Surveying SingleTrac Studio's cluttered quarters, a visitor might conclude the operation is a lot like the video games for which it is world famous.
At company headquarters at 175 W. 200 South, open semi-cubicles leave plenty of room for the employees to interact. It is a fast-moving scene in which illustrators, modelers, producers and software engineers brainstorm constantly.They play with ideas the way a kid uses a joystick, shading and shaping their productions as they develop.
SingleTrac's decor is as casual as a fast session at a play console. Computers and desks are loaded with toys: ranks of little white-armored Star Wars storm troopers, a life-size plastic skull, action figures of alien monsters from the Spawn comic books, collections of the figures that fast food restaurants hand out.
Caricatures of employees, drawn by one of the staff artists and presented on their birthdays, decorate a brick wall of the spartan lunchroom. Other walls are strewn with copies of classic movie posters and signed master CDs from successful video games they developed.
The clutter and information overload might convince a visitor that the place is as wild as, well, Twisted Metal 2, Jet Moto or Outwars, to name three of their more popular games.
But it's not chaotic.
Under the surface, SingleTrac is careful and structured.
A good way to glimpse that organization is to follow the making of a game. On a tour last week, the Deseret News' guides were Heh-Kyu L. Sincock, director of product marketing, and Brian J. Christensen, producer for Streak, a game that should be finished and on the shelves in time for Christmas sales.
SingleTrac was founded in 1994 by people connected with Evans & Sutherland Computer Corp. Half a year ago it was acquired by GT Industries. GT is a huge electronic entertainment firm. "We're one of their stellar internal development studios," said Sincock.
SingleTrac produces games for the Sony Playstation console and PCs. "We are a Nintendo 64 developer," she added, although they haven't done any Nintendo games yet.
Game makers are separated into teams of between 13 and 18 members. One group is working on a PC title for Microsoft, "OutWars." Christensen's team, which is developing Streak, has 13.
One of the first stops on the tour is a conference room they called the fishbowl. Team members will throw out ideas, gather notions, try to fit notions into the strengths of the company and the market, Christensen said.
"Once we have an initial concept, we pass it on to the design team," he said. This group includes associate Troy Leavitt, game designer; Mike Mason, art director and senior software engineer; and concept illustrator Robert V. Gonzales.
"Really it's everybody's concept, but my job is to synthesize those ideas into a design document that will act as a blueprint of the game," Leavitt said. He writes the ideas and specifics of the game in a guidebook that everyone - from technical writer to public relations specialist to software engineer - cites at all times.
As concepts emerge during the yearlong production, Leavitt said, he issues "new editions every six to eight weeks." By now the book is 150 pages.
The basic idea behind Streak, he said, is that "we're trying to tap into the next generation favorites, snowboarding and skateboarding, but doing it in an urban environment where all these tricks would normally be forbidden." The game lets the player vicariously fly through an amusement park, for example.
The fictional hoverboard was inspired by the equally imaginary floating skateboard that Michael J. Fox uses in "Back to the Future II."
Game designers are "rolling a fantasy into a real experience for players. You can't ride hoverboards on the freeway because they don't exist," and if they did exist they wouldn't be allowed there anyway. So there's that attraction of the forbidden - but in Streak, it's an innocent forbidden enjoyment of flying through cemeteries or city streets on boards.
"Riding your hoverboard through your old high school," Christensen exults.
"We thought all kids would love the idea of riding through their old school because that's kind of taboo to do that. Who wouldn't want to ride down the stairs, down the hall, past the principal's office?"
Gonzales draws the basic look of the game, wielding pencil, paper, color markers. "Then I take that and scan it in," putting the images in a computer. Next he uses the computer to make the final color version.
"First of all we just come up with the look of the guy or the girl" character, he said. He will build a front, rear and side view of the character.
Is "Pierce" a bad guy, with his spiky haircut? "There's really no good or bad. It's a racing game," said Sincock.
Mason works on the game's feel after Leavitt comes up with the concept book. "It's my job to blow life into his ideas, to set a high-level direction - where we're going, the look and the feel of the game."
If a character seems too old or young for the part, he will ask for another version, and Gonzales will draw him anew. The team went through 20 or 25 characters, each with its own strengths, "before we scaled it down to the 10 that we felt had the strongest personality and most appeal," said Christensen.
"We try to give them personality . . . we pick characteristics to quantify." Each character has a certain set of mass, agility, control, sped. A heavier figure might have better control but not move as swiftly, or a light person might be fast but shaky on the hoverboard.
"They balance out when all is done, so you can play and win the game with any of the 10 characters," he said. "Then to bring the character to life, that's done through programming. We program through C and C++," which are two of the most popular computer programming languages.
While visual design is taking place, planners must develop the game's hidden structure and working. Behind Gonzales' work station is a flow chart of the shell of the game, a series of labeled boxes and lines showing how parts mesh.
"The shell is really like an operating system that's tracking what the player wants," said Mason. The shell keeps track of the score, playing level and dozens of other aspects of the playing.
Once Gonzales has created characters and scenes in two dimensions, it's up to the six 3-D modelers to give them substance - dimension, mass, speed. They also work on dynamic elements in the levels, called "tracks," that can change as players interact with them.
Dynamic elements are like "moving boats, here in our tunnel of love," said Christensen, showing the scene on a computer screen.
Slowly over the months the game takes shape. Software engineers use commercial modeling packages that let them give the scenes and character a solid look. Artists create landscapes where the characters will perform.
In a corner of the suite, Jennifer A. Fortin, one of the 3-D modelers, was working on the Venice level.
"Pretty much you make it out of polygons," said Fortin, a Texas woman who earned a master's degree in math from a North Carolina college. "We can put these pictures on separate places in their world."
The pictures are images that the computer pastes on different segments of the environment - a storefront, a tree, a home with pillars. When the player zooms through that part of Streak's world, the store or home or cathedral will loom and diminish.
"The really cool thing is you can kind of play god in the environment. If you want to build trees and rocks and things you can put them wherever you want."
Sound-effects people get into the picture, inventing noises for each setting and event. In a city environment, they might throw in a police siren or traffic noises. Where the racers fly over a waterfall, they put in a splash of rushing water. They add the sounds of the hoverboard and the characters' voices.
Not that the characters are chatterboxes. They are alter egos for the players, and they are supposed to be more athletic than cerebral. "Someone bumps them and they might yell, `Hey!' or just short little tidbits, like `Watch out,' " Christensen said. Or if one crashes, he might say "OOH!" as he jumps back on the hoverboard.
In the team's work room, "we mix up all the people - programmers, modelers, designers. The only people we isolate are the sound people because they're noisy, so we stick them in soundproof rooms."
Four times during the course of the project, 10 "gamers" are invited to try out the program. These people are 12 to 24 years old, often relatives of friends.
"We bring them in here and we sit them down. We don't tell them a lot because we don't want to influence them. We hand them the game and we watch them from behind the two-way mirror."
The players know they are being watched and videotaped through the mirror. "It's just that when we're in the room, they're a little less open. When we're outside they tend to forget we're watching."
Developers see what the players really like and what parts they're having trouble with. "It helps us because sometimes we're so close to the product we can't make good decisions and judgments," he said. The fresh viewpoint helps tremendously.
"They have a lot of fun doing it, and we sure appreciate their help."
As the project is wrapping up, team members will be in the fishbowl throwing out ideas for the next game.
Once the project is finished, there's a period of tension while the team waits for the gaming magazine reviews.
"We've been real lucky," Mason said. "All the games this team has made have been hits way beyond our expectations. . . . Sold four times what we dared hope."
Making a video game has an unreal feel to it until it hits the store shelves, he said. A successful game may sell at a good clip for a year; some last even longer.
Fortin sometimes sees one of the "realities" she creates on TV ads for the game. "It's great. I feel like a star," she said.
That reminded Christensen of a great moment in his life. A game he had worked on, Jet Moto, came out for Christmas 1996. The next January, "I was just sitting there watching the Superbowl" and an ad came on national TV for the game.
That floored him, knowing how many people were seeing it around the world and how much money that ad had cost. "I felt like I had arrived," he said.