The latest version of NaturalMotionâ??s animation production pipeline morpheme sees the integration of character animation with character physics, Jon Jordan discoversâ?¦

BUILD: morpheme 2.0

Product: morpheme 2.0
Company: NaturalMotion
Price: Available on request
Contact: +44 1865 250 575

2008 proved to be great year for NaturalMotion. Its much-anticipated procedural animation technology euphoria shipped in GTA IV, one of the year’s top titles. Still, CEO Torsten Reil is confident 2009 will be even better.

As ever, there’s lots going on behind the scenes – all of which will be revealed in due course, he explains. More generally though, he’s very enthusiastic about the state of the middleware market, which he predicts will overtake the games tool market in terms of revenue. “There are decades of growth ahead,” he says.

The same optimism can be seen when he talks about the state of game animation. “When it comes to other areas of middleware, the problems have started to be solved, but in animation we are far from diminishing returns. It’s the most complicated sector, and the one where you can provide the most visual bang for the buck. There will be years of innovation,” he claims.

NaturalMotion is currently in the process of rolling out the second version of morpheme, which consists of an animation engine and the visual editor also used by its other products euphoria and endorphin.

morpheme 2.0 marks a significant step forward from basic animation, according to head of technology Simon Mack: “At the moment, the games industry seems to be having trouble finding the best way of integrating physics with character animation. What happens is people build out their entire animation system and then it gets shoved through the physics system, which is the reason you still see lots of bad ragdolls.”

Built on top of Nvidia’s PhysX engine, morpheme 2.0 provides an integrated authoring environment and runtime. PhysX can be bundled into the pricing too. “We’ve been working closely with Nvidia and got a lot of support from it,” Mack says.

 “We’ve extended our animation browser view within the editor so you can now view the full skeleton and export the hierarchy. In addition, we expose all the attributes of the physics system enabling you to modify joint limits, material properties, and the friction within the visual editor. The whole point is to properly integrate the character physics and character animation together.”

morpheme 2.0 doesn’t require PhysX however – other physics engines can be used as long as developers are happy to do the integrations. What is vital about the release is the way it enables animators to iterate within the editor. Thanks to its support for scripting, you can use console joypads to control your characters, dropping in geometry to tweak transitions between the different states.

“What we’re looking for is a much more compelling way of mixing animation and physics, so you can define how parts of your character are deformed when they come into contact with a wall, for example,” Mack demonstrates.

“Here you can see that the upper body is deformed, but the lower body isn’t because there are different techniques running on the upper and lower body. This gets to the heart of what we’re doing. There are different ways of mixing animation and physics but rather than do it in code, we let the animator define how the physics works and it’s completely integrated as part of the overall motion tree.”

A step in the right direction for animators, then. And, if Reil is to be believed, morpheme 2.0 also promises to be the start of NaturalMotion’s great leap forward.

All about timing

The reason animation and physics don’t mix is more than the lack of communications between coders and artists, says Simon Mack. “It’s a philosophical problem,” he muses; the issue is that physics can only be updated once per time step, while animation is less constrained.

“A blend of tree of animation might have two branches of physics feeding into each other, but you can only update the physics once per frame. You can evaluate the animations whenever you want but if you have that restriction, it’s difficult to work with. That’s one of the reasons people tend to split out animation and physics.”

In morpheme 2.0, NaturalMotion has worked hard to ensure it gets around the issue by cleverly limiting the choices made available. “The user is only presented with nodes they can drop into appropriate states. Behind the scenes morpheme subtly enforces the rules in terms of which nodes can be connected together. It’s a surprisingly complex problem to solve.”

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