Asking A Paleontologist About Game Design

by Ben Reeves on Dec 19, 2013 at 12:30 PM

BBC Earth and Evergreen Films are releasing the animated film Walking With Dinosaurs this week, but did you know that there is also a video game based on the film? We took this opportunity to talk with paleontologist Steve Brusatte who helped design Sony's Wonderbook game.

Can you give us some background on your credentials? Why are you interested in Dinosaurs?
I’m a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland (although I’m originally from the US, near Chicago). I have a PhD in earth and environmental sciences from Columbia University in New York. I am an academic researcher, so my job is to teach, advise students, and study fossils. I do fieldwork at many places around the world to find new dinosaur fossils, including in the western US, Romania, Poland, and Portugal. I’ve named about 10 new species of dinosaurs and have published many research papers and five books, including an academic textbook (Dinosaur Paleobiology, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012) and the coffee table book Dinosaurs (Quercus Publishing, 2008).

Tell us how you got involved working on a game?
The game is one of many products associated with the incredible new Walking With Dinosaurs film. I have consulted on a variety of things related to the film, including a bit of consulting on the film itself, as well as on the film’s website, toy line, and line of books. I wrote the Walking With Dinosaurs Encyclopedia, which was released in November. I have worked quite a bit with the press and media in the past, and when the BBC was working on the Walking With Dinosaurs film they got in touch to ask if I could do some consulting, and it snowballed from there. It has been tremendous fun so far. I love doing academic research and teaching, but consulting and working with the press is a great part of my job as well.

How did you guide the developers while working on the game?
I spent a lot of time talking with the developers over email and by phone, and went down to London for a day to speak with some of the senior developers and see a demonstration of how the game was coming together. My main job was to make sure that the dinosaurs were portrayed realistically – that their sizes and postures were accurate, that they moved in a realistic way, and their colors were at least plausible. So this meant answering a lot of questions from the developers, sending images of dinosaurs, and critiquing the early models. I also was tasked with making sure that the script was as accurate as possible – that the dinosaurs portrayed actually lived together, that their environments were spot-on, and that they were interacting in ways that are consistent with what we know from fossils.

Were there any major misconceptions that the developers had that you were able to correct while working on the game?
The only misconceptions that I had to correct were little things – tiny issues with how dinosaur bones were drawn or how dinosaurs were shown moving.

How did you make sure that the details in the game were factually accurate, but also approachable for kids?
Sometimes we don’t know very much about a certain dinosaur. We may only have a few fossils – maybe only one or two bones. We might not really know what the dinosaur looked like, much less how fast it ran or what its posture was like. We avoided most of these dinosaurs in the game, and that is also true of the film. As much as possible, the focus was on dinosaurs (and entire dinosaur ecosystems) that we knew quite a bit about. That made sure that not only were the dinosaurs portrayed accurately, but also that we could use all of the neat things we’ve learned from science to help mold a story. Some of what is portrayed in the film and the game is speculation, of course. We really don’t know what colors most dinosaurs were, or exactly how fast they could move, or whether they ate particular types of plants. But in all cases the speculation is reasonable. There is nothing outlandish – no fire-breathing tyrannosaurs.

If you were going to walk with Dinosaurs, which ones would you hope to see?
I know it’s clichéd, but I would have to say Tyrannosaurus rex. How did such a huge animal move? How did it hunt? How did it raise its young? T. rex is the most famous and iconic dinosaur for a reason. It was a monstrous predator totally different from anything alive today. A 5-ton megapredator just isn’t a normal thing. I’m glad it’s extinct, but I would love to be able to watch it from a safe distance. But since that can never happen, I suppose that films like Walking With Dinosaurs, and video games like the Wonderbook game, are our best substitute!