When Stirfire started work on The Dark Room, the intent was to make something as reminiscent to the stage show as possible. And there were a number of ways to go about doing that: ensuring the narrative was in line with what fans would expect from the stage show, making the game as difficult and filled with deaths as the stage show, and most of all having the portrayal of John Robertson as the Guardian be recognisable and enjoyable.
We fully expected to be building the game entirely in 3D, and so that was our angle of approach. When the project first started, we quickly went into investigating motion capture as an option. Namely Faceware, whom were keenly interested in our project and what we were hoping to achieve. For us, the cost of motion capture and Faceware was potentially justifiable, as John Robertson’s character model is the focus in every scene of the game, and our costs around any other assets would be minimal at best. However, as an independent game title with a limited budget, it was a substantial cost.
Approaching any project with 3D animation on a character and considering motion capture, the first thing you should do is create tests of all the different animation styles and pick from them based upon several factors:
- The time the project needs to be complete in.
- The amount of dialogue and animation that needs to be done.
- The number of characters that need to be animated.
- The budget of the project and how much is set aside for animation.
- The number of staff working on the project.
- The time it takes to animate a single second in each style.
- How much experience the team has with individual styles.
- The strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of each style (a SWOT statement).
Breaking down how you measure up these factors to get a reasonable budget for your project is outside of the scope of this short article, but it’s a good start to working out how reasonable your expectations are. For us, Faceware was absolutely a risky endeavour and it did not become entirely obvious until after the animation was complete just how risky it was, but it paid off in dividends. A good chunk of our animation was able to be automated, lessening the cost we had estimated. But we did also end out with substantially more minutes to animate than originally expected.
With all of this in mind, is motion capture right for your project? Only you can answer that, but in terms of the Dark Room it worked out better than expected. Would we have been better off using an alternate animation style? For our budget, most likely. But for the design goals of the project, it met all the criteria that were set when we started. We needed to hire additional staff to assist in the motion capture, but the quality of the animation out of the project speaks for itself.
While you are looking at potentially using motion capture on your project, consider if it meets the core design goals of your project (ie achieving as close to realism in motion as possible) in addition to your budget and schedule.
Matthew Dyet is a Game Producer working for Stirfire Studios in Perth, Western Australia. He’s been in the industry for 5 years, and has spent that time developing serious games, his own projects, and Stirfire’s own IPs.