But we still had lots of questions. How did these figures get made? What kind of material were they made of, and where did FigurePrints get the models and information to turn ingame characters into real sculptures? For the answers, we went straight to the source. Ed Fries has been in and around gaming for a long time, and after playing WoW for years (and creating games for years before that), he had the idea to create a way to bring Warcraft characters to life with a 3D printer. WoW Insider got a chance to talk to Ed on the day that his company's site went live, and all the answers to your questions about FigurePrints are right after the jump.
WoW Insider: Your name sounded familiar to me, and I was trying to remember where I heard it from when I remembered that Alex Seropian mentioned you-you were the one who bought Halo from him at Bungie Software for Microsoft.
Ed Fries: That's right. How do you know Alex?
I interviewed him for another publication when he released Stubbs the Zombie with Wideload Games.
So when did you leave Microsoft?
I left in January of '04.
And how did you get from making the Xbox all the way to here with FigurePrints?
Well I was at Microsoft a long time-I was there for 18 years, and I spent the first ten years working on Office stuff-Excel, and Word. But before I even joined the company I was a programmer, and I kind of helped pay for my college by writing videogames, so I was always a game player. When I was working on the Office stuff, I was always playing the latest games on the side.
What kind of games did you put together?
You know, I made some games for the Atari 800 back in the old days-you wouldn't have heard of any of them, but they were a game called Maneater, a game called Sea Chase, a game called Princess and the Frog, which was basically a Frogger clone. These were hand assembly games written on ROM cartridges that you plugged into the Atari 800 computer system. And so I was just very into videogames, always have been, and I kind of got sick of working on Office after doing that for two years, and took over a small group that was just gaming stuff at Microsoft and started to grow it. There were about 50 people when I started the games group, and there were about 1200 when I left, and we grew a big PC gaming business-released games like Age of Empires, and Microsoft Flight Simulator, and a bunch of other stuff, and Xbox came along, worked a bunch on Xbox, getting Halo and a bunch of other titles.
So anyway, yeah, had a lot of fun at Microsoft, and basically I left in January of '04 kind of as Xbox 1 was grinding down and Xbox 360 was about to start up. I didn't really want to do another five years in a big company, and after I left, I started working with lots of game developers because I know a lot of people in the business. Working on the boards of game companies, and as an advisor to game companies, and doing consulting for different game publishers, that kind of thing. Helped create a company called FireAnt that we sold to Sony Online Entertainment. The MMO space has always been an interest of mine-I played a fair amount of EverQuest, and of course, had my eye on World of Warcraft as a developer. I played in the beta for six months before it came out, and then just started to play it fulltime when it released. So I was doing a lot of stuff in the gaming world, helping people start companies, run companies, and playing lots of Warcraft at night.
Well, this is WoW Insider, so we have to ask: what's your main?
[Laughs] OK, I play a gnome rogue, which is actually the character that you see on the front page of FigurePrints. I play in a guild called Liquid Courage on the Cenarius server.
And where are you guys at in terms of progression?
Well we're a very casual raiding guild. Everybody in the guild has kids, so it's pretty common that we're in the middle of some big raid and someone goes "My kid just threw up, I gotta go deal with it." [Laughs] We pause. We're all used to it, because we've all been there, too. We're mostly in Kara right now, but we just downed Gruul.
Oh, that's a nice achievement. Grats! So how did you get from being a player, then, to making these figures?
I was at E3 a year and a half ago, and had a chance to go behind closed doors at the EA booth, and play around with the Spore creature editor, for Will Wright's upcoming game, Spore. And he had a display case in the room of a bunch of Spore characters that he had printed out on a color 3D printer. And I'd been interested in 3D printing for a while, but I had never seen a color 3D print before. And I was really surprised at the quality, and the detail on it was amazing. I asked him if he could make a little ingame print of the little Spore creature I had just made-a kind of fishy, green creature, anyway-he said sure, and about a month or two later, it showed up at my house. I unpacked it and I had this little Spore creature. And I set it next to my desk, and went back to playing World of Warcraft. I was probably playing Warcraft for a month-playing Warcraft, look back at the creature, looking at the creature and playing Warcraft before I finally put two and two together and said "What if you use this for these?" Since I've been in the gaming business for a long time, I know a lot of people, and I called Mike Morhaime at Blizzard and chatted with him about it and said hey I have this idea, and wanted to know whether licensing rights were available and what he thought of the idea. He was really supportive and excited about it, and that was really the start. That was a little over a year ago.
You couldn't do this without the support of Blizzard, for sure. What have they given you-have they given you access to all the models, or are the poses straight from the game?
Actually, what I started with was the WoW Model Viewer. Since it's open source, I was able to download the source, and since I'm a programmer myself I was able to modify it to do what we needed to do. I also got in touch with the programmer who maintains that-he was a big help to me. And I started using the models direct out of the installed version of the game, and started to print them.
So Blizzard didn't give you any tools. You had to use a third party tool just to get the models out of the game.
Yeah, and part of that was that I liked having that independence, too, myself. It meant that I wasn't a pain the neck for Blizzard. I could just show up and say hey, here's what I've been able to do. I think that helped them get behind the project, too. Their programmers are pretty busy supporting two versions of the game, and so the fact that I could be pretty low impact on them, I think, made it more attractive to them. But I started to have meetings with their licensing group. Went down and started to show them some early figures that we created, which were pretty primitive. The early ones were very polygonal, because they were pulled right out of the game, they looked like they were made up of a bunch of triangles. The color wasn't great, there was just a lot of issues early on as we were learning how to use the technology. But they kept encouraging me to go forward. There were a few things that we really needed from them. It really helped that they launched the Armory, which gave us easy access to get gear information from people, because early on we weren't sure how we were going to do that. And we actually have special access to the Armory that gets us a little more information than is generally available.
That was one of my questions-how do you know non-gear info, like skin and hair color? Is that all in the Armory as well?
Yeah. But the Armory knows when our servers are asking for information, and it gives us extra information.
Yeah. That's like the big thing that they did for us.
So presumably, Blizzard could give us screenshots of our characters just going straight through the Armory. Since they know all of that stuff. But obviously we don't have that kind of access yet.
[Laughs] Yeah, I guess I should be careful what I say. I don't know if they really have a tool like the model viewer, though, to create those screenshots. They have the ingame stuff, obviously, but I don't think they have a program that they can do it with.
Are the poses for the figures straight from the game?
Yeah. All the poses are just frames of the animations straight out of the game.
We have about 40 per race and gender right now. We have about 20 different race/gender combinations.
They look good. Who designed the bases that the characters stand on?
I worked on this with the help of another guy kind of just doing some of the business stuff with me for a few months, and we pretty quickly realized that we were over our heads just from a 3D art perspective. We were having lots of issues with the printer trying to print the models that I was pulling out. Because models by default-something that's created for a game just really isn't printable. We needed to do a lot of stuff to change the models and make it into something that you'd want to have printed. So I came up with a 3D artist I knew, who worked on Flight Simulator and came from kind of a CAD background, Rick Welsh. He started to create this giant script in 3D Studio Max that takes the output out of Model Viewer and massages it. The script now is about 10,000 lines, and it automatically takes characters and does all the changes that need to be made to make them printable. For example it smoothes them, makes them much higher poly, so that they're much smoother. Something like a cloak in game is infinitely thin, so the script has to extrude it. The models aren't what's called "watertight," so they have to be sealed-if they have holes in them it confuses the printers. Stuff like hair is given transparency and texture. I could get too technical, and generate geometry-
So it goes from the ingame model to a model you can actually print.
Yeah, and it was a lot of work. That's a big part of the reason that it's taken us a year to pull all of the pieces together.
So if you're getting information directly from the Armory, does that mean I can't dress my Shaman up in Tier 6 to make him look cool? I can only print what he's wearing now?
Yeah, that was a long discussion that we had with Blizzard, and we felt like if everybody could dress in Tier 6, that's just what everyone would do, and you kind of lose what's unique and special about your characters. If everybody wanted to print a rogue in Tier 6, or a shaman in Tier 6, they'd all just look the same. You might as well buy an action figure of a generic Shaman. What makes your character special is the items that you worked hard to get, that you earned. I think about my Bloodfang hood, and how many times we had to slay Onyxia for me to get that on my Rogue, and that what makes it special to me.
It should be interesting to see what gets printed. You'll have to release stats to see what items people are using.
Yeah. It will be interesting.
I asked around to people I knew for questions about what this was, and the main questions were just all about the process. Can you walk us through the actual production?
Sure. At heart, it's basically an inkjet printer, which is pretty cool. It actually uses HP-11 inkjet printheads. But instead of printing on paper, it prints on a thin layer of plaster powder. So you have to imagine that there's a bay with a platform, and a spreader bar comes in and spreads a very thin layer of plaster powder, which has the consistency of flour. So it gets spread onto the platform, like a sheet of paper. And then the printheads come out, and they print right into that plaster. It sets the ink on top of it, and like paper it soaks into it-that plaster hardens. It's color ink, ok? And the spreader bar comes across again, and that platform actually moves down about 1/250th of an inch, and the spreader bar spreads the next layer of plaster, and it just repeats that process over and over, 250 layers for every inch.
So if you think about it, it's an hour per vertical inch to print. And at the very end, the platform is all the way down, it's about 8 inches down, and the entire bay is filled with this white powder. Then what you do is you basically dig down into this powder, and it's a very manual process, and extract the model from that powder-blow off the excess powder, and then you're holding in your hand this little statue that you made. And it looks very white at that point, you can just kind of barely make out the colors. And then you take it and it goes into this glue bath. And the glue soaks into the figure, and it makes it much stronger and it also brings the colors out, it makes the colors much more vibrant. And we've done a lot of experimentation with different glues, and different kinds of curing processes to come up with what we're using now.
How big is that bay that you "print" them in?
The dimensions on the bay are 10" by 14" by 8", so that's the biggest single thing we can print. We tend to print the characters vertically, and we do more than one at a time. Typically, we can fit about six in at a time. So they have a maximum vertical dimension of eight inches. We've actually done other stuff for tests-we've printed mounted characters and things like that, so maybe we'll offer that eventually.
And what's the texture on them? Are they fragile or do they still feel like plaster, or what do they feel like when they're done with the glue bath?
It's kind of hard to describe. I'd almost compare it to glass, kind of from a strict point of view. The glue soaks into the plaster, and for really thin parts it makes it almost translucent, and so it's basically like hard glue, almost like glass.
How fragile are they? Could you crush it in your hand, is it still powdery-ish? What would it take to destroy one?
The little features, like a dagger or something, it wouldn't be hard at all for you to snap off. Taking the character and snapping him in the middle section is actually quite difficult to do. It's quite strong.
Tell us how you're making people buy this, because this is another concern that people had when I asked. There's a lottery system? How does the system work?
So basically, we want it to be there for everybody, we wanted everybody to have a chance to order one of these prints from us. But at the same time, I just walked you through the process, it takes us a while to make one. They're very much handcrafted. I told you that we've automated a lot of the process on the front end, but artists still have to look at it before it's printed, and make little tweaks to make sure it looks the best it can. Then it goes in and gets printed, and then there's the manual process of taking it out and cleaning it off, and laying it in the glue, and mounting it, and so it definitely takes time.
We knew at the start that we weren't going to be able to take all of the orders that we were going to get-maybe I'm optimistic in that sense, but we decided that a drawing or lottery would be the fairest way to allocate them. So basically every month we're going to do a drawing, and all the people who are interested in getting a figure, we'll randomly select a bunch of them, and then if they get selected, they'll have a two week period in which to order it. It doesn't cost anything to enter in the drawing-you don't give us your credit card until you actually place your order.
Can I ask how many people you're going to choose in the first month?
No, because I haven't decided yet. It's going to be in the hundreds, not in the thousands. Part of why I haven't decided is that we also have to deal with Dell, as you're aware-
Right. Although Dell has projections for how many laptops they're going to sell, they don't really know until they put them up for sale. So we don't know how much of our production is going to be allocated to supporting Dell.
Do you have an expected time you can tell us where it'll even out-where demand will meet supply?
Well, you know, we just went live today. I don't know how many people are going to sign up for the drawing, so there's no way for me to say. I've just been sitting here watching the number go up.
Can you tell us how many you have in there already?
Sure. Let me hit refresh. There's 4,000 in there now.
Wow. [This was at 1:30 EST on December 11, 12 hours after the site opened.] There you go. From the second you press "order" to getting it in the mail, how long is it going to be?
The actual process of creating a figure takes about a week. When we start one of these lottery periods, we'll start to print the ones that come in. Each one takes about a week, but you don't know where you're going to be in that line of people waiting to get your chance to do it. I think that the typical customer will get their figure back in about a month.
The other big question we had was if you have any plans to do characters from other games.
Like I said, I know a lot of people in the game business, and I've been having conversations with other game companies. And now that we're live, we've already started to be approached by other game companies. But World of Warcraft is the biggest game in the world, and it's one I'm personally really passionate about, and Blizzard's been a great partner for us. And it looks like we're going to be busy for quite a while just supporting Warcraft. Farther down the road, I'd like to spread out and do more, but definitely in the near term, we're going to be dedicated to Blizzard and Warcraft.
I think that's all we wanted to know. Anything else you'd like to say to readers of WoW Insider?
No. I mean, I'm a player, and when I had the idea to do this, it just seemed like I couldn't think of anyone who wouldn't get excited about this kind of thing, so hopefully I'm right about that and hopefully we're doing something that WoW players are really going to be into.
Great. Good luck with the company, thanks very much for speaking with us.