Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future Preview
It's up to Ecco to set things straight while dodging the ocean's natural dangers such as sharks, giant octopuses, and poisonous creatures.
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Truly unique titles are few and far between. Even classics such as Gauntlet can show an influence from earlier products (in that case, a game called Dandy). However, in 1992, Sega released, with the help of developer Appaloosa Interactive, a title so utterly original it was breathtaking. This was Ecco the Dolphin, and it challenged those doing derivative work to reevaluate their definition of originality.
Appaloosa Interactive is one of the oldest development houses in the game industry. Founded in 1983 as Novotrade, this Palo Alto-based company has more than 100 employees in Hungary split into three teams. A phenomenal 60-70 products have come out of this largely unsung group in the last 16 years.
Prior to E3 this past May in Los Angeles, there had been a lot of hype about various Dreamcast titles. Not one mention had been made concerning a possible Ecco title, so it was a surprise to walk into the show and be blown away by one of the better Dreamcast titles, Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future (hereafter Ecco).
One of the earliest companies to start working on the Dreamcast, Appaloosa started working on Ecco the Dolphin, or at least the tools, in November of 1997. Joining the team is Hugo and Nebula award-winning science-fiction author David Brin. Brin has had experience with dolphins, having created a sentient dolphin race in his award-winning novel Startide Rising. Brin is also a longtime game player having co-authored the paper role-playing game Tribes with Steve Jackson, after spending time as a graduate student with D&D and simulation games.
David has brought his talents to bear in creating a back story for Ecco, which he explains: "In a nutshell - Ecco lives during a future age when dolphins and humans share leadership over a vast and peaceful civilization. Together, they have proved greater than either race could be alone. Wise and invincible, they saved many other races from a cruel set of despots. But the game's not over yet! These evil tyrants, in a last gasp, send a ship back through time to disrupt the historical moment when humans and dolphins first united. Ecco happens to be caught in the backwash of this ship and is swept back with it. He's the only one who can prevent the tragedy. But there will be many obstacles to overcome! Along the way he goes back and forth through time, seeing different versions of the future, trying desperately to restore one that's filled with hope."
As Ecco, you control the dolphin throughout his adventures in a standard third-person perspective. It's up to Ecco to set things straight while dodging the ocean's natural dangers such as sharks, giant octopuses, and poisonous creatures.
Using a proprietary engine and tool set called GameWorld Builder, the team at Appaloosa has created one of the industry's Holy Grails. The GWB is a tool set that allows nonprogrammers to move and rearrange the game and its design simply and easily. As Ecco producer Gergely Csaszar explains, "Through a user-friendly windows-based interface, GWB allows us to populate and manipulate a game's 3D environment in real time. Landscapes, objects, actors, sounds, lighting, and other visual effects can be added or changed with a few mouse clicks at will. The organized, modular structure of the game's world allows us to direct and manage all game events with ease and reuse already existing programmed features, such as behaviors, with great efficiency. Tuning of any aspect of the game became very easy and fast as well." "One of the most rewarding experiences we have every day," says Gergely, "is being able to change anything in the game to our liking and see it work within a few seconds. beauty of this tool is that you can run the game instantly after changing things around. It runs the simulation on the PC, and I can see the results on the graphics card (on a second monitor). No more weeks of iterations, waiting for artists to change the lighting or blaming the programmers to adjust some parameters. If you can visualize what you want, you can do it and test it yourself instantly. Working with GameWorld Builder contributed greatly to the creation of this beautiful underwater world due to the fact that those who had the vision also had the means to help realize it."
Combined with the GameWorld Builder is a new 3D-animation mechanism that lends fluidity and dynamism to the animation of Ecco and other animals. The Dreamcast has given the team the power to model as close to real life as has yet been done.
Not surprisingly, Appaloosa intends to use this technology on all its current games. With the online technology inherent in the Dreamcast and the usability of such a tool, it is hoped that Appaloosa and/or Sega will see fit to make a version of the GameWorld Builder available to the general consumer. Letting you create new environments and adventures for Ecco would take the experience to a new level and allow the creative abilities of many to come to the fore.
The technology also led to a different style of design. In a departure from the traditional level-based game, Ecco will take you to a great number of different environments built around themes of several unique worlds. One world, Paradise Island, will contain various multiple environments, and you'll move seamlessly between coral reef, underground caves, and lakes. Appaloosa took a lot of time to make the underwater scenes feel as authentic as possible. A research team spent many months working with videos, photographs, and "hundreds of copies of the National Geographic magazine" to come up with a realistic depiction of the oceanic flora and fauna. The compliments received at E3 showed the effort was well worth it. Within these environments the team had a relatively free hand to design puzzles to take advantage of their surroundings, and some of the better and more inspired puzzles came after the worlds had already been created.
The enemies too are more involved, with, for example, multiple sharks running different AI routines to present different game challenges through various tuning of speed, turning, and attitude.
The natural settings are gorgeous to look at, and the worlds are relatively peaceful. However, the other environments emphasize more traditional action and role-playing elements, and, as Gergely comments, these are filled with "creatures and powerful enemies, forces less friendly and benign. In these parts of the game story takes sharper turns and it introduces characters and scenarios from the realm of science fiction." It is here that we see how inspired the choice of Brin was as the storywriter. He modestly says, "The fellows at Appaloosa approached me. Having read my novel, Startide Rising, which portrays dolphin heroes in a future setting, they felt my depiction showed the kind of spirit they wanted in their new version of Ecco." The mixture of dolphins and science fiction made him a perfect choice for the job. Ironically, one of Ecco's strengths is also its biggest challenge from a design standpoint. In the game industry almost everyone takes some inspiration from a competitor, however subtle and ultimately original. And yet Ecco is so groundbreaking there is no reference point even as a starting point. A smart story provides a lot of those hooks on which to hang creativity.
Relates Brin, "The designers told me what they needed - a reason for Ecco to face wide-ranging and vivid perils. I came up with a way to tie all of their innovative game techniques together. But I kept foremost in mind the fact that the new Dreamcast interactive effects must lead the way, just as movies are often propelled by visual images and emotions that a director wants the audience to feel."
Ecco employs a fight or flight mechanism along with the use of puzzles. While numerous creatures present a danger to Ecco, other dolphins and various species of whale will cooperate in the completion of his quest. For example, one such companion is needed to defeat the giant octopus, but finding the correct companion will require a lot of additional work.
Several alumni from Ecco on the Genesis, including Joseph Szentesi, Emil Venyercsan, Kadocsa Tassonyi, and Csaba Soltesz, are part of the current 40-person team. While not a sequel in the traditional sense of a continuing story (although notably a sequel does exist on the Genesis, as does a young adult version of the game called Ecco Jr.), says Gergely, "at the same time we did not forget that the first Ecco Genesis game generated a sizable group of fans throughout the world. We received many comments from these supporters who told us what they liked and disliked in the first games. While designing this new version of Ecco the Dolphin, everyone at Appaloosa did its best to listen to these comments and implement the best ideas in the new incarnation."
One unexpected result of some Appaloosa focus tests was the discovery that there are two different categories of game players when it comes to navigating in a virtual environment. Gergely expands on that point: "The difference between the two groups lies in their ability of maintaining their orientation in a true 3D space while sustaining control of the main character regardless of its or the camera's position and orientation. Think about the radio-controlled cars: Some people feel completely natural controlling them, while others always get confused with left and right once the RC car turns towards them.
"In Ecco the Dolphin we are trying to cater to both of these groups. For those of us who were born with VR glasses and learned to walk by watching The Space Marine <laughs> we allow total control of all the natural abilities of a real dolphin. For the more down-to-earth audience we provide various helpful, optional features to aid them, such as automatic pitch and roll leveling for example."
Appaloosa's goal was nothing less than creating an onscreen dolphin seemingly as alive as any documentary footage you might see on television. The fact that they appear to have succeeded is a testament to the power of these next-generation platforms in only their first iteration. As Gergely says, "We have finally reached the level where the game can look as good during actual gameplay as those fancy prerendered, ray-traced computer-generated movie sequences we are drooling over between stages of most computer and video games nowadays." Now the cutscenes between the action will use the same engine as the game with only occasional special effects implemented specifically for the scene.
Brin, a noted futurist, sees an exciting experience ahead. "It's an age of collaborative entertainment," he says, "with audience and players becoming part of the team. Heck, it's true even in a novel, where the 'team' consists of a writer and a reader, creating images that are different every time."
While a number of other Dreamcast titles have been more lauded, Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future has the potential to be the defining Dreamcast experience.