Macromedia Director Shockwave Studio 8

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A streamlined interface, new runtime imaging, improved sound handling and scalable, multi-user Shockwave output put Director in a league of its own when it comes to the delivery of interactive multimedia over the Web - but it's not for everyone.

Macromedia Director 8 imaging

The world has changed a lot since Macromedia's multimedia flagship, Director,  was first launched. Back then the Web simply didn't exist, while today it has  become the most important platform for multimedia delivery. Fortunately, with  its general Web expertise and especially its Shockwave technology, Macromedia  has been perfectly placed to transform Director into a truly Web-oriented  application. With Director - unlike FreeHand (see page ) - this transformation  has been both complete and convincing ensuring that the renamed Director 8  Shockwave Studio is now the platform of choice for those sites determined to  provide the richest possible Web experience.

Macromedia Director 8 end results

Director's unique selling point - unbelievably rich content considering the bandwidth limitations of Web delivery.

Director might be the secret behind the most forward-looking sites on the Web, but you would never have known it from its own working environment. Director's long past is very evident in its underlying "theatrical" metaphor where you work with a "cast" of media elements, a "stage" where content is viewed, and a "score" to synchronize your project. Sadly, it's not just this linear timeline-based approach that is old-fashioned. Over the years Director's interface has also been allowed to fall behind in crucial areas while developments have been added piecemeal. The end result was an outdated and inefficient interface which largely disguised Director's underlying power.

Mercifully, with this new release, Macromedia has taken a grip. To begin with it has addressed the most obvious failings. You can now zoom in on the stage up to 800% for accurate placement. More importantly, you can zoom out, up to 12%, to leave more onscreen space for scripting. Even better, after zooming out, you can use the new pasteboard to set up animations that start or end off screen. You can also now add guides to the Stage to help placement, while new distribute commands make it easier to position sprites accurately and consistently. When you're happy with a sprite, you can also now lock it to prevent accidental changes.

Macromedia Director 8 zoom etc

Basic interface features such as zoomed views, guides and a pasteboard have at last been added.

Even more fundamental are the changes to Director's onscreen palettes. In the past the Cast manager showed all the elements of your projects as icons. That was fine if you only had a few, but quickly became a nightmare when you were dealing with hundreds. Now there's a list view where items can be quickly located by sorting on name, type, number, creation date and a new customisable comments field. The biggest change of all is the consolidation of a number of former palettes into the new Property Inspector. This offers a huge range of control over the currently selected object through its context-sensitive sprite, behaviour and member tabs and quickly becomes a main centre of work. The Inspector's not just more efficient it's also more powerful, enabling shared properties of multiple objects to be updated simultaneously.

Macromedia Director 8 cast and property inspector

The redesigned Cast and new Property Inspector both boost efficiency.

The interface revamp is by no means complete - the behaviour Library is just as awkward as it's always been - but Director does feel far more streamlined in practice. In fact in many ways Director now feels like a programming environment, especially if you use the Property Inspector's list view to show all parameters as Lingo properties. When working like this, the simple theatrical metaphor seems a long way away, but to make the most of Director you really do have to get to grips with its in-built scripting language, and this is an excellent way of picking up Lingo on the job. Another sign that Macromedia is taking Director's programming responsibilities more seriously is the ability to link to scripts externally. This means that you can use your favourite scripting environment to work on files, but it really comes into its own when enabling team-working with professional version control.

Director might be the nearest thing there is to a multimedia standard, but in recent years it has fallen seriously behind rivals like Dazzler and even PowerPoint, in one of the most important areas of all, impact. The reason is simple. Large bitmaps and visually rich transitions are by their nature bandwidth-heavy and just don't fit well with Web delivery. Director now offers at least a partial solution with its new runtime imaging. This gives developers control over the Shockwave rendering engine to enable graphic generation and various onscreen effects at the client end. Best of all many of the transition effects can be applied on an individual sprite rather than full frame basis. Director 8 projects still don't have the highest production values, but the new imaging Logo commands and behaviours do enable a richer visual experience within the bandwidth constraints of the Web.

Macromedia Director 8 imaging

Director 8 offers runtime imaging controls to improve the end-user visual experience.

Another area that was previously seriously limited by the restrictions of Web delivery, and that Director 8 now addresses, is sound. Director 8 now supports the import of AIFF, WAV, SND as well as the all-important streaming MP3. Using the new sound Lingo commands and behaviours you can mix, pan, seek, and pause multiple sounds. Most importantly you can cue and simultaneously start sounds with millisecond accuracy and control loop points dynamically at runtime. Putting this together you can create seriously impressive immersive sound effects where the volume and panning of a sprite's audio change as the end-user drags it around their screen. Again the process is labour-intensive and the end results aren't state-of-the-art, but Director 8 does raise the ceiling if not the roof.

Macromedia Director 8 audiio

Director's audio control has been improved with a range of Lingo-based Sound behaviours.

When you've assembled and orchestrated all the elements of your project, you're ready to publish it. As always you can produce a standalone Windows-only projector EXE for delivery on CD-ROM but the main emphasis is on universal Web delivery through Shockwave. To enable this Director 8 provides an entirely new Publish Settings command which takes care of producing the necessary code through the use of customisable HTML templates including a new option that displays a "loader" movie to provide some content while a larger project is preparing to play. To help keep bandwidth demands to a minimum all bitmap media in the project can be JPEG compressed to a customisable quality setting. Alternatively, you can use the optimise function of the bundled Fireworks 3 (recommended issue ) to fine-tune bitmaps individually.

Macromedia Director 8 publish

The new Publish Settings command is based on customisable HTML templates.

By this stage it's clear that Director's success depends almost entirely on its one unique selling point, its use of Shockwave as a delivery mechanism. Shockwave is undoubtedly Director's greatest strength but it is also its greatest weakness. To begin with it immediately means that if you are only interested in producing CD-ROM and kiosk projects you'd be better off with another application that doesn't work to restricted bandwidth constraints and so can produce work with greater impact far more easily. Even if you are interested in cross-media work - and these days it's hard to imagine that many users won't be - it's worth pointing out a major issue that Macromedia has tended to obscure: there are actually two Shockwave standards.

Rather than the SWF (Shockwave Flash) files that Flash and FreeHand produce - and an increasing numbers of other developers including Corel and Adobe have announced support for - Director produces its own DCR (Shockwave Director) format files. For the end-user to be able to view these files they need not the small Flash player but the full Shockwave 8 player. This immediately restricts your potential audience. While Macromedia now claims well over 80% of browsers can view Flash content, they don't put a percentage on Shockwave - though they do claim an installed base of 108 million users world-wide. Even more importantly, by their nature, most Flash movies can be replaced by an automatically generated animated GIF or image map so that all visitors will see something even without the Flash player. With the interactive, truly multimedia nature of Director's Shockwave productions there's no fallback position - it's all or nothing.

These are certainly serious drawbacks and good reasons to investigate whether the increasingly powerful Flash can give you what you want. For the most compelling and interactive content, however, Flash simply doesn't offer the necessary control and so can't compete with Director. Basically, while a Flash site might impress at the time, you won't forget a well-designed Shockwave site. This is especially the case with the new Shockwave 8 format thanks to two new important capabilities. The first is scalability which enables Shockwave content to scale to fit your browser window rather than being fixed in size. The second is the new multi-user capability. Director 8 now includes Multiuser Server 2 which enables up to 1,000 simultaneous connections, along with a whole new raft of Lingo commands and pre-written behaviours for adding whiteboards, chat rooms and multiplayer games.

Macromedia Director 8 multiuser

Director 8 makes serious moves into multi-user Shockwave.

This move into the multi-user domain represents another leap forward in end-user experience and enables Director 8 to deliver the next generation of interactive, multimedia, online communities. For the producer this means that their site will not just be "sticky", as Macromedia puts it, with visitors returning repeatedly, but also "magnetic" with visitors actively seeking out Shockwave content and then spreading the word to others. Of course this is the end result that Director really provides - an exploding hit counter and exploding sales. It's just a pity that, in the process, Director 8 Shockwave Studio conclusively proves that there's no such thing as gain without pain.



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System Requirements : Pentium 133 or higher, 32Mb of RAM, 100Mb of disk space, 1024x768 display, CD-ROM, Windows 95, 98 or NT 4.

Tom Arah

Feb 2000

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