It’s not often at Develop that we can fit a photo of an entire game production team on our cover. Team sizes having jumped so significantly in recent years, it’s even more surprising that we’ve managed it this month with the staff dressed in bulky American football outfits, to boot.
Then again, this is no ordinary development studio, but actually a new team of coders and artists put together by tools firm NaturalMotion to drive the company’s move into full games development.
Much like the atypical nature of the team, their first title – a new IP-based American football game called Backbreaker – is not what you might instantly expect from a technology company spun out of Oxford University. Nor is the story behind its production – just a small team of six working on the game – what you’d expect from that same company that is supporting the release of upcoming next-gen epics like GTA IV and Star Wars: Force Unleashed.
It’s a move that raises eyebrows and questions – how did the game come about? Can a tools company take on developers at their own game? And how does a technology firm make the transition to full games development without impacting its status as a popular vendor of animation solutions?
Backbreaker’s roots stretch as far back to when NaturalMotion and its animation technology debuted in 2001.
Known for creating tools that let developers create dynamic character movements (either canned animations made without mocap data using endorphin, at run-time with euphoria, or with new engine and authoring tool morpheme), CEO Torsten Reil says that the game came about as a way to test the software and see how far it could be used to support the production of a sports game.
“Initially it started as an experiment – can we make a top class football game that looks great with our technology, but also can we keep the team small using the most advanced technology possible?”
Early demos of its dynamic motion synthesis technology featured, by way of example, American football players performing tackles as a way to prove it worked in creating unique moments of unpredictable character behaviour.
“People said at the time ‘it would be so good to get that at runtime’ and to have different outcomes every time you played a sports game. We combined that with the tools we had been developing to find out what we’d need to do to make a triple-A game.”
Perhaps inadvertently, the NaturalMotion team stumbled upon the lynchpin concept for an entirely new sports game for 360 and PS3, one that places emphasis on the unpredictability of action on the field rather than licensing accuracy, and doesn’t use pre-baked (and arguably half-baked) animations.
The next step was to build the team itself, but the number of staff is no where near as your usual next-gen development team, nor big as the 46 men in a typical American football team and barely half the 11 on the field at any one time during a game.
Backbreaker’s development team consists of five staff working at the Oxford, UK office, plus an ex-American football coach based in San Francisco who is making sure the team of Brits – already NFL and Madden nuts – get their gridiron game details correct. The secret to the tiny team size is procedural content, with the main component being NaturalMotion’s euphoria, which debuted last year in demonstrations of LucasArts new Indiana Jones and Star Wars games and will be seen in Rockstar North’s upcoming Grand Theft Auto IV.
“In theory euphoria can give an infinite number of character animations and tackles for the football players,” says Reil. “There’s not a single key frame of tackling animation.
“We do use motion capture, but obviously the morpheme system is in there too, and that has helped with that angle,” Reil adds. He says that the game’s art team has focused on the locomotive animation of the on-screen players, with the rest procedurally generated by NaturalMotion’s already-established software and the processors of the target next-gen platforms instead of the traditional team of 20 animators and 20 coders such productions would usually demand.
Meanwhile the on-screen environment, a larger than life football arena packed with whooping fans, is built with the team’s own ‘stadium renderer’, boasting close to 90,000 characters rendered procedurally in realtime.
Says Reil: “The guys have done such a good job so we don’t have to create so many assets.”
All of which has a great knock-on effect for the game itself – the file size is currently just 100MB uncompressed, and is already at an advanced playable state. The game debuted to a good reception from the consumer press late in August with a video shown at backbreakergame.com – all of which was recorded from gameplay straight from the game and not pre-canned animation.
While it’s clear to see Backbreaker as just a demonstration of what NaturalMotion’s technology can do, Reil says its also a statement of intent for what the industry as a whole is capable of as procedural content specifically finds its place in games development.
“Procedural content really is the future of the industry,” says Reil. “There is so much you can do procedural now it’s amazing.”
In fact, he argues that it’s the secret to future success for UK games development companies and next-gen formats overall: “The question that interests us, and that we’re trying to answer, is ‘can you have such a small team and create a new IP?’ I think there’s such a great opportunity on next-gen consoles for smaller teams to create great content using good tools. UK developers are really good at that kind of strategic thinking – and I think we’ll see more and more of that.”
Developers will then be able to hand benefits on to consumers in a gameplay sense, he adds: “People have what are effectively these really powerful computers in their living rooms but they don’t really yet know how powerful they are. The raw power in PS3 and 360 is great. So we wanted to do something that took advantage of that and also offered the kind of things people haven’t seen before in this kind of game. Whether people take us seriously or not, I don’t care – I just want to make something that perfectly suits next-gen.”
He also thinks procedural content is a great way to buck the conventional wisdom related to next-gen development: “What I don’t want to do is create a huge team for a new game – that’s not interesting. From what we’ve seen when you get to 20 and 30 people on a game team you’re probably at your limit. Once you get to 50 you need plenty of good project management. But on a smaller team there’s much more ownership and that is good for motivation
“Of course, for something like GTA there’s no way you could make those kind of games with a smaller team – they need that scale. But there is a place for smaller, more focused teams working on other kinds of games. So if we can create a really focused team and a brand new experience, then it’s worth taking the risk.”
In terms of the game experience, by focusing on the wince-worthy crunch of player-collisions on the field, Reil describes Backbreaker as akin to the way Burnout relishes the carnage of car crashes, with a more visceral edge akin to Gears of War’s over the shoulder camera work.
There’s a striking coincidence that his frames of reference are titles devised by two companies – Criterion and Epic Games – notorious for their dual lives as both middleware provider and games developer, which is of course also NaturalMotion’s latest aspiration. Unlike them, however, Reil’s company has already proven itself on a technology front via its tools, with the game coming second. How does the company plan to juggle that transition, especially when it’s targeting a category – American football games – that is both narrow and fiercely dominated by Electronic Arts and its Madden franchise?
“We’re not trying to compete with Madden or EA because they know what they’re doing – and our guys play Madden all the time, we’re big fans of the game. It would be foolish to think that we’d even take a single game from Madden,” he explains.
Backbreaker is intended to succeed via its stark difference to Madden, focused on the bigger picture of American football tactics, by providing its own game changer to the games industry playing field: “What we do hope is that there is an experience in American Football that we can capture, different to Madden, which people will enjoy playing.”
It’s potentially something, should Backbreaker prove a success, which can be proven in other sports genres too. If the game and its interactive tackles can be a good alternative or companion to Madden, what about a treatment of the other kind of football, or another sport? “In theory, yes, it’s something we could do. Although right now we’re focused purely on Backbreaker – in many respects it’s still just an experiment because we’re doing things so differently and things are so small.”
Either way, the key will be to “do something about the same subject but approach it differently,” adds Reil. After all, he says, car game fans buy both Burnout and Gran Turismo, as do FPS players.
And on the subject of buying Backbreaker, a smaller file size obviously lends itself to Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network direct-to-consumer distribution – although Reil says it’s too early to call on what may happen between now and the 2008 arrival of the game. “Yes, procedural content lends itself to digital distribution but it’s probably too early to say at the moment where it ends up,” he says, but adds that whatever option the company chooses, he expects that “we will publish the game ourselves.
“We have a very well funded technology business so I think we have lots of different opportunities on what we can do – I will keep an open mind.”
It’s a shrewd move, perhaps, because for all the talk of smaller teams, it’s clear NaturalMotion has paid attention to the bigger studios as well, especially those – such as Traveller’s Tales, Harmonix and Bioware/Pandemic – that are now seeing traditional publishers as just a means to an end for distribution and some marketing.
But publishing and development, however, is still a far cry from what NaturalMotion is known and has a proven reputation for (and won a Develop Award for in 2006, even) – so how is that going to effect the company?
It isn’t, says Reil. On the software front, current and potential customers shouldn’t worry, he says, downplaying the new expansion a little when the subject first comes up: “We are a games technology company that is growing and growing, so we’re now just a content creator as well.” When the subject of the comparable Criterion comes up again, whose acquisition by EA eventually put paid to its widely-used Renderware tool, Reil says that Backbreaker isn’t part of an ‘expand and sell’ plan to cash-in with, either.
“We made a decision about two or three years ago to remain independent,” he says. “The thing we want to do is build a strong company. We’re not in the business of building the company only to be acquired.”
And Reil’s happy to address the allegations floated about other studios with middleware or tool interests head on, stressing that the company has been particularly keen and careful to make sure that Backbreaker’s development team is treated like a separate company within NaturalMotion.
“What we’ve been quite careful in doing – because obviously the main business of the company is technology – is to ring the game team off from the guys working on euphoria and morpheme,” he says.
So when there’s a support issue or technical request the five-strong Backbreaker team are “treated liked like just another customer” and their query is placed in the queue along with those from NaturalMotion’s games and movie partners.
Of course, having a game team in the room next door has meant “really good, quick feedback” on the technology speedily benefits the company’s customers, but the emotional distance during work hours means Backbreaker hasn’t put any kind of drain on the technology team. “We’re hypersensitive to that. Technology is still our core business.”
Ultimately, however, it seems that technology – while a great enabler for what Backbreaker is designed to do – isn’t the only driving force that NaturalMotion wants to share with the rest of the industry, it’s proving that new, big triple-A-aspiring ideas that break against conventional thinking can make it to market, from teams that may be viewed as unfeasibly small. It’s a message he seems to genuinely want the rest of the industry to take heed of.
“There are plenty of ideas around and passion to do this,” says Reil. “A lot of people say with a new IP and securing investment you have to make your game with an online component or it has to be an MMO – I don’t think that’s true. Investors, particularly in the UK and the US, are pretty clued up on what they want.
“So the more UK start-ups the better. There is so much talent in the country and great opportunities. It’s great that there are big publishers in games development in the UK, but it’s incredibly important to have an ecosystem of good companies that hopefully grow and become much stronger.”