From MechWarrior to Zoo Tycoon: Microsoft Brings the Language of Film to Online Video Games

REDMOND, Wash., March 6, 2006 – Steven Drucker likes to watch – or, more precisely, the Microsoft Research software engineer likes to watch video games. In the late 1990s, Drucker, who holds a Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, would wander down to Gameworks, a popular gaming emporium in downtown Seattle. He used to enjoy playing a game called House of the Dead, but by his own admission his games skills left something to be desired. He kept getting killed.

“My quarters would disappear really quickly. Frankly, I was awful,” Drucker explains. “But there were guys there who could play forever on a single credit. They really knew the game, when to duck left and swing right to deal with a really difficult zombie. I was in awe.”

It was while watching these gaming maestros that Drucker had an epiphany, one that would directly lead to technology that not only is included in Microsoft’s latest gaming console, the Xbox 360, but also become the 5,000th patent that Microsoft has received in the United States.

“I suddenly realized that it would be really cool if people could watch really good games players online and from a different point of view, as though they are watching the game play in the theater,” explains Drucker.

Cinematography in Virtual Worlds

The concept drew on research Drucker did for his doctoral thesis, which explored cinematography in virtual worlds. When he started at Microsoft in 1995, Drucker joined the Virtual Worlds team, trying to marry sophisticated graphics with social content in a project inspired by “Snowcrash,” the novel by Neal Stephenson.

Steven Drucker, Microsoft Researcher, Next Media Group

Drucker approached his boss, Curtis Wong, senior program manager with the Next Media Research Group in Microsoft Research, with the notion of creating a technology for automated cinematography. “As we talked it through, I got more and more excited,” Wong recalls. “We saw there were all sorts of fantastic applications for the idea. We were especially excited about the educational possibilities. We had a vision of creating massive online games that would allow school children to compete on teams “terraforming” different parts of a planet.”

The technology would use the language of film – wide shots, close-ups, pans, quick cuts – all of which would replicate the action from the perspective of a third party. “In effect, they would be automatically creating an entirely new view of the game,” explains Curtis.

The theory was the easy part, however. Finding a development team interested in the project was the first challenge. In those days, Drucker and Wong were keen players of MechWarrior. The MechWarrior team immediately bought into the concept. Then the hard work began.

“Developing the technology was quite a complex challenge,” says Drucker. “The automated camera control wasn’t too tricky. The automatic connection that allowed people to connect to the games as they were played was more difficult. But the most difficult was video distribution. Eventually we realized that a distributed model with no centralized server was the best route.”

With their new technology, Drucker and the team created a proof-of-concept video using MechWarrior which they demonstrated in 2002 at Microsoft’s annual TechFest, an occasion for researchers in the company to set out their latest ideas for inspection by employees from across Microsoft. The video [] caught the attention of Robbie Bach, then chief Xbox officer (now president of Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices Division), and Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect. “Bill said it was really watchable,” says Wong with some pride. Bach decided to try to include the technology in the company’s next-generation games console.

U.S. Patent No. 6,999,083

Once the team had the technology sorted out, they decided to patent the developments. Microsoft had already decided to become more systematic in the way it patented its innovations.

Curtis Wong, Senior Program Manager, Next Media Group, Microsoft Research

“I had no qualms about patenting technology,” says Drucker. “When I was at MIT, there was a professor who came up with a potential treatment for epilepsy, but he didn’t patent his invention. By the time he approached drug companies about testing the treatment, it was already in the public domain and they wouldn’t do any work with it, even though it was potentially a huge improvement on existing therapies. That’s when I realized the importance of patents.”

Patent No. 6,999,083 “provides for a host of technologies that enable groups of networked game spectators to enjoy a unique and richer experience to viewing the action within a networked multiplayer game.”

The potential implications of the technology are huge, Wong says. “I have a vision of really large numbers of people watching tournaments online. The top players could become as famous as sports stars, even endorsing products. This could really help gaming move into the mainstream.”

As for Drucker, these days he is seldom visits Gameworks. He doesn’t even own an Xbox 360. “My family is the wrong demographic. My daughter is 8 years old, and we play Zoo Tycoon together,” he explains. “Mind you, it probably won’t be long before she’s better than me.”

Related Posts