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Interview: Play Dough: On Creating XBLA's First Claymation Videogame

In this interview, animator Anthony Flack (Platypus) and Tuna Technologies talk with Gamasutra about upcoming PC/XBLA side-scrolling shooter Cletus Clay, as well as the challenges and advantages of working and creating assets with clay inste

Simon Parkin, Contributor

December 16, 2008

19 Min Read

[Who doesn't love claymation? Only curmudgeons and illiterates, we think, and Simon Parkin was kind enough to sit down with Platypus creator Anthony Flack and the Tuna Technologies folks, who are doing things right by building Cletus Clay for Xbox Live Arcade and PC.] As if creating a Metal Slug-style side-scrolling shooter starring a loudmouth hillbilly wasn’t enough to distinguish his Xbox Live Arcade game from the crowd, Anthony Flack, Cletus Clay’s designer and animator, decided to build all of the game’s assets using clay. It’s a painstaking process, crafting and posing every character, background object, and frame of animation by hand. And the development was not made any easier by the fact that Flack is based in New Zealand on the other side of the world to the rest of his development team, the Sheffield-based Tuna Technologies. Gamasutra spoke to Anthony Flack, the game’s creator, Alex Amsel, managing director of Tuna Technologies, and Sarah Quick, one of the game’s artists, to find out how they’ve gone about this extraordinary undertaking and whether all of the painstaking effort has been worth it. Which came first, the game idea or the decision to make a claymation game? Anthony Flack: I have pretty much committed myself to keep making claymation games until I feel that I’ve done it as well as I possibly can, and that’s an ambition that predates this particular game. But, actually, in this instance, there was also a little game I made on the Amstrad CPC sometime in the late 80s that had an old farmer with a shotgun in it. He was going to be blasting aliens, but it was one of those half-hearted early efforts where you don’t get much further than making the main character jump around on a testbed. For some reason, he came to mind again years later when I was deciding what game to do next. Why did you decide to create a side-scrolling action game, a genre that’s less popular than it once was and which, in technical terms, a tall challenge to execute well in claymation? AF: Well, the clay animation naturally lends itself better to a side-scrolling game than it does to full-roaming 3D, but mostly I wanted to do this because I enjoy that sort of game and felt like we could do with some more new ones. I probably seek out less fashionable genres anyway because it’s more fun to operate around the fringes. I was also looking to do a game where I could try out some fluid character animation and get to grips with the issues of character/scenery interaction. There have been a lot of technical challenges in putting the graphics together, but solving technical problems makes us feel clever. Alex Amsel: Technically, it’s a more complex game than any of us imagined. Much of it simply has never been done before, and we’re learning new things almost every day. What were the lessons you learned from using the technique in Platypus (Flack’s previous claymation game) that changed your approach with Cletus? AF: Doing the graphics for Platypus was not really challenging at all -- actually, Platypus was a deliberate attempt to avoid dealing with these problems. There was very little animation to speak of, and no character/scenery interaction. And the scenery itself was just a sea of very simple background objects. I wanted to set aside any ambitious animation ideas I had and just concentrate on making a simple sprite game that moved well and was fun to play. Because I didn't want to be someone who designed technically ambitious games that played like crap, I felt like I needed to spend some time schooling myself in video game motion and mechanics. And then, after I’d made Platypus, I felt like I was ready to indulge a bit more of my stop-motion animation side, hopefully without allowing that to get in the way of the game mechanics. The most important thing when doing animation for a game is to make sure the animation doesn’t interfere with the responsiveness of the controls. What makes the underlying game interesting? Had Cletus Clay’s assets been created in, say, 3D Studio Max, do you think it would still be an exciting proposition for gamers? AF: I know that the clay art gives my games a certain appeal, and perhaps a degree of attention that I wouldn't have if I was using a more conventional style. And there’s nothing wrong with eye candy -- I always enjoy a game more if it’s pretty to look at, and if it’s done in an unusual style, than so much the better. Although I do put a lot of work into the graphics, if the game design isn’t fun enough to stand up on its own, then I’ve failed. I’m not necessarily looking to create wildly innovative game mechanics -- my ultimate ambition is just to make games with good structure and pacing, that are accessible, challenging, and fun all the way through. Which sounds simple enough, but even within well-established genres, it presents a huge, open-ended question: what change could you make to your design that would make your game more fun than it is now? That’s what keeps me up at night; graphic design issues are a relaxing proposition by comparison. My biggest hope is that our game will be considered exciting because it’s fun to play. That’s not really a feature you can bullet point, but it’s the metric by which all games ultimately succeed or fail. Our game is all fast-paced, slapstick violence with tons of enemies, giant robots, explosions and madness at every turn. It should hopefully tap into that reptile part of the brain that enjoys smashing stuff and making a mess. I want players to start having fun from the moment they pick up the controller, so if we succeed, you should know it right away. Can you describe the creative process in getting your clay models into the game? AF: Okay, let’s say we wanted to add a tree. First, either Sarah or I would build a clay model of the tree. For something like that, we’d probably just use solid clay, maybe with a pencil or similar in the trunk to help hold it up. (If the model was going to be animated extensively, then I might make a proper armature for it, and build the model using a combination of plasticine and Sculpey-type oven-hardening polymers, but most of the time, that’s not necessary, particularly for scenery objects.) Once the tree is built, it’s then photographed, and cut out in Photoshop. We may also tweak, color, or make other digital alterations to the image at this point if necessary. Then the image is mapped onto a flat 3D mesh, and points in the mesh are extruded to give the object volume. We end up with something similar to a relief sculpture, 3D from the front but with no back, and with only rudimentary form around the sides. This then becomes a game asset that we can place in our scenery editor, where the levels are constructed from these semi-3D models. We build our levels as full 3D scenes, although due to the nature of the objects, it only looks right when viewed from the front. It’s kind of complicated and a bit fiddly, but building the objects in this way means that we can create a full 3D parallax effect when the camera moves, and use 3D rendering techniques such as dynamic shadow casting between objects, while still retaining the authentic look of the clay models. Other than for creating an unusual aesthetic, what are the benefits and drawbacks to using clay over 3D tools in terms of the gameplay experience? AF: From the artist’s perspective, it’s probably faster and easier to model static scenery, and slower and harder to do animated characters than it would be with 3D tools. But in terms of the gameplay experience specifically, it’s inherently more limiting than using 3D models because in a 3D environment, you can show anything from any angle and do whatever you like with the camera and the game elements. We have to be much more specific in planning what we’re going to show and how it’s going to work. Which is both a strength and a weakness, because although it means that some things are off-limits, it forces us to consider other alternatives. So, you end up making different decisions ,and it shapes the whole game differently. The benefit is that you end up with a different flavour to your gameplay than you would using another method, even with the same team. AA: One of the biggest drawbacks is our mixed use of 2D and 3D. Bionic Commando Rearmed just about made it work in a simpler form, but for Cletus Clay, we really wanted to get the most out of the clay imagery. Where we’ve really gained on looks, we’ve made our life more difficult in terms of implementing elements such as core physics and player controls. I do think, however, that clay models feel more real and more physical than many 3D models. How much clay do you have in your studio? Anthony: [In New Zealand], I probably have about 30kg of clay at my place. I had a big box of it shipped over at depressing expense when I was starting to get serious about stop-motion animation. I’ve been using and re-using this same clay for years, stripping down the models after I’m done with them. Sarah Quick: [In Sheffield, UK], here at Tuna, we literally have boxes of the stuff shoved under a desk. I'm not brave enough to recycle my models yet in case I have to go back and amend them, so storage space for the models has also been a bit of a nightmare. If we had a fire like the unfortunate Aardman (British creators of Wallace and Gromit), then our cupboards would be dripping in clay. AA: We seem to have as much clay stuck in the carpet as on desks, in cupboards, and under tables! Did you create the character designs for Cletus Clay on paper before clay modeling them, or did you jump right in with the clay? AF: The important characters usually begin to take shape as a rough sketch on paper, just to help visualize what we’re going to do. But it’s during the modeling that the designs really become refined. Clay is quite a responsive medium and the shapes of the models evolve quite naturally as they are constructed. Oftentimes, I will just jump straight in with the clay and see what turns out. SQ: Depending on the complexity of the model, I do try to do a quick sketch, just to get the design sorted in my head. Anthony created some pretty detailed level designs before I even started clay modeling, and they have been extremely helpful, so it is not always necessary for me to scratch something down on paper. Small things like trees and logs I can make on the fly, but when I am creating something huge that is likely to take a lot of time, I like to show Anthony what I am thinking of doing before I get stuck in with clay. Clay modeling is a technique not usually associated with videogaming. Because of that, did you have to [bring in] artists from outside of the games industry for the team? AF: Haha, yeah, if I had a big team and a big budget, I probably would want to hire a couple of stop-motion animators from the film industry, as well as a couple of Photoshop artists and a 3D modeler or two. But since we don’t have a big team, it’s kind of a moot point -- all the scenery modeling and Photoshop work is done by Sarah and I, and I’ve done all the stop-motion animation in the game myself. (I guess you could say I was an artist from outside the game industry, since I started out doing stop-motion for TV commercials.) It would be nice to have more people to do the work for me, though; I’d be into that. We’d be able to make the games faster, and I could have more days off. That’s an excellent suggestion. Sarah: I completely stumbled into my role as a clay modeler. I remember being sat with Alex last Christmas, chatting about Cletus, when he asked if I fancied mucking about with some clay to see how I did. I loved sculpture at school and am normally game for getting mucky, so after a few brilliant lessons from Anthony, I was knee deep in clay and loving it. AA: We’re subject to many restrictions as a small indie, so for better or worse, we have to work with what we have. Before we set about looking for a second modeler, we gave Sarah a chance. As it turned out, we didn’t need to look any further. Sarah has a habit of grabbing chances like this -- she got a job at Tuna by approaching us completely out of the blue at a film festival after-show party, then drunkenly asking me for a job! One of the programmers, Ken [Murdock], also has an art background so he has helped in non-modeling aspects of the art side, particularly with levels. Sometimes, limitations force you to improvise, and I quite like that we have a small, tight-knit team. What has been the biggest headache for the team in the creative process? AF: Probably the fact that I live in New Zealand, and the rest of the team is in the UK. The internet has made this possible, and it’s great that I can work from anywhere in the world (until recently, I was based in Tokyo). But there’s still no substitute for being in the same room together. We end up working in chunks and sending the pieces back and forth to each other, so it’s a slightly fractured kind of collaboration. AA: As Anthony says, location does make things more difficult. Also, the nature of the project has made scheduling rather less predictable than we would like, but I guess all developers could say that. As the game comes together, do you feel like all of the added effort has been worth it? AF: It’s always worth trying out new things, and we got to use a bunch of techniques that I’d been itching to try out for ages. Experimentation is half of what motivates me to do these projects in the first place. Happily, our experiment is working out really well, and I think we’ve got quite a unique-looking game because of it, so I would say it’s been well worth it. AA: The development process is quite tough. There has been a lot of two steps forward followed by one step back, but the end results are hugely satisfying. Why did you decide to clay model by hand rather than, for example, approximating the look with 3D tools? AF: My background is in stop-motion animation anyway, but I suppose you could just as well ask why I decided to study stop-motion animation in the first place while everyone else was learning 3D Max. I just found the idea of having an animation studio, with lights and cameras and models and sets, way more exciting. And I also thought that there was a danger that with everyone moving towards CG, all these other kinds of animation would start to disappear -- I guess this is my instinct to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing kicking in again. I just want to try to help make things a little bit more diverse. You could probably come pretty close to approximating the look with 3D tools, but I don’t think it would feel like clay animation; just as cel-shaded 3D doesn’t really feel like hand-drawn animation. Any method that you use has its own peculiar strengths and limitations, and that is going to shape the whole character of your work. By building a game using unusual tools, we’re more likely to get unusual results. AA: If you show people something and tell them you made it in 3D, they may mutter something or may just walk away. However, if you tell them you actually made it all physically, out of clay, and it sits on a desk, then you move it a bit, take a picture, move it a bit more, take a picture, and so on, then the response you get is completely different. People love that you actually make these things. There is a magic to it that digital tools don’t have. The same can be said for painting versus Photoshopping, or hand-drawn animation versus Flash. Did you ever regret the artistic decision to approach the game in this way? AF: Sometimes I see games that are done other ways that make me feel like using a totally different style, but it’s usually something equally esoteric, like colored pencils and watercolor paint. I don’t regret doing our game the way we have though, because I think it’s looking pretty sweet. If it had all gone horribly wrong then there would have been much gnashing of teeth, but fortunately that hasn’t been the case. AA: Artistically, it’s great, but the programmers, including myself, do much gnashing of teeth at times! How supportive has Microsoft been in getting your title onto XBLA? AA: David Edery (in particular) and our Microsoft producers have been wonderfully supportive all along. I really couldn’t be more positive about our experience so far. How long will the game take to create from first concept through to submission? AF: An awfully long time. Too long. I first started working on the game in 2003, I think. At that time it was just going to be a PC shareware game; something I was doing on my own, in my spare time. Real-life concerns intervened shortly after, and I suddenly found myself with a lot less spare time than I had, but I kept plugging away at it whenever I got the chance. By 2007, I was close to finally getting the game finished, but the shareware scene had changed so much in the intervening years -- the gold rush on bubble-popping, color-matching games had reshaped the whole landscape, something I had resisted getting involved in because that kind of casual game really didn’t interest me personally. Meanwhile, XBLA had come along, providing an alternative channel that was much more hospitable to an arcade-style action game like mine. It was about that time that Alex from Tuna saw my demo and expressed an interest in working with me to get the game onto the Xbox 360. I had seen the extremely faithful job they had done in porting Alien Hominid to the GBA so I knew they would be able to do it justice. However, it would require extensive re-designing, adding multiplayer support and other features, and re-working the game’s structure. The graphics all had to be rebuilt in high definition, and the game needed to be re-coded from scratch. In other words it was more-or-less back to square one. So after a brief period of mourning for all the years of work I was abandoning, I started to write the design document and prepare promotional materials to get the green light for the second, much-improved version of the game to be produced in partnership with the team at Tuna, which is what we have here. AA: The submission process with Microsoft took a few months overall, but that allowed us to rework Anthony’s original concept into a form more suited for console. Did you go over budget with the game? AA: Since the game was started in 2003, it’s safe to say that it’s over schedule! The game isn’t due to be finished for a while yet, but everyone is putting in the effort to allow us to get out in 2009. With it being an indie project, it’s a little difficult to say what the budget was, but it’s certainly a long, long way over the budget Anthony would have started with. dread to think what the budget would have been if Cletus were a typical studio effort. Then again, I don’t think any studio would have taken the risk with it in this day and age. Cletus Clay could only come from the amazing independent scene we have now. What lessons have you learned through the experience? Is there anything you’d do differently next time? AF: It’s been a new experience for me in so many ways, that everything we do is something to learn from. Working with a schedule, writing design documents, co-ordinating with a team, the art, the design… it’s really hard to single out any one aspect. Hopefully I’m slowly and incrementally getting better at all those things. And hopefully all the things we do in the future will also be new and different. Certainly I feel like I’ll have a much better understanding of how the whole process will play out when I put together the next design document. I think I would also like to spend more time streamlining and simplifying the controls on the next game – I think a stick and two buttons is the ideal, but Cletus ended up needing four. I’m also interested in looking at other ways you can arrange the meta-structure of a game. I prefer shorter, more tightly-constructed games to big sprawling ones that just bury you under a mountain of content, but there are so many ways you can structure the challenges and the way the game’s content opens up. I’d like to spend some more time looking into different ways of doing that – but right now I can’t afford to distract myself too much with thoughts of “what next?” or I’d never finish anything… AA: I have learned one thing. Next time Anthony says, “I have this great idea to make it better,” I’m going to put my hands over my ears and run away, screaming, “la la la la la I can’t hear you la la la la”. Just kidding.

About the Author(s)

Simon Parkin


Simon Parkin is a freelance writer and journalist from England. He primarily writes about video games, the people who make them and the weird stories that happen in and around them for a variety of specialist and mainstream outlets including The Guardian and the New Yorker.

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