James Boer Opens the Cinematics Toolbox

Discussion in 'Guild Wars 2' started by Aspira, Nov 23, 2010.

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    Aspira Admin Officer

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    By James Boer October 4th, 2010

    Hi, I’m James Boer, Audio and Cinematics Programmer here at ArenaNet. Horia Dociu’s video gave you an idea how we create cinematics for Guild Wars 2. I thought you might also be interested in learning a little about the technology behind the creative process as well. Let’s take a look.

    A Different Approach

    In Guild Wars, our cinematics artists used a code-based macro language to take direct control of player characters and other models on the game server, moving them around in the actual game environment. While this system had some advantages—it utilized the character control and animation system, for example—it also had a number of drawbacks. To start, the process of creating cinematics was both time-consuming and technically difficult. The cinematic system itself was not amenable to tool-based automation. It was also easy to completely ruin a carefully planned cinematic shot with any subsequent edits to the environment.

    For Guild Wars 2, we went in an entirely different direction, performing a from-the-ground-up redesign. All cinematics are controlled completely on the client, your local PC, with no server interaction at all. Any required information is transmitted to the client before the cinematic starts, but from there, it’s all locally controlled and rendered. This means we have much more control over exactly what is drawn, where it appears, and how it behaves. We’ve taken advantage of this in order to bring you a very different cinematic experience than you’ve seen in any Guild Wars game before. I think it really helps us create compelling stories for your character, all in a unique cinematic style that compliments the aesthetics of our game.

    We’ve also incorporated some other interesting features, such as dynamically branching cinematics. For instance, a cinematic might start the same for all players, but based on certain criteria—let’s say the choices a player made earlier in a mission—the scene might end in several different ways. This means that we’ll be able to provide a cinematic experience tuned for a specific player’s character. The cinematic engine can do something as simple as swapping out a single line of dialogue, or as complex as branching the entire scene. And of course, because we’re rendering these cinematics in real-time, you’ll see your character inside the cinematic, as an integral part of the story. This is all part of the overarching goal of making the storyline more personal for you.

    The Key to Cinematics

    We create all our in-game cinematics using Cameo, our custom in-house cinematics editor. If you’ve ever used a video editor or a music sequencer, you’ll understand the basic layout. The cinematic is viewed in a window, and a series of horizontal tracks is displayed below a master timeline. The artist can easily scrub back and forth in time, reviewing any moment without watching the full clip. Each object in the world is associated with a single track group, and the objects are keyframe animated using these groups. These groups can be expanded, and each property can be animated independently on its own track. For example, we can place an image, a model, or a line of text anywhere on the screen, and animate its position, rotation, scale, color, etc.

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    Essentially, the cinematic engine is just a specialized animation engine for manipulating visual game elements, and it’s combined with a simple but powerful scripting system. As such, it’s also a great tool to perform a variety of miscellaneous cinematic tasks as well, such as controlling the camera for a dramatic shot when you’re about to fight a boss monster, displaying the opening title graphics, and even animating our character creation screens.

    Seeing is Believing

    The cinematics team has already seen significant productivity gains in comparison to Guild Wars. This means the team is not only able to produce more cinematic content, but they can polish it to a much higher degree than ever before. I have to admit, as a programmer, nothing is quite as rewarding as watching talented artists use a system you’ve developed to create amazing-looking content. I hope you all find the results as beautiful and entertaining as I do.

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