Q&A: NaturalMotion's Reil On The Evolution Of Morpheme

Following the debut of Morpheme 2.0, Gamasutra sat down with NaturalMotion CEO Torsten Reil to discuss the state of the real-time animation solution for game developers.
Following the news that animation software developer NaturalMotion has released the latest version of its Morpheme animation middleware, Gamasutra sat down with CEO Torsten Reil to discuss some of its ramifications for game developers. The new version of the technology integrates Nvidia's PhysX technology with its tool for authoring and previewing blends, blend trees, and transition graphs in real time. NaturalMotion says that it believes it has solved "several fundamental problems holding back the combined application of physics and animation," and that Morpheme 2.0 should allow for "seamless mixing and matching of animation and physics methods within and across animation skeletons." Notably, the Morpheme engine is currently licensed by a variety of developers, including BioWare, Eidos, Ninja Theory, 38 Studios, Futuremark, Total Immersion Software, CCP, and Gearbox Software. Reil spoke to Gamasutra on a variety of topics, from the specifically technical to the state of the firm's American football game Backbreaker, which is a proof of concept for many of the software's key facets: Tell us about Morpheme: Connect's graphic interface and how it works for both authoring and for debugging during runtime. Morpheme:Connect is a 3D application that lets animators and developers create, evaluate, and debug their run-time character animation (which is executed in game by Morpheme:Runtime). Users create animation networks by selecting clips from the animation browser and organizing them into blend trees or states. They can add custom blend parameters, transitions, compression, IK or – new with 2.0 – physics, and preview the results in realtime. In addition, Morpheme:Connect can hook up directly to the game's engine via a feature called LiveLink, which provides total transparency and debug control. Morpheme is an animation authoring tool and run-time engine but does not utilize Dynamic Motion Synthesis. However, it does offer integration with the Euphoria DMS engine. Can you tell us a bit more about how the two can work together? Morpheme is essentially an animation-clip-based engine, which allows for the addition of procedural techniques such as IK or physics. Euphoria's DMS approach is different in that it synthesizes animations entirely from scratch (using forward dynamics). As a result, Euphoria can generate truly interactive animations and enable open-ended gameplay. We have designed Morpheme from the start to be able to take full advantage of Euphoria. We’re already using both in conjunction in our title Backbreaker with awesome results, and have revealed our commercial roadmap to close customers and partners. Integration with NVIDIA PhysX is a new feature in Morpheme. What are some of the possibilities that result from working with animation and physics at the same time? There are two ways of using clip-based animation and physics: you either treat physics as an after-effect (to add a ragdoll, for example), or you integrate both deeply to create much more believable results. Our customers told us that they’ve been doing the former for years, but that the latter was surprisingly difficult to achieve. Morpheme 2.0 tries to solve this and has cracked a number of problems that have held people back. For example, Morpheme 2.0 will allow users to mix and match different physics algorithms (hard-/soft-keyframing, active animation, ragdoll etc.) across the character’s body without having to worry about the validity of their combinations. As an example, you might want to drive the character’s legs with hard-keyframing (so that it easily pushes objects out of the way), but assign soft-keyframing to the upper body, so it has more compliance when brushing, say, another character. In addition, you might want to be able to make one of the arms weaker in response to an injury. Morpheme lets you do this – and do so graphically. You can actually author your entire physics rig graphically in Morpheme 2.0 too, including all individual joint limits, strengths, collision objects, masses etc. We chose Nvidia’s PhysX for a native integration as we have plenty of experience with the engine through Backbreaker and joint customers. We’ve been throwing a lot of stuff at it and have been impressed by its performance and stability. One of the biggest issues with physics can be that it looks ‘wobbly’, which destroys any character’s believability – we’re finding we don’t get this with PhysX. Secondly, we know Nvidia well and have been really happy with the relationship. They are totally committed to pushing physics forward across all platforms and share our vision of making its usage as easy and intuitive as possible. What is Morpheme: Runtime's "footprint"? What are some of the things you've done to minimize its use of processing resources? A lot of our developer resource is focused on runtime performance, so we think Morpheme is a lean and mean solution. The core is – almost by its nature – quite small anyway, but we also spent a lot of effort on platform-specific optimizations. Lastly, is Backbreaker still an ongoing project? How has developing a game influenced your tool business? Yes, Backbreaker is in full production – more than ever, in fact. As I mentioned earlier, Backbreaker uses Morpheme and Euphoria in conjunction, on two football teams simultaneously. We’ve learned a lot from this, be it new behaviors, optimizations, blend routines etc. This knowledge feeds back into the technology team and has already benefited Morpheme 2.0. We do get a lot of feedback from our customers, which in turn fundamentally drives our roadmaps. But developing a game in-house is invaluable when it comes to pushing your technology to the limit and gaining experience with very short turnaround times. I would recommend this to any technology provider if it’s feasible.

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