Moving Forward

Moving Forward
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

January 16th 2012 at 10:30AM

Develop talks to NaturalMotion's CTO on what makes morpheme's latest dot update so significant

What makes morpheme’s 3.5 update especially significant, considering that it is in effect a ‘dot’ release?
Simon Mack, CTO: I guess we’re a little conservative with our version numbers. Morpheme 3.5 has been a major project for us, and introduces features that will make a big difference to our customers.

We’ve introduced runtime retargeting and rescaling, which can provide substantial savings in production costs and memory usage for many developers.

There have also been some very significant runtime performance optimisations, and for the first time we are supporting morpheme on iOS and Android devices.

How are the updates a response to a changing development sector?
Our core market for morpheme has traditionally been triple-A console developers. As we’re now a long way into the console cycle, these studios are really pushing the hardware so we’ve had to optimise the runtime even further to support them in this.

However, we’re also seeing an increasing number of smaller studios, especially in Asia, who are less familiar with 3D character animation, but who want triple-A quality.

This has led us to streamline and simplify many of our workflows and have our tools offer more assistance in setting up characters and animation networks. Many of these studios are also looking to reduce the number of assets they need to produce, which really drove us to focus on the runtime retargeting features.

The other important change that has recently occurred has been the transition to mobile platforms. Developers are starting to push for better quality visuals on iOS and Android, and it will be interesting to see how the market for middleware on these platforms develops.

Runtime retargeting is perhaps the most significant addition to morpheme 3.5. Why is this significant, and how will it change things for developers ‘in the field’?
Runtime retargeting allows animations created for one character to be applied to another at runtime. This means that you don’t need to create and store different animations for each character in your game. The benefits of this are pretty substantial.

Animation production costs can be reduced as time doesn’t have to be spent creating new animations or retargeting offline.

Just as important, though, is that fewer animation clips have to be stored on disk and loaded at runtime. For games where download size is critical, or on platforms with tough memory limitations, this can make a big difference.

Of course, we always want to make sure developers have complete flexibility in how they work. Morpheme’s node-based approach means that it’s trivial to mix retargeted, shared animation and character-specific motions in one animation network.

How has 3.5 repositioned morpheme as a tool for new platforms and technologies?
It’s always been important for us to support new platforms. If people are making games that need high-quality character animation, we want to be able to support them.

What we’ve seen recently is a new set of platforms, including Vita and mobile devices, that are capable of high-end 3D experiences and developers are keen to exploit this. The benefits of dependable, powerful middleware are the same on these platforms as on more traditional consoles.

How does NaturalMotion’s increasing position as a game developer impact the way you advance and develop your animation technology? Is there interplay between your tech and game teams?
As a technology provider, it’s really useful to have an in-house customer. As we develop new morpheme features, we’re able to have our animation team test them out straightaway.

The same team is responsible for designing the animation networks used in our games, so they always have real-world feedback, which is invaluable.

Of course, we’re always listening to our external customers as well. Many – possibly the majority – of morpheme’s features are developed in response to feedback.

NaturalMotion Games is focused on building high-end mobile social games, and it’s been the main driver behind our development of the iOS and Android versions of morpheme.

There are a lot of animation tools out there. Why should somebody choose morpheme 3.5?
Morpheme is a mature product used in a great range of projects. Our support team is second to none and ensures that not only do our customers have the best possible experience, but that the product is developed to solve the issues encountered by real games.

I also believe that the quality of our tools outshine our competition, making it simple and intuitive to create even complex animation systems.

Finally, morpheme is the only system to provide developers a completely seamless mixing of animation blends, IK, retargeting, and physics simulation in a unified visually-authored network.

Why is the introduction of features that allow sophisticated network logic particularly important?
Morpheme animation networks are essentially trees of nodes connected together to define how animations are blended and modified by IK, physics or other procedural techniques.

The creator of the animation network can define the input variables and messages that are used by the game to control the blends and state transitions.

With morpheme version 3.5 we have added the ability for nodes in the network to themselves set those input parameters and send messages to the network. Logic that otherwise would have to live in game code can be brought into the animation system.

This is particularly useful when working with procedural animation. It’s possible, for example, to have a node read the position of the character’s hand and then use that to drive the head-look IK target.

Our animation team has prototyped some pretty cool IK systems using this, and we’re excited to see what our customers come up with.

And you feel optimistic about the future of morpheme 3.5 and the animation sector?
I think we’re in an interesting time, not just for animation, but for game technology as a whole.

On the one hand, we have the triple-A console teams pushing ever further in terms of quality and performance, and on the other, we have seen the growth of mobile developers just starting to find out what’s possible with new hardware.

As a middleware vendor, we have to make sure we can provide solutions that scale for everyone. For character animation, I’m confident that morpheme 3.5 does just that.

www.naturalmotion.com