopefully inspire you to get a career in the industry, instead of just making a character you can go frag your friend with. So it's really a learning tool, as well as an enthusiast creation tool that hopefully inspires people.

It's pretty remarkable. Can you tell me a little about the user interface, and how it's different from the standard?

MS: Sure. When you first load it up, it greets you with a nice webpage that takes you to softimage.com. There's not a lot of marketing propaganda in there. It's really just a lot of information -- getting started with the tool, sample content, how to get stuff into XNA, how to get stuff into Valve's Source. Close that up if you want. Otherwise, go ahead and read it.

But what we've done is we've removed a lot of the fairly daunting menus that a professional animator who's gone to school and really understands all the nuances of character animation -- which is a very "3D package" -- if you can envision something, you can create it. That's how crazy of a package something like Softimage is. When you have that much creative flexibility where you can create from scratch, there's a lot of tools that need to be developed in order to achieve that.

So what we've done with the mod tool is try to strip down some of the tools that are a little bit complicated, some of crazy in words in there that people don't know. You know, "What's inverse kinematics? I don't know." How about, "Draw a bone?" Hey, that make a lot more sense to the enthusiast.

So with the default interface of the mod tool, what we did was we stripped out a lot of the complicated stuff, simplified the user interface, exposed a lot of it with icons that seem to make sense, and then from there, once you've mastered that interface, click one button, and now you're at the professional interface, which is the exact same UI for the release package.

How does it interface with XNA?

MS: As soon as you load it up, the XNA studio tools are right there in a pull-down menu. This basically lets you create any asset. It allows you to model it, texture it, and then export it in the native XNA format. So really, in under a day, with a little bit of research on the Web, you can get any model, any character you can create -- whether it be a spinning cube or a complex character -- you can get that onto your Xbox and your PC.

Microsoft has done a great job of releasing a lot of tools and a lot of source code for examples that they've created. You can take those examples, and take a model that you've made -- maybe a spaceship or something -- and replace their spaceship with your spaceship. Right there, you've already created your first little mod, and then from there, you build on it. You can put texture maps on this and expand that.

One thing Microsoft does really well is releasing tools, and documentation is one of their big strengths too. You remember the MSDN network. You get this massive bible of stuff on how to develop for Windows. It's the same thing with the XNA tools. There's a crazy amount of information on the Wiki and on the web pages for doing that. Working with them has been really nice, because it lets our users get their assets into the XNA architecture very easily.

It was featured in the keynote at Gamefest. We have a beautiful demo, all with real-time shaders of a majestic flying zeppelin -- sort of a sailboat -- cruising through the sky, with all these real-time shaders on the water, and procedural mountains that were created by Microsoft. It's very easy to get those assets into your game and into your Xbox.

Pretty remarkable. Let's talk about GATOR, then.

MS: GATOR is an acronym. It's Generalized Attribute Transfer Operator. It sounds a little complicated, but what GATOR allows you to do in a real production environment is to never, ever lose your work. A lot of time, artists will spend days taking bones and making those bones drive skin. That's an artform in itself.

Often, after you've done that -- you've animated your character -- your art director will come in and change the look of the character, or want to add more points, or add another bone or a tail. Traditionally, you have to start all over from scratch. You have to reassign all those points to the bones.

What GATOR allows you to do is to put the old object on top of the new object and say, "You know what? Transfer all that animation data." Shape animation -- unheard of, until a year-and-a-half ago -- to be able to transfer shape animation from one object to another regardless of topology, regardless of the number of points, and regardless of simplicity. You can take a very low-resolution animated head and transfer that complex shape animation onto a hi-res head.

It allows you to take texture data -- texture square-fingered hands, textured stick figures, almost -- with your images, use GATOR to transfer that onto a character that you've done in Zbrush that has five million triangles. You don't have to sit there and work with these very complex models. Do everything on low-res models, and just transfer it up to the hi-res models.

In a game studio, where you've constantly got art directors, you've got fifty people with their nose in the project, saying, "Well, I want it to look like this!" As an artist, you're not leaving that meeting upset and angry that suddenly you've got a week's worth of more work that you've already done 15 times already, and now you've got to do it a 16th time, because a new person comes in and says, "You know what? I want another wrinkle on the forehead." It's no big deal. Put the wrinkle on the forehead, and GATOR the old information from it onto the new one. There's not a tool out there in any other package, and it is definitely one of the biggest -- if not the biggest -- tool inside of XSI right now.

Why do you think that is? Is it Softimage is just thinking more about the artist, or from the artist's point of view?

MS: Honestly, we're not trying to figure out how to get two former competing packages to play together. We're just concentrating on making our package work well by itself. It's something we've been doing for over 20 years as a company. We've constantly been the leaders in animation, and never copying, always innovating. That's just what we do at Softimage.

I can't remember a time when we've opened up the other package and gone, "We need this, and we need that from a competitor's package." It's always been, "What can we do?" and listening to our customers. My job is to travel around and visit studios on a daily basis, and find out what their pain spots are, take those pain spots, put them in a document, and every three or six months, go over all of our companies' pain spots and try to figure out how we can help them.

Constantly being able to hear "non-destructive workflow, being able to read my asset," was something that just kept coming up over and over, and so we put one of our best engineers on it, and he came up with GATOR. Our Project Moondust is coming up with our next release. The people we've shown that under NDA have been absolutely astounded by what we're going to have with the next release of our software.

You talked about education and how the Mod Tool is to get more people educated about it and get them up to speed and to get them using it, because there are not many people who know about how to use Softimage.

MS: Studios are demanding artists to use the other packages, so it's kind of this catch-22. Until the artists are driving the studios, the studios aren't going to drive the artists. So we've got a little bit of work to do there.

We've made a huge push in education in the last year. Coming up with things like the Mod Tool, and then really going after the schools and showing them the benefits of using XSI... because I find that working in the field for the company that... we go to different companies, and "Sure, we'd love to buy ten seats. Can you find us ten users?" That's something that's been a problem.

And you guys have talked about the way Softimage can integrate really easily with other packages, through C# and GATOR...

MS: Crosswalk is a technology we developed. Most converters, if you talk images, if you take a bitmap and convert it to a JPEG, if you go back to a bitmap, you've lost quality. Somewhere, you matched those two images up, and you lost pixels. It's the same in 3D. If you take a character that's rigged up in Max or Maya, and you bring it into XSI using any other converter out there, things have to happen.

We don't understand the math, and no company's going to release their secret sauce as to what makes their proprietary rig proprietary. No company's going to release the math behind their push, or their bulge or twist deformer. That stuff has to get baked out into shape animation, generally. So, moving point animation.

So when you take something from Max, Maya, Lightwave, or whatever, and transfer it into a different package, all the secretness -- all the technology that made it respond the way it did -- gets lost and has to be baked. By "baked" it means you lose the control to edit what just happened. You might have a deformer that says, "As the arm bends, this muscle needs to expand at this growth rate," or whatever. To simplify that kind of logic, in order to get that functionality into XSI or any other packages, you lose the control to be able to change the amount that bulge is going to happen, because we don't understand how that happened to begin with.

What Crosswalk does is that it ignores things that it doesn't understand. If you bring in a rig that has a lot of complex MEL scripting or Max script, or things that XSI just doesn't understand, but you'd really like to GATOR on a new head, or you really would like to GATOR on some new UV coordinates or new shape animation, it keeps a reminder. It remembers, "This is a list of stuff I don't understand. I'm just not going to evaluate it." Maybe in XSI, when you bend the arm, the muscle doesn't move at all, or the muscle doesn't bulge. That's fine, because you're not worried about that. You're worried about getting that texture map back on.

The great thing about Crosswalk is once you export back into Max or Maya, everything gets hooked back up again. So rather than try to bake it so that it looks exactly the same inside of XSI, stuff that it doesn't understand it just ignores. It's designed to go back and forth, and that's really the big key to get into these studios that have very large investments into Max or Maya or any other package.

There's 50 licenses out there, and they've got to get all of their stuff back into whatever package they're using to get it into a game engine or their render farm. Whatever it might be, that's a challenge. We could have the best tool on the planet, but if you can't get it back into the package that your pipeline requires, we're in trouble. The great thing about Crosswalk is that it's a bidirectional tool. It goes back and forth. It just plays well with other packages.

You talked a little bit about Capcom using Softimage for Dead Rising. Can you tell me about that?

MS: Sure. It's interesting. I guess I do get to travel the world quite a bit and see different regions, and Japan has always been a Softimage stronghold. You go there, and it's just a whole other ballgame. It's like, well, we have problems in North America, Autodesk and other companies have problems over there. They just can't get their foot in the door, whereas we own those markets.

Capcom, for doing things like Dead Rising and Lost Planet, they're one of our shining stars there. Look at a game like Dead Rising, where you've got hundreds and hundreds of characters... all kinds of mangled zombies, and a lot of characters to envelop. Enveloping is the term we use for attaching skin to bones. There's a lot of texture maps. They actually came up with interesting workflows that allow them to take almost bits and pieces -- like this bloody arm, this mangled leg -- and just glue them to various other bodies to make unique characters without really having to model or create unique characters. It's just doing a bunch of this stuff randomly. I say "randomly" with a lot of gist, I guess. It's a little more complicated than that.

But they basically came up with scripts, and they came up with workflows that allow them to create unique characters without actually creating them, just having bits and pieces here and there. It's almost Frankenstein-like. Just give me an arm from there, a leg from there, a head from there, and create a new character that, "Well, that looks a little bit different from that guy, but maybe his arm is sort of the same. Is it? Eh, I don't know."

They use GATOR extensively for that, just to glue all of these different technologies together. Rip a head off here, and put it on that character, but not have it we envelope it. They don't have to worry about going in there and painting envelope layers by hand and letting the machine do it automatically. Because all of their characters were fairly the same size and proportion, so you could just glue them all together and make new characters. It's a gory character creating machine.

That was what was interesting -- it sounds almost like a film technique. It's the way someone might actually film something with a huge cast of exotic prosthetic makeup and stuff.

MS: Yeah! Give me a little bit here and a little bit there, and put it together. It's interesting that you say film, because film and games are just blurring. That line of realism is just blurring. You look at some of the best games out there, and they look like film. That certainly isn't going away. And that's only going to get more [prevalent].

Having a long history with film and games, bringing those together is great, and so is being able to share assets. Going from a film and -- we say "film," but film is also cinematics and cutscenes -- you look at something like Assassin's Creed being able to share assets back and forth between the cinematics team and the real-time team, or any team.

Anyone who's doing cinematics now, those cinematics are looking so similar to the in-game stuff that just being able to share them, having amazing, best-of-breed polygon production tools inside of XSI, you can take some very high-resolution, film-quality renderable cinematic object, polygon-reduce it, and get it into game and share it back and forth between those different teams. It's great, and those lines are just going to blur even further.

I think this generation of consoles is spectacular, and the next generation is going to be film-in-a-box. Film how you want it, pretty much. It's definitely an exciting time. For 20 years it's been an exciting time, because every year, there's more excitement, more tools, and more feeding the artist and feeding the community. Softimage is proud to be a part of that.


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