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Ninja Theory Technical Art Director

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Ninja Theory Technical Art Director

Mensagem por IuriMonteiro em Qui Nov 04, 2010 7:22 pm

CGSociety was absolutely floored when we saw the first footage of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. Not just because the visuals were outstanding. The sheer concept of creating a new independent game property inspired by an ancient Chinese fable with such a unique style was incredibly refreshing. It's also a huge risk as with any new game IP. The scenery was nothing like anything you would expect in any post-apocalyptic game or movie. It was new, lush, green, vibrant; we couldn't take our eyes off it.

Enslaved was brought to life by Ninja Theory, the same developers of the very critically praised PlayStation 3 exclusive, Heavenly Sword. Stuart Adcock, the Technical Art Director at Ninja Theory talks to CGSociety about the development of Enslaved and the reason why they decided to go with such a different visual direction to a post apocalyptic theme. “The story is a fascinating journey through the unknown and that's how we wanted the visuals to feel,” says Adcock. “We steered clear of an all-too-common post-apocalyptic gray, brown and desolate world and set out to deliver something beautiful, rich and memorable. It's often a generalization that when humanity dies the world dies with it; we played on the idea that the exact opposite would be true and that nature would thrive and reclaim the world. Add huge overgrown robot parts from past wars and you've got something that has a unique feel, tells an interesting history and complements the story.”

Putting together a video clip comprised of scenes from movies and TV shows is a common approach among game development houses to get all the developers 'on the same page' regarding the game's direction. Sony Santa Monica put together clips of intense scenes from Braveheart, Gladiator and Lord of the Rings to get the team to understand the direction for God of War. “One thing that helped to set an initial style is to create a rip-o-matic,” says Adcock. “We took clips from movies and cut them together, essentially making a trailer of the game, I remember the movie 'Casshern' was heavily featured. Another great source of reference was a program called 'Life After People' where scientists talked about how the world would be reclaimed by nature. This helped us rationalize some of the visual decisions we'd arrived at.”

The story of Enslaved revolves around two main characters, Monkey and Trip. The first concepts centered around the strong and nimble male character Monkey. “Before the story was finalized, Monkey was originally designed as a mech-like super hero character, similar to Iron Man. Then he developed into more of a human robot hybrid; his tattoos were shining like metal under the skin. Then we finally settled on the idea that it would be a stronger vision to have man against machine; the flesh of Monkey against the metal of robots. I see Monkey as a Tarzan type of character, which makes a lot of sense considering the type of world he lives in and the animalistic robots that inhabit it.”

Before approaching character designs, the Ninja Theory team established a few rules to follow. “The design of the characters went through some radical changes but throughout all of the stages of development our goals remained the same:

1. Create an iconic silhouette - for example Monkey's hair silhouette.

2. Tell a story of the character’s past - Monkey has burn scars and symbols on his body, a reminder of his past fights with robots.

3. Respect the original story of Monkey - The design of the headband includes shapes reminiscent of the TV series.” referring of course to the Monkey TV show which aired back in the 70s. “The sash around his waist is a reference to the tail from the original Monkey character.”

Adcock goes into greater detail about the development of Monkey's design. “Originally the design of Monkey was much more of a brute, kind of like Hellboy. But the dynamic between Monkey and Trip needed to be believable and so we spent a long time getting the balance right. There's still a sense of beauty and the beast which I'm pleased about.”

The robot enemies that inhabit the world of Enslaved are not soul-less and mechanical but rather feral and wild. “The idea behind the enemy robots was to incorporate animal instincts and the idea of evolution,” says Adcock. “A sense that the robots we're creating are roaming and surviving in the land, just as animals are today. We wanted to introduce quite primitive conventional robots to start with and then put you up against more predatory robots with synthetic muscles built from future technology.”

Monkey and the female character Trip who enslaves Monkey are not the only human characters in the game. A lot of precise art direction went into a character who is penned as being a friend of Trip's father. “Pigsy is a favorite character amongst the studio, we had a lot of fun realizing him. His accessories were designed to be indicative of a pig, from the ears and snout attached to his eye piece, to the hoof style grappling hook. Again his history and sense of character come across in the texture, his tattoos reinforce his womanizing behavior, while the stains on his vest reinforce the fact that he's got no chance with the ladies.”

As mentioned earlier, the environments of Enslaved are quite uncommon for a game set in an apocalyptic aftermath. Imagining the art for such a world had to start off early on in the development. “We set a challenge to the environment team early on to produce an in-game style test where they had to build a forest out of robot parts. Huge mechanical tree trunks covered in moss, with cables twisting into the ground that resembled the roots. The result was spectacular and it helped define how we can achieve an organic look of a forest without killing our frame rate from using too many alpha textures.”

The color palette for Enslaved was defined very early on in the concepts as is expected for a title's continuity to be maintained. Adcock talks about the environment palette of Enslaved. “They ranged from forest greens and turquoise, to sunrise orange and pinks, there wasn't a gray or brown in sight! When I look back at the concept art, I'm very proud that we managed to get the same sense of atmosphere that was inherent in the beautiful concepts. A big part of bringing the world to life was to simulate real physical properties such as bounce lighting, sub surface scattering, atmospheric fog, lens flares and then pushing the properties so they are not only believable, but feel richer and larger than life.”

The fun part, as always, is putting it all together. Typical tools and techniques were ever present in the development of Enslaved and Adcock talks about the specific tools that really put power in the artists hands. “We pretty much use the standard Maya, Mudbox, ZBrush tool set. However each department has their secret weapon of choice. For character modeling, Silo has proved invaluable; the simplified pipeline in polygon creation allows our artists to work quickly and freely.

For environments, Crazy Bump came into its own; it allowed us to generate texture maps quickly and effectively - a god send considering we had small team sizes. For animation, Unreal's Morpheme allowed animators to get hands on and define blending and time stretching. For rigging, well there's an arsenal of weapons, most of which are hand crafted via Maya’s scripting language. One that comes to mind is a system that allows us to re-sculpt posed characters and publish the results as body corrective shapes.”

One of the most impressive features of Enslaved is its gorgeous execution of facial animations. Expressions are accurate, appropriate for the circumstances and give so much life to the characters which is something that is extremely hard to do in game development. “We also have a small R&D team, where we work on exciting things that involve a lot of head scratching, often over a cup of tea. This is where our facial solver was born, it essentially reads in marker positions from an actor’s face and mathematically calculates the best combination of facial muscles on a virtual character. One of the key motivations for developing this was for the facial animation in Enslaved.”

Character animations turned out to be a huge task especially in the case of Monkey who had to jump, climb and swing through a variety of circumstances throughout the story. “For characters we always aim to create base cage meshes (essentially lo-resolution versions),” says Adcock. “These are where we experiment with scale, proportions, props and rigging constraints. We then pay considerable attention to mesh topology, as it is the backbone of any decent skinning and facial rig. We take a similar approach on environments – build it out of Unreal's BSP (Binary Space Partition) to define the scale and flow before dressing the environments.”

Lighting it all came mostly with big help from Epic's Engine. “We used Unreal Engine 3, amongst other things, as it has a fantastic tool set which meant that our artists were more hands on with creating shaders and developing effects which would have otherwise been a lengthy collaboration between an artist and programmer. One tool that was released was called 'Lightmas', which was a complete global illumination solution which proved very useful, especially when tweaked, to give us our look. One drawback with pre-computed lighting is the problem of non-interactive lighting and shadows, or doubled up shadows. But throughout our development process, Unreal developed a dominant directional light and distance field shadow maps to give us a better sense of interaction with the light and accurate shadow casting on the characters."

Not only did Ninja Theory recruit the help of development houses from all walks of life but much help for Enslaved came from some big names in the film and television field which explains the level of cinematic quality in the cut-scenes that put the Enslaved story together. “On Enslaved we used House of Moves to motion capture our cut-scenes. They have a great facility and put together a great crew for us. We do things a little different during a mo-cap shoot; there's a big emphasis on shooting it like a movie with live cameras and reviewing takes from that. They accommodated this technique very well and delivered us great data to work with. Andy Serkis, Alex Garland and Nitin Sawhney were our big hitters. But we brought in other industry professionals into the studio to interact with the team. We got David Heinemann in to run a cinematography course and encouraged everyone on the team to learn the fundamentals of cinema. We also needed to brush up on our anatomy so we got Scott Eaton, who is an amazing sculptor, to share his expert knowledge of anatomy with our artists. This helped us refine Monkey’s physique and work out which muscles we'd need to work on to make him look like he had a history of climbing and not steroids. This knowledge proved useful when developing the robots too, synthetic muscles needed to be placed correctly to give believability to the character.”

Ever since the release of Heavenly Sword, Ninja Theory has been known for it's cinematic prowess in their games. In Enslaved, however, it seems that telling the story and treating the player to never-before-seen visuals received extra care with the intention that the player would be absolutely 'wowed' by the time they finished playing through this title. It seems like Ninja Theory is swinging for the 'Game of the Year' fence with this one.


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