Stone Ball is an arcade game running on a custom board developped and published by Art & Magic (our team), manufactured by Themes (Deltatec) and distributed by NOVA in Europe/US.
How it all started
Money printing machine
Ultimate Tennis was now completed and had recently shipped. We went back to work on our flagship project Spellsinger. As weeks passed, we started to receive feedback from the sales and it wasn't short of amazing. We had to manufacture more boards and the game was a real succes, managing to even score in the Japanese charts, a feat for a western game in such a protective market.
Left: The deltatec building with Art & Magic studio installed in the basement
Christian, our marketing and business development director came to us with dollars signs in the eyes. We need to make more games like Ultimate Tennis, and we need to make them now, he said. We had an argument because all we wanted was to work on Spellsinger, but that still required a lot of work on the technology and even the hardware needed some improvements. Not to mention the game that was still far from completion.
The only solution we agreed on was to grow the team and develop projects in parallel. We started to hire more programmers and artists, and we moved from or basement in Deltatec's building to another house with all the space available to us.
That's about the time when my role changed from principal artist to Art Director, I would manage an art team potentially working on several games at a time.
We now had to find a project that would be quick to develop and, hopefully, be as popular and successful as a tennis game. Developping a football (soccer) game was tempting for Christian, but the genre was crowded and he thought it was too risky as competitors had a lot of experience in that genre. Then came the idea about doing a volley ball game as it is a very popular sport in Japan. It is however not as popular in the western world.
Left: The house we moved the company to, after the succes of Ultimate Tennis.
All in all, we were not very enthusiastic about doing yet another sport game. For us, creative people, Ultimate Tennis had been a financial necessity, not the kind of game we would have dreamed of making, yet we understood the reasons behind its success. We just wanted to do a great creative work, and the company's near term viability seemed not to be at stake any longer, at least for the time being.
In the end we agreed to create a soccer game if it was set in a fantasy world. From there came the idea of Stone Ball, a mixture of soccer and baseball in a prehistoric setting.
The pressure was high because the hardware was ageing fast and we needed to deliver the game within 8 month if it had any chance to be successful. Yann would be the lead game programmer and Yves would be working on improving the graphics tools. A few month later, Yves would move to yet another project as lead programmer on Cheese Chase.
I was a fan of Industrial Light And Magic at the time, and reading magazine such as Cinefex I learned how ILM was creating characters in 3d computer graphics. They were first doing clay sculptures witch were scanned in 3d and from there animated in the computer. This process allowed them to work with traditionnal modelers and introduce them smoothly to the digital world. I thought it was neat and asked Iwan, our character designer and animator to procced the same way. The idea was to create a 3d digital animation that would be rendered into 2d sprites, from 8 points of view, allowing interactive rotation of the characters in the game.
Right: A latter picture where the Bubba sculpture can be seen on a desk. He's lost his hair at this point.
At the time, we were starting to play with 3d software, and it appeared a piece of software called Animation Master was ideal for creating organic character modeling and animation. Since Iwan came from a classic 2d animation background, we thought it was the right product for this project.
Iwan not only did an excellent job in modeling the character, using the Bubba sculpture as a reference, he also did all the great animations.
A programmer did a small script to shoot all the animation frames in 8 different directions so the player would be able to move the character freely around the field.
Above: a screenshot from Animation Master, the 3d program used to create the digital Bubba and all its animations
Check this video demo of Animation Master to get a grasp of what 3d was like in 1993:
Early during development, we asked the hardware team to improve the blitter and add scaling capabilities, something we needed for Spellsinger anyways. They were not very keen on doing such changes. Christian didn't see the need for it, telling us that Ultimate Tennis had done really well without that feature and if we were quick enough it would be alright. We were arguing on the fact that competition was already using much more powerful designs, with much larger color palettes and more memory, and scaling was a necessity to provide a sense of depth as the characters would move back and forth through different depths layers. We were starting to get frustrated by the stagnating hardware.
We did the math, and it appeared to be impossible to store all the frames of animation for each direction (there are 8 possible directions) multiplied by several factor of precomputed scale depending on distance. Something had to be done in realtime and it had to be the scaling.
In the end, the hardware department agreed to implement a scaler that was capable of generating 8 scaling values from full size to half the original. That was really crude. Indeed, not being in true color (the frame buffer was using an 8 bit palette) meant it was impossible to resample or filter the original pixel data, it was just a matter of skipping lines and columns of pixels. The whole process was generating a lot of aliasing, typical of the era.
Rampant piracy in the arcades forced us to improve protection design too. We had a dedicated circuit for generating keys that were needed by the blitter to decode sprites, and for Stone Ball this circuit was powered by a battery. A plastic package would cover both the blitter and the encription circuit, and any attempt to remove the plastic cover would destruct the circuit. You can see the cover with the Art & Magic logo on this picture of the production board:
With our hardware stuck with 16 colors palettes, we couldn't use rendered frames of animation as they were. Moving a rendered sprite from millions of colors to 16 doesn't produce good results at all. All the gradients are lost and the result is just plain ugly. It would have required a 256 colors palette to work, something the hardware couldn't provide. We kept the idea to work with 3d rendering as a source though, because it was usefull to provide coherency between the animations in the 8 directions, but we had to rework the rendering part. The only solution was to rotoscope each frame and draw a line art version by hand on top of the 3d render (a process called rotoscopy, usualy used over real footage). Thierry Faymonville did the painful job using E-Motion, the tool Yves had written and enhanced since the beginning of the company.
Then we would paint color with clothes in a separate area of the palette so their color could be changed for each tribe in the game. I helped poor Thierry with the color painting job before he comited suicide. The end result is a cartoony rendering that looks like it has completely been done in 2d although it's all been 3d modeled and animated.
The entire process was awfully painfull and the end result underwhelming. We were starting to get frustrated because we were feeling the hardware was becoming obsolete and it showed in our games.
Much of the environment was created by Michael Defroyennes using our custom painting tool E-Motion and editing tool ADS. Michael also did much of the excellent effects visible throughout the game.
With this project, I was more involved in directing the team and less with creating actual content. I was there to help the art team make technical or artistical choices, or help them find solutions to problems. But from time to time I would work with the team to help, or in case of special assets. I did the terrain texture, the intro sequence, the game's logo and menu background texture. I also did all the music and sound effects (Iwan did the voice over). I also helped Thierry on painting the lighting on the character frames.
I don't have any hard figures, but the sales numbers were way below those from Ultimate Tennis. Christian blamed the graphics style and lack of vibrant colors, we blamed the obsolete hardware. I think it was a combination of factors, the most obvious now being that the 2d arcade market was already declining.
Game images gallery
Reviews and articles
An incredibly funny video review:
There's an excellent and detailed article by Eric Cubizolle in Pix'n Love #12 (french)
Programming: Yann Robert
Additional programming: Yves Grolet
Environment Art: Michael Defroyennes
Character design, modeling and animation: Iwan Scheer
Character rotoscoping, static images: Thierry Faymonville
Art direction, additional art: Franck Sauer
Marketing and quality control: Christian Dutillieux
Game music and sound: Franck Sauer
Hardware design: Deltatec
How to play the game today
You can get a real board quite easily on ebay for between 25 and 50 euros, but youll need a JAMMA cabinet. Alternatively you can build a RGB video cable based on JAMMA specs to connect to a monitor but you'll need a separate power supply (a PC power supply has all the required voltages).
You can play the game on PC (and other platforms) using the excellent software emulator MAME. You can download the ROMs below. There are two versions of the game: for two and four players.