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November 30, 2008

How Iggy Got His Groove Back

(or, The End of November Vespers Thing)

Good grief, another month come and gone already? November was a crazy month, I have to say. A lot of business travel, including a trip to Atlanta and not one, but two trips to D.C. -- at one point, I was having trouble remembering what city I was in and what day it was. But while you might think that Vespers development would slow as a result, in fact this past month turned out to be incredibly productive. One of the most productive in a long time, actually. We're finally beginning to see the fruits of our transition to new animators and a new animation system, and I'm expecting that this will be the start of a series of very productive months on that front.

In the last update, I expressed hope that during November we would start to have some new animations to plug into the game. We met that goal early on, and by the end of the month I found myself with more animations than I could process. Shawn, our animation lead, has really come through for us, and all of the work he put into the body and facial rigs over the past couple of months has started to pay off in spades.


It's difficult to express just how great it feels to have new animation work to incorporate into the game. I honestly can't remember the last time I had a new character animation sequence ready for importing. The last character we had worked on with respect to animation, prior to turning the work over to students and graduates from our local university, was Ignatius -- and according to the files on my system, that was back in the Fall of 2007. At that time, we had his model rigged and about a half dozen animation sequences created, but that was as far as we got before falling once again into the animation abyss.

The transition from 3ds Max to Maya when the students and graduates came on board was (and continues to be) somewhat painful. Unless you're working with an artist or animator who is already familiar with the eccentricities of the Torque art pipeline, it can take a good chunk of time to get to where each of your models and animations can be exported with some consistency -- and actually work when loaded into the game, as intended. At times, it feels like you're fabricating an intricate house of cards that requires everyting to be balanced just so to produce what you want.

But if you stick with it, and learn a little bit more about the system each time you work with it, you find that you can sometimes hit that sweet spot. That point when your models export, your animation sequences export, they load into the engine and work as planned, and suddenly you find you can just start cranking things out. It's a good feeling, one that I haven't had in over a year now, I guess.

Although I'm sure he's been ready to pull his hair out at times, Shawn has really stuck with it, and I think we've reached the point where we're starting to put a serious dent in the animation to-do list.

Shawn started his work with Ignatius, but since we're also trying to add better lip sync animations to all of the characters, he's had a hand in rigging a number of them, including Matteo, Constantin, Drogo, and Cecilia. In fact, Lucca is the only character model he has not rigged, which I think will be good for consistency. Each of our models now has a similar body and facial rig setup, which should speed up the transition from one character to the next.


By the end of November, Shawn had finished up all of the animation work for Ignatius for Act I of the game, which to me is just a phenomenal achievement. But in addition to that, he also has gone back and reworked all of the animations for Constantin as well, aside from a handful of sequences he has left to finish. I understand he has also started to rework the animations for Matteo as well, and once he is finished with that he will start work on Cecilia. I honestly didn't know if we'd ever get started on Cecilia, but there I was last week putting together her animation list and preparing her audio files. Now we're only a couple weeks away from seeing her in action, too. I hope you sense my excitement.

In the meantime, Lem is continuing his work on Lucca, and now that Drogo is rigged, Josh can finally start work on those animations. I can't wait to see how Drogo will turn out. I'm hoping I'll find out soon.

Probably the best part about this is that the quality of Shawn's work is a nice upgrade from what we had previously. He has really paid considerable attention to the details of body and facial movement, so we're seeing less robotic motion and much more convincing expressions, not to mention some nice lip sync. Some of the gestures and facial expressions he has made are far more engaging than what we saw before, and it really adds considerably to the experience of the game, I think.


My sense is that facial expressions and lip sync are things that are not done with great frequency with the Torque Game Engine, so over the next little while I plan on documenting how we went about doing this in Maya, using Shawn's work with Ignatius as an example. I'll also highlight some of the work he has done on Constantin, which I think is going to look great once I get it all imported into the game. I think it will help show some of the cool things that are possible with Torque's animation system which, while quirky, is quite powerful and flexible.

Meanwhile, I've got a crapload of Ignatius and Constantin animations I have to get to work on. And to think, I thought I might never have that problem again.

2 comments:

Michael Samyn said...

At times, it feels like you're fabricating an intricate house of cards that requires everyting to be balanced just so to produce what you want.

Oh, I know exactly what you mean! We're being forced to use 3D Studio Max and the X file format to get animations into our Quest3D-based game. That's the only way it works reliably. And even then only if you follow an exact procedure from skeleton, to rigging, to exporter settings. And even then, with some characters, 3DS Max just crashes every 3 or 4 exports. And there's almost 500 animations in our game (The Path)!...

Jason & Christy said...

I DO feel your excitement. It has been a while, but this is Jason (did the voice for Constantin). I look forward to seeing all of your hard work pay off and feel a tiny bit famous in the process!