Navigating the Uncanny Valley

For so long the holy grail of game designers, truly realistic character designs may not be what Wii, PS3, and Xbox players want after all

For the Aug. 13 launch of Madden NFL 08—the latest update to the best-selling video game franchise—Electronic Arts (ERTS) put on quite a show. Soundtrack collaborator Ozzy Osbourne belted "Crazy Train" from atop the marquee of the Hard Rock Café in New York City's Times Square. Legendary NFL quarterback Warren Moon chatted up the media. But if reps from the Redwood City (Calif.) game publisher had reason to be nervous, it was because a select group of rabid Madden afficionados were getting their first glimpse of this year's version.

Billy "Da Secret" Wolf, a 20-year-old professional video gamer from Tampa, Fla., who won the recent Madden Nation competitive reality show on ESPN, noticed one big departure for the franchise, "They haven't really even made the graphics look better this year." Indeed, in the game's 18-year run, Madden's virtual footballers have evolved from three-color stick figures on a 2-D field to lifelike clusters made of thousands of 3-D polygons. But this year EA, like many game developers now getting a handle on the strengths of the next-gen consoles, turned its focus away from creating realistic graphics and toward more compelling game play.

Since the beginning of gaming, creating realistic graphics has been the overriding purpose. And as consoles and technology have become ever more sophisticated, the possibility of achieving that quest has become ever more attainable. The first slate of games for the Microsoft (MSFT) Xbox 360—such as EA's Tiger Woods PGA Tour in 2005 and Epic Games' Gears of War in 2006—featured some of the most lifelike computer-generated, or CG, characters and environments ever rendered, and topped the sales charts for months.

Game Realism Beyond Graphics

That's proof the demand for realism is high. But what next? "It's harder and harder as a platform and as a publisher to out-graphic the other guy to a point where it's meaningful," says John Rodman, spokesperson for Microsoft Xbox. The conclusion some designers are drawing: Leave graphics where they are, and find other channels for bringing realism into the game.

Customizing this year's Madden to each of 10 different platforms (Xbox 360, Xbox, PlayStation3, PlayStation2, PSP, Nintendo DS, Nintendo Wii, GameCube, PC, and Mac), EA got creative with features and game modes. Xbox 360 players can go into "front-office mode," where they control all the business aspects of running an NFL franchise, such as drafting, building a stadium, and hiring a coaching staff. PlayStation3 players can identify their team's "weapons," the skill sets particular to each star, like speed or precision passing. On the Nintendo (NTDOY) Wii, gamers can use the "Telestrator" in between plays. That lets them use the Wii remote to draw chalk outlines of their gameplan.

Long-time fans such as Wolf say this strategy of innovating beyond graphics will pay off. "It's all about the gameplay for me," he says.

A Robot Too Real

That's good, because as it turns out, overly realistic graphics can be a bad thing: There's a danger that characters may end up looking ghostly or uncanny. This effect was first observed in 1978—six years after Atari (ATAR) released the first version of Pong. That year, Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori hypothesized that robots provoke a feeling of repulsion in humans when they look and act too real. A crudely anthropomorphic robot, like R2D2 from the film Star Wars, is cute because we can distinguish it from a person instantly. But a smarter, more fleshed-out robot like the Terminator is creepy because it causes us to focus on the cold eyes and metallic teeth—the small differences that make it inhuman.

Mori called this emotional response the "uncanny valley"—a term that's been widely adopted throughout the creative industries. Comic strip character Ziggy and cartoon character Homer Simpson owe much of their likeability to their adherence to this principle—their goofy shapes and the simple use of color help audiences instantly relate to the caricatures.

Video Games: Hollywood Tuning In

In one hit family film after another, Disney (DIS) subsidiary Pixar, populates its CG-rendered worlds with anthropomorphic animals (sometimes, green ogres). Robert Zemeckis' 2004 CG-rendered film Polar Express received negative reviews because the humans in the film looked, in the word used by many, "creepy." But Zemeckis is confident CG-rendered humans can work in film: This November, his animated retelling of Beowulf, featuring digitized Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins, hits theaters.

An interesting side note for the gaming industry has been the increased attention from Hollywood. Faced with slumping ticket sales and rampant piracy, all of the big movie studios have embraced video game licensing deals. Hotshot directors including Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have begun producing games themselves. And while big-time actors may once have hesitated before lending their likeness and voice to a game, now it's almost a requirement for a well-versed actor's résumé—just ask Christopher Walken, Keanu Reeves, Pierce Brosnan, Willem Dafoe, Cameron Diaz, and the dozens of other A-listers who have all worked on video games.

Because most gamers are familiar with what these celebrities look like, renderings have to be precise. For the recent Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End game, developers at Disney Interactive Studios spent about four weeks developing a character that could accurately represent Johnny Depp's swashbuckling anti-hero, Jack Sparrow. Jay Riddle, visuals director at Disney Interactive Studios, says the process combined high-resolution images, three-dimensional scans, and motion capturing. The results are impressive, right down to the nervous twitch of Sparrow's moustache and his wobbly, drunken gait.

Bigger Galaxy of Casual Gamers

But they're accurate representations of a character, not the real Johnny Depp. It's a subtle distinction. "You get a sense when the animation and the [character's] behavior don't live up to the look," says Riddle. "When those get out of sync, people start to notice this character isn't hitting the bar." He adds that his team only does "what is best for the project," and that trying to create a perfectly lifelike human being in a video game is "in and of itself a misguided goal."

Realistic graphics are also under threat from other quarters, with next-gen game console developers interested in developing other elements, such as more intuitive controls. One reason for this evolutionary shift is the ever-increasing galaxy of casual gamers, who are more interested in games that are easy to pick up and play for a short time—as opposed to hard-core gamers, who prefer to immerse themselves in a game universe for hours.

Nintendo says it anticipated this shift years ago. "Our goal has never exclusively been to make things as lifelike as possible," says Perrin Kaplan, vice-president of marketing for Nintendo of America. Since last December, the company's Wii console has taken a commanding lead over Sony's PlayStation 3 and begun to eat into the market share of Microsoft's Xbox—selling 2.4 million units in the U.S. to date. The Wii owes more of its popularity to its innovative controller—a motion-sensing wand which players wave, swirl, and swing—than to its graphics, which are simple and cartoon-like.

Then again, the most realistic human in a video game could soon be you. On Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08, set for an Aug. 28 release, EA included a surprising feature that could make its way into other games: Photo Game Face, which allows gamers to upload photos of their own face onto a Web site and download them into the game. Now that's a truly personalized avatar.

Check out the slide show on "Keeping It Real" in video games.

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