Viva la Revolution
The trials and tribulations of creating the iOS “interactive documentary,” Mysteries of Notre Dame de Paris
Last year, Franck Sitbon was unemployed. Living just outside of Paris, he had been a 3D artist for years, but was having trouble finding work. And then one day he had an idea: An avid traveler, documentary watcher and history buff, it dawned on him that we had entered into an age where the old rules—even the old rules of sightseeing—no longer applied. “During my trips, when the guide was describing something, I was attracted by other things, and it’s always difficult to stop the guide in his speech by asking questions,” says Sitbon. “More often at the end, we were late, or everyone wanted to ask his own questions, or I had forgotten mine. I was frustrated.”
Frustration led to innovation. Sitbon, himself an avid gamer dating back to the Amstrad CPC and Amiga days, and now on Xbox 360 and iPad, made a connection. “You know I’m 40, married, two children, and things change,” he
says. “Now when I play a game I’m more attracted by the story, or what the game brings to me, what I have learned. There are several games I finished and told myself, ‘Ok what a deception, I lost my time’. And when you have a family life, time is precious.” Several years before, he had visited Notre Dame with a friend in Paris, who served as his guide. The monument was so impressive that he remembered many of his friend’s explanations and insights years later, and so he set out to create an application that mixed real time 3D exploration and documentary-style narrative communication.
Despite his own skills as a 3D artist, getting the idea off the ground remained an imposing proposition. “In France, it’s difficult to be a 3D artist when you are 40 years old,” says Sitbon. “You are considered too old, too expensive … experience is not a skill here. The only solution was to create my own business.” He had wanted to create his own games for decades, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. “I have strong ideas of what I want to do; finding and developing the idea was simple,” he says. “I’ve been writing game concepts for the past 20 years. If it’s hard to keep a job at a certain age in France, it’s easy to [stay] unemployed here with 18 months of insurance. I used a part of this time to create my game and my company.”
Initially, Sitbon began looking for an investor, who would allow him to hire a programmer that specialized in real-time 3D. “It’s been a long time, I think, that point-and-click games have missed realtime 3D technology,” he says. “If in the 90s, games using still images or warps were more beautiful than real time 3D, nowadays [none] of them can reach games like Uncharted, Crysis, Gears of War, or even the Citadel [iOS] demo.” He knew he needed to incorporate realtime 3D, but none of his former colleagues were available to help. Then a friend told him about Unity3D. “I’m a 3D Artist, and I [haven’t] programmed since my basic programs in 1990,” says Sitbon. “I’m not a coder, and I though this [task] was impossible for me without a programmer. But thanks to the Unity community and the simplicity of Unity3D, I succeeded by myself.” He immediately began working on a prototype that would eventually develop into the final product, and says the Unity3D forum members were supplied crucial guidance. “I wanted to prove to myself that it was possible to create something really realistic with lots of details on a device less powerful than a computer,” says Sitbon.
Ergonomic controls were essential, Sitbon believed, as he wanted to open the technology to non-gamers by removing the notion of virtual analog sticks. “Even a baby can use my app,” says Sitbon, pointing to his favorite tester: his one year-old son, Yoni. But Sitbon is perhaps proudest of the app’s system of three-dimensional close-ups. “Each relief of the portals has been modeled in 3D with ZBrush, and exported to Unity3D,” he says. “The iPad is powerful enough to allow illumination in realtime. You can spend a lot of time admiring details, while discovering the secrets of Notre Dame de Paris. I wanted something special, different from the standard still photo close-up. With a 3D close-up, the player can have more interactions, such as illumination, move, and rotate. After this experience, visitor wish to click everywhere in real life,” he says, laughing. “I’m still waiting for 3D iPad screens—I think this would be a great feature for my 3D close-up. Until then, realtime illumination is a good way to enhance the depth effect.
Sometimes mistakes are the most powerful weapon in a creator’s arsenal. “At the beginning I wanted to use a simple quad with Normal maps for my close-up,” recalls Sitbon, not knowing that this was impossible on iPad. “Then I tried to export my ZBrush project on Unity, but I made a mistake: instead of exporting at a lower resolution, I exported the object with about 25 thousand triangles.” He was amazed to see the whole thing working on iPad—with dynamic lightning. “It’s funny to see that my main feature comes from a mistake,” he says, laughing. “Unity3D was the good choice, really simple to use with Java programming, as powerful as other game engines, and much cheaper,” continues Sitbon.
Army of One
With the exception of the music, Mysteries of Notre Dame de Paris was created entirely by Sitbon: Writing, 2D/3D art, programming, sound design, voice acting, and recording…and now marketing. “That’s why it took me 9 months to develop the game,” laughs Sitbon.
Art vs. Science
Frank Sitbon is a self-taught 3D artist. “When I started in 1990, there was no education in computer 2D/3D art, almost no Internet, tutorials, or YouTube. I started writing, computing in basic and pixels drawing on my Amiga with Deluxe Paint, all together with my computing study. But I was more attracted by art than coding.” He learned 3D Studio 2, made some demos and was hired by Cryo Interactive, where he worked on PC CD-ROM adventures such as Dragon Lore 2, Ubik, and Atlantis 2, 3 and 4.