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A peek inside Neversoft's motion capture neverland

Kevin Kelly

Earlier this week Neversoft invited Joystiq and some other gaming folks out to their new digs to see the progress on Tony Hawk's Project 8. Since July, they've been inhabiting a new warehouse-sized office space in Woodland Hills, outside LA, giving them enough room to have 37 bathrooms, three kitchens, a quarterpipe skating setup, and their very own motion capture studio. The place is huge, full of cans of Red Bull, fishbowl window views onto programmers ... programming, and cool stuff all over the place.

According to Joel Jewett, founder and CEO of Neversoft, the sheer volume of the new space allows them to have the motion capture system in-house. Now, if they're sitting in a meeting and kicking an idea around, they can literally walk into the next room, have someone suit up, and see if it will work in the game; whereas before, that process could literally take weeks, scheduling time somewhere for the mocap, bringing the data back with them, etc. As Jewett says, this allows them to continue doing what they do best, "Kickin' ass doin' whatever it takes to make the best game." And with seven previous Tony Hawk games under his belt, you can see why he'd say that. Plus, he looks a bit like what would happen if you crossed Sam Elliot with the Marlboro Man, and he has a huge dog who comes to the office with him. You feel compelled to take this guy at his word.

While motion capture is nothing new in gaming, the pure extent to which it is now being used is. Jeff Swenty and Kristina Adelmeyer run Neversoft's motion capture department ... and please try not to hold the fact that they also did motion capture for the Xbox launch game Bruce Lee and the ultra-horrible Batman: Dark Tomorrow against them. After all, they also did motion capture work for the movies Fantastic Four, Constantine, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and I, Robot. Not too shabby. We'll even forgive them for I, Robot (albeit grudgingly).

They did manage to juggle an extremely ambitious schedule that included 63 days of motion capture for the 12 pros featured in the game, including breaking down their entire motion capture rig and setting it up again in Tony Hawk's warehouse for some quality time with the namesake who is apparently too busy these days to leave his royal palatial estate. They must have worked extremely hard, as evidenced by the amount of liquid libation consumed along the way.

The team has become an integral part of the new Tony Hawk game in a big way. Last year, they used motion capture for all of the cinematics in the game, but this year they decided to use it for not just cinematics but also for all of the character animations. That's right, every single one of 'em. Not just the pro skaters either. They use them for every pedestrian that walks by, every in-game character, and basically anything on two legs in the game. That's not even true, they even motion capture the skateboards, for the love of God. And not just the boards, but the wheels too (of course, they call them "trucks", because they are cool and in the know). They also recorded an estimated 400-500 tricks for the game, and the data is accurate to sub-millimeter levels. That's just insanely detailed.

"This year, a pro will definitely look like a pro", according to Chris George, lead character artist. And he's right ... to a degree. The playable in-game characters are simply stunning, down to every fold in the clothing, Rodney Mullen's player model looks and moves just like him, but when we had to interact with him in a cinematic, we were a little creeped out. The cinematic versions of these guys fall deep into Uncanny Valley territory, which postulates that before animated humans (or robots) achieve 100% realism, they'll appear distinctly inhuman. That translates to "these guys will give you the willies."

While they did use extremely high quality photographs from a 12 megapixel camera, and full 3D body scans of the pros along with the motion capture in order to achieve a high level of realism, these things still are just tools for the animators to use as a reference when they build the fully fleshed out character. It is still up to the animators to make it look realistic and convincing. Jewett is quick to point out that many animators thought that motion capture would threaten their jobs, as it allows a large amount of animation to be completed in a very short amount of time. But, he points out that the motion capture is just another tool for the animators to use, and that they still rely heavily on them to provide the look and feel of the characters and, in turn, the game itself.

Gameplay is much quicker and the animations more fluid in this version of TH, and the world has been simplified and brought together in a much smoother way than previous games as everything links together pretty well. Rather than having venues like a long street or a tunnel that link you to another area, you simply skate around the corner, and the next area is there. The team made a concerted effort to bring favorite areas like University, Suburbia, Skate Park, etc. all together into a city that feels more designed rather than slapped together, Lego-style.

They also borrowed a page from FlatOut and added a ragdoll bail mode which is used for spots where you try and see how many bones you can break in your body. Additionally your combo/trick score turns into a hospital bill if you crash or bail, and you'll be tasked with getting that bill up to a certain dollar level for specific goals. There is a story oriented element to the gameplay, with the player trying to compete to become one of the top 8 players for Tony Hawk's "Project 8", but everything is open and freeform and you can explore and unlock the world however you want. Particularly fun are the "Nail the Trick" and "Focus" modes with bring the gamer and his board into sharp focus, blurring out the rest of the world and slowing time down, allowing them to hit tricks exactly. Think "bullet time" for skateboarders.

Xbox 360 and PS3 versions will look "identical", but there will be some special features on the PS3 that they can't talk about yet. Some of the tidbits we learned were that there will be multiplayer gameplay available to players on Xbox 360 through XBL, as well as persistent leaderboards that you can check from the in game menus at any time. However, no such love for the PS3 version, which will have no online elements whatsoever. While Neversoft was a bit tightlipped as to why this was, we did find out that they had only received final hardware days before, and still haven't received final libraries. Makes it a bit challenging to develop a game, doesn't it?

The Wii version is being worked on by Toys for Bob and, although they do use Neversoft's code and motion captures/scans, it is an entirely different type of gameplay – which is evidenced by the unique title, Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam. We asked if they would be incorporating the motion sensitive PS3 controller into the game, and it looks like that won't be making it in either. If you want to skate like Tony Hawk, you're going to have to do it on the Wii. We also found out that there is a super top secret skater in the game, but we can't say anything about who it is. or else they send goons to beat us severely with skateboards and unsold copies of Gun. Just know that he's on your list.

One thing we have to ask though, is all of this money being spent on motion capture worth it? Well, if you're referring to the character animations in the game, it sure is. The character looks and move more realistically, are instantly identifiable by the way that they move and trick, and even bail. This in turn improves the gameplay by giving the player a lot more options in the game. You can see how Tony Hawk, or Dustin Dollin, or Rodney Mullen will kickflip -- it's all up to whoever gets chosen. And this tool helps get the game made faster which also benefits the gamer, putting that disc in their hands that much sooner. However, the cinematics look so jarringly different than the player models, that it is enough to take you out of the experience. The red mouths and awkward teeth look like the old Hungry, Hungry, Hippos board game has come to life, about to munch you through the screen. Maybe that's for the next game.

One thing's for sure, Neversoft has really nailed the motion capture of gamers reaching into their wallets over the last seven outings. If their final product delivers on improving everything that's made the series a success thus far, they'll surely have an eighth motion to add to their data set.

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