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Idealog—in the ideas business

Areograph: Picture perfect

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Sam Clarkson, Luke Reid and Julian Temple • Photographs by Alan Dove

While the gaming industry works out how to draw yet more pixels faster, a Dunedin company is using its backyard invention to bring the real world to screen in picture-perfect quality. Amanda Cropp meets the snap-happy team behind Areograph

For many women the idea of playing a video game peopled by jerky, animated cartoon figures is about as exciting as watching paint dry.

But offer them a game that looks like a TV crime drama with a smart, handsome detective in the lead role, and they might just be tempted to give it a go.

That’s what Luke Reid figured, anyway. The only trouble was he had to invent the technology to make it all possible. So after two years of intensive research and development—“two years of not seeing our wives and not sleeping”—Reid and his team at Dunedin-based Areograph launched Casebook.

Each episode includes 45 minutes of film drama based around the sleuthing of detective James Burton. Gamers act as Burton’s sidekick as they explore crime scenes and play a series of mini-games analysing clues that will help them solve the case.

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A set for Areograph’s photorealistic game, Casebook

It proved to be a winning combination. Casebook was voted Best Independent Adventure Game 2008 by Adventuregamers.com, the largest adventure gaming site on the Internet, and earlier this year Areograph won a United Nations World Summit Award for innovation in the eentertainment and games category. US Walmart stores placed an initial order for 12,500 games, later upping it to 21,000, and Casebook has been redubbed in preparation for sales to Russia.

The technology behind Casebook, branded Areo, is set for broader use too. The defence industry is showing interest in using photorealistic games, rather than the more common pixellated recreations, as a training tool.

In stereotypical Kiwi fashion, Areo was born in a backyard shed, where Reid and his engineer brother Justin built a robot-guided camera that moved around a metal grid above a film set taking and storing hundreds of thousands of photographs. Reid then designed software that stitched these digital images together into scenes that players could navigate.

Thanks to $250,000 worth of funding from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, the Reid brothers went on to build Areobot2, a camera that operates without a grid, allowing 360-degree filming to be done anywhere instead of being restricted to indoor sets. By cutting back on the need for expensive, labour-intensive, computer-generated imagery, Areo offers major savings for a gaming industry hit by skyrocketing costs, Reid says.

“Budgets today for top games are between US$10 and $20 million, whereas six years ago it was only US$5 million and ten years ago it was half a million. We can produce episodes of Casebook for one-third the price of our competitors with a quality that many critics suggest is significantly higher.”

We can produce episodes of Casebook for one-third the price of our competitors with a quality that many critics suggest is significantly higher

This blond, baby-faced 30-year-old displayed entrepreneurial flair at an early age, making his first foray into business at 17 when he set up computer software company Entropy to help pay his way through a computer science degree at Otago University.

He says his real education started when he landed in London towards the end of the dot-com era and formed a company called Skinkers with a couple of mates. They started out making animated toys for desktop marketing, won a contract to make news alert software for the BBC and gradually built up a stable of corporate clients that included the London Stock Exchange and the Wall Street Journal.

Microsoft acquired a ten percent stake in Skinkers in return for intellectual property and collaboration over peer-to-peer broadcast applications that allow PC and iPhone users to watch live TV over the Internet. Reid is still a shareholder in Skinkers but a decision to return to New Zealand in 2006 gave him the impetus to work on Areograph.

“I came up with the idea for the technology in 2000 and it was sitting there nagging at me all that time, but computers were not powerful enough back then.”

Returning to Dunedin provided the necessary mental and physical space to refine his original concept and build up a team of skilled staff. “I wouldn’t try to do something like this in London. There’s a large hardware component to what we do—we need lathes and mills and areas to build stuff. It’s also very R&D focused and London is very distracting and you really need a quiet sleepy little town like Dunedin to get the best out of the guys.”

Areo employs a core staff of ten, rising to about 30 during filming of the cinematic sequences, and Reid is wary of growing the company too quickly.

Areo’s driving game will have real scenery. “Hardcore driving enthusiasts will love it because they’re not driving around the recreation of a race track, they are driving the track, which is a huge distinction”

“It’s extremely important to get the right people. When you build a company too fast you just pirate people for their skills and not for the combination of their skills and their personality. You end up with this monster on your hands that you have to keep feeding work because it’s expensive to run.”

The decision to create an episodic crime series was based on the enormous popularity of television crime dramas and the dearth of quality video games for female audiences. This isn’t a niche market. According to figures from the US Entertainment Software Association, 40 percent of gamers are women and—turning the gamer cliché right on its head—there are almost twice as many woman gamers over the age of 18 as there are boy gamers under the age of 18.

“People automatically think games are something for teenage boys, but women are the fastest-growing demographic in gaming. The Sims is a massively successful game because it tapped into that female market. Most games are quite cartoony and childish and we wanted to make something more mature.”

Some experienced gamers have panned Casebook as too easy and Reid admits it’s difficult striking a balance. “It was designed to be easy so you could plough through it and get the whole experience—not get stuck at one bit for three hours, which is what commonly happens in other games. We absolutely wanted to go for people who didn’t normally play computer games.”

So far Areograph has made three episodes of Casebook. Episode zero is downloadable for free and episodes one and two are mainly sold online via Big Fish Games, the world’s largest online distributor of video games.

Now, however, Reid says the company is concentrating on retail sales following the positive response from Walmart. “In one week our first retail order from one store was more than Big Fish sold in six months.”

Casebook scripts are written by Dunedin author and blogger Henry Feltham, whose work appeared in the 2006 edition of the Six Pack short story collection. Areograph creative director Sam Clarkson directs filming. Early episodes were shot in an old warehouse opposite the company’s modest Crawford Street offices. Clarkson takes me on a tour of the sets: a scungy flophouse behind a cocktail bar, a gentleman inventor’s study complete with oil portraits and a library of leather-bound books, a forensic lab housing the burned-out hulk of a Triumph car, and the morgue (a wall covered in the facades of pull-out chiller drawers.)

With boyish enthusiasm Clarkson describes how the Triumph 2500 packed with explosives was rigged to a remote control device and driven over a 13-metre cliff at Blackhead Quarry, just out of Dunedin, creating a satisfyingly spectacular bang for the cameras.

Detective Burton’s character is the lynchpin and Clarkson originally looked for a local actor to play the role, but ended up casting singer Julian Temple. He’d modelled for Silkbody, a clothing label co-owned by Clarkson’s wife Emily Cooper, and has an American accent perfect for foreign audiences.

Clarkson says using Areo to create crime scenes like the children’s bedroom in the first Casebook episode was a doddle compared to doing the same thing with CGI. The scene “was crammed full of vintage toys, a rocking horse and countless other objects, any one of which would have taken a 3D modeller days or weeks to model to that level of detail. I just went to a set designer, said, ‘Here are my ideas for a child’s bedroom’ ... If we want some rust he just picks up a paintbrush. That’s a completely different experience to sitting over the shoulder of a room full of computer nerds trying to communicate your vision to them.”

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The Areobot2 camera captures 360-degree panoramas in high detail

Areo’s latest project is a driving game that will have real scenery, something Clarkson believes will attract a whole new group of players. “The difference between 3D and photorealism is the difference between my wife actually picking up the controller and wanting to have a go because this is a beautiful road somewhere in the world and she wants to drive down it. The hardcore driving enthusiasts will love it too because they’re not driving around the recreation of a race track, they are driving the track, which is a huge distinction.”

Parents of learner drivers may be relieved to hear that the realistic nature of the game might even deter boy racer-type antics. “It will show that driving like a maniac on real streets doesn’t work very well and you’ll crash. We might even include aspects like getting a speeding ticket or being flagged down by an actor playing a police officer.”

Areo has other exciting applications. Reid says the technology could map the interiors of heritage buildings so anyone could visit via the Internet. “Instead of looking at still photos or maybe a video, you could fly around and look close up at the intricate detail of, say, the Terracotta Army in China.”

Mapping could also provide useful information for emergency services. “If there’s a model of the Aotea Centre and there’s a terrorist attack or a fire there, they can pull it up out of their database and know what they’re dealing with.”

Reid is surprised by the strength of interest from the defence market following presentations to defence contractors and military personnel in New Zealand, the UK and the US, all of whom are keen on using Areo games to provide more realistic training for troops. “At the moment they make CAD models of whatever environments they need to familiarise themselves with, which is quite a manual process and the visual results are not complete. We have a whole bunch of potential customers who have common factors in how they want to use it, and from a business perspective that’s great.”

Reid has been wooing both Sony and Microsoft in hopes of attracting funding to further develop the technology for gaming applications. “I managed to get in front of the right people in both of those companies and they’re both keen on evaluating it.”

It’s not an easy time to be pursuing investment money and Reid hopes international recognition in the UN’s Summit Awards will assist their case. “I’m generally pretty cynical about these things but it’s quite good to establish our credibility, especially for an outside observer who has no idea how seriously to take a couple of guys in Dunedin doing something so novel and unlikely.”

Originally published in Idealog #25, page 78

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Great article Amanda. Luke and Team - well done. Inspiring to see what passion and commitment can achieve from anywhere.


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