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Opening up animation in games

Animations remain the least realistic part of modern games, but it doesn't have to be that way.

The topic of this blog post is the most important object in games: the human body. Humans are at the centre of most games. Take 10 popular games: 8 or 9 are based around humanoid characters.

Despite this, animations remain the least realistic part of modern games. Frequenty there is a striking difference between the graphical realism of the characters and the stilted way they move. Just look at the Husks in the Mass Effect series.

It doesn't have to be that way. A company called Naturalmotion have made an engine called Euphoria, that simulates human bodies. It has been around for several years and it produces some neat results, but they only license the engine  to a small number of companies, such as Rockstar, who use them only in the biggest blockbusters, GTAIV, Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3.

They probably have reasons for this, but the approach seems anachronistic. Why not take the opposite approach and supply a general humanoid runtime to the public for free with an open API? Every parameter, such as bone length and muscle strength, would be open for manipulation by other developers and end users, who would also create skins, layered behaviours, and 3D environments for the humanoids to interact with.

 This would open possibilities to quickly create deep and varied games belonging to any human-based game genre, and perhaps create som new genres as well. One idea is a rock climbing game, in which the player climbs rock walls using the mouse to directly control one limb at a time. This might sound simple but could make for a very deep game, if the objective would be not just to scale walls but to find the optimal character for each wall, with length of limbs and muscle strength.

There are some challenges associated with the open approach. First, the exception handling in the games needs to be ”gamified”. Since the simulated object (the human body) is so complicated, there will be situations where the simulation breaks. In this case, there need not just be mechanisms for just getting out of the situation but players should feel like identifying, avoiding or managing these situations is an integral part of the game itself. 

 Second, general control schemes need to be developed. This is easier said than done. But if the API is good enough, perhaps someone in the developer community will crack it. (I have an idea for a control scheme for general melee combat, using a mouse and a few buttons. I’ll describe it further if someone is interested.)

So where will the money come from? This is intriguing because the open model might be unusually suitable for free-to-play models, since it is based on clearly defined parameters that users would like to increase within the context of the game. There could be a version of the API that has a limit for the total muscle strength of the characters, which would cost money to increase. Could muscle power be the ultimate free-to-play currency?

All in all, I believe game animation is ripe for a shake-up. If NaturalMotion doesn't figure out how to make a general animation engine available for everyone, someone else will.

If anyone has any thoughts about the human body in games, or the state of procedural animation, please comment.

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