May 1, 2005


Animators of videogames are changing their primary software packages, emphasizing richly-detailed characters and expecting a leap in animation talent.

"In the past, game animators would have been required to make a good run loop, to make a good dying loop, but now we're asking for hitting the mark and hitting the point where the lighting works well, and basically creating drama," says Steve Sinclair, lead programmer for Digital Extremes, who's working on a next-gen title. "Before it was just creating plausability, [now] we want to create a sense of dramatic purpose."

The power in next-gen console platform games is just too much to ignore - even computer games makers are putting out their titles for consoles. Read on to see the how the next gen is changing all facets of videogame animation production.


Lead programmer, Digital Extremes

(, Toronto

Steve Sinclair
Current project/platform: Dark Sector, a third-person shooter-adventure game; next-gen platforms. Digital Extremes is best known for its first-person shooter games, notably the Unreal series done in cooperation with Epic. The Toronto studio just finished Pariah, for PlayStation 2.

How are next-gen platforms changing the way you work?

"They are increasing consumer expectation, so it changes the way we work in that we have to get the best tools we possibly can, develop new techniques and increase our animators' skill, as well as everyone else's on staff. The competition is increasing and the capabilities of the hardware have increased to the point where the level of detail, at least the graphic fidelity, means that a lot more work has to go into creating the assets. Before you had to make a 300-triangle mesh for Unreal and now it's in the millions, so that changes the way we work quite a bit."

What's the most important element in your games?

"The character [we are working on that is still unnamed] is special... the suit [he wears] changes and that basically has a lot of implications for animation. We're trying to make the character interact a lot more with the environment, and that's why we're putting them on screen. We haven't done a [third-person shooter] before. Usually we're first-person, but now because of the emphasis of the character, and the strong character design, we want to put him on screen. By having a different camera, that affects the control systems, so it makes the animation of that main character and the quality of that animation way more important. As far as animation goes, we're doing basically as much as we've done before, just another 10 to 20 percent, and that is things like supporting multi-limb blending. And that's just animation blending to the 'nth' degree so he's running but he's also shooting his gun with one hand and the other hand is held out in front of him."

What's your most important tool?

"Here we look for a lot of third-party tools that we can put in our pipeline. A notable one for this next generation in terms of creating characters - human or monsters - is ZBrush. This is something the film industry is also starting to get into; they're all using this tool. It's something like a virtual 3D sculpting tool and it also can assist in creating really detailed stuff and rigging it for animation. That is something that a couple of our guys are getting up to speed on. Our animators are using the latest version of Softimage|XSI to do their rigging and their animation. We have used 3DS Max, LightWave and Softimage|XSI. We do most of our scenic aspects and layout of how levels will work - placing where the monsters appear and so on -with LightWave. Character animation on some of our previous titles was done with Max. That includes Pariah, which is something our Toronto studio is just finishing up.

"Softimage|XSI is new for us. How that applies to the next gen is it can handle high poly previews so much better than anything we've used, and that's really drawn us to it. [In terms of hardware, we] usually open the magazine and pick the most expensive PC. Generally, we try to upgrade every six to 10 months because the bulk of our cost here is man-hours not hardware, which is pretty cheap. Currently, one animator just got a new machine, an Athlon 64 with a couple gigs of RAM, running Windows."

How important is animator experience level?

"We're trying to build this character we're working on into someone you want to be and someone who's important for a new franchise, like Dark Sector. So that is [accomplished] at times through non-interactive cut scenes and those are all done in-house within the game engine so you don't get the luxuries of offline rendering. In our past games, we did not have these segments of storytelling, so now that we do those are intensely character focused. So we need to have great motion, great acting, a good sense of drama. Because we are a small shop, we're looking for someone who has not only skills to make the animation look good but also a good sense of shot composition and reasonable sense of mood."


Chief technical officer, Blitz Games

(, UK

Andrew Oliver
Current project/platform: Possession; XBox2, PlayStation 3 and high-end PC. It is a zombie-horror game with squad-based tactical gameplay that is souped up with a new control method, allowing players to control hordes of zombies as well as the anti-hero, the Enslaver.

How are next-gen platforms changing the way you work?

"The biggest thing we have to contend with now is the manpower requirements. The projects are the biggest we've tackled, and managing the staffing for thousands of man-months means that we have to be more flexible. We also need more specialists. Our way of tackling both these problems is to increase the amount of outsourcing. This allows us to steadily expand our core team but still provide the size of workforce that we need at each stage of the project. It also allows us to pinpoint the best specialists in each field."

What's the most important element in your games?

A Zombie six-pack: Along with its proprietary BliztWare, Blitz Games uses Alias and Deep Paint. Its most recent game is Possession.
"Gameplay... we're creating entertainment so if the game isn't fun to play, we've failed. Movies can take the viewer on an incredibly powerful emotional journey, but great games can do that too. However, we also understand that the consumer expects visual quality. In the past, the technical restrictions of game consoles have meant that we have been limited in the visuals we can create, but now these boundaries are being removed. There's no reason why XBox2 or PlayStation 3 games can't look as visually stunning as Hollywood CGI movies."

What's your most important tool?

"We use Maya and Deep Paint to create the bulk of our art assets, but virtually everything else is created in-house. Our tech team has created our proprietary BlitzWare for realtime game creation, and this is our most valuable tool. It's all designed to empower the artists by automatically handling a lot of the technical processing that has historically been handled by the programmers. One of the most important elements for next-gen game creation is a feature [within BlitzWare] we call 'Flam.' It's our materials editing package that allows artists to have complete realtime control over the shaders, normal maps, environment maps, multilayered textures and any other visual element. 'Flame' allows us to apply unique multilayered texture maps on our zombie characters. We combine up to nine different textures to create a fully layered skin surface that we can damage as they go into battle. No matter how a character is attacked, the top layer of his skin and clothing will be removed to reveal 'gore maps' underneath - no two zombies will ever look the same, regardless of whether they are constructed from the same base model."

How important is animator experience level?

Blur recently created cinematics for Flagship Studios Hellgate: London.

"The more powerful the technology gets the more talented we need all our staff to be. In order to get movie-quality visuals we need top-notch creatives to bring our characters to life. Look at the animation work in films like Lord of the Rings and The Incredibles - you only get those subtleties of expression from an animator that really knows their stuff. If a movie director wants a character to come to life, then he'll hire a great actor. If we want animated characters to have that same quality, then they too must be great actors. They must understand the nuances of human expression and emotion be able to combine that knowledge with their technical skills."


Co-founder/creative director, Blur Studios

(, LA

Tim Miller
Current project/platform: Cinematics for Hellgate: London for Flagship Studios (3.5-minute teaser, plus part of the PR campaign, tentative release 12/06; Aeon Flux for Terminal Reality (teaser and models that will be used for in-engine game characters, tentative release 11/05); Company of Heroes for Relic Entertainment (tentative release 3/06); all next gen.

In addition to cinematics, Blur creates full CG animation for large format ride films, independent feature films and spots.

How are next-gen platforms changing the way you work?

"We just did a project for EA [Electronic Arts] where the game is still a couple of years out and they know it's going to be done on the Far Cry engine, and they know what they're going to be capable of doing in a few years. So they came to us and said, 'We want you to do a cinematic for us, here's the story, we want it to look like it's in-game and we want you to make it as good as you can make it, and that will be the bar that we will aspire to hit, in-engine, in realtime, a year and a half from now.' That's happening more and more. But by the same token, it's not like they're [those outside the game industry] not doing amazing stuff. We're starting to use a lot more normal mapping in our pre-rendered stuff as well. The learning experience goes back and forth."

What's the most important element in your games?

"It's the story... that's what people want us to do, although different people have different goals. Now we're doing two cinematics for Company of Heroes. One of the cinematics - its basically Saving Private Ryan - is the first wave of the assault on Omaha Beach. Our cinematic plays, everybody gets killed and then you cut back. It starts in one of the landing boats and you follow it all the way through. This character gets killed and then it goes back out into the water and you see all the dead bodies floating and then you see another boat coming in, which wipes the screen. During that wipe they transition to in-engine game play and you become the character right there and your job is to rally what's left of the troops on the beach that just got shot to hell and take the Germans out. It won't be a seamless transition visually because you'll definitely see a quality difference between what we did and what they did in-engine, although the in-engine stuff looks great. It looks better every year. I think this is a really cool way to get you into the game."

What's your most important tool?

"We're lucky in that most of the game community uses 3DS Max. It's not impossible if a company uses something different but it certainly makes it easier.

"We are running into a few walls, especially as the characters get more and more detailed and high rez. Max and Maya - the architecture's kind of creaky - have been around for awhile, whereas Softimage is much newer and Softimage seems to handle large databases more readily, so we're probably switching to Softimage on the front end for character animation and then we're going to stay with Max on the back end. I think the balance may shift. We're on the alpha team for Max so the balance will switch when Discreet [now Autodesk] comes out with their new version. Who knows? Every year I look at everything. We've been on Max for 10 years. It runs on dual IBM 3GB boxes, with Nvidia cards with 2GB of RAM."

How important is an animator's experience level?

A2M's challenge was making this 3D game resemble the 2D TV show Teen Titans, upon which it is based.
"If you have to do a photorealistic human in all its high-rez glory, that's a lot more challenging of an artistic task than to do a 1,500-polygon character that is only going to be seen from a three-quarters downview in a game. I'm not saying that that doesn't take some skill and artistry, and in fact it takes some skills that the other guys may not have: the ability to optimize the character model into as few polygons as possible, the ability to paint texture maps that have a low memory footprint and also look great. But to get to that next level of detail, not everybody that could make a good in-game character could make a good high-rez photoreal character, but the game stuff is getting closer so eventually they may need some people that do that. And those have been the people I've been looking for and hiring for years now."


CEO/creative director, Kutoka

(, Montreal

Current project/platform: Didi and Ditto: The Wolf King (release date 9/05); Mac and PC. This second title of an educational series - this for grade 1, the first was for Kindergarten and the next will be for toddlers - stars two beavers who must outsmart the King's lieutenant wolves through math and reading activities.

How are next-gen platforms changing the way you work?

Kutoka's Richard Vincent: His studio is currently working on its next Mia game dubbed The Invaders. It is targeted at children.
"The whole world is moving to the console, including edutainment, which is what we do. We are planning our next Mia - the sixth title will in fact be changing technologies [working title Mia: The Invaders; Mia is Kutoka's premier product]. Not that we're going to leave the Mac and PC; it will also come out for console. What we're seeing from a parent's point of view is a computer still remains difficult. After all these years you'd think it was getting easier and easier [but] Windows XP doesn't make it any easier. Parents don't have the patience to set that all up. They want these kinds of products and they would prefer to probably have them on a $200 console. So we're hearing that and we're saying we can't leave the audience that's there for us but..."

What's the most important element in your games?

"The character and its animation helps the story come across. Obviously that emotional connection - when your character cries or your character's happy and you can feel that... well that's magic.

"We produce games for children. We've always been big believers in the quality of animation helping to make a link between the child and the character, and I think we've proven that works."

What's your most important tool?

Kutoka is currently working on Didi and Ditto: The Wolf King, the second title in this educational game series.
Softimage|XSI running on custom-built PCs. We've been a Softimage studio for 10 years. Now we're really, really happy we stuck with it because Version 4 is a wonderful release. It's an incredibly rich tool, and from an animator's point of view there are many pluses for them in the interface, the workflow. I'm a particular fan now. I'm hoping that with the tools being where they are, now we'll [be able to reuse more]. We've actually changed our methods of working with the tool to try to encourage that. So now that there are new abilities in Softimage, such as the animation mixer, the way they do the rigging, standardizing the rigging, I'm crossing my fingers, will give us the reusability. Ask me in a year."

How important is an animator's experience level?

"We try and do things at broadcast level, so what we look for in an animator is someone with broadcast experience. We think we can teach them the constraints of the game; I think those are easier to teach."


President, A2M

(, Montreal

Current project/platform: Teen Titans; PlayStation2, XBox, GameCube and Gameboy Advanced. Based on the television show, this is the franchise's first foray into game consoles. It is scheduled for release in Q1 of '06. A2M specializes in action-adventure games for consoles, mainly geared for the family, but it has some projects for gamers aged 13 and up.

How are next-gen platforms changing the way you work?

"[They add] new elements into games, yes. But, different tools, no. [For elements] obviously you will see a lot more detail on the character's facial animation. You'll have much more expression, emotion in games with the new power we're going to have."

What's the most important element in your games?

"Probably the characters. In Teen Titans they have to move like the 2D animation [of the TV show]. The consumer has to recognize the characters. The fact that they're now 3D instead of 2D obviously gives us, on the model itself, a bit of latitude, but they still have to recognize it."

What's your most important tool?

"We use Maya. We converted everything in 2000. We felt - at the time and now - it was the most advanced and open tool for us. We have a team of six programmers that work on a lot of tools, and most of our tools are integrated into Maya."

How important is animator experience level?

"We have all sorts of people. We have people that were brought up through games, some were brought up through special effects, some were in animation on TV, feature film or 3D, some even worked in the 2D world."

Gambling on next-gen consoles
RENO - They're a different animal, these videogames on slot machines. Forget storylines and character development - the point is to reel players in quick and entertain them while they're losing their money. The visuals are all action and intuitiveness. Run time for typical slot animations is :03-:10, however, attract modes ('Play me! Over here!') and bonus play can easily be five minutes.

Of the next-gen platforms' influence on this particular videogame niche, Johnny Palchetti, lead 3D technical animator for IGT says, "We keep an eye on what's going on. We use that kind of information to tailor what we're going to be doing. A lot of the people [IGT] has working for them, like myself and engineers and artists, we all want to be doing really great games so we fuse that into it as much as we can. Next gen for us would be whatever the top of the line that PC world is doing right now. We'd be able to raise the visuals to a Halo 2 or Doom. When that's going to happen, I'm not sure. What we're currently looking at is 20,000 to 30,000 polygons in a scene."

IGT ( is one of the gaming industry's lead videogame makers. It is the system provider and first-party developer. The whole visual package increases what a game earns, an important point since IGA shares revenues with the casinos on these games.

Experienced animators - with film, 2D and 3D backgrounds - are being brought in to keep the quality level of IGT games high. Their tools are proprietary but they decided a few years ago to develop their tools within LightWave. Version 8.0 is the animation tool of choice because it's easier to learn, creates and edits polygons faster in realtime, and has a lower price point. Best of all, LightWave custom tailors what IGT needs. IGT's renderer is now very similar to the LightWave preview. LightWave helped tailor IGT's workflow, which involves using Motion Mixer to manage all animation data, as an asset manager. On the hardware front, IGT runs the Q and X operating system, a very secure embedded system, with a proprietary render engine. Workstations are Dells with the latest Nvidia cards.

Match and Win simplifies slots into a RT environment of a gingerbread house (see photo, above) that has tiles of pastries that flip over. Three in a row wins. Bonus symbols lead into the bonus animation that transitions out the back window into a painting into a magical land of machines.

-Ann Fisher

Sony Computer Entertainment Europe ( used NaturalMotion's Endorphin on The Getaway: Black Monday. The game focuses on the seedy underworld of London's violent gangland. Endorphin allows game developers to simulate desired end poses, creating seamless transitions between the resultant animation clips. NaturalMotion ( claims that Endorphin's realtime synthesis technology can help cut animation costs by up to 80 percent on action-related titles.