Our games would be nothing without the tech to support them. From consoles to controllers, bit-rates to bandwidth, iPlayer to Zune. If it’s cool and it’s game tech, this is the place to find out about it.
For my first post, I am delving into the technology behind L.A. Noire, Rockstar’s latest chart topping game. The tech in question is called MotionScan, a technology that allows developers to capture a whole new level of human detail. But before I talk about the wonders of MotionScan, it is necessary to look at Motion Capture, the technology that preceded it.
The use of Motion Capture to map movement onto CGI is practically standard practice. If you have ever watched a ‘making of’ documentary on a recent sci-fi film or any of the bigger games (Halo & Dead Space are good examples) then you will be familiar with the idea of Motion Capture. If you are not, or need a refresher, here is a basic overview:
Traditionally, Motion Capture involves sticking brightly coloured balls all over the body of an actor. These balls are filmed and appear as dots of light on the film. This is then uploaded onto a computer where the dots of light become points of reference which the computer programme uses to map the movement of the CGI object. A lot of the cutscenes in Dead Space 2 were created this way.
Motion Capture has been used in video games for some time. Games such as ‘Prince Of Persia’ (1989) and ‘Flashback: A Quest For Identity’ (1992) are among the earliest examples. Although the Motion Capture technique used in 1989 and 1992 is closer to modern day Rotoscoping (the technique of colouring-in film frames to give them an animated effect), these games are still considered to be the earliest examples of Motion Capture. Another way of looking at this would be to say that although the technique was different, it pioneered the concept of giving game characters realistic human movement.
In a game culture where publishers aim to make games as realistic as possible, Motion Capture is a great tool, but its weakness is detail. Although large physical movements can be accurately tracked, mapped, and translated onto realistic game sprites, the more subtle details needed to create facial expressions cannot be accurately recorded. Although this is not a problem for games such as Halo and Dead Space, games like Heavy Rain suffer.
Heavy Rain’s interrogation system feel more like a hack n’ slash button basher than a sophisticated action/consequence mini-game. This is because you access your characters thoughts during conversations and are then given the option to react in a variety of ways from violent to reassuring. In L.A. Noire, Rockstar require the player to read an opponents facial expressions to determine whether or not they are lying. This game element would suffer if it employed the same mechanism used by Heavy Rain.
To address the issue of realistic facial expressions, Team Bandai (the development team behind L.A. Noire) adapted a piece of tech made by Sidney-based company Depth Analysis. MotionScan uses 32 HiDef cameras, placed at various heights and angles. They can capture up to 32 HD frames per second and their varying heights and angles allow them to create fully mapped 3D models of a human face. Brenden McNamara, founder and Director of Team Bandai said:
MotionScan allows me to immerse audiences in the most minute details of L.A. Noire’s interactive experience, where the emotional performances of the actors allow the story to unfold in a brand new way.
(Source: Depth Analysis press release)
MotionScan is not a replacement for Motion Capture. It is an extension of a developing system that makes CGI more realistic. What MotionScan is very good for is the physical details of a conversation: the way a character moves their head, their eyes, their mouth. It means that game developers can translate the emotion behind the words. It’s possible that MotionScan as a gaming development tool might not exist if it weren’t for L.A. Noire. Depth Analysis say that MotionScan is ‘affordable, accessible and easy’ and produces ‘cinematic, interactive, and engaging performances’. L.A. Noire looks amazing. If the technology works as well as Depth Analysis would have us believe, the physical emotion of a game character will play a more significant role in our future video games.
The official tech trailer for L.A. Noire, featuring MotionScan has been posted below. Brought to you courtesy of my fellow gamers at Mash The Pad.