Animation for games: stylized or real, PC and console characters offer sophisticated actions, looks and storiesAnn Fisher
According to leading marketing information provider. The NPD Group, annual 2004 US retail sales of videogames (which includes portable and console hardware, software and accessories) saw sales of over $9.9 billion--a decline of less than one percent when compared to $10 billion in annual 2003. However, while dollar sales were down slightly, total industry unit sales were up four percent over the same period last year.
For the first time ever sales of portable software titles broke the $1 billion mark. Total software sales also continued to set new records, with sales exceeding $6.2 billion, an increase of eight percent in overall sales when compared to $5.8 billion in 2003.
"The 2004 sales figures are impressive, especially as we enter the twilight of this hardware cycle and, more significantly, looking ahead, the videogame industry shows no signs of slowing down" says Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association, the trade association representing US computer and videogame publishers. "No other entertainment industry has posted the sustained growth over the last decade generated by the videogame sector, and given the technological and creative advances ahead, all signs point to surging growth and more record sales for many years to come."
For a healthy forecast of the videogame industry, ask Jacques Dussault, lead animator at Ubisoft, a Montreal-based game publisher with a dozen more development studios worldwide. "The industry has grown tremendously in the past five to 10 years and we're expecting the industry will double its size in the next seven years," he says.
The art and skill of animators is critical to developing characters that game players will want to return to over and over again. Many of those companies interviewed are creating and publishing series titles or specific genre titles that build on previous action, looks and storylines.
"We have a big variety of backgrounds [here at the studio], people who come from 2D animation that convert to 3D," says Dussault. "We have very technical animators, some of them used to be programmers and became animators. We have people who are able to look at any problem in a very different way, and we have specialized people who are known for doing very great keyframe animation with a lot of personality in it. We have other animators who are very good at using the engine and being able to render something that will add personality to their characters, but through the tools and through the engine and coding."
SPLINTER CELL CHAOS THEORY
Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Chaos Theory, to be released March 31 for PC, XBox, GameCube and PS2, is the third in this stealth game series. The main character, Sam Fisher, is very realistic with his moves and high-tech gear, which are ultra-modern and slightly sci-fi, a trademark look of the Tom Clancy games. Ubisoft (www.ubisoft.qc.ca) creates and publishes many Clancy properties.
The animators wanted to "push the envelope on the look of Sam Fisher," says Dussault, which they did with normal mapping, a 3D texturing/displacement technique not available for previous Splinter Cell games. "It gives you the chance to put a lot of very small details on characters without adding texture, modeling and rendering all the time. So you can have wrinkles or frowns around the eyes of a character with just the texture and it looks absolutely real and reacts to the light and the shadows around you as it should."
Ubisoft animators explored other new technologies like Full Body IK (Inverse Kinematics), which allowed Sam to walk and move more naturally. "You always feel like the weight is at the right place, it won't be stopping and snapping all the time," says Dussault. Their tools were Kaydara's Human IK software (now an Alias product) connected the Ubisoft's heavily-modified Unreal engine. For modeling and animation, they used Discreet 3DS Max and Character Studio on Dell PCs. Animation is keyframed because "we have very good and very experienced animators who can render realistic animation," he says, adding that motion capture had too many limits.
The game is interactive at all times, the player is always able to move and watch, pointing the camera in any direction. Facial animation, though upgraded, was probably the least important part of the character. "You get expressions, you can see some fear in his face and if he feels very confident. But those are applied to complete the character, so it's not the main focus. We tried to put the expressions of the character through the body," says Dussault.
Ubisoft spent two years producing this game. The first Splinter Cell was made in Montreal, the second in Shanghai and this one back in Montreal. The company wanted the production flexibility to shift its animators to different titles.
Released in January 2005 for XBox and PS2, Mercenaries was created by Pandemic Studios (www.pandemicstudios.com) and published by LucasArts. It is a first-person shooter game. This military action title follows last year's Full Spectrum Warrior, which was adapted from an actual US Army training game. Mercenaries is a more fictionalized game, more akin to comic book character design in terms of looks and movement. There are three mercenaries--an African-American, a British gal of Chinese descent and a Swede--whose mission is to collect bounties and blow things up.
This game was transformed during its three-year production cycle. "Originally, you never got out of the helicopter," says lead animator Austin Baker. "And then we turned into this game where you spend very little time in a helicopter, you drive in all sorts of vehicles. It became an action-shooter as opposed to a helicopter-pilot game."
The transition chewed up production time but also allowed Baker to develop an efficient technique for new run-walk cycles. Instead of creating new cycles for each weapon, "I made a generic run and walk with nothing in their hands, just straight cycle and I was able to use that and drop it onto the character. It cut down on production time a lot." Pandemic animators used Softimage|XSIV.3.5 on Dell PCs.
The camera is behind the characters, from the knees up, but the game is set up so players can rotate the camera around them at anytime. "I tend not to do a lot with the face right now just because developing on the PS2, and with all the technology we have in Mercenaries, doing facial animation all the time ended up becoming quite a big burden on the hardware. In the beginning, we weren't even going to do facial animation but it was one of the things that I experimented with and found out we could do."
The annual soccer release from Electronic Arts Sports (www.ea.com), FIFA 2006, will next be available in fall '05 for current and next-generation platforms. EA Sports is the creator/publisher.
Most Major League Soccer teams, and their stars, are in the game. There are thousands of characters. Making those players look and move authentically is their trademark--fans want to see their stars. "Our big challenges are not character design, per se, but pulling off a lifelike character that very easily is recognizable as that particular athlete," says senior art director Henry LaBounta. Adds senior animation director Eric Armstrong, "You can't separate [how they look and how they act]. The reality is we spend a lot of time comparing our characters to still photographs so our video references match. But in the end it's really about the experience, how they move and play and act in the game itself as to whether or not they're believable." Animators spend a lot of time analyzing actual motions of individual players.
To enhance the believability factor, the new platforms on the horizon--with more powerful processors and memory--have created opportunities for EA animators to apply new techniques to the production process. Paying attention to how fabric moves against players' bodies is one focus. Already, in FIFA 2005 and FIFA Street, there are NIS sequences (non-interactive) where gamers, when not in gameplay, can go down on the field for player close-ups and reaction shots. There is also an instant replay function within gameplay.
Animation is motion captured. Electronic Arts has one of the largest mocap stages in North America. Their mocap system is used with proprietary tools, and Kaydara's Motion Builder, which deal with that data and building complex animation moves suitable for interactive experiences. Alias Maya 6.01 on PCs is used for modeling and animation.
HALF LIFE 2
An action game released in November '04 for PC, Half Life 2 is a Valve Software brand (www.valvesoftware.com). It is a single-player experience, differing from the developer's other big brand, Counter Strike. In Half Life 2, the research scientist, who unleashed the alien invasion, is joined by a colleague's daughter to fight their nemesis G-Man. The main characters have normal proportions, blemishes, five-o-clock shadows and other realistic imperfections.
Story, characters and context are Valve title trademarks. "We're the guys that bring story to the genre, create characters that are able to deliver emotion and messages without having to say a word by developing a really advanced facial animation system," says Lombardi. "When Half Life was put into production [in 1996], it was macho man twitchfest everywhere. The idea was if the shotgun's cool, a double-barrel shotgun's cooler, and a quad-barrel shotgun is the ultimate. We were like, 'Ok, that space is getting crowded, so maybe if we go the other way there would be some value and appeal to people.'"
Valve spent several years producing Half Life 2 with a $40 million budget, investing in technology that included a physics simulation system to run the game. Players are never taken out of the action--there are no cinematics. Character performances are done on the fly by a combination of different animated objects that are controlled by the AI (Artificial Intelligence), broad level commands given by animators and scene designers. Facial acting is blended in. The game was hand animated.
Valve's facial animation system uses 35 key muscle movements authored for each character, with particular focus on the eyes. "One of the fundamental things of our character performances is being able to sell the eyes," says producer Bill van Buren. "In a lot of games, characters look like dolls or plastic puppets, especially if they get more realistic. If they don't get the eyes right it's very off-putting. One of our engineers, Ken Birdwell, did a lot of research on eyes. They actually reflect the lights that are in the room, they change their focal lengths as they're looking at things, like how close or far away they are. And then we also had to model behaviors for when you change your gaze, like if you're going to turn and look at something else, how does it move? Do the eyes lead and the head follow, and the shoulders and body follow that?"
Valve's tools include the proprietary engine with a level editor called Hammer and the facial animation/scene construction program called Face Poser. All basic animation is done in Softimage|XSI; they worked in many versions including betas, says van Buren. Hardware was a mix because it provided compatibility testing for the game.
Released end of '04 for PC, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, was developed by Relic Entertainment (www.relic.com) and published by THQ. It's a realtime strategy game, part of the Warhammer series.
Of the many different races in its universe, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War features four, each with its own hierarchy of leader, vehicle and builder units. The Orcs are animalistic, gorilla-like green creatures. Space Marines are military units, armored, human and high-tech. The Eldar are humanoid and nearly weightless. Chaos are Space Marines gone bad. Gamers can play any race. All are constantly under attack.
"None of this stuff had ever been animated before in a way that we thought did it justice, so we really had a lot of freedom," says lead animator Erich Salloch.
The most complicated animation technique was Relic's synch kill system, which controlled how characters synched up and interacted. "When characters encounter each other and begin to fight hand to hand, once the game determines who's going to lose the battle, they synch up into a final kill where a character may pick up another one and punch him in the head. He'll actually react at the proper time or he'll get thrown," explains Salloch. "We tried to make those very entertaining and big. From an animation standpoint, that was our biggest hurdle, just getting those to work right because every unit in the game is a different size, so you may hit one guy in the stomach but if he's a different size you may hit him in the crotch."
The rest was straightforward keyframe animation, which went smoothly because of strong animators and texturers, no crazy code to write, and an intense preproduction phase. Salloch ignored little details like badges, preferring to capture the essence of each race. Since the camera is 35 meters above ground, gamers often see the characters from fairly far away.
The animators used Discreet 3DS Max 5.1 and Character Studio on Pentium 4 PCs to animate during the 18-month production cycle.
RELATED ARTICLE: Brain Zoo's Darkwatch Trailer
VAN NUYS, CA -- Brain Zoo Studios (www.brainzoostudios.com), here, recently animated the main characters--Jericho, Tala and Cassidy--in the long-awaited Sega game, Darkwatch, for a trailer promoting the game. Working closely with interactive content and game developer Sammy Studios, Brain Zoo worked from character sketches and created 3D layout, rough animatics and cutting edge animation to give gamers their first 3D look at the game. Set in a futuristic "Old West" setting where good prevails over evil, Darkwatch centers on Jericho, a dark, Clint Eastwood-type character whose movements are very dynamic, and his behavior and reactions convey confidence.
"Because his costuming is so dark, to get across that he's dark but a good guy, he was mostly 'rim lit' from behind to highlight his edges," says Brain Zoo president/CEO Mohammad Davoudian. "We also placed a 'God light,' which produced volumetric fog and shadows around him to let viewers see the light and dark sides of his character in one shot.
"What makes a particular character great is when you don't notice it while you're watching it," says Davoudian. "When you're distracted by the animation, that's a bad sign."
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