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Throughout our development, we've talked about trying to deliver the 'experience' of helicopters; of course, that's a great disposable marketing statement, but it's also meant a lot for almost all aspects of our development - including animations.
While Take On Helicopters is - at its heart - a game about flying, the more tightly focused nature of our project has enabled us to achieve some satisfying improvements in our character and vehicle animations, as compared to what we've done in the past.
Seemingly simple activities - getting in and out of a vehicle; getting 'hands on' with the controls; changing the pitch of a rotor blade - have posed big problems for our projects, most often due to the nature and scale of our games. The new animations and new supporting systems implemented for Take On have helped to create a sense of 'physicality' that simply hasn't been apparent in our previous titles.
We'd like to present some of the things we've tried to achieve in this project, and talk a little about the kind of activities involved in our animations pipeline.
For Take On's animations, we decided to create a long list, prioritised by the must have, should have, and the awesome-but-unlikely-to-have, given what happened to the horse last time (we're just kidding, the horse was actually very professional). Animations were also divided up into those taking place inside a helicopter (such as using a video camera) and those taking place outside (such as inspecting a tail rotor). Within each category we identified those which are very specific (such as a complicated 'get in' animation') and those which are more generic, like signalling to a helicopter in the air.
Of course, one pain of a sandbox game is that a player may expect the game to allow him do almost anything in any situation with no significant limitations. This freedom for the player is a great headache for the team. For example, there are three different heli classes: light, medium and heavy. Each cockpit is a little different - extremely small in the case of the light heli - and each seat is different, too. This means even the simplest idle animation has to be adjusted for, say, ten different seats, the same for any death animation, get in and out moves and so on.
Because our game takes place both within and outside of the cockpit, we need a decent range of moves to provide a good degree of interactivity and feeling of connection with our simulated world. It was important to do this basic analysis, because we consider it essential to get a good balance of animation work. There's also simply not enough time or resources to do absolutely everything that we'd like to, so we've focused upon expressing a variety of the things that you or others might physically do in and around helicopters (no sniggering at the back, there).
Even a basic set of moves may result in hundreds of files, each of which must be properly edited, exported and configured. Then you must factor in the differences in our skeletons, where even the simplest animation for a male character is not the same as for a female. For the light heli, we significantly tweaked both pilot and copilot animations to avoid a CG character intersecting a mesh of the heli – it'd be unacceptable to have a man with half a hand outside of a door in the game. Of course, it was tougher to fix this than it might appear, however, as our characters are pretty tall!
Moreover, our game is easily moddable. We need to think about providing enough generic variants (that is, animations which are not explicitly dependent upon a specific in-game artefact) so that model and mission makers can have a pool of resources to quickly add polish to their creations, or compose truly epic machinimas (see our FB Community Awards 2010 coverage for more info).
Bohemia Interactive utilises three optical motion capture systems, including high-end Raptor-4 cameras from Motion Analysis Corp. Most game animations were produced with these. Only animals are hand animated completely so far and are being re-animated for future projects. The process of capturing itself is handled by our veteran Lead Engineer, Štěpán Kment, who's been involved in almost all of our projects, and is the go-to guy for everything from animation work to setting up photoshoots. He actually performed all the specific moves himself to simplify the work in post production, as you can see in our behind the scenes photos.
With the vast experience of someone like Štěpán, the capturing itself is really a pretty straightforward process, almost “What you perform is what you have in-game”. The tricky part was the recording of get-in moves. To achieve this, we built proxy structures of the helicopters from pipes, bricks and our adjustable scaffolding. Štěpán performed the move approximately and the move was aligned precisely to the heli model in post production, and we're pleased with the results!
Although not strictly related to animation, the implementation of Inverse Kinematics is something that we've been really happy to introduce with Take On. The technology enables us to put a pilot in the cockpit, and reflect adjustments to control inputs (such as pedals or cyclic movement) in the movements by the character model. It's an obvious, yet technically challenging improvement, which has done a lot for the overall sense of immersion when flying the helicopter.
Similarly, we've made real improvements with animating parts of the helicopter. Changing your collective is represented visually in the angle of the collective lever in your hand and in the pitch of the blades above your head. The gauges are animated and feed back vital information to the player. Many of the switches are interactive, reducing the need for an extra UI layer or button configuration, helping once more to deliver the feeling of sitting in a helicopter. Of course, all of these things take valuable time and resources from the team, but this project has enabled us to focus on the small things, which we believe come together to drive home the feeling of being in and around a helicopter.
We hope you'll enjoy the animations passengers of the light helicopter can perform – they can point to landmarks, videotape whales, scream in fear, be bored, jig about to the music in their headphones and more! Some are designed to be generic, triggering in any mission depending on how you fly; others are more specific - such as recording footage of whale activity - where the animation helps to visualise the direction in which you helicopter should point.
Of course, having characters sitting in the helicopter at all is a challenge, with the tight constraints of the cockpit risking visual clipping, and everything else you can imagine (and more) going wrong with putting animated characters in complicated machines! But, we feel that it has been worth the effort, that the benefits of simply flying from A to B are clear to see, and, overall, the hard work from many parts of our small team has really helped us to deliver on our promises of taking on the experience of helicopters.