Cliffhanger Games Interviews Vulcan's Director on the Vulcan Portal.
The Vulcan Portal is a free downloadable application which, soon, will enable you to download the Episodic Games produced by Vulcan Software (including the PC port of their classic Valhalla series for the Amiga and the totally new 3D 'Valhalla & the curse of Infinity'). However, there's much more to it than simply downloading games (as I discovered after downloading and being taken by surprise at what it actually does!). I recently took the opportunity to distract Director Paul Carrington from his busy schedule (as the Portal nears it's official launch) to ask a few questions:
Cliffhanger Games - Paul, how would you describe the Portal for those who haven't experienced it yet?
Paul from Vulcan - Straight for the jugular there Jonathan :). Where to start? Okay, I would say that the Portal could best be described as a 'gateway'
to Vulcan Software and everything we do. Primarily it's a windows application that digitally distributes our software (in a unique and stylized way) but it is also a
community builder allowing its users to communicate with Vulcan and other Portal users.
I think the overwhelming aspect that defines the Portal is it's presentation, for example all the operations of the application is fronted by real time 3d characters
who speak (6 languages) via synthetic speech. This statement losses so much when presented in the text format J and I would always advise people to experience it first hand but a quick way to visualize the Portal is to think of HAL from the classic movie 2001 but instead of a red glowing eye you have a 3d
presentation of a smiling blinking talking human.
The idea is that the Portal does all the hard work of downloading and installing our software to your computer (and even upgrading the Portal itself) whilst the user is presented with simple function buttons and visual feedback via the 3d dynamic talking characters. With regards to the communication aspect, this also
plays a hefty part of the Portals functionality, for example you can send the equivalent of email to Vulcan and other Portal users (through the Portal) but your email is actually spoken by a 3d presentation of yourself at the other end, once again using synthetic speech, we call it 3d voice mail.
This has turned out to be hugely entertaining for the current Portal users as they can choose what they look like from default models and skins and also
define how they speak, whether that's male or female and changing various factors such as speech pitch and speed. This self identity is marvellous and soon you can get to know other Portal users through the community centre, viewing their welcome message and also receiving their voice mail. This later functionality
actually started as a way for us to deliver Vulcan development news to our software users and offer invigorating technical support, but through the Portals development, it has urned into something that all Portal users can get involved in.
Cliffhanger Games - How did the concept originate?
Paul from Vulcan - It's a long story but in simple terms it kind of evolved. Originally the Vulcan Portal was just going to be an application that downloaded our software, something like 'click here', you now have the files 'go away' type of thing. We started the Vulcan Portal In January 2001, but two years prior to that
we have been developing our own 3d tools and engine for our forthcoming Valhalla 3d game. These development tools known as 'Mother' allow the construction of 3d characters and objects etc. We got to the point 'in the games development' that required the 3d characters to talk, needless to say it became a big development job trying to animate 3d mouths with realistic lip sync to pre-recorded digital speech.
After many months of perfecting the Mother tools for animation we decided to implement an alternative method to create realistic lip sync one that would be
quicker than painstakingly animating a 3d mouth by hand. One way was to implement a text to speech engine that translated typed text to speech and at the same time generated phonetics, the mouth movements required to produce the sounds.
Once this was accomplished we could then type the text of a pre recorded digital speech and Mother would produce the mouth movements to speak that text
(placing the animated mouth movements back into the wav file), the end result meant that we could record some digital speech like 'hello my name is John'
create a text file with those exact words and Mother uses all the information to generate the perfect lip synching for the animated 3d characters in Valhalla 3d.
Once we had achieved this we thought it was a terrible shame that the actual dynamic synthetic speech engine would never be used in the final game (just as
part of the Mother tools) and as it was so much fun to play with and see 3d models talk (what you typed) we thought we would try putting it into the Vulcan
Portal,. The only reason for this was to test it as a stand alone technology and replace the standard requester boxes within the Portal with spoken words.
After the first test and seeing a 3d head talk in the Vulcan Portal we haven't looked back since. You could say that the Vulcan Portal application was a
testing ground for some of our technology but it became so entertaining that the Portal adopted the technology as it's own. Funny because now I cant for the life
of me imagine what the Portal would be like if it didn't have this technology implemented.
Cliffhanger Games - Can anybody become a beta tester for the Portal?
Paul from Vulcan - Absolutely, simply visit the portals website at www.vulcan-portal.co.uk download the software and register for free. We first started
taking beta testers in February 2001 and now have over 450 people testing and enjoying the Portals continued development, funnily all the new additions are as a
result of word of mouth and people accidentally coming across the Portal website. In the coming weeks we will be changing the terminology from beta tester to
registered user as their isn't much testing left to do on it's current functionality.
Cliffhanger Games - As someone who uses the beta version myself, I'm aware that the updated versions are now coming out very frequently (I'm impressed by
the ease at which the application can update itself). How soon do you expect to announce that the Portal is 'officially launched'?
Paul from Vulcan - We've always tried to release newer versions of the Portal on a regular basis, it all depends on how many new features we can implement to
make it more enjoyable, sometimes there have been over 10 upgrades a month but yes it is picking up pace now. Actually the upgrades have proved to be
something that the current Portal users like, normally you think of application updates as painful that require downloading and configuring but as the Portal automates this process with comical communication it turns out to be an exciting operation instead of something that provokes dread! :)
We are hoping to go live in about 3 to 4 weeks time, the main thing left to do before launch is to cater for allot of users, previously it was only designed for 250
beta testers but as the Portal has evolved into a communications tools and community application it needs to allow millions of individual users to have their own connection, mailboxes server space and accounts etc. We've actually gone a bit mad and made the Portal cater for up to 500 million users, we all laugh at this
and know that it will never get that large but are secretly aiming for around 200 thousand users in the first year of launch.
Launching basically means making it available on all download sites specifically CNET which could generate a million downloads in a short space of time,
but at the end of the day we will be relying totally on the individuals experience of our software and word of mouth. This actually is something we are excited
about, as an example one lovely lady enjoyed the Portal so much that she told her children (now grown up and living in different countries around the world) and now all 7 of them are on the portal and sending each other 3d voice mail. We believe that this internal user spreading will be how the Portal will hopefully become a global identity.
Cliffhanger Games - Will it still be available for free?
Paul from Vulcan - Absolutely, we intend to make as much of our software (as possible) free, whilst only charging for the extra stuff that the user deems worth
buying. For example, the Vulcan Portal is now (and will always be) free. It will allow you to send and receive 3d voice mail, get 3d daily industry news, and
download our free application tools (such as the Vulcan Uploader) along with forthcoming demos of our Mother Tools and the first episodes in Valhalla 3d and the Valhalla Classics range. Only if you decided you 'had to have more' then you would have the option to purchase and download the extra episodes.
Cliffhanger Games - I think it would be great if the Portal had a forum facility. Is this likely to happen at some stage of it's development?
Paul from Vulcan - Absolutely! As you know, the Portal already offers 3d voice mail but it will soon have 3d voice industry news delivered as it breaks, user message boards, live 3d voice chat (1 to 1 or in groups) and we even have plans to broadcast 'guest appearances' to take live communication to a select Portal audience.
Overall we see the Portal as a communications tool that surrounds our software and it's users, for example, imagine playing episode 2 of the Valhalla Classics range (which incidentally is played inside the Portal) and then getting stuck. You could then (if desired) connect your Portal to the Vulcan server and talk to other Portal users who have perhaps just finished that episode and have made themselves available for advise. Alternatively press a button to talk live to Vulcan Staff, get your answer, come off line and resume play.
Cliffhanger Games - I notice on the list of Portal Users you have a flag indicating what language they speak. Is this just a guide so people can identify
other 'Portalites' that they can easily communicate with, or, are you contemplating using language translation at some stage in the future?
Paul from Vulcan - At the moment it's purely to show whether your base language is English, French, German, Italian, Spanish or Portuguese as these are
the synthetic languages that the Portal can speak in. Ultimately I would like to implement a universal translator so that a German person could speak to a
French person etc. but that will have to be sometime in the future as there are so many other things still to do. :)
Cliffhanger Games - Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Paul. On an endnote, can you give us any idea how soon we can expect to start downloading the first available episodes of your range of games?
Paul from Vulcan - It's been a pleasure Jonathan, how soon? Well we fully expect to have the first episode of the Valhalla Classics range of games ready in
about 2 to 3 weeks time with each subsequent episode following at weekly intervals (there are 12 of those episodes) with regards to the first episode of Valhalla 3d we have a rough time table of 1 to 2 months time, but this game has been in development for 2 to 3 years now so based on our previous development pace, may actually be longer to wait, but lets keep fingers crossed :)
So there you have it. The Vulcan Portal is an application that I'm sure many people (including myself) will be using on a frequent basis for what it does in
addition to being the 'downloader' for Vulcan Software's products. I'm hoping to get more info. out of Paul and the team shortly regarding their Episodic Games,
starting with the forthcoming Valhalla Classics. Watch this space.
Jonathan Whitehead at Cliffhanger Games