video game

Guest Blog: How To Make Hollywood Quality Mo-Cap On An Indie Budget

This week’s blog is a first, in that it features a guest writer, Nikolay Savov. I’ve been friends with Nik since we met at the National Film and Television School, and was always blown away by how he was already pulling off ambitious projects. After seeing his graduation game Falling Sky involved Mo-Cap I thought it’d be great to invite him to talk about his experiences, and whether it’s possible for low budget projects to use the technology.

What Is Mo-Cap?

Motion capture, or Mo-Cap as it's more commonly known, is when you digitally record people or objects' movement. It's used to capture complex patterns, such as facial expressions or movement, to help create 3D digital models that are used in gaming and filmmaking. Using special cameras, the object or person is scanned several dozen times per second in order to reproduce realistic movements in real time. 

Tell Us A Little About Falling Sky

Falling Sky is an NFTS graduation game being made by fellow student Jonathan Nielssen, as part of his MA in Games Design and Development. Set across a sprawling landscape of American suburbia, the story follows Daniel and his younger brother as they embark on a quest to solve the mystery of their mother’s disappearance.

It is a beautifully looking narrative driven type of game that is also very cinematic. Jonathan and I share a deep passion for this type of projects and from the beginning, we set as our goal to make such a game. For that purpose, we used Unreal Engine, and we wanted to use Mo-Cap to help bring to life the characters. We had previously collaborated on a project called ReTreat, where we’d used facial-capture technology and saw the tremendous benefit it’d had on the character animation, so for the graduation project we wanted to push ourselves one step further.

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Mo-Cap is a cutting-edge technology that audiences are more familiar with seeing in Hollywood blockbusters and Triple-A games. Can you talk us through some of the challenges you faced in trying to use this for a student project?

The biggest challenge was whether we could afford it. Firstly, we had to find a motion capture facility that was the right size for our project. Even a small facility will cost at least £2000-£3,000 per day, which gives you an idea how much the big studios must spend on a hanger filled with cameras… Generally speaking for those new to the technology, the more cameras a motion capture studio has within the space, the more accurate and free you are to use different ranges of motion. I think it’s important to ask yourself how much space you genuinely need. Everyone wants to be able to go down the pub with their friends and brag about using the biggest studios to film in, but in reality, if it doesn’t serve the project then you’re just wasting precious time and money you could have better spent elsewhere.

As a student project, we felt that our best approach was to get in touch with several industry leaders on the basis they might be willing to help out. Our first port of call was Centroid3D, who already had a good relationship with the NFTS.

At the time, Centroid3D were booked solid, but they recommended that we ask one of their overflow facilities at Amersham and Wycombe College. Simon Clayden and Neil Bedecker, who manage the facilities there were exceptionally supportive and offered to help us with the project. Admittedly, through our own naivety, we assumed that shooting the material was the hard part done and dusted. Next came the real challenge, processing the data. The sheer scale of data required for Mo-Cap and how you process it is in my mind the real hurdle each project has to overcome, especially on a budget. Once you’ve shot the material, you then need a team to process the data to ensure that it can be successfully implemented within the game engine. This meant taking all the captured data, checking for any anomalies, before finally making it Maya compatible. After the models had been completed in Maya we then put them into the Unreal Engine.

Talk Us Through What A Shoot Day Looks Like

Nik hard at work on set... 

Nik hard at work on set... 

We had a two day shoot, which meant we had to work around our actor’s availability, child employment working hours and Amersham and Wycombe College’s opening times. This meant we had effectively 5 to 6 hours each day of pure shooting time. Each day we started prepping from 7:30am to 5:30pm. A big component of shooting in Mo-Cap is ensuring that the cameras are correct set up and calibrated. If anything had been out of sync, then Jonathan would have had to manually synchronise each body and facial performance, which would have been a nightmare. Fortunately, we had Simon and Neil to guide us through it. Without them, we’d never have been able to achieve something of this scale so as a team we’re incredibly grateful that they were so generous with their support.

How Did you Approach Finding Actors For Falling Sky?

We had to treat the Mo-Cap shoot like any other fiction shoot. You’re not just looking for a great voice actor, but one who can bring a physical presence to the work. As a film producer, I was fairly confident about this side of things and used my previous connections to find our cast. We were fortunate in that we were able to attract a stellar cast of actors including, Stephane Cornicard and Christy Meyer, who are well known in the gaming world for their roles in Dragon Age, Horizon Zero Dawn and Dark Souls.

What Happened Next?

After the shoot itself, we spent a week with Amersham and Wycombe College checking through the data we captured. Simon and Neil worked with students from the college to process all the data. They all put their heart and soul into it, and I think it really shows in the demo that we have.

Since then, we’ve been hard at work prepping the game for EGX. Each graduation game at the NFTS is extremely lucky in that the school organise for the games to be showcased at EGX, the major industry gaming event each year. Our goal was to have a highly polished demo of early gameplay to help wet press and potential investor’s appetite for the full game.

What Was Your Biggest Learning Curve?

Both Jonathan and myself were aware that we had huge gaps in our knowledge as we’d never tried this before, so we spent a good few of weeks visiting Amersham and Wycombe College to talk through the requirements with Neil and Simon. All of that time spent planning and rehearsing for any problems that may occur, paid off in the end.

I think one of the main things I’ve taken away from our shoot is a new perspective on how Mo-Cap works. For example, on a film set you normally shoot 3 pages a day. In Mo-Cap we were shooting approximately 20! It was such a stark difference that Jonathan and I were both caught off-guard.  Obviously, the question of how complicated the movements and actions are has to be taken into account to give you a realistic sense of what can be achieved, but there’s a world of difference between the two. After the first day's shoot, we actually had to spend that night frantically writing more material as we’d shot so much on the first day!

If you’re at EGX this week make sure to come stop by the NFTS Games stand in Rezzed West section where all 8 graduation games will be on show.

The Ultimate Survival Guide for EGX 2017

Top Tips for Exhibiting Your Game At The UK's Largest Gaming Event

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Any die hard gamer will tell you that September holds a special place in their calendar due to EGX, the UK's largest games fair. Over four days more than 70,000 gamers descend on the NEC Birmingham to be amongst the first to discover upcoming titles from both the Triple A studios and indie developers alike. Known for its bold mixture of debuting commercial titles like Call of Duty: WWII and Assassin’s Creed Origins alongside innovative indie games, over the years EGX has established itself as the place to showcase your game as an upcoming developer.

ITB Titles

Last year I was fortunate to have the opportunity to showcase my debut game Into the Black there. Made as part of my Master’s degree at the National Film and Television School, the game is a third person VR game set during the infamous wildfires in Yellowstone Park during the late 80s. What happened next was the stuff dreams are made of. When we first arrived at Birmingham International, both myself and the games designer-developer Naomi Kotler, were infused with a sense of excitement and blind panic at what people would think when playing the demo of our game. We never expected to walk away from the festival with two nominations for the Unity Awards, including being the only UK student game selected that year, or universal praise from several of the industry’s top publications such as Upload VR who cited it as one of their top 50 games for 2017. This year I’ve been invited back by NFTS Games to help the current students to unveil their graduation projects. To say that I’m blown away by the innovation and quality of their work is an understatement to say the least. Having spent the past few days engrossed in talking all things games, it got me thinking about what my top tips for exhibiting a game at EGX are, especially when working with a limited budget.

As an indie developer the prospect of exhibiting your game at a major gaming event can often feeling pretty daunting, and leave you questioning whether it’s possible to stand out compared to the bigger titles that have multi-million pound marketing budgets. Over the past few years there’s been a noticeable shift in the industry towards independent titles. EGX has been a particularly vocal champion of this with both the Leftfield Collection and Rezzed sections at the festival demonstrating the best and brightest new talent on offer. Personally, I think this trend is going to continue for the foreseeable future and with some careful planning it’s possible to punch above your weight.

I’ve broken my top tips down into the following sections: Prep, On The Day and Press so that it’s hopefully easier to find what you’re after.

Prep:

  1. It’s always tempting to keep adding new features right up until the day. Last minute additions are often the ones with the most bugs. When prepping your demo for EGX, set yourself a cut-off date for new content and focus on honing what you have. It’s better to have 10 minutes of great content, than 30 mins that are plagued by annoying glitches. Sods law is that the moment your game breaks it’ll be right in front of a journalist, so best to play it safe and not risk the embarrassment.
     
  2. Try to hold a playtest before going to EGX. Even if it’s just amongst a few friends their advice can be invaluable and should any bugs pop up, you’ve got that crucial time to fix them before it goes on show at the event.
     
  3. Set a time limit for your demo. It might sound stupid, but do you want 1 player to spend five hours playing your game, or 50 players to spend 15 minutes each playing? Personally I’d aim for the demo to be around 10 minutes. It gives you enough time to give the player a good sense of what the game is about and show off your skills.
     
  4.  Always, always check the equipment you’ll be taking to EGX beforehand. It’s also worth bringing a hard drive with a copy of the latest build on it. That way if anything goes wrong you’ve immediately got a back up to hand.
     
  5. If you’re using handsets, always make sure to bring spare batteries. It might sound like super obvious advice, but good luck finding anywhere nearby that sells them!

  On The Day:

  1. Make sure to get to there nice and early so you have plenty of time to set up your stall. First entry for guests into the NEC is at 10am.
     
  2.  There is free wifi available throughout the presentation hall. However, depending on where your stand is it can often be quite slow and patchy. Sneaky tip: Outside the presentation hall is a Weatherspoons. All Weatherspoons pubs are connected to “The Cloud” which offers free fast wifi. So why not grab a quick drink whilst fire off those press releases…
     
  3. There are a number of places to get food inside the NEC and within EGX itself. Like most events, the food tends to be on the pricier side. I’d consider bringing food with you, or having a look online beforehand about where best to get food. Also, always keep a few bottles of water at your stand. It’s surprisingly tiring work standing around for four days.
     
  4. Always bring cash as there aren’t many cash points around and the ones you do find will normally charge you to withdraw cash.
     
  5. Wear comfortable shoes. Seriously. After 4 days on your feet the last thing you need is blisters.
     
  6.  If you’re keen to try out any games, try walking around before the event opens and exhibitors are still setting up. Most are quite happy to let you have a go whilst it’s still quiet.
     
  7.  Sometimes you’ll get poor feedback which can be heart breaking after you’ve spent months perfecting each aspect of your game. Try to view all feedback as constructive and assess whether the feedback is based on personal taste or if it reflects a genuine concern with the gameplay. Often the most valuable thing from exhibiting your game isn’t publicity, but the feedback that allows you to make improvements before it goes on sale.
     
  8. When the hall first opens most people will stampede towards the latest Playstation, Xbox and Nintendo titles. Don’t worry, people often go straight for the “Must Play” titles to try and beat the queues and claim bragging rights that they played it before their mates. Once they’ve had chance to try out the game, they often then go searching for other titles to play and will often be quite excited to chat to developers about what they’re working on.

Press:

  1. Write up a list of journalists and publications you’d love to come and try out your game. Spend a couple of days researching online who the most relevant contact is at each publication and send them an invite to come play the game. Make sure to include a press release and some high quality images from the game. Better yet, why not write to your favourite publication offering them the first look at your trailer or content? Journalists love exclusive content as it not only makers it an easier pitch to their editors, but also helps them to stand out amongst their competitors.
     
  2. Always send out any invites or press releases a few days in advance. You want whoever is reading it to give it their undivided attention, leaving it until the last minute means you risk them casually glancing at it whilst they are standing in a queue to play a different game.
     
  3. Everyone at EGX will be wearing a wristband. Press used to be given a white wristband, so it’s worth keeping an eye out for them. It’s worth noting that this covers everyone from major publications right through to Youtubers with small followings. The important thing is to treat them all equally. Their support, whether they have 20 followers or 5 million followers, is what enables us to pursue our passion of making games for a living and that’s something we should always be grateful for.
     
  4. Some press may ask to film themselves playing the demo or ask to record a quick interview with you. It’s worth deciding beforehand if you’re comfortable with them filming the gameplay as often it may not be the finished version. You could alternatively offer them a copy of your trailer or high res images instead to accompany their article. Visual content is king in today’s media landscape.
     
  5. The PR agency Indigo Pearl is responsible for validating all journalists who attend EGX. If you explain that you are attending as an exhibitor and ask nicely they will often send out your press release to all media delegates attending EGX.
     
  6. There’s an entire audience that view the releases and announcements from EGX online. It’s worth dedicating time towards making sure you have great digital materials you can post about throughout the 4 days the festival runs.
     
  7. Press & industry members attending EGX often update their Twitter handle to say “Bob Anybody @EGX”. It’s worth checking each day to see who is listing themselves with the @EGX handle, and potentially inviting them to come play your game.
     
  8. EGX lasts for 4 days, as silly as it sounds most gamers go for all out publicity blitzes on the first day. By lunch time they’ve run out of new content and spend the rest of EGX recycling old images, try to stagger the material you release so people have a reason to come back and check for new updates.

Most importantly, enjoy it! EGX is a mad few days, but you’ll have a great time and meet loads of wonderful people! If you’re around make sure to drop by the NFTS Games stand and say hello.