- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 24, 2002

Getting a group of surly, 250-pound football players to jump on demand has become a routine part of the workday for Kathy O'Keefe.

As a 3-D artist and modeler for Microsoft Games Studio, she, with a team of about 40 other artists, designers and computer graphics experts, developed "NFL Fever 2002" for Microsoft's Xbox video gaming platform.

When choosing her career path and going to school for industrial design, Ms. O'Keefe did not foresee a future in creating sports games. During the mid-1980s, however, while working on consumer product design, she began pursuing an interest in computers, going back to the University of Illinois where she earned her master's degree.

An internship at the VASSA game development studio led to her working on the PC game "Obsidian" for San Francisco's Rocket Science Games, and gave her an enthusiasm for game development.

Past experiences, including working on the design for an articulating neck lamp, began her interest in how the body moved and how that flexibility could be translated to the computer screen.

"I remember looking at my wrist and being amazed at how it could move," says Ms. O'Keefe from her Redmond, Wash., office. "Creating this game required that we first build a new race of men that moved [in a realistic way] in a virtual world that is based on a real-life paradigm, where there are rules you cannot break."

"NFL Fever 2002" offers a fast-paced, arcade-style football simulation featuring lifelike players that eerily resemble their human counterparts in they way they look and react.

The ability to add "real-life" nuances such as eyes that dart back and forth, chests that heave and linemen's bellies that jiggle is a direct result of the increased power of the new Xbox gaming console.

"It is so powerful that it allows the game designer five times as much development power as we had designing for the PC," Ms. O'Keefe says. "Which means we are building more complex and challenging games, that look and play more realistically."

For "NFL Fever 2002," Ms. O'Keefe and the team of artists and designers working on the game began reviewing the characteristics of football players, reducing them to six general body styles that could be used for the 22 men on the field. In addition to the players on the field, the group needed to be concerned with the many individuals from benched players to coaches to media to the fans in the stands.

The group used reference materials from fighter games to books such as Grays Anatomy as well as Ms. O'Keefe's talents as a trained artist when they began their work with pencil sketches that were eventually translated into 3-D computer models. There was also the need for field research, taking Ms. O'Keefe back to her alma mater at Champaign, Ill., to watch her hometown Chicago Bears play.

"The Bears were using the stadium because Soldier Field was under renovation," Ms. O'Keefe says. "When in college at U of I, we went to the Rose Bowl, so I had seen quiet a few games at Memorial Stadium. It was really very exciting to go back."

Once the six body styles were computer designed, the artists and designers set them side by side to begin working with details, such as adjusting height, mass and width, so they would work in relation to each other.

The challenge was not only in creating a group of figures that would move realistically, but that could be used to portray all the members of the NFL.

"We are actually providing a very limited representation of all 1,600 players," Ms. O'Keefe says. "Our players are designed over skeletons with 80 bones, compared to the 206 bones in the human body, yet we had to have those bodies designed so that they move naturally within the gaming environment."

Some of the concerns for the artist were obvious how high does a knee rise when running? or more subtle just how high can a player raise his hands over his head when wearing shoulder pads?

"Whether we realize it our not, each person's eyes are experts and they know whether an on-screen movement is false or not," Ms. O'Keefe says. "We also have to follow spatial rules, such as a person's eyes are separated by the width of one eye."

Ms. O'Keefe says she finds the Xbox environment exciting, particularly the new technological freedoms offered by the platform.

"The most intriguing thing is how technology keeps on rolling," she says. "As an isolated team, we have had a complete and isolated relationship with the game and the Xbox. Seeing the platform become unveiled and being able to share our work with everyone has been very exciting to see."

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; or send e-mail ([email protected]washingtontimes.com).

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