It’s an overcast summer’s evening in Seattle’s University District, and in the warehouse-like space in the back of an arts supply store, game designer Richard Lico is stabbing the air with his hands.

“Immersion is what games are all about,” he says, emphasizing how a character’s movements can tell stories on their own. But getting someone engaged in a game means getting them to believe that the virtual world that they’re participating in, and the actions of the characters they’re either controlling or interacting with, are indeed “real.”

And that means getting the physics right … artfully. Illustrating a story means “crafting” animations that work like they’re being acted on by outside forces, such as gravity or fatigue, and all within a game’s world.

Richard Lico

Lico has helped pioneer how to do this. The senior art lead at Bellevue-based Bungie, he is known for his work on the Halo series, Condemned, and Jedi Knightamong other notable titles.

But as he reminds the assembled artists at the June 23 meeting of Cartoonists Northwest, the power and potential of physics in game design remains coupled with plenty of pitfalls.

Bungie is a “summer-blockbuster” kind of game company, and places its highly developed products on consoles to be sold to massive audiences. But the basic principles of animation remain his “religion,” he says, and don’t change, ultimately, across platforms.

Motion capture, or “mocap,” is hardly a panacea, for example, he says, and has its own unique limits. Bungie has its own, on-site, high-end mocap studio. Lico and his colleagues can capture data on their movements (or those of athletes or others brought in for special effect) and see them modeled within a few hours. They can serve as the basis for further animation, too. Some of his work toward that end can be seen on his YouTube channel.

If done right, a well-crafted creature can become imbued with a character all of its own, if the motion’s modeled in a naturalistic manner. This goes both ways, of course. Get it wrong, he says, or make it too hokey or awkward, and the gamer will cease to be immersed in the gameplay — and will check out of the story.

That story will become more and more important to games, whether on iPads, PC’s or consoles, in the near future. Integrating narrative into action, and breaking away from the level-cut-scene-level-cut-scene formula that has worked so well for so long for many game companies, is where the next big burst of innovation will come from, he says.

Lico elaborated on this further in a Q&A following his talk:

During your talk, you mentioned the importance of story, and its integration into gameplay. Where do you see games going, in the next 5-10 years, with that? Will we be able to “play the cutscenes,” as it were? “It’s hard to say where story in games will be five years from now, but I believe it comes down to really understanding who your characters are, how they handle situations in their way, and maintaining continuity throughout all times when they’re on screen. Today’s games, in general, focus on making sure the gameplay mechanics are engaging, which includes the challenge level, flow of the game, player feedback, etc. Just as important to this is an understanding of who you’re fighting and why, inside your combat sandbox, as that is part of a compelling story. This topic has traditionally been delivered through exposition in story segments such as cinematic clips leading or following a level, or vignettes, which are little story segments in the level that a player can choose to stop and watch. This approach has been working, and will continue to be effective, but will not remain the exclusive method for representing a story.”

On adding personality to characters in games: “In most games currently, while engaging an enemy, you see little of their personality. They may fire, dodge, or melee in a way you’d expect that character to do so, but what we’re not seeing much of are the nuances of personality. Such things as the amount of combat pressure you apply, resulting in mistakes the enemy may make, like flubbing a dodge, [or] not making a jump, or showing fear. If an enemy is close to conquering you, having that enemy act cocky, maybe exposing a weakness through their personality, would help tell a story. When you’re not in combat, having characters on screen emote, or act in ways appropriate to their personality, as opposed to standing and breathing, helps tell a story. A final example could be representing the level of your player’s experience in an RPG. As a level-1 character, he or she may not look confident in most of their actions, but as a level-50 character, he or she may exude confidence in all they do. This is a more interactive form of storytelling, relying on the player to bring his or her imagination to the table while the game designer inspires that story through character-continuity narrative.”

You also mentioned “emergent gameplay.” What does that mean for you, especially as an artist? “Having conditions change based on the flow of the action, and how your characters react to those changes may introduce gameplay opportunities that weren’t available previously. The examples I gave in the previous question regarding story, where the enemies may make mistakes from over-confidence or fear, illustrate this idea well.”

How important is it for you to be working here, in the Northwest? “It’s very important to me. The Seattle area specifically has so many amazing development companies all within miles of one another, and it keeps growing as one of the primary hubs of game development. Having so many local developers fosters collaboration and community. One of Bungie’s goals is to contribute to the community by endorsing their employees to learn more, and to spread that knowledge. Having a local industry makes this easy to do. It’s not hard to find developers gathering at places like the Garage in Seattle for drinks, while they shoot the shit and brainstorm their ideas.”

Why does good, even great, art still matter, in games and game design, even with all our new tech tools, such as the motion-capture system you discussed? “Technology alone can’t make a game look great. Take motion capture, for example. I’ve met lots of animators who worry that mocap may be some kind of replacement for their skill set. But it couldn’t be further from the truth. Mocap is a tool, just like any other animation tool we may use in our work crafting aesthetically pleasing character performances. It provides us with information about locomotion in the human body that may be challenging for an animator to recreate, or even think about. But what it doesn’t reliably do is provide us with alluring arcs, extreme poses, snappy timing, or immediately reactive gameplay. If every company was to simply use mocap unaltered by an artist, character based games would all look and feel the same as one another. Most art directors want a unique look for their product. An artist can take that mocap, and use it as either reference, or work in layers over the top of the data to craft a performance that is more than just a simple motion recording. It’s the same concept behind painting textures, as opposed to simply using photographs.”

Would you say that what you do really does involve art and science, then? “Very much so, yes! Having an understanding of science and technology, and understanding the tools at hand, makes crafting the art easier, and more focused on the creative. I’ve been going out and giving talks to animators about gaining a better understanding of physics and locomotion. It’s something I’ve had the benefit of focusing most of my career on, and sharing what I’ve learned can help others work more efficiently. By understanding physics better, an artist will, for example, spend less time trying to figure out how to make a walk cycle look more accurate, and more time thinking about who their character is, and how to show that personality in that walk.”

Will Mari is a first-year Ph.D. in the UW’s Dept. of Communication, and studies the history of technology and journalism. You can reach him at: wtm2@uw.edu.

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