The new animation era

The new animation era
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

August 31st 2010 at 8:00AM

NaturalMotion is leading a new drive to give animators the tools and recognition they deserve

Such is the public’s obsession with photorealism in games, that for years the output of animators has struggled for recognition. Quite simply, it’s a matter of the static image.

Good graphics translate into good screenshots, which are a means for high sales; a fact that has made graphic artists the darlings of publisher, PR and press.

Meanwhile, the animator’s craft is one that only really shines in motion.

Subsequently, across the industry animation has become seen as the lesser sibling of graphics, and relatively speaking, has been underrepresented by investment and technology.

SEA CHANGE
Thankfully, the tide is changing, and an increasingly sizeable body of middleware is championing the plight of the animator. One of the companies at the forefront of that drive is NaturalMotion, which offers a number of tools, including the graphically-authorable animation engine Morpheme.

“Animation has grown in importance over the past few years,” suggests NaturalMotion’s CEO Torsten Reil.

“A major reason for this is that animation quality had fallen behind rendering fidelity. Whilst a lot of developer attention was spent on how to exploit better graphics hardware, less was spent on how to make characters move naturally. This has resulted in an obvious visual disconnect.”

Part of the problem, argues Reil, is that bolstered computing power alone won’t improve animation quality.

Advancements in authoring tools and new types of algorithms are perhaps just as important, which require a great deal of time and investment.

“In general, the animation problem is not solved,” declares Reil. “Apart from some notable exceptions, most game characters move awkwardly, which really takes away from the experience. In addition, the old animation playback approach fundamentally limits how interactive and surprising a game can be. When these shackles are removed, the game experience moves to a completely new level, as titles like GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption clearly demonstrate.”

NaturalMotion’s frank recognition of the realities in the animation sector today is undoubtedly part of its success. In recent months the Morpheme engine – which consists of a runtime animation engine and a powerful 3D authoring application for animators – has recently been adopted by two more UK studios readying the launch of a high profile title each.

Ninja Theory has selected the solution for its Alex Garland-penned tactical adventure game Enslaved, while Codemasters Studios Guildford is embracing Morpheme for use on new shooter Bodycount.

It’s perhaps little coincidence that both studios also recognise the conundrum facing the contemporary animation sector.

“I think animation in games overall needs further progression to help it stand out,” suggests Daven Coburn, Codemasters’ animations supervisor. He says the point when the first round of last-generation sports titles started to use motion capture properly as an example of a rare milestone for character movement and realism.

“Since then the progression hasn’t had a big leap forward. Aside from technical advances the industry needs to stop thinking that it’s just a video game – and therefore animations are expected to slip, slide, and pop – and that it won’t matter as long as the game is fun, but instead understand that creating triple-A titles means all areas are done to a high quality.”

SET IN MOTION
Over in the Ninja Theory camp, ‘chief technical ninja’ and company co-founder Mike Ball is equally aware that animation as a discipline suffers from something of a contradiction of recognition.

“I think that generally everyone is aware of how important animation is to a project,” states Ball, adding: “However, whilst reviews may score things like graphics and gameplay they don’t specifically rate the animation, which is a shame and a missed opportunity, as I have seen plenty of projects that look truly gorgeous and then the movement of the characters utterly break the illusion.”

However, as a staunch supporter of the achievements of animation in games, Ball is also quick to point to the fact that computer animation long ago captured the attention of both consumer and industry: “Pixar proved a long time ago that taking a simple object and animating it beautifully well can create an experience that is utterly captivating.”

Having identified Morpheme as the best tool to push the potential of their animators, and to put them on a level with their graphic artists (see ‘Natural Selection’) both Codemasters Studios Guildford and Ninja Theory began work on their projects, and were quick to reap the benefits of their chosen tech.

According to Ball, Morpheme has quite literally transformed the production pipeline for animating characters in Enslaved, providing a common interface for both animators and programmers that still gives those working on lifelike in-game movement a large degree of autonomy.

“For Ninja Theory in particular this has reduced the time required to develop character animation and thus has allowed us to add extra complexity to the movement of the characters so that the fluidity and response of the characters is even better than what we had in our previous projects,” explains Ball.

“It gives the animators one more step towards the ability to see and affect the animations in game,” adds Coburn. “This is very important as there can be periods when we can’t get everything in the actual game.

A COOL CUSTOMER
Two more satisfied customers is hugely important to NaturalMotion, simply because the quality of development talent behind each project can act as a showcase for the Morpheme technology. However, the work with Codemasters and Ninja Theory means more to Reil than an expanded show reel.

From a business development perspective, Morpheme adoption does a great deal more than simply show off the capabilities of the technology. “We continue to learn a lot from working with high-end developers, which gives us invaluable information for future features,” says the CEO.

“The deals also reflect a general trend,” he adds. “Many of the most capable studios now licence advanced technology for core parts of their game.”

Certainly, things are looking up for NaturalMotion, its clients and the animation sector as a whole, but that doesn’t mean the future isn’t free from hurdles.

One challenge NaturalMotion comes across is the lack of influence of animators on animation-related decisions. While it’s clear programmers need to be involved with how animation is authored and executed, Reil and his colleagues have again and again seen games held back by animators not getting what they need to produce the goods.

“Secondly,” confirms Reil, “the complexity of animation networks has risen dramatically over recent years, but information on how to build them – both in terms of underlying assets as well as architecture – is very scarce. We can do a lot better in making these general guidelines – tips and tricks – available, NaturalMotion included.”

“Video games have often suffered from the problem of having animations that are cyclical or repeated ad-infinitum,” adds Ball. “We can create variants, however, even though we use an excellent animation compression system, our characters have more bones to animate than ever and so memory storage is still a big issue for us. Procedural animation systems provide a solution to this.”

The future of animation and the related middleware is an exciting one, where procedural, physics-led and AI based animation are set to rise to power.

With high profile clients and a highly regarded animation engine backed up by its euphoria and endorphin dynamic motion synthesis systems, NaturalMotion looks set to continue to be a key player as the sector that is its specialty rapidly accelerates on the heels of animation.

It is the complex nature of that future that makes using NaturalMotion’s middleware so important, concludes Reil: “Animation tech has become so advanced that is now difficult and expensive to maintain internal technology that remains cutting edge.

“We have spent millions of pounds on developing production-proven tools, engines and algorithms, and our customers benefit from this investment and experience.”

Glance over the fruits of NaturalMotion’s clients' labour and it’s hard to disagree.