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Originally published Monday, December 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Airtight's vertical system gives players a new thrill

"Dark Void" is the long-awaited debut from Redmond's Airtight Games. It's playable now but won't be released until late spring on the Xbox, PlayStation 3 and PC platforms.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Clinging with one hand to a rocky cliff, alongside a huge steel derrick, I'm starting to lose my grip as my palms sweat.

It's tough to hang on, after repeatedly pulling myself up to peek over the next ledge and shoot alien robots blocking my ascent.

Sunlight gleams through the metalwork above, but it's hard not to stare down into the dark and creepy canyon below my dangling boots.

Thankfully, it takes only a few pumps on the Xbox 360 controller to swing up onto the ledge and return to horizontal before getting too dizzy.

This exhilarating game is "Dark Void," the long-awaited debut from Redmond's Airtight Games. It's playable now but won't be released until late spring on the Xbox, PlayStation 3 and PC platforms.

"Dark Void" has a cool 1940s aesthetic, reminiscent of the "Indiana Jones" or "Rocketeer" movies, but its standout feature is a dead simple system for switching between the usual horizontal shooting-game action to vertical, tilting the whole thing on an axis.

It's a bit like the way the display reorients when you rotate an iPhone, but it's a completely different experience when you're immersed in the game on a big-screen TV.

"We call it vertical combat — we're trying to make you feel that, and at the same time keep it playable," explained Airtight President Jim Deal, one of a handful of veteran Microsoft developers who started the independent studio in 2004. "This is just one aspect of what we're calling a fusion between on-foot and on-air."

Airtight's kept a low profile but it's about to take flight, just like "Dark Void's" main character, Will, a 1940s aviator stuck in the Bermuda Triangle.

After fighting up and out of the abyss, Will straps on a jet pack fashioned from salvaged airplane parts. Then he flies into the clouds, commandeers a flying saucer and heads into battle with the other spinning discs.

Airtight's flight really begins next month. That's when its " 'Dark Void' partner," the big Japanese game publisher Capcom, starts a major marketing campaign leading up to the launch of an entirely new franchise — or intellectual property, in industry terms.

"It's huge — it's a huge new IP, it's a genre switcheroo," said Morgan Gray, Capcom's senior producer on the project.

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Gray and others said "Dark Void" will receive the same level of promotion as flagship Capcom titles such as "Resident Evil," "Street Fighter" and "Bionic Commando," all of which are launching new versions alongside "Dark Void."

Capcom has high hopes for the game. Airtight was the first U.S. studio it signed as part of a renewed effort to raise the company's presence in the U.S. and Europe with more Western-style games.

Fan of "Halo"

Under the direction of Capcom research and development boss Keiji Inafune — a fan of first-person shooters such as "Halo" — the company is also looking for Western shooters that may finally catch on with Japanese gamers.

Climbing and flying have long been staples of video games.

Games are also getting more cinematic, now that developers are hitting their stride on the latest consoles and taking more advantage of their graphics horsepower.

Yet it's still hard to produce something that feels new and different to gamers, but isn't so complicated that it's no fun.

This challenge is illustrated by the evolution of "Dark Void."

Airtight's beginning

Airtight's founders started the studio after Microsoft canceled their project, a sequel to the stylish aerial combat game "Crimson Skies."

They were hoping to build a game that had more great flying, but added action on the ground and in other vehicles.

But before they really got started on that game, Airtight took a short detour with help from former Microsoft Game Studios boss Ed Fries, who joined as co-founder.

Fries helped the startup land a contract making demonstration sequences for Ageia, a Silicon Valley gaming physics company that's now part of Nvidia. That gave Airtight revenue and experience using new tools.

Then Airtight began searching for a game publisher willing to back a $10 million project by an unproven studio. THQ agreed, for a while. Then Capcom signed on in early 2007, even though both sides agreed that Airtight's initial proposal needed more work.

Called "Black Cloud," it had an Egyptian theme, with the main character fighting his way out of a pyramid then taking to motorcycles, planes and a parachute.

"This showed that you could have air combat and also run around," Fries recalled. "The problem was once we made it and had it running, we were like, oh, it's just like any other game where you walk around and fight."

They had to come up with something special, but nobody knew what or how.

The onus fell on lead designer Jose Perez, another co-founder.

Inspiration came from a comment Capcom made during a meeting, about how 3-D games aren't really 3-D because all the action takes place on the same plane.

"We had been thinking about that, Jose had been thinking about that — that's where the vertical combat idea came from," Fries said. "It turns shooters on their head."

Concept in hand, Airtight rewrote the story and recreated settings to make the most of vertical combat.

"After that, the rocket pack followed naturally and suddenly we had all these cool things to do between flying and on foot," Deal said. "I think that's really what the strength of the game has become."

Making concept work

But it took a lot of work to go from having a concept to making it work and feel natural.

"Dark Void" draws on a huge library of animation sequences, including 1,200 to 1,800 just for Will.

A simple move may trigger one or two bits of animation, while others may involve 50 to 75, according to Charles Anderson, the game's animation lead.

The art is also complex. Airtight builds movie-grade character models with 60,000 to 100,000 polygons.

They're scaled down during the development process, then back up again for the final, high-definition output. (Art director Matt Brunner is another co-founder.)

The tools still amaze Deal, who rose from the art side of the business, where he used to sweat over every polygon. In the early days, before advanced modeling tools, everything was programmed, and coders outnumbered artists. Now it's the other way around.

"Really what gates us now is time and money," he said. "Ten years ago every vertex was a cost, every polygon. Now ... we're working with numbers we never even dreamed of."

More space

Airtight recently rented more space in Redmond, where it has 57 employees. Including outside contractors, about 90 people are working on the game.

Despite the dark void enveloping the economy, Fries said it's a good time for independent game studios. He noted last week's NPD report that game sales rose 10 percent in November, to $3 billion.

Industry consolidation has also left fewer stand-alone studios for major publishers to choose from.

Airtight's not saying anything yet about sequels to "Dark Void," but Perez said there are all sorts of directions Airtight or other companies can take the story.

Someday, he said half-joking, "kids can be in the backyard with their 'Dark Void' action figures."

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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