Tag Archives: animation

The cinematics of Arkham Origins, lessons learned from making both a movie and a game

I went to MIGS this weekend and had a blast, being surrounded by all these games, as well as fellow students, upcoming developers and professionals from major studios is quite frankly a dream come true.

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My undisputed favorite part of the presentation by Ben Mattes of Warner Bros. games of Montreal. He talked about making a movie and a game at the same time; in which they speak about their experiences creating the cinematics of Arkham Origins.

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We all saw the TV spots and trailers, those CG cutscenes looked so visually amazing, I honestly thought it was a live action movie at first glance.

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Naturally the process was very difficult, according to their stories, they had since late last year to create everything which is a very tight schedule. That wasn’t even the worst of it. Given that they were telling a story, they naturally had to follow a script. The problem was the script wasn’t readily available to them from the start as you’d expect. No, the script was written, reviewed and approved in increments for the sake of editing flexibility, which left Mr. Mattes team at a disadvantage with the time schedule. Considering how serious WB & DC are about their character, it was not like WB games could take any liberties of the sort. Anything having to do with the story and characters begun and ended with their property owners, the rest was left to the cinematic cutscene developers.

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In order to properly animate the characters of the game, they made extensive use of motion capture and shot everything at a studio with an army of stuntmen and stuntwomen enacting the actions of the characters. Everything from Batman’s martial arts to Joker’s over the top body language to Copperhead’s movements was done with motion capture. On the topic of Copperhead, things like climbing on the walls were simulated with walls and rails that they built. Every movement that required some specific environment, the team built them in order to properly capture the right animations.

Indeed, they put so much effort like you wouldn’t even imagine, and of course it was a difficult task given what resources they had to gather. They had to go through the trouble of casting each motion capture actor to perfectly suit their roles, in particular they had to find a large man in order to play Bane. Developers don’t just get people off the street to do these, in order to be hired to do motion capture, you need to be a credible actor and/or stunt person. I even met one at MIGS who told me this information. Like actors in movies, motion capture actors have schedules that they and the developers need to organize. This was a huge problem for them given the issue with getting a script on time.

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There is a faster method to create these cutscenes, an alternative to motion capture is performance capture; which is a recording method that encompasses body motion capture, facial motion capture and voice recording. The problem is as you’d expect, it’s far too expensive.

Fortunately the long way proved to be much more ideal in the aesthetics department. With voice acting, they did it separately with expert voice actors such as Troy Barker as Joker. As for the facial rigging, they did that by using blenders, changing the facial expressions manually in maya by interpolating using catmull rom between 9 different expressions.

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This ended up working better because they managed to avoid Uncanny Valley and retain the exaggerated expressions of comic book characters.

They captured all these movements with the usage of a virtual camera. But it’s not a traditional virtual camera that’s created in Maya and exported onto the engine. The animators used a portable camera that shot the motion capture set, projecting the objects and animations on a virtual space. Like a regular camera, it’s handled and moved in certain positions by a camera in order to get the exact angle they want. It’s barely different from traditional filmmaking.

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Arkham Origins is one of the few games this year that made use of pre-rendered cinematics which is higher quality but takes up more disk space. After all the scenes are shot they take them into the engine and composite them in order to have…..drumroll please…… SHADERS!  Adding lighting effects, dust particles and pyrotechnics to create a more lively and realistic environment.

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The lengths the animators took to create their cutscenes is no different from how regular films are shot; they hire actors to perform in front of a camera handled by a camera man, they need to follow the script and have to take the scenes and add effects later on in post-production. It’s uncanny how much effort they went through given the amount of obstacles they encountered, and to produce what they did at that caliber is to be commended. I think these cutscenes have better animation than most Pixar movies.

My only disappointment is not enough time to ask him questions, I had tonnes.

A look at Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands game engine

In my last Game Engine Design class which was on Halloween, the disappointment of my professor’s lack of costume was neutralized by showing us videos of two Prince of Persia games; The Forgotten Sands and Warrior Within. We were tasked with identifying different aspects of the game engine of the former, often criticizing some of the inner mechanics despite its blockbuster production values and technological achievement.

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Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands is a 2010 multi-platform game developed by Ubisoft. Any developer will tell you how tasking it is to design the engine to work with certain consoles, similar to car engines, they need to be carefully constructed with the capabilities and limitations in mind. The version we looked at to my recollection is either the PS3 or Xbox 360 version.

My primary grievance with the engine is the sloppily put together animation layering. Most of what I know from animating layering comes from Uncharted 2 and their hierarchal structure of their character kinematics. How it works is that limbs, hands, feet and other body parts are each animated separately while using triggers to switch between animation states according to either your character’s relation to the world and/or according to your character’s action.

The issue with Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands’s animation layering is that it lacks detail and feels rushed, for example. When your character grabs onto ledges or walks on the wall for a few seconds, the hands don’t seem to grip on anything, it feels like that Game Jam game Surgeon Simulator where your hand can’t grip on anything.

Spider Prince, spider prince, the bad layering and lack of collision makes me wince.

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A major part of gaming is investment, it’s difficult to invest in your player’s actions if something like grabbing onto something doesn’t feel solid. Internet critic and entertainer Doug Walker, under his persona the Nostalgia Critic, attested Tom & Jerry’s effectiveness in its craft due to how solid the animators can make objects, hence enhancing the slapstick.

This technique can also apply to games. Take Ninja Gaiden Sigma for example, when I look at what Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands did wrong, Ninja Gaiden Sigma did right. When Ryu climbs, runs along, or jumps off of the walls, you can feel every one of his steps colliding with force on the wall. An example of lack of solidity would be Sonic Heroes a game I loved since my youth, has an issue with enemies feeling too not rigid to the point where you can almost breeze through them like air when your character’s get strong enough. (I may blog about that game’s engine some time down the future) Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 is a game that manages to have both soft and hard collisions. A combat based game at its core, you have your strong, medium and weak attacks, and naturally they make for collisions of the same level of force provided your attack damages your opponent.

It’s difficult to really attest for the force of collisions in games for a lot of people without really playing the games. Though gaming veterans and people involved in the field should be able to immediately identify such deficiencies.

The game’s biggest issue is its AI and how incompetent they are. You know how in movies every enemy attacks one at a time rather than all at once? That’s the game’s AI to a tee. If that’s what the programmers were going for then I’d still protest that they robbed players of a challenge. It doesn’t help that the AI moves at a snail’s pace, both in traversing towards you as well as their attacks. It takes then, no lie, 4 seconds to land a hit on you. Though your attacks are delayed as well, so it all balances out right? WRONG! That’s just bad combat. It’s not even satisfying to kill them due to the sound effects which sound like you’re being blocked rather than tearing away at their flesh.

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Yeah just stand there and look intimidating, I’m sure that’ll scare the guy who can move himself more than 2 meters per second.

Once again I must refer to Ninja Gaiden Sigma, when your attacks are blocked, you hear a metallic sound effect, but when you hit you can hear the sound of your weapon tearing his flesh off his skin or bones being broken. It also helps that said game has brilliantly programmed AI whom are nearly as capable as your character, presenting a lot of challenge, a demand for skill on your part and the satisfaction of overcoming said challenge. Which means you better bring it in the boss battle.
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Seriously, have I hammered it into your brains already? Go play any of the Ninja Gaiden Sigma games.

I’ve been pretty hard of Prince of Persia The Forgotten Sands all this long. The truth is, despite its shortcomings, its engine has many positive aspects. One of them is its marriage of the camera system and trigger system. The camera manages to follow your character all over the level, placing itself in dynamic and interesting angles whilst capturing the emotions of the environment and situation. This means that when an explosion happens, the camera moves to emphasize the collision.

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Perhaps the best example is when the character swings on poles, the camera very subtly moves along with him as he swings, seemingly taking you as the player along with the ride. Parts where you’re assigned an object through an in-game cutscene, the camera will pan to point out where you’re supposed accomplish your task.

Despite the faults of the animation layering, the kinematics is above average by industry, AAA standards. The screen space ambient occlusion is top notch, and gameplay is most likely fun as ever, wouldn’t know though as I haven’t played it. Modelling, texturing, shader rendering, and movement is all top notch as well.

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Warrior Within proves to be a superior product despite its technological inferiority; the engine provides much better animation layering, combat kinetics and overall collisions for all the reasons opposite to that of The Forgotten Sands. The former simply has more polished mechanics. In this battle of supremacy, the old proved superior to the new; hopefully developers take not of what it means to deliver on a polished engine.

The game engine I am destined to create

Every aspiring game developer has hopes of making the next great game, or for those who are more realistic, make a game that can be enjoyed by people while paying your light bill. Strangely enough, it’s usually those starting out in their game development school who think the former while people with more education in the field along with more experience tend to sway towards the latter.

Does it necessarily have to do with the fact that our youthful energy is being syphoned out of us as we progress?

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Considering it is university yes, however the main reason is as we mature we develop a more realistic outlook on things which makes us set realistic goals. How you set the scope for your projects may make or break it with carefully consideration of your resources, talents and limitations.

Hence why we’re studying Game Engine Design and Implementation, to culminate all our coding knowledge so far to be able to put together a workable engine that can support graphics, animation, gaming mechanics and all our gaming knowledge. So for this blog, I will talk about how I would design the engine of a standard platform game.

The term game engine was coined in the nineties in which it was referring to first-person shooters such as Id’s prolific title Doom due to how intricately its architecture was defined. With separation between core software components, art assets and gameplay mechanics, this is when developers started licencing games and re-tooling them into newer games which opened a whole new world for independent studios and other small organizations.

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The game in question will be based on Uncharted’s engine along with the player mechanics of the Spiderman games and the recent Ninja Gaiden games. Given that the engine in question contains many of the ideal mechanics required to put out a solid platformer on the level of Crash Bandicoot which was also created and published by Naughty Dog.

I intend to use this engine as a template for other types of games such as adventure and fighting games since those are the types of games I intend to make and both games require the following:

–       A third-person view camera that follows your characters and stays focused on the players general area in order to focus on its location and the surrounding radius to alert the player of incoming hazards.

–       A camera collision system to ensure that view points never go into places it’s not supposed such as into the background or into a mountain.

–       A rich set of animations rendered for all sorts of commands from climbing to fighting.

–       User inputs that allow players to execute all sorts of tasks.

I mentioned earlier that I aim to include the player mechanics of Spiderman from the Spiderman games and Ryu Hayabusa from the Ninja Gaiden games. Why you ask? Because both characters both characters can do virtually anything; from jumping to climbing to fighting. More than most characters, they do the best job of making the player feel like their capabilities are limitless.

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Spiderman for the Playstation, the game the developers of Superman 64 wish they’d made.

There has never been a concrete measurement or assessment of how a game can be good as games can be good for several different reasons, in my opinion, I think the ultimate way to determine a game’s quality is to identity how deeply you can immerse players into the experience and what better way to do so that with a character who can do just about everything.

This is why user inputs is very important, the possibilities of the game’s world is placed in their hand and the transition from one action to the next should be seamless and effortless on the part of the player.

In order to ensure an acceptable framerate it’s important to design the engine so that it can manage all the objects on screen without slowing down the action. In this regard we can take a page out of Insomniac’s hit title Spyro which managed to create massive worlds with distances that expanded to the horizon without relying on fog effects, this was done writing code that would decrease and increase the polygon count of far away objects relative to your character’s distance. This way objects can be slowly loaded over time so as not to overload the console.

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Platformers tended to be drawn and designed in cartoon like manners with little emphasis on realism. I grew up with cartoons and platformers such as Mario, Crash Bandicoot and Sonic, so I intend to use such a style. Many of these games relied on principles of animation such as anticipation, squash and stretch, pose to pose, timing and exaggeration in order to achieve the cartoon-like style they were aiming for.

Most of these games were made before Smilebit’s Jet Set Radio spearheaded the use of toon shading in games. I like the toon shading effect because it gives games the comic book feel that I like, however since most of these games were animated and rendered the way they were prior to cel-shading, it’s important to realize that just combing them would be overkill, so it’s important not to just throw them together but to create a balance.

Motion capture generally results in the smoothest and most realistic movement animations so I appoint to utilize it with motion capture artists who can capture the exaggerated movements of cartoon characters in conjunction with the model rendering to capture the less feasible principles such as exaggeration when it comes to characters changing size for the sake of humor.

That’s all for now, it’s still pretty early in the course with much to learn on game engines hence my immature knowledge of the subject, so I just gave you may basic understanding based on previous education and a lifetime passion for gaming. Stay tuned to my blog and see how far I come with my understanding of the topic.

The art of “Art of Fighting”

Art of Fighting Anthology is a complication of the following games Art of Fighting, Art of Fighting 2, and Art of Fighting 3: The Path of the Warrior released by SNK Playmore (formally SNK) on the Playstation 2.

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The first game was released in 1992 on the Neo Geo arcade system and later ported to several home consoles like the Sega Genesis, SNES and the Neo Geo’s own Neo Geo CD. The versions in this complication are the original arcade versions so anything I say here is in regards to those.

Released a year after Street Fighter II, it was not much different from Capcom’s juggernaut fighter, it did offer many innovations which include taunting, the usage of large character sprites and depicting characters getting wounded during the fights. Art of Fighting 2 doesn’t differ much from its predecessor due to only a 2 year gap and no generation differentiation aside from slightly improved animation in terms of fluidity and detail, so I’ll be talking about the first two games up until I mention the third.

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At the time the game contained some the biggest sprites in any game, one interesting thing about the game’s camera is that it zooms in and out feature. When the two opponents are as far apart from each other as the game allows, the camera zooms out, but the camera zooms in the closer the two fighters get. The sprite animations are essentially the same as those of Street Fighter II, however they’re stiffer in contrast to Street Fighter II’s much smoother gameplay.

Here’s the game zoomed in:

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And here’s the game zoomed out:

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The most interesting animation tidbit in this game is the characters getting wounded as they lose health. When you look at the character’s faces you can see blemishes such as blood and swelling. I like this feature because it realistically portrays the result of an actual fight.

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This is one of the few fighting games that do this. I’m surprised that not many fighters utilize that detail, especially with how far games have progressed with their graphics and animation. Sure in Street Fighter II they do depict the characters as being severely battered in the aftermath, but that’s only on the character portraits, and only the loser is depicted as being scarred. You may also bring up Mortal Kombat but other than pools of blood flying off the characters with each blow, their skin still doesn’t look punctured and their features remain intact without swelling so it’s still ridiculous. For the record, UFC games don’t count since they’re sports simulators, not fighting games.

I’ve stated this before in my blog on Batman: Arkham City how adding tiny details like torn cloth enhances the mood as it gives the game a more cinematic feel. That detail added in the Art of Fighting series does a lot of service as the games aim to be like movies in their story mode. During story mode, before each fight your character will engage your opponent in dialogue which contains some minor additional animations that include throwing something or striking a pose. Lets not forget the zoom in/zoom out camera that I mentioned earlier. All these features and animations add something to the game which makes it cinematic despite its technological immaturity. By nowadays’ standards it may not seem like anything much but back then it was really something to be fascinated by.

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I said fascinating, not well written.

Art of Fighting 3: The Path of the Warrior radically differentiated itself from its predecessors; it still utilizes traditionally animated, hand drawn sprites but this time the game combines 2D sprites with motion capture technology and more computer graphics. This allows for more fluid and believable animation and movements.

When you look at the characters you can see that this installment contains more frames and you can see that when a character kicks you can see it moving all the way as opposed to only drawing three frames to depict rapid movement like in Persona 4: Arena.

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The introduction sequence also contains some interesting animations. The main characters are show performing their fighting movesets and you can see the “slow in and slow out” principle of the 12 principles of animation being displayed. Sadly this principle isn’t being displayed during the game. Also in the title sequence there are the characters were depicted in what at first I thought were polygon rendered, computer graphics but they were really regular 2D animations, that’s very impressive on their part.

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Unfortunately many of the features in the previous two like the zoom in/zoom out camera and getting wounded as you lose health are omitted in the third installment. However the game makes up for that by having very beautiful backgrounds with moving animations; like in the Quixotec Temple stage you’ll bear witness to wonderfully animated waterfalls and the ripples in the lake as a result of these falls.

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Another principle of the 12 principles is being displayed here with the secondary action; the ripples as a result of the waterfalls.

The games have always contained animations in the background to make the gameplay livelier, but out of the trilogy this contains the best by far as it rightfully should, given that it’s the most advanced and latest game.

I’m sure people are wondering why I’m talking about an old game series that is only semi-classic and doesn’t contain computer graphics that we’re studying. The same reason why in filmmaking they study old movies; in many old movies filmmakers would use practical effects and editing tricks in order to get around their limitations, and I feel that the developers of the first two Art of Fighting games had the same mind set. In order to make their game as dynamic as they could with regards to the limited technology of the time, they used a camera that zoomed in and out to copy what filmmakers do in movies where they also shit between wide angle and regular lens. The addition of subtle blemishes to simulate what would happen in a fight and the usage of sprites and dialogue boxes to make up for not being able to have animated cutscenes in order to have a story unfold.

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You better appreciate the game animations that paved the way for modern, computer animation, or you’ll have a problem with him.

It’s important to take such things into account in order to appreciate how far we’ve come, much like in filmmakers, our game animating “forefathers” weren’t as lucky to have the technology we do today. But like them we are limited but in terms of time as opposed to technology, so we may have to resort to using subtle hints and tricks to help enhance the game’s aesthetics. Remember, animation isn’t just about what is seen, it’s also about the effect it gives.