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Long Journey to Reality : Entertainment: After five years of misadventure, Irvine company's 'Stonekeep' CD-ROM game is due out next week--really.


IRVINE — The imaginary worlds of CD-ROM computer games are populated by legions of "stalwart adventurers," and the latest to assume this mantle is Drake, the stubble-faced hero of "Stonekeep," a glossy adventure game scheduled to be released Wednesday by Interplay Productions.

Drake's challenge is awesome. Before he can rescue the periled goddess Thera, he must navigate 22 levels of competition in a dimly lit dungeon, searching for clues, battling disembodied foes and liberating a dragon from bondage.

But Drake's trials might seem like tea parties compared to the brutal tests confronted by Michael Quarles and the other Interplay employees who created "Stonekeep." Quarles, 32, has spent the past five years--about 15% of his life, he readily points out--shepherding this troubled project from concept to compact disc.

Filming the game's movie-like live action sequences proved so difficult that scenes had to be re-shot three times. Nerves became so frayed that the game's chief programmer and several key artists walked out last year. Along the way, two release dates--Christmas of both 1993 and 1994--came and went.

Now, on the eve of what Interplay insists is the final release date, the company says it has already shipped 175,000 copies of the game, its biggest shipment ever, and expectations are soaring. But the ultimate test is still to come for Drake and Quarles.

Will "Stonekeep" be the biggest hit yet in the privately held Irvine company's 12-year history, topping the success of its popular "Descent" spaceship-simulation game? Or will it be the cyber equivalent of "Waterworld," the notorious Kevin Costner movie that cost more than any other Hollywood production in history, but slowly sank at the box office?

The 15-hour days and seven-day workweeks are over now for the "Stonekeep" team, and Quarles appeared fresh on Halloween day as he talked about the game's development.

"It was disappointment after disappointment," said Quarles, a compact man who speaks in a soft voice. "Every time we turned around, we thought the next solution would be the final one, and then it wouldn't work."


Outside, in a courtyard below his office, employees wearing costumes capped off a rowdy, midday Halloween party by lighting a firecracker inside an empty two-liter soda bottle. Quarles pointed to the corner of the courtyard, where a wooden post stretched into the sky, like a forgotten shipwreck's mast. That post, Quarles said, has become a symbol of the "Stonekeep" saga.

In September, 1992, employees hung a 50-by-50-foot blue screen from the post to serve as the backdrop for filming the game's special effects footage. The game's creators had big dreams of making a three-dimensional computer world, with characters that had complex behavior, reacting differently depending on the actions of the hero.

But the technology to produce such creatures wasn't there yet, so Interplay hoped to film live actors in costumes, convert the images to computer graphics, then place them on top of the 3-D dungeon background. This approach wouldn't be necessary today, with new computer systems capable of rendering lifelike characters. But at the time, Interplay's plans were on the cutting edge.

When filming started, the "Stonekeep" project was already two years old, nearly twice as long as it takes to produce a typical game, because the company had to search for a way to create the 3-D dungeon. But employees were playful as they donned monster costumes to take part in scenes to be incorporated into the game's fight sequences.

The first to go before the camera was an animator outfitted in a blue suit and wearing a fake skeleton strapped to the front of his body. With a few charges toward the camera, and a few swings of a sword, one fight scene was filmed and ready to be transformed into digital computer images that could then be loaded into the game. One by one, similar scenes with different creatures were filmed over the next five months, until most of the game's live-action sequences were completed.

Then came the first major setback.

When the footage was loaded into the computer and replayed, the characters flickered like wind-blown candles. The "Stonekeep" team had filmed the scenes in the outdoor courtyard because it was easy, but they failed to account for the fact that natural lighting changes by the day, and sometimes by the minute.

"You'd have creatures walk down the dungeon flash bright and then flash dim," Quarles said.

Everything would have to be re-shot, this time in an artificially lit Hollywood studio.

Two months later, more problems surfaced. The game's fight scenes, viewed through Drake's eyes, take place at such close range that the attacker is seen only from the knees up. So, naturally, when the scenes were being filmed, the actors were filmed only from the knees up.

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