Striking the right pose

Striking the right pose

By Develop

February 11th 2008 at 1:40PM

Character animation pipeline tools arenâ??t the most glamorous but the volume requirement of games means theyâ??re becoming indispensableâ?¦

As with most areas of game development, the character animation sector is becoming ever more complex.

You have the big integrated solutions such as Autodesk Maya and Softimage XSI, while tricksy branches off the family line such as Havok’s Behavior and Natural Motion’s endorphin and euphoria offer more specialist possibilities (as covered in the overview article in Develop 79).

Then you have the utility packages as covered below. These could be considered the mundane toolboxes of the animators’ trade. They tend to be highly functional, including various elements such as a runtime plus SDK support, maybe a dedicated authoring environment, probably some exporters and data interchange gubbins, plus standard scripting support.

What’s becoming clear is that authoring great animations isn’t the problem (at least that’s something that no middleware or tool will automatically give you) – the problem is ensuring your carefully crafted animation actually play in-game as you want them to.

You can see such prosaic thinking in action by looking at the particular take-up of such tools by MMOG developers. They know the meaning of the word workflow and hence embrace anything that eases tweaking and retargeting. And wherever MMOGs go, so, eventually, does the rest of the industry.


AUTODESK
Technology: MotionBuilder 7.5 Extension 2
Clients: Codemasters, EA, Epic, High Moon, Midway, Sony Pictures, Ubisoft
Platforms: Mac OS X, Windows
Integration with: 3ds Max, Alienbrain, FBX, Maya, Python, SourceSafe
Price: From £2,270
Contact: +44-207 851 8000

Known for its ability when it comes to dealing with high volume motion capture data, the non-linear animation editing system, which also handles keyframe data, is integrated with the real-time, full body HumanIK manipulation rig providing users with automated character setup features. MotionBuilder also enables strong pipeline functionality thanks to being the native application for the interchange data format FBX.


NATURALMOTION
Technology: Morpheme 1.2
Clients: BioWare Austin, Firefly Studios, IO Interactive
Platforms: PC, Playstation 3, Wii, Xbox 360
Integration with: euphoria, Lua
Price: Available on request
Contact: +44 1865 250 575, contact@naturalmotion.com

While NaturalMotion’s other products (euphoria, endorphin and even game project Backbreaker) get most of the hype, the company’s Morpheme animation pipeline tool is well worth some attention. Including a runtime engine for customisable blend techniques, hierarchical animation state machine and IK support, as well as an integrated authoring environment, it provides you with a flexible environment to author and test game animations using joypads.


MYSTIC GAME DEVELOPMENT
Technology: EMotion FX 3.6
Clients: Kuju, Mythic, People Can Fly, SimBin, SOE, Tilted Mill, Ubisoft, Webzen
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Wii, Xbox360
Integration with: 3ds Max, Maya, PhysX
Price: Available upon request
Contact: +31 78 676 7131

A real-time character animation SDK, EMotion FX includes features such full body skeletal, facial and lipsyncing animation, as well as inverse kinematics and level of detail functionality. It uses PhysX to provide ragdolls. Another major feature is real-time motion retargeting enabling you to use the same motion independent of a character’s skeleton and mesh configurations, saving both authoring time and runtime memory.


SOFTIMAGE
Technology: Character Animation Technology 3
Clients: Available on request
Platforms: Windows
Integration with: 3ds Max
Price: $995, upgrade $295
Contact: +01 514 845 1636, sales@softimage.com

Strange as it may seem, despite Softimage’s purchase of the company behind 3ds Max plug-in CAT, the non-linear procedural character animation tool still only works with Autodesk’s modeller. It provides easy rigging, animation layering and motion capture features for complex characters, while the latest version provides integrated muscle simulation, CATMuscle; a fully scaleable solution for solving skin and tendon deformation problems.


RAD GAME TOOLS
Technology: Granny 2.7.0.30
Clients: Atari, Big Huge Games, EA, Ensemble, Sega, SOE, Turbine
Platforms: Mac OS X, PS3, PSP, Win, Wii, Xbox 360
Integration with: 3ds Max, Maya
Price: $15,000 per console title, $12,500 for PC
Contact: +01 425 893 4300, sales3@radgametools.com

Granny 3D is labelled as an animation toolkit, but it provides a suite of different elements. The key one is a modular and customisable runtime animation system, providing animation modification, playback, blending and inverse kinematics. Other features however include the ability to deform skeletal meshes, generate normal and texture maps, and compress animation and graphics formats as well as act as a pipeline exporter for various 3D art tools.