Autodesk Visual Fight Club: Believable Characters in Games


Posted February 18, 2009 - By bleahy

The first talk at the 2009 DICE Summit is about to kick off. Its all about creating believable characters. The talk, moderated by Tom Wujec of Autodesk and Chris Kohler of Wired, should offer a lot of insight into what makes characters stand out. All of this is all presented by Autodesk, the makers of AutoCAD, 3D Studio Max, and Maya.

The panel includes:

  • Henry LaBounta, Chief Visual Officer for EA Games
  • Michael Boon, Lead Animator for Infinity Ward
  • Patrick Murphy, Lead Character Artist for SCEA
  • Carey Chico, Executive Art Director for Pandemic
  • Steve Preeg, Animation Supervisor for Digital Domain

I'm going to attempt to keep my wits together as I try to live blog a presentation from six people, but I must warn you. It may prove too difficult. Then I'll just start making jokes. Either way, sit back, relax, and enjoy the live bloggery.

2:15 PM - While we wait for this to kick off, I've just been reading up on Steve Preeg from Digital Domain. According to a piece of paper that was handed to me when I walked in, he is the "Academy Award-nominated Character Supervisor for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." I'll choose to believe this claim. He's also worked on Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Return of the King, King Kong, and I, Robot. As for my resume, I've seen all of those movies!

2:19 PM - The panel is a small session of point-counterpoint fun for people that didn't want to play golf today. Greg Short from the Electronic Entertainment Design of Research (EEDAR) will now share data about how gamers view characters.

EEDAR has spent the last three years researching games and have indentified 15,000 attributes across 8,000 games. They merge this data with review scores and offer their data to make companies more money.

Looking at characters. They found that across all Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii games in the US, there are 812 human lead characters, 143 humanoids, and lower numbers for things like aliens, robots, and even plants. Age also plays an important role which is why you don't see any elderly lead characters. Things like character customization can add artistic expression, but it creates problems for scripting because the developer may be unable to plan what age the player has chosen to make their character.

2:26 PM - Time for the panelists to be introduced. There they are! Tom told a funny story about how the panel was supposed to be called "Visual Insight Club" not "Visual Fight Club". Unfortunately, "Visual Fight Club" is a much better name so I'll be referring to it by that.

While the talk is going on, Tom will be sketching on the paper on the stage, creating a panorama of ideas and dreams.

2:30 PM - Video presentation time! Tom believes that there are five ages of character representation. The age of rock & metal (not music) where characters were cast in stone and metal. The next is the age of pigment with characters shown in paint. Next is the age of chemistry, beginning in the 1840's with the advent of photographs. The age of electrons follows, which is the age of computers.

Now we're in the fifth age -- the age of digital interactivity. Time to talk about games! Chris Kohler is up.

2:35 PM - When games started, the player was represented by lines (Pong) or objects/machines (Tank). Before we got player characters, we had enemies like aliens in Space Invaders. Then, there was Pac-Man. Pac-Man, although he was a circle with a triangle cut out, the arcade machine illustration had arms, legs, and a wife.

After that, games like Donkey Kong came along which began to show characterization and story in games. But at this point, the games were still not focused on the character. Mario had to get his girlfriend back from an evil monkey, but it wasn't Mario's story of self-discovery.

2:39 PM - In Japan, RPG's like Final Fantasy were innovative by telling character-based stories, while American developers were making point-and-click adventures like King's Quest. Fast forward to Final Fantasy VII which exploded the RPG genre. Chris makes the point that if God of War was created 10 or 15 years ago, you wouldn't get the story of Kratos. Kratos might be the main character, but it wouldn't be about his personal struggle and the events of his life. It wouldn't be character driven. Very interesting. Did you follow all of that?

2:42 PM - Time for the panelists to introduce themselves. Henry from EA is up first. He's talking about realistic human characters in gaming. He points to EA Sports in particular and mentions that hair is still a particular challenge. The static representation (not in motion) of humans has come a long way. He shows a graph between motion fidelity and modelling fidelity. In the middle of this graph is the "Zombie Line," -- when the model is more realistic than the character's animation. He cites the Final Fantasy movie as an example of this.

The holy grail of believable characters in video games require the characters to act, not mechanically move. But we aren't quite there yet.

Boon from Infinity Ward is up. He's talking about protagonists, citing Gordon Freeman (Half-Life) and Manny Calavera (Grim Fandango). As you move through Half-Life, characters initially treat Gordon (you) as an unreliable player, but move toward treating Freeman like he had proved himself. Manny also has to prove himself throughout Grim Fandango.

Buddies, or characters that you play alongside with them, are different. These characters are there to be entertaining and help draw the player into the game. Sidekicks in games like Sly Cooper often have self-esteen issues that make you feel like a good guy for hanging around with him.

Enemies like Andrew Ryan (BioShock) and GLaDOS (Portal) can be entertaining, as well. This leads the player to enjoy spending time with them. It's also important that the characters don't do anything blatantly unrealistic.

2:52 PM - Patrick from SCEA is up to bat, He feels that players need to feel an emotional connection with characters to find them believeable. Drake (Uncharted) was a sarcastic every-man, but he comes off as a Han Solo/Indiana Jones, which help players with the introduction to a new character.

Now he's going to show off a clip from God of War III and mentions that we'll be playing this in-game demo at E3!

Update: I spoke with Patrick after the panel. He informed me that he isn't in a position to make that claim, but I'd bet that God of War III will be playable at E3. In fact, the demo we saw at Press Day said "Start Demo" at the title screen.

2:55 PM - Carey from Pandemic is showing off a clip from The Saboteur. The characters actually don't have great visuals or animation. I don't know why they are showing it off, but it is still a work-in-progress. He mentions that believable motion is important and proceeds to spoil some from Gears of War 2 for us.

2:59 PM - Steve Preeg is up. He admits that he doesn't know that much about games. He's showing off some composite images from Benjamin Button, showing the differences added by seemingly simple things like hair and glasses, while keeping the animation -- the same creates a better image. He jokes that game makers are going to have a very hard time when they start to hit the level of detail possible in movies rendered over long periods of time, in real time games.

3:04 PM - Chris wants the panel to call out characters that aren't very believable in video games. Mud-slinging time! Henry doesn't want to single out any game, but thinks that every game could be improved. Kohler points to Andrew Ryan and GLaDOS as believable characters because during most of their respective games, they are disjointed voices that the player hears.

Boon thinks Marcus and Dom (Gears of War) are not believeable because they begin the game as super-badass characters. Also, Epic focused on making a fun game and didn't go back and...

HOLY CRAP! Sony guy just called out Master Chief! The ultimate fanboy!!

Carey calls attention to Bethesda's games. Oblivion has bad faces, sure, but when the dialog is delivered, the game zooms in on the character model and removes all non-facial animation. This really hurts the believability. Carey also defends Gears of War 2 because of its in-game cinematics and the robust tools of the engine.

Preeg agrees that the movie he worked on, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, had believability problems.

3:18 PM - The panel points out that as characters become more photorealistic, it puts more pressure on things like animation and little things. If the character has the greatest fidelity ever, but the eyes aren't quite right, the gamer is going to notice that fact.

3:25 PM - Boon from Infinity Ward believes that it isn't terribly important right now to worry about photorealism. He believes that in action games like Call of Duty, it's better to just blow things up and distract players from the character models.

3:35 PM - The conversation has turned into an extremely technical discussion about skin shaders and different lighting models. I don't even want to pretend to understand it, as I'm in a room full of character artists. It sounds, however, really smart.

Autodesk Visual Fight Club: Believable Characters in Games


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