Learn the lingo to become a Director

Director 4.0 could become the standard multimedia authoring system, so Marcus Lyall offers some tips on using the text-based Lingo to build great environments

With Director 4.0, Macromedia seems to be going all out for dominance in the multimedia authoring market. Since the Director for Windows launch, it has signed a licensing agreement with Netscape which will allow Director movies to be downloaded from the Internet. If this becomes a standard format on the Net, it looks likely that it will push many of its competitors out of the picture.

The current Director package itself is a bit of a hybrid. Having started life as an animation package, the Lingo programming language was added in order to give it interactive capabilities.

At first, Director was thought of as an application for prototyping interactive projects that could then be re-programmed using a faster language. People then started to realise that Director projects could be used as the final product.

At its simplest level, interaction consists of pressing buttons to navigate between screens of graphics and text. By making more complex scripts you can give the viewer far more control over the environment. Because scripts require small amounts of processing power, they don’t have much impact on the speed and response of a project. This means that you can add sophistication to an environment without compromising playback performance.

For many Mac users who are used to a friendly, icon-based environment, Lingo’s text-based dialogue looks intimidating. But most users say that it is fairly easy to learn. For simplicity, Lingo tries to mimic standard, logical English. There is no right or wrong way to program, but with experience, you find out which techniques work most efficiently.

This flexible approach means that people use Lingo in very different ways. It also means there’s always a lot of discussion among interactive designers about the best way to achieve a given effect. The aim is to give a set of commands that the computer can process in the most efficient and least confusing manner. Because the idea of interactive design is to come up with new ways of doing things, you have to solve different problems each time.

Director is built for handling content-based projects rather than for arcade-style gameplay.

Running speed is also determined by the kind of visual material you are asking Director to deal with. It’s often more efficient to prepare graphics in a way that the program finds easy to manage. Director, for instance, is good at moving small sprites, but doesn’t like large graphics files. So if you want something that runs quickly, you stick to manipulating smaller objects. It’s surprising how little movement you need to make the screen look dynamic. Although this sounds visually limiting, it makes you work in a way that rewards efficient communication.

A project’s scripting and efficiency give it tactile qualities. Small, low-quality graphics can be forgiven if the piece runs in a fluid manner. In the same way as film, you can only suspend belief if the project runs as a continuous responsive piece. The best way to kill someone’s interest is to make them wait for 30 seconds while the next segment loads up.

The fact that you are using a non-linear medium means that you can jump from one point to another almost instantly. This means that the layout of the environment and what you can do within it communicates as much as its visual contents. A project that looks great, but can be explored quickly, loses its appeal after repeated viewing. The aim is therefore to build an environment that you want to spend time in.

David Collier of TripMedia is using Director as the engine for Virtual Nightclub, a game that involves navigating through a complex 3D environment. You meet a cast of video characters, who respond differently depending on where you are.

You can give characters an object you’ve picked up and they’ll react depending on what it is and where you meet them.

These reactions are determined by a complex set of interrelating scripts, connected to each scene and object you encounter. In this way, characters and environments can be made to seem intelligent. This level of scripting requires careful planning and testing to make sure it works in the right way. Collier concedes that for this kind of work, another language would probably be easier to use, but wouldn’t have the graphic flexibility of the Director package.

In many ways, it’s good that designers are being made to look at how multimedia works as a viewing experience without the benefits of perfect full-motion video and arcade-speed graphics. It’s easy to dazzle with special effects, but this should be the icing on the cake rather than the main thrust of an interactive experience. Designers need to look at the mechanics of this medium before deciding on how to decorate it.

With Quicktime VR, Quickdraw 3D and MPEG video all becoming integrated into this environment, there will be plenty of ways to overcome any technical problems being currently experienced.

Thank you to David Collier at TripMedia and Emma Westecott for their sterling opinions.

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