It’s July already and summertime is in full swing. In the busy world of games development, how do studios kick back and unwind? We spoke to them to find out. “I'm a bit of an adrenaline junkie so on holiday you'll find me either horse riding, surfing, biking, climbing a mountain, or throwing myself off it. However, when the high has worn off you can't beat a cocktail on the beach watching the sunset or having a swim in azure waters…” Amy Walkers, Studio Manager, Kuato "As a game dev it's often frustrating not to be able to play all the games you want when they come out, so inevitably Easter and Christmas end up being a great time to catch up on games you missed. Last year I managed to get to a conference somewhere new so we added on a few days holiday before the event. Not only was it an amazing opportunity to explore a new country and culture in advance but by the time everyone else arrived I already knew my way around, was relaxed and was ready to go!". Ian Masters, Creative Director, Quiztix “As Snap Finger Click is still in its early days, I'm currently wearing a lot of hats! This means I haven't been able to get on holiday as much as I would like to. I haven't had a proper holiday for a couple of years now, but I do manage to get the odd weekend break. I'm originally from the Netherlands so I try to visit my family for a couple of days two or three times a year. I just got back from a recent trip, but I admit that the laptop came with me! Our new game - It's Quiz Time - is out soon and I had a few things I needed to get done. Building up your own business means you do find yourself taking work with you everywhere. However, I think it's important to give yourself some space when you need it. I'm good at spotting when I'm getting stressed or tired, so I make sure I give myself a night off just to watch a film, play a game, or go out for a drink. Trying to push through without a break means your work will ultimately suffer, so it's about finding the right balance”. Martijn van der Meulen, Co-Founder and Development Director at Snap Finger Click. “I try to disconnect as much as possible when I go on holiday, but it hasn't always been that way. Before Coatsink became as demanding as it is now, I'd happily spend a holiday on gaming and designing. Couple the demands of work with a growing family and I need to spend my time off wisely these days. Having said that, I've found plenty of time for Zelda on my Switch during time off this Summer”. Tom Beardsmore, CEO at Coatsink. "The life of a game developer is a cycle of long hours and product launches, with not much room in the middle for relaxing. When you get a moment to disconnect you should do just that! I like to go to the countryside and coast, anywhere that gets me away from the office and stretching those tense muscles. My best ideas and clearest thoughts on where to take my business next have come from being removed from my usual surroundings, bring pen and paper with you for those lightbulb moments!" Andrew Bennison, Managing Director at Prospect Games.
Many aspiring games developers begin by jumping directly from an idea in to creating a game. However once you’re running a studio as a business, the bridge between concept and production becomes a serious business to avoid wasting valuable development time. There are many broad questions to ask up front:- Who’s the game for? What’s the central gameplay mechanic? What’re your timelines? What’re the pillars of our game? What’s the budget? The more ambitious the game and the larger the team involved, the more there is at stake when linking the path from concept to creation. We asked studios, what jobs are important during this phase?A gathering of minds Jo Wilkinson, Producer at Flipbook animation studio in Manchester answers:- “In a nutshell, all of them! We like to get a range of people involved at pre-production stage, across the board - account handlers, producers, modellers, animators, concept and technical artists. Pre-production is when ideas are brainstormed, drawn up and realised. Those early ideas can come from anywhere and anyone! It's also at this stage we develop which routes we might take and where individual strengths can be utilised, whilst developing schedules and workflows. Involving all parties at this early stage drives the creative, develops ideas and processes, and also ensures going into the production stage that all parties and team members have a clear understanding and vision moving into production, which is key to the project’s success.” Who does what? Jonathan Amor is Operations Director of BAFTA-winning, independent game developer Supermassive Games. He gave us am insight in to who does what during pre-production at their studios in Guildford:- Designer – creating a high-level game design, proving out key elements of the gameplay, writing the narrative Concept Artist – creating concept art for locations, objects and characters, both for reference and to define the look of the game Production Designer – specifying the locations, mapping out the environments and gathering reference to define the setting and time period of the game Programmer – prototyping key gameplay systems, creating tools and systems for use in production Audio Designer – creating audio mock ups to set the style and audio quality bar, selecting and commissioning music Producer – creating the plan for production based on learnings from pre-production, and making sure everything is on track to hit important milestones like first playable Fail to prepare, prepare to fail James Dobrowski Studio Head at CCP London explains why this phase is so important:- Pre-production is one of the most critical phases of product development, and failing to do it properly will result in an over-budget, late, or subpar game. By the end of pre-production you want a solid understanding of your games vision (it’s design, art style, technical architecture, etc.), the production pipeline in place, a full game-roadmap with an understanding of outstanding risks and unknowns, and as much of the team on-board as possible. To get to this place, you ideally need to have as much of the team in-place as possible to support the planning and preparation process, with the lead of each discipline – production, engineering, art, design, audio and QA – on the team from the get-go to drive things forward in each area. By the time you move into production you want the team aligned and fully bought into the vision and the plan”. The Team as a collective Several jobs coming together for pre-production doesn’t imply any blurring of roles however. Artist, Designers, Coders etc will continue to uphold their specialism but bring their input;- “it’s impossible to do it properly without the right specialists in each area driving the decision making process” Dobrowski told us.Andreas Firnig is CEO of Nosebleed Interactive and is currently putting the finishing touches to Vostok Inc. due for release later in the year. He told us “rather than a particular job role being more important than another, I think the team really being able to effectively communicate as a single entity, and get to the point where everyone has a shared vision for the project is the most important skill to have for pre-production. It means that everyone has buy in and ownership of the product, and it makes steering the project much simpler. It also allows the team as a whole to know where each member’s strength lies and how best to utilise those strengths”. Staying agile One challenge is to ensure the creative heartbeat is able to bring life to a great game without new mechanics or features hindering progress. Pre-production is all about mapping these steps however there is a level of agility needed to establish a feedback loop and identify and make any necessary changes. Dobrowski of CCP points out, “Making games, as with any creative endeavour, needs to be agile and the plan will change with time, however a team should have a long-term plan in-place to use as a baseline to support any future decision making – e.g. effect on budget of changing Feature X.” In some ways then the plans generated in the pre-production phase are designed to be broken, but the roadmap is key in a wider sense to sustain the greater vision and keep everyone involved heading in the same end-destination. Smaller teams Firnig of Nosebleed points out the importance of having a multi-disciplined individuals, especially within a more compact business; - “Being a small team means that there’s an element of everyone needing to be able to fulfil several roles, which in larger studios might be split across several people or even whole teams. During pre-production in particular, this “Jack of all trades, master of several” has a really positive impact on our projects, with prototyping and getting to a first playable being achieved much faster”. Provided all the key dependencies in each discipline are covered, there is some fluidity possible across who does what role, provided your team have the skills to wear different ‘hats’. Service providers For outsource studios providing services to developers, the pre-production process forms a key phase in ensuring a shared vision between client and supplier about what’s to be delivered. This isn’t unique to the games industry but is a principle for creative services that utilise the same production lifecycle. Jane Forsyth, Head of Production at Realtime where their mission is to create inspiring animation, cinematics and VFX told us:- “Representatives from all production departments get involved in preproduction to allow us to work out costs and schedules and plan the most efficient way to work through projects – this proves for a smoother process in the long run. If required, we use our creatives to write and develop treatments with our clients. Once agreed, storyboards or an animatic are produced to visualise the idea – this allows quick feedback for timings and content. Alongside this we develop an art document to discuss and confirm look dev, mood and assets.” In a nutshell Liam McGinley is Co-founder of Wibbu Ltd, an educational video-game studio with the goal of modernising foreign-language learning. He told us; “Pre-production is the fun bit! Researching and playing with new tools and tech. Seeing what we can do to push the hardware to squeeze as much performance out as we can. Prototyping parts of the game to find the moment to moment fun. Setting the art style and pipeline”. All in all the pre-production phase equates to preparing to add in all the ingredients in the right way. As with any good recipe, it is not possible to miss any particular role out without changing the end result. However the flipside of this is that when the balance is right, the end game experience is often truly greater than the sum of it’s parts.
When Mo-cap technology first arrived it had an immediate benefit and efficiencies impacted quickly. Realistic movements that once took a raft of hard-coded parameters could now be captured in one fell swoop. Initially it was deployed with productivity in mind however in recent years mo-cap has significantly evolved toward a deeper sense of characterisation; "It's all about creativity," says Phil Elderfield, Product Manager at Vicon Motion Systems; "Players want to immerse themselves in a story, and that requires a sense of reality." Biomechanics alone are not compelling without a level of performance At a base level the function of mo-cap is to recreate movement by replicating natural biomechanics, so in this respect it could be seen to cover a scientific data-capture role within animation. However, biomechanics alone are not compelling without a level of performance. Mo-cap technology has advanced to a point where full body performance is not only very accurate but also provides results extremely quickly so many AAA games utilise it exclusively, hiring motion editors over traditional animators for a number of roles. Lead Animator at Realtime Will Eades describes the evolution of mo-cap’s contribution to character through performance- “The accessibility of Mo-Cap to studios nowadays allows us to produce content quicker which allows for more iterations creating a more refined and in depth performance of the characters”. So there has been a shift to toward performance capture rather than just movement capture as a driving force for character. “Motion Capture technology has come a long way since its conception” explains Richard Wearmouth, Mo-Cap Supervisor, “and so have the actors who are now engaging and specialising in 'performance capture', giving us an even more believable and realistic game character experience.” Freelance Animator, Damon Tasker agrees “I feel that it’s a widely-held misconception that mo-cap is some kind of magic process that adds depth to games characters” he says “but in order to add real depth to game characters, multiple facets of development have to be executed effectively - solid on-set preparation and direction, believable world building, compelling narrative and a considered approach motion editing and implementation to name but a few. Capturing motion from a real human, doesn’t make it compelling or interesting without purpose or vision.” Our innate connection to other beings is awakened when confronted with a reality that we already know Let’s go back a step on why mo-cap has become such a compelling part of the process of character generation. Humans are hard-wired to identify life, specifically living-beings as opposed to objects or plants. Seeing a familiar movement pattern gives us an immediate reference of recognition and believability. Even if it’s fictional, our innate connection to other beings is awakened when confronted with a reality that we already know. Furthermore, if you generate enough belief you can start to stretch that sense of encounter with another being by manipulating features to create deeper emphasis on selected elements of characterisation. So characters with exaggerated, Gollum-like physicality aren’t real, but the performance capture foundation enables them to be real enough that we can believe in them. Whereas all mo-cap contributes to characterisation, not all characterisation is drawn from mo-cap. It’s worth acknowledging that a great many other ingredients such as texture, lighting, audio and dialogue contribute key layers toward the depth of character. Mo-cap provides a foundation upon which further details of characterisation are built. One clear focal point here is in facial performance and this too is evolving. “Facial Mo-cap is advancing in its accessibility and technology” says Will Eades, Lead Animator at Realtime UK; “Combined with hi-res scanning of actors to create extremely realistic 3d models and rigs the characters in games are continually becoming more detailed and believable”. Facial animation provides some unique challenges however as Michael Berger, Co-Founder of Speech Graphics describes- “The movement of the face consists mainly of soft tissue deformation caused by surface muscles, and there's a lot of room for variation. It's tricky to map facial motion captured from an actor onto a 3D character. This is a distinct process called 'retargeting', and it's as much an art as a science” he explains. Michael’s answer to this has been to use the audio signal to drive the face via an internal, procedural model of facial movement. Clever stuff. As well as close and detailed nuance of the face, mo-cap also has a role in wider-shot realism as Eades continues- “Some Mo-Cap studios can now capture up to 18 actors at once which would massively help in crowd animation that needed to interact which each other - a no brainer for a sports game developer for example”. Believability can’t only be limited to key characters, if a group scene provides a flimsy environment the gameplay experience would be significantly compromised not matter how solid the protagonist’s character. There are examples where mo-cap makes less sense than keyframe There are examples where mo-cap makes less sense, and keyframing still provides the kind of performance you need, such as the outstanding and slightly stylised animation by James Benson on the critically acclaimed Firewatch. Will Eades at Realtime agrees Mo-cap is a tool in the box rather than a silver bullet; - “as an animator I know that although the technology is becoming more and more accessible there will always be the need for keyframe clean-up and adjustments to enhance the performance”. Berger agrees, “There is more involved in motion capture than simply 'capturing motion'” he concludes. Having come so far in its contribution to character what’s next for mo-cap? “The increased accessibility of Mo-cap couldn’t have come at a better time, coinciding with the second coming of VR” says Andy Nye, Managing Director, New Moon Games. “We’ve found that when you’re placed in a VR environment, the increased realism of your interaction with the virtual world is significant” he says. We can’t wait to see this next level of mo-cap’s powerful role within providing character depth.