Outcast is an ambitious action adventure game featuring unique voxel technology and a compelling storyline. It was developped by Appeal (our company) and published in 1999 by Infogrames, worldwide.
Above: A painting I did for the June 1998 cover of Edge magazine. I used elements I made for the game such as the sky from Shamazaar, the Ventilope and Two-Ha creatures and did an overpaint in Photoshop. The painting features an early version of the Fae temple that is not in the final game.
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How it all started
Back in 1994, we were still working at Art & Magic, but our latest Arcade games had been a real disapointment. Those games were relying on ageing hardware and we started pitching new ideas to the hardware guys, both in term of game content and technology to support it.
The 3D revolution had already started and we were stuck with 2D sprites. We didn't have a lot of experience with realtime 3D at the time, but we knew polygon games were very basic looking because of the inability for hardware to push enough triangles per second to create reallistic environments and characters. We were looking for alternative solutions.
Some papers had been released about rendering technology using volumetric pixels, called voxels, to store 3D objects. I remember having a dinner with all the executive staff, with Yves Grolet, Yann Robert and Michel Caubo talking about ways of storing voxels in octrees and using ray casting methods for accessing and rendering the data. Having the ability to design custom hardware in-house, we were excited by the prospect of developping a specialized hardware for voxel rendering.
That excitement didn't last. In the end, we all agreed it would be cost prohibitive (read impossible) both in term of memory and power to render voxels with the available technology. We were back to blueprint stage, and Yves was starting getting on the nerves because the hardware was not capable of following the vision we had about the games we wanted to make.
At some point the company started working on a european project involving other designers and manufacturers around the design of a 3D polygon gpu. As with most european projects, each company would try to get as much money as possible with as little involvment as possible. In the end, needless to say nothing came out of this mess.
During those last years, the commodity CPUs had been evolving at a dramatic pace. At this point Yves started wondering if dedicated hardware would ever catch-up the exponential acceleration of CPU power and flexibility. Of course the vision was a little biased, Deltatec (the hardware company) didn't have the muscle of say, nVidia, or other modern gpu manufacturer, and I can't blame them for not having the ressources to cope with such demanding development. We however had games to make and visions to fulfill.
Besides its power, using the CPU was very tempting because it allowed for complete freedom of pipeline development. Basically, you had a number of available cycles, and within those cycles you could do whatever you wanted. The limit was only set by your imagination and programming skills.
We first had this idea of 3D game set in a fictional south-american country, were you as a player would have to infiltrate a drug cartel in first person POV to free some abducted tourist from the local drug baron.
Then, as is often the case, the idea evolved. We kept the natural enviroment but moved the settings and story to an alien universe that would later become Outcast.
Yves had this idea about a team travelling through multiple universes at quantum distances appart. The objectives were taking shape, it was time to prove the concept through a working prototype.
Above: The first Twon-Ha model I did was made of Nurbs surfaces in Alias and pre-rendered into sprites.
Right: The Twon-Ha concept sketch I did in early 1995.
As the relationships between our team and the hardware guys was starting to erode, we decided the project would be better hosted by a new, separate company. Appeal was born, on paper at least. Themes, the hardware holdings, would fund the prototype and own a large minority stake in the company, until some external funding was found to complete the project. The rest of the shares were equaly split betweem Yves, Yann and me.
Yann and I agreed to stay at Art & Magic to provide the content support while Yves made the first move and settled with Philippe Zondack, another programmer, in a small office in an incubator space near the Liege University campus. They were going to work there on the voxel rendering engine.
Right: Iwan working in our Art & Magic office on the first Twon-Ha animation tests in Alias Power Animator.
Above: The very first tiles I did for the prototype can still be found in the Shamazaar region of the game.
While they were programming the core engine I was working on designing the first graphic ressources. To make it happen on commodity hardware, this was not real 3d voxels but a simpler height field made of tiles of 128x128 samples containing height and color values. A ray would surf on the surface to evaluate visibility and draw the terrain samples on screen.
We worked first on a kind of stair-like rice field environment that would later become Shamazaar.
Above: My workstation showing the very first Talan ever modeled, a soldier, made of Nurbs and pre-rendered in Alias.
I designed the first wave of alien characters, including Talans and Twon-Ha. I did some 3d Models in Alias Power Animator (running on Silicon Graphics workstation) using painful nurbs technology. At first it was planned to do some pre-rendered sprites for all characters (we would later switch to real-time polygons) so Iwan Scheer did some animation and I made renders of those in Alias.
In the end I would keep the nurbs models to create hi-resolution renders for marketing material.
Left: A standee featuring a nurbs version of Kroax, the general of the talan soldiers.
When the prototype was up and running we started looking for a publishing partner to provide the funding for the full game.
The first on the list was Ubisoft, so we went to Paris and showed our concepts and prototype. They were not interested.
Next stop was Infogrames in Lyon. Infogrames had been very successful with their Alone in the Dark series and were looking for a new technology-driven project to help pursue their expansion.
We met with Eric Mottet who was very impressed and supportive of our technology and reported directly to Bruno Bonnell, Infogrames' CEO. A few days later, we signed an agreement for both a buy back of all prototype assets produced by Art & Magic, most of the large minority stake from Themes, and a worldwide publishing and distribution agreement for the game.
Before we went back home, Bruno Bonnell gave us a 150k euros check, he signed on the corner of a table, to setup our new office and start working on the game, something he told us with a smile he had never done before. Because of his financial commitment to the project, Bruno was awarded his name first in the credits. In the end, the game's total budget stands at about 1.5 million Euros. Not much for a AAA by today's standards.
We moved to Namur in a nice and spacious building 3 stories high and started hiring new people for the project. We had an agreement not to hire people from Art & Magic during the first year. I think the next year, day for day, at a time when Art & Magic was not producing anything significant anymore, pretty much all staff joined us at Appeal.
Above left: Yves (left) and Yann (right) enjoying their new office desks in 3rd floor (view from my desk). Above right: Renaud (front) and Vero (back) working on environments and objects.
As the game would take 4 years to complete, people in the team would come and go, so it's kinda difficult to capture a single team as The Outcast team. Instead here are two pictures of the early team and another one of the latter team. For full name listing, see credits of the game.
Above left: Outcast team from 1995 to approx 1997. Above right: Outcast team from approx 1997 to 1999.
We created two departments, Programming and Art. I would direct the Art department while Yves and Yann would direct the Programming department. Thinking about it, I find it strange nowadays there was no clear separation between technology and content at the time. Rather, Yves and Yann would both supervise various aspects of technology and content.
I will here focus more on the parts I was in charge of, and I'll try to be as concise as possible as detailing all the processes would probably take an entire book to write.
Environments were using two graphics pipelines. For the terrain technology, tiles were being modeled with 3d Studio 4 (DOS) and shot from above to provide a 128x128 pixel depth buffer representing the height of the surface. Of course this method only allowed to represent convex surfaces.
I did a few of the early tiles, mainly for the prototype Shamazaar map. Later Catherine Marechal, Veronique Lerminiaux and Filip Camermans would take care of the terrain tiles production.
Left: Each tile would have a color texture, a depth texture, and a special color code ID texture that allowed to vertically map texture to voxel walls.
When concave surface or multiple height was necessary (such as the roof of a building, or a bridge over a canyon) the polygon engine came to the rescue. Polygons were being modeled with 3d studio and textured in photoshop, mainly by Renaud Dauchel.
It has to be noted that the polygon engine was written from scratch as no hardware acceleration was widely available when the project started. That is all the routines down to the rasterizer were developped by our programming department. Contrary to what can be sometimes read through the internet, non of the polygons in Outcast are hardware accelerated.
A custom tool called Deus allowed for editing the world by first placing the voxel tiles and then the polygons on top of it. Collectible items and other game information such as path and pathfinding collision data was also placed using the editor.
Right: Deus was Outcast's custom world editor. Shamazaar is shown here with an early version of the Fae temple.
I did all the background paintings for the game, using photoshop. These were all painted by hand and made no use of photographs.
Characters and creatures
We were using Alias Power Animator to model and animate characters. The polygonal features of the tool were quite basic at the time, and the Indy workstations we had were not capable of texturing polygons. In order to create UV coordinates for texture mapping, we had to export all meshes to an external application called Skymap (developped by Infogrames internal R&D team).
Those textures were then painted in 3d using 4d Paint (later renamed as Deep Paint 3d), one of the very first 3d painting tool available (at a time when pretty much everyone painted textures in 2D using Photoshop).
One of many advanced techniques (for the time) we used was bump mapping for characters. A separate bump map was painted, and according to light direction, the color texture was embossed to create bumps and creases, something graphics cards would not be able to reproduce before years.
I did pretty much all non humanoid creatures for the game. Modeling, texturing and a great deal of animations.
Above: The real-time polygonal Twon-Ha model in Alias Power Animator.
Above: The model is imported into SkyMap for UV mapping. It was only possible to have one UV island per texture so the model had to be split in a number of tiny textures.
Left: Once UV mapped, the model was painted in 3d using 4dPaint. Painting in 3d was considered very advanced at the time.
In the early version of the game, Outcast features a strange hero with a bird-like helmet, called Stan Blaskowitz. I did the modeling and texturing of that early main character from a design by Iwan Scheer. Eventually it was decided by the publisher the design was too odd (Assassin's creed anyone?) and a newer version was produced by Michael Defroyennes, from new concepts by Adam, who worked on all humanoid characters. At that point, Infogrames marketing came with the name Cutter Slade for the new main character.
Above: Stan Blaskowitz was eventually replaced by Cutter Slade
Here a gallery of various character related images I worked on:
In May 1997 we went at E3 in Atlanta to present an early build of the game in a private booth at the publisher lounge floor (not on the main floor). It was a crude preview built with voice acting performed by the team, and some temporary music. But it was a show-stopper. People would line up before the booth to see what this Outcast was all about.
What we didn't realise at the time was it would take us another two more years to finish the product. A good one and a half year more than initially expected.
We were then at the 1998 E3 for another presentation, and then in 1999 for yet another one, this time with the finished product. At that point, the US publishing arm of Infogrames was being restructured (they just had bought GT Interactive) and much effort was put by people there to save their own butt. They did not put the required ressources to support the release of the game in the US. We had been working for four years and yet they wouldn't care much about it. No wonder Infogrames/Atari went down the way they did if they could not care about their own titles.
From VGA to SVGA
During the four years it took to create Outcast, graphics technology advanced a great deal. When we started the game in 1995, we were in the VGA era, with 320x200 pixels in 8 bits colors (256 colors) being the norm. Our rendering engine was built around this graphics mode, and it was used that way in our previous title, No Respect.
Have a look at screenshots from the early VGA version, featuring Stan as a main character:
During development however, we moved to the SVGA standard providing higher resolution in 24 bits true color rendering. This required adjustments in the voxel engine renderer to feature interpolation of color for smooth gradients rendering. The polygon engine stayed with point sampling however, as bilinear filtering was just too prohibitive in software.
Later, as the game's launch window was moving further and further, we realised the 3d polygon graphics acceleration would become widely available. The complexity of our voxel environments was not acheivable using 3d polygons at the time, so we had to stay with software rendering anyways. Unfortunately, this was a commercial disaster for us as people would rush to purchase games that were compatible with their latest 3d cards even if that meant flat corridor games. Hopefully, some get passed that technical oddity and simply enjoyed the game for what it was.
Being entirely in software meant we could now program somme effects that were not available with 3d cards. As such we pioneered such effects as bump mapping, sub-pixel antialiasing and even depth of field. We had to wait a good 5 years to get the first programmable pixel shaders and start doing that in a 3d card. Realtime cast shadows (using screen-space retro-projection) for all characters was also something special, not to mention some quite effective interactive ripple effects in the water. All these effects were clevery programmed by Yann Robert and Gil Damoiseaux.
Outcast: The Symphonic Score
There is no denying that the music in Outcast is something special.
Being a fan of John Williams, Alan Silvestri and other Dany Elfman's, I wanted a symphonic music for the game from the very beginning. So we planned the budget very well in advance and it was swiftly accepted by Infogrames from the very start of the project.
In 1996 I wrote an ad to several film music magazines telling we were looking for a composer for our game. I received many demos, but one amongst them caught my attention. It was from Lennie Moore, a composer based in Los Angeles who had worked previously with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra
Not only his music was fantastic, he was one of the very few who had all the connections to handle the production process from start to end and had past experience working with a full orchestra
He came to our office and I talked to him about the worlds and story of Outcast. Lennie was quick to understand our vision and he went back home to work on preview MIDI versions of the music scores for approval. These were the early days of the internet and he would send me mp3 files (probably some of the very first to fly around the internet) for review.
Right: Lennie Moore, me and William Stromberg, in front of Saint Basil's Cathedral near the Red Square, Moscow, 1997.
Left: We stayed at the Hotel Ukraine during the recording week, the same hotel where the movie 'The Saint' featuring Val Kilmer was shot.
What still amazes me today is the ammount of fidelity between Lennie's MIDI preview files and the final orchestral versions. Check this out:
Orchestra version (excerpt):
In summer 1997 we went to Moscow for recording the score. An entire week of recording was planned, three days with the 81 piece orchestra, another two days with the 24 piece choir added. The orchestra was conducted by William Stomberg, a long-time friend of Lennie, and I have to say being in front of an orchestra playing the score for your game was an experience of a lifetime.
Some exotic instruments such as the Duduk and Tabla percussions were recorded in Los Angeles (using the MIDI preview as a reference) and players of the orchestra would play while hearing the extra instruments in their headphones.
Check this version of Okaar music with the live exotic instruments over the MIDI preview orchestrations:
The score was (at the time) used mostly as promotionnal marketing material. Check this great interview where Lennie talks about his experience composing the Outcast music and others.
Here are some pictures taken between recording sessions (you can see the orchestra playing in the making-of video below):
I did all the sound effects or the game in my little home studio. For the raw material, I used the classical Hollywood Edge libraries plus a extra sounds recorded live in my home studio. Then I would mix and blend those materials using Cubase and SoundForge.
I also did the funny dance song heard at the end of the game (Ulukai Dance), so contrary to what's written in the CD leaflet, this is not Lennie going mad, it's just me. This started as a joke, where I messed-up with some dialogues of the game, and it ended up on the final CD. It's far from being a great compo, but it was fun to make nonetheless.
NEW! Outcast remastered score is now available
The outstanding orchestral score from Outcast is now available from all major digital stores. Fully remastered, it features no less than 29 tracks including lots of exclusive materials. Please buy if you want to support us and Lennie Moore (the composer) !
Ahead of its time
All in all, Outcast is regarded by many as being a game way ahead of its time. It features open world, top notch orchestral score, compelling storyline, action and adventure, high quality dialogues and voice acting, rippling interactive water...
Here's what GamesRadar says about it:
"Okay, so the hero’s name is stupid and the plot sounds like a rehash of Stargate, but trust us, this action-adventure game was revolutionary. You could freely explore open world cities, mountains and forests (two years before GTA III). You could commandeer extraterrestrial vehicles – in this case, dinosaur-like creatures - for quicker transport (two years before Halo). You could pick and choose missions in the order that suited your playing style (nine years before Fallout 3)."
So whether you like it or hate it, Outcast is at least something special. For me, Outcast is a game made with passion, with no constraints of being tied to a particular genre, or please a particular group of people. We just did the game we wanted to make, and that was it. It stays in my heart as one of the projects I'm most proud of, along the likes of Agony and Unreal.
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