Saturday, September 17, 2011

Mike How, Studio Insider: Combat Animation

Having pretty trees and landscapes is just part of making a game look good. The Star Wars Galaxies game looked good but this was let down by the way your character moved. I felt SWG looked  better than WoW but WoW had far superior animation. To give you more of an idea on how you will move and fight in SWTOR, Mark How gave us this update ... from


With each Studio Insider, members of the Star Wars™: The Old Republic™ development team take you behind the scenes to give you an inside look at the work that goes in to making the game. This week, Principal Lead Animator Mark How discusses the work that goes in to creating the animations for combat in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Combat Animation in The Old Republic

Hi. My name is Mark How and I am the Principal Lead Animator at BioWare Austin. Many ideas have been dreamt up since the inception of this extraordinary game and the animation team has been hard at work since the very beginning. While we see each project as a challenge, we have a lot of fun imagining all sorts of unique, action-packed scenarios that can play out in The Old Republic. Of course, the main purpose of animation is to produce characters that adhere to the basic laws of physics, but good animation also ties into many other facets of game design. Today, I’ll tell you about our experiences and techniques that go in to our creating the animations that compliment the exciting and visceral combat in The Old Republic!

We start out like any other game that has big ideas for combat: at first we thought about the classic battle between Jedi and Sith. When you picture these powerful Force users meeting, you think of how they Force Leap into battle! You think of their Lightsabers clashing, and how they use the Force to push and pull each other around the battlefield. We wanted to be able to replicate this sense of action and exhilaration in the way we capture the combat animations. We wanted to show Force Lightning exploding from your fingertips and have your character show their raw mastery of the Force by hurling large objects at your enemies. We also had many ideas about ranged combat; about ducking behind cover and blasting your way through a pack of enemy troops. Knowing that many of you who will play the game are going to be playing as non-Force users, we wanted to capture that feeling as well.

Lightsaber Clashing

One of the most iconic images in the Star Wars™ universe is the Lightsaber. Making the Lightsaber come to life in The Old Republic requires a collection of all the correct elements falling into place at the same time through visual effects, sound design and animation. Our challenge was to make the iconic Lightsaber battles from the movies come to life within the design confines of an MMO. We worked closely with the combat programmers and designers to ensure that the combat visuals do not detract from the gameplay experience. A key aspect we learned early in development was that players do not enjoy having character control taken away from them because of an action or animation. Similarly, we realized that any action a player takes in the game needs to be visually represented in a way that is consistent with the player’s expectations. Combining these two things, it was particularly challenging to develop animations that allowed for visually appealing combat while still allowing the players complete control over their characters.

Here is a progression clip of just a few of the animations in our game, from the initial design to its implementation in-game.

Once we knew what our rules were for combat, the programmers and animators were able to create a Lightsaber clashing system that could predict the volleys of weapons fire and other attacks being thrown at the player from all directions, and have the player dynamically react to ‘block’ these attacks. Not only that, but we were able to keep this system active while players were deflecting directed attacks, engaged in melee combat or even running. Players may not even realize all the factors that are coming into play to visually represent the combat experience, but we believe it’s critical for making the player really feel fully engaged in the fight. Without these dynamics, the players would wind up locked in certain animations when they go to engage in a “Stock strike” or “Project,” and then the combat would really be failing to capture the feel of Star Wars; it would give the player the impression that they are watching the action rather than taking part in it for themselves.

We’ve iterated on the mechanics for a long time, and I think the Lightsaber combat system that the programmers and animators ultimately devised has really gone beyond expectations. Even in a battle scene with multiple players and multiple targets, each Lightsaber wielder can be seen attacking opponents with varied tactics while deflecting, parrying or dodging the attacks of the other enemies. It gives the whole experience a really dynamic, visceral feel, making the player feel like they’re taking part in an intense battle where their character has the heroic qualities expected of a Star Wars icon.
Combat Cover

“How could Han Solo possibly compete directly with Darth Vader?”

This was one of the situations our designers found themselves thinking about when balancing the character classes. Though armed with many brilliant blaster attacks, tactical abilities and cheap tricks, one of the most challenging tasks for the entire team was in designing a cover system that was useful to the player while keeping them feeling like they were part of the action. Some might argue that you don’t even need a cover system in an MMO, but the benefits provided to the classes and the overall visual dynamic of the combat system is incredible. This all comes back to the expectation that the player has. If you were a Smuggler in the Star Wars universe and there was a crate available for you to roll behind to deflect enemy fire, wouldn't you want to do that? Of course you would. The cover element has provided a tactical way for the Smuggler and Imperial Agent classes to be competitive against their Force wielding and gadget-toting opponents. Deciding we were going to create a cover system was one thing; creating it was something else. It took many hours of research, play-acting and experimentation to nail down the animations for ducking into, rolling into, or just dodging into cover. As you can imagine, with the variety of places where these characters can take cover in the game, that created an additional layer of complexity which had to be addressed. In the end however, cover looks, feels and functions like the real thing, and we think it bring an entirely new dynamic to ranged combat in the MMO genre.

Once it was established that melee-based player characters wouldn’t be locked into doing certain animations, we wanted to make sure that ranged classes worked the same way. The unique challenge with the ranged classes was that we wanted them to always keep their blasters pointed at their target until they were damaged, downed, or until the player chose to manually change targets. This needed to be true while standing still as well as when the player was moving. In an MMO, players don’t usually stand still and fight mobs of static NPCs. Consider PVP: as smart as NPC AI can be, it cannot compare to the intelligence, skill and intuitive reactions of a real human player. This means that when two human players duel each other, they can adeptly circle one another and jump to get in and out of range. They can’t be stuck in long, static animations when they attack. We had to work closely with the programmers to devise an aiming system that could account for numerous gameplay possibilities. I think what we achieved allows players to play the way they want and does not lock them into a combat system that only obeys a limited set of rules. As pretty as it could look, who wants to play a game where you run and then have to stop each time you want to fire your blaster? "Not I," says the Smuggler.

For The Old Republic, we are committed to giving you a great combat experience through aesthetic movement, strong character and great design. These elements come together thanks to the efforts of many different departments that are all working hard and working together to reach a common goal. Our combat has unique concepts that set it apart from other MMOs and help deliver another BioWare-quality Star Wars™ experience that we hope fans will find incredibly enjoyable and will want to continue as they progress in their stories and create new experiences of their own.

We'll see you online!

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