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Interview with Igor Borovikov in Esfera online magazine (english version).

Some people show surprise when they learn you come from Russia. Could you please tell us a little about the software programming market in your country, that gave us at least one famous game creator, Alexey Pajitnov (of Tetris fame)?

Russia is a great place to get the education necessary for software development. Unfortunately it is not by far the best place to write software for living. Jobs in software are rare and basically are available only in few big cities. Software market itself simply does not exist. Due to the piracy it is almost impossible to make money by selling software in Russia. There are CDs with all major 3D packages for only 5 dollars on black market.

Usually WorldBuilder is “bundled” with 3ds max, Maya and LightWave on such CD. Funny enough that we were very excited to see WorldBuilder pirated and packed together with such acclaimed 3D tools. The reversed side of this popularity is that we have only few registered users in Russia. For most of Russian software companies the piracy leaves the only option to work for the Western market. AnimaTek is very typical in this respect. For example, we have Japanese version of WorldBuilder already, and we don't even consider Russian version.

But the situation gradually changes. With the reviving economy there should emerge software market. Hopefully someday Russia will be exporting software instead of software developers.

Why did you decide to create an application to build virtual landscapes? Who else was involved in the creation of WorldBuilder?

Probably you will be surprised that AnimaTek is the company started because of Alexey Pajitnov's Tetris. Back in 1989 Henk Rogers (chairman of AnimaTek) acquired rights on Tetris on a number of hardware platforms. As you know, the game was a great success. But being Russian citizen, Alexey could not legally share the profits. To reward him Henk helped Alexey to open a software company in Russia. The goal was to allow Alexey, Vladimir Pokhilko (co-author of Tetris), Dmitri Tolkachev (director of AnimaTek/Moscow) and their colleagues to work on other innovative ideas.

The next project that they were working on was El-Fish (a game later published by Maxis). Briefly, El-Fish is a virtual fish tank with artificial fishes. The fishes had complex realistic behavior and easy-to-use genetic mechanism for cross breading. The game activity was in breading new fishes and enjoying beautiful fish tank without the hassle of a real fish tank.

Quite naturally virtual fish tank was extended to the idea of creating general artificial environment with artificial life-like inhabitants. That gave birth to many other new technologies inside AnimaTek. For example, best selling plug-in Bones Pro for 3DStudio (author Mike Tsoupko-Sitnikov) resulted from efforts on character animation.

WorldBuilder was another component created for building this artificial world. Originally for few years it was in-house tool and we used it in a number of other projects. For example, Fresh Water Fish - a sequel to El-Fish - used a lot of backgrounds created in WorldBuilder. Also a number of biologically accurate 3D plant models were created in WorldBuilder especially for the game.

Later AnimaTek decided to publish WorldBuilder. Digimation was the publishing company for WorldBuilder version 1.0. We got a real insight on the professional software market from people at Digimation. They helped us a lot in conversion of in-house tool into the product.

How would you compare WorldBuilder with products like Vista Pro, Bryce and others?

WorldBuilder is the tool for 3D artists doing 3D for living. If you want just to have some fun playing with 3D landscapes than you have stick to Bryce. With amazing speed you can make some nice scenes with it, but it is practically impossible to make landscape meeting the exact specification.

It would make sense to limit WorldBuilder comparison only to professional packages. However the issue of comparison is always very delicate. I would rather describe some of the unique features of WorldBuilder that distinguish it from any other product on the market.

Communication technology is one of the most advanced and useful features. This innovative technology integrates WorldBuilder with 3DStudio MAX very tightly. Communicator uses COM interfaces rather than frustrating files import/export. This allows sharing of data between two programs in run time. The data includes cameras, lights, animation, as well as meshes and gizmos. All of them can be visualized inside WorldBuilder and MAX while you run the two programs simultaneously. For example if you have camera animation in MAX, you will immediately have exactly the same animated camera in WorldBuilder. When you run rendering from one of the programs, both of them will render the scene together. 3DStudio MAX will render its part of the scene (say, characters) and WorldBuilder will render its own part (environment). The final composing is performed automatically. Even shadows and reflections will be composed perfectly. For example, trees will cast shadow on the character and the character itself will cast shadow on the landscape. With regular z-buffer composing this trick is very difficult or practically impossible. In the latest upgrade (build 052beta) we solved the old problem of transparent objects in Communicator composer: you can render through Communicator even if MAX has volumetric effects in its scene. So both programs work almost as plug-ins for each other.

Another advanced feature is the unique rendering combined with extremely compact procedural representation of objects. WorldBuilder 3D vegetation uses this procedural approach extensively. In general packages vegetation is associated with huge amount of data, but WorldBuilder can easily handle and render a forest with thousands of 3D trees. On top of it all of these trees can be animated. It is worth to note that WorldBuilder competitors can use only either 2D sprites for vegetation (with lots of artifacts!) or 3D plants created by third party packages. You have to import those plants, re-texture them and then you will have an explicit polygonal mesh with no animation and a lot of RAM consumed. (By the way WorldBuilder also can use 2D sprites. But again, comparing to competitors, we eliminated some of the most unpleasant sprite artifacts.)

Incremental Design, Object Data Bases with drag-and-drop interface, support of multiple processors, scripting capabilities: the list can be continued. But probably it is better to invite the reader to take a look at WorldBuilder gallery at www.digi-element.com. Pictures, animations and downloadable demo can tell more than a thousand words… Also visiting WorldBuilder forum will provide you with independent unbiased points of view on the comparison issue.

What games and films did use WorldBuilder in their animations?

There are a number of successful game titles that used WorldBuilder. Some of them are:

  • Big Game Hunter and its sequels, the best-selling games from Cabel's
  • War Zone 2100 by Pumpkin Studios published by Eidos,
  • Barbie Riding Club by Mattel
  • Age of Empires (Microsoft),
  • Final Fantasy Tactics (Square)

Textures, 3D terrain, models, 2D sprites as well as backgrounds were created in WorldBuilder for these games.

AnimaTek was awarded by Sony with Platinum prize for the opening movie for Final Fantasy Tactics as the best opening movie for Sony PlayStation games in 1997. More game projects with WorldBuilder involved in production are in progress in the United States and Europe.

WorldBuilder is used for TV commercials and video clips. AnimaTek created beautiful jungle and underwater scenes with WorldBuilder for clip "Chameleon" directed by George Michael.

There are few film projects in progress where WorldBuilder will be used. For example, AnimaTek ported WorldBuilder to SGI for ambitious movie project by SquareUSA. We added Maya support for this project.

WorldBuilder can render frames in literally unlimited resolution. This makes WB a perfect choice for IMAX 3D film production (it is another work in progress).

And, of course, AnimaTek uses WorldBuilder in its own production. In the past they were Fresh Water Fish and Ice&Fire (published by Zombie). These games were created with use of WB landscape and vegetation technology.

WorldBuilder is a bit expensive. Do you plan to make any kind of low-cost version for the home users or will the product always be aimed at professionals in the game and film industry?

One of the possible ways to estimate the product value and its price is to derive them from how much you can earn with the product. For example, with WorldBuilder you could make bets selling hit like Big Game Hinter in amazingly short time. In this perspective the price of the package doesn’t look too big. Square is another example. The quality is the primary issue for them. They were amazed that WorldBuilder costs only a thousand dollars! For them it means that so many people can buy it and create equal or better animations than Final Fantasy Tactics award wining movie.

On the other hand there is a question how much people could possibly spend on the specialized 3D package. "WorldBuilder Lite" was always on our minds, but still it is an issue. Probably instead of making Lite version, we have to restructure the product to make parts of it available for relatively lower price. In any case we plant to continue fully featured WorldBuilder Pro as professional package.

One of the most amazing features of WorldBuilder is the use of l-systems to create lifelike plants. Can we expect more developments of this in future versions, enhancing the creation of virtual living beings to populate the virtual landscapes?

L-systems are indeed very powerful tool of modeling. Unfortunately you have to be both a programmer and an artist to be able to design plants with L-systems. We plan to provide more comprehensive interface to them. (By the way currently we do not expect that people will master L-systems just for several specific plant models. That is why we offer custom plants modeling to WorldBuilder users free of charge.) Obviously with visual interface for the plant modeler more people will experiment and create their own plants.

As for virtual living beings, that is the subject of other AnimaTek's projects. One of them is called Believable Character. It combines most of AnimaTek’s real-time rendering, animation and behavioral technologies to create real time virtual person for Internet applications. With experience of El-Fish and Believable Character we can consider to introduce artificial living beings into WorldBuilder. Thank you for the suggestion!

The first step toward it can be allowing characters from third party packages like 3ds max to interact with WorldBuilder environment. For example, it would help in many projects if, say, a dinosaur from Maya would be able to leave footprints in WorldBuilder grass, splash water and break branches. This kind if interaction can be included into Communicator someday.

What enhancements can we expect in future versions of WorldBuilder?

Typically we have new upgrade every two or three weeks available for free downloading for the users. It means that program evolves continuously. The latest build (2.2052 beta) is much more powerful and feature packed than the original 2.0. Yet we decided that it is the time for a major upgrade to the version 3.0. Preliminary we planned it on the end of the year. In addition to all the changes accumulated over the last year there will be several more main enhancements:

  • A-buffer. It will bring rendering quality to the next level. Transparent objects including those from Communicator will be rendered much more accurately.
  • We are working on OpenGL support. Users of WorldBuilder will benefit from hardware accelerators and the UI will be more interactive.
  • UI will be somewhat simplified and will be less modal, especially for object manipulation. Our objective always was to make it closer to 3DStudio MAX interface. In the next version will make another step in this direction.
  • New sky system with celestial objects, new stars, new clouds interacting with light and much more.
  • In addition to the native terrain object there will be possibility to use meshes imported from 3DStudio or LightWave as terrain surface. More visual interface to the area editor will be provided with direct drawing of areas in viewports.
  • More plant libraries and additional plant editing tools.
  • Improved units support for better interaction with other packages in production.

In perspective we plan to support Communicator technology for the new versions of Maya, LightWave and SoftImage/Sumatra. Other candidates are Cinema4D, Hash Animation Master and some more packages.

Also with the new version we will provide extensive playable tutorials. Such tutorials are very efficient and can help users to get better output from WorldBuilder in shorter time.

Finally, I would like thank you for the great opportunity to present WorldBuilder to Esfera readers!