With apologies to Shakespeare, when it comes to videogames, “The game-play is the thing.” Any hard-core gamer will tell you that if a game isn’t cool to play, it doesn’t matter how good the animation is. By the same token, however, videogame technology has advanced in recent years to the point where animation, in certain cases, can be nothing short of dazzling, no matter how well or poorly you play.
The biggest example of this is the new Nintendo 64 platform, released last year with breakthrough animation. Thanks to the real-time, 3-D characters that exist in that game, along with the outstanding graphics capabilities of the Sony Playstation, the videogame industry now is attracting more talent from the toon world than ever before.
Lorne Lanning — who left a career in 3-D, CGI production to co-found game company Odd World Inhabitants — sees unprecedented creative opportunities arising as game platforms become faster and more powerful. “The real-time 3-D capability of Nintendo 64,” Lanning says, “is a total departure from pre-rendered animation. What’s interesting about it is that it brings simulation to characters. Previously in videogames, most of the simulation existed with tanks and planes, not characters. When you go into dynamic simulation, you have a character that is more like a living creature in a real universe with physics acting upon it, as opposed to trying to simulate those physics artistically. Now animators have to think completely differently, because it’s not like they can simply animate a character walking, and that’s what will go into the game.”
Lanning believes the people who will exploit this opportunity most successfully “will be those who really figure out the best things about classical animation and totally integrate them with a technology that simulates the appearance of physics.”
The arrival of 3-D gaming, says LucasArts senior artist and game designer Jon Knoles, “enables us to do a lot of things that we previously couldn’t do, like a lot of special effects.” In the “Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire” game recently developed for Nintendo 64, Knoles notes that the game player has the ability to “zoom into a first-person point of view or out to a third-person point of view. With real-time games, the player controls the character. It’s something we’ve all been waiting for, and we knew we would get there eventually.”
Knoles says this development signals an important change in the skill set that videogame animators must have, from 2-D to 3-D abilities. “I don’t draw as much as manipulate 3-D models in an animation program,” he says. Even for animators who come from a 3-D CGI background, he points out the constraints they face when trying to apply those skills to videogames. “You have to understand how to make a 500-polygon person and be happy doing it,” he laughs. “It will be years before you can have a 10,000- or 20,000-polygon human running around very fast in real time. ‘Less is more’ is still a powerful phrase when working on games.”
That phrase is very much on the minds of the 3-D computer animators at Rhythm & Hues, well known for special-effects work but now working on its first videogame. Dan Quarnstrom, who heads the creative team on the project, says, “We’re aware of the limitations on animation using the game machines right now. It means working with a limited amount of memory, using a select number of frames in order to do something that moves as fluidly as possible. You have to design by using even fewer frames than you would ever imagine doing animation with.”
Quarnstrom makes the analogy that designing for videogames, with all the compression and layering required, “is like packing for this incredibly long trip. You just smash everything into your suitcase, and you can put in as much as you want, but when you open your suitcase to take stuff out, you have to take it out in the order that it was put in.”
But despite current limitations, Quarnstrom believes that for animators, “This is a wonderful medium. There is a tremendous amount of visual potential there that’s not being utilized. And as a proving ground for animation and story-telling and character design, it’s just terrific. Hopefully, games will steer animators past the idea that the only success in animation is working on films.”
As more sophisticated videogame animation becomes possible, it’s likely that talent will move more readily between the two mediums. LucasArts for instance, has collaborated on some digital animation research with sister company Industrial Light & Magic, Knoles explains. “We’re trying to find practical ways to apply in an interactive environment things that ILM has been putting on film. We joke that we’re like the ugly little brother of ILM, but we’re using the same programs they do. We’re just applying them differently. We’re usually a couple of years behind them.”
In a medium in which a couple of years likely will bring breakthroughs unforeseen today, Knoles predicts: “There’s no question that it’s going to get better and more realistic, or more fantastical, depending on your approach to it.”
And when will the next breakthroughs come? Probably sooner rather than later, Knoles says. “We joke that in this business, years are like dog years.”