Can using video-based content make the next wave of Wii Fit-style ‘self improvement’ titles more accessible? And what’s involved in actually doing it? Phil Marley, creative director of Lightning Fish, runs through the process…
Cast your mind back to the ‘90s. The Philips CD-i is bringing us games like Burn: Cycle that feature custom-shot video footage, as well as conversions of video-based laserdisc games like Mad Dog McCree. Sega releases Night Trap. Virgin releases 7th Guest and sells two million copies. The Wing Commander, Command & Conquer and Strike series all include copious amounts of video cut-scenes.
Today, with the exception of Command & Conquer’s gloriously over-the-top video interludes, the industry has largely left live action behind, preferring pre-rendered CG or – more and more – in-game cut-scenes. High quality graphics have plummeted in price and give us near-seamless transitions between cut-scenes and gameplay.
So, almost twenty years after the original Wing Commander, why have we just finished a week-long blue screen shoot for our new game? It’s all about the audience and the sorts of games we’re making: self-improvement titles that help people to get fitter and eat better with one-on-one coaching.
Let’s consider the advantages, specifically for a casual audience and specifically for these sorts of titles:
CG instructors are too perfect
Even on the most difficult exercise or task, there’s no sweating, straining or apparent effort. As gamers, we’re used to AI characters doing things flawlessly: when was the last time you saw an AI team mate stumble in an FPS? Casual gamers don’t make the same allowances: show them a CG character that pumps out every press-up with robotic perfection and then demand that they do the same and they find it plain irritating.
It’s a better blend with the future
In a self-improvement title we often want to have a character demonstrate something and show the player how they’re doing at the same time. The logical solution, with Natal and the EyeToy Wand on the horizon, is to show live video of the player. A CG trainer overlaid on top will look strange. A video blends perfectly.
Video instructors have more personality
Instructional games – especially self-improvement ones – need their instructors to have a very carefully-judged personality. Too tough, or too nice, and casual gamers will switch off. With video we can cast for real-world instructors who’ve spent years putting people at their ease. Different people connect with different types of instructor, so we cast a range of personalities and approaches and let the player choose. These subtleties are difficult to mimic even with a suite of CG characters.
Video is the clearest way to convey info
Consider something as simple as telling the player to swap the Wii Remote from their left hand to their right hand. With CG, you have to drop out to a 2D diagram or, if you want to avoid breaking the illusion, motion-capture the entire sequence, tweaking the results by hand and creating a 3D Wii Remote, complete with realistic rope-physics strap.
With video, it’s just one quick shot and the experience for the player is seamless.
Of course, I’m talking specifically about self-improvement titles here: video certainly isn’t suitable for most genres. But if you’re considering this sort of game, on Wii or another platform, I’ve collated together a few tips to help you avoid most of the pitfalls. If CG suits your title better, most of this guide is also applicable to running a motion capture shoot.
1) Think about facilities
Lightning Fish has taken the step of building an in-house green-screen studio, but there are plenty of video production studios available for daily hire. How long will you need? We shoot a hundred shots a day, with a shot ranging from five seconds to three minutes. Think about whether you need to shoot from multiple angles and organise camera and lighting hire early. Even if you’re shooting for a modest platform, it makes sense to shoot in high-definition: that way your footage is future-proofed for a while.
2) Hire a good crew
An experienced crew will save you a fortune in the long run by spotting problems that would otherwise ruin a day’s work. Hire at minimum an experienced director of photography and lighting specialist, or find one who can do both. Get them involved early and get their input on the studio and your plans for the shoot ahead of time. Add a camera person for each additional camera, a make-up artist, clapperboard operator and one data logger to keep track of everything.
It’s vital to find a good director. Ideally this will be someone from the development staff so that they know the game. The director needs to be comfortable dealing with the talent, coaxing performances and giving the orders on set: extroverts do better than introverts, in our experience. Previous experience with video is very useful: directing motion-capture shoots is a good stepping stone. Finally having someone on continuity will help you avoid costume problems, loose hair, moving shadows and other issues.
3) Consider whether you’ll record audio at the same time
If you’re filming for a multi-language title, you’ll need to record voiceovers for the other languages separately anyway. It’s often cleaner and simpler to add at least some of the speech as voiceovers, even if you use the same actors for the video and speech in the English version. It’s also much easier on the actors: it’s hard enough to do a complex action in one take without worrying about lines as well.
Reserve speech recording for key sections and you can cement the link between the voice and the instructor without having to slow down shooting the rest of the time. Hire at least one audio engineer to be on set and rehearse early to make sure microphones don’t get in the way.
Since you’ll need to cast for specialist skills, you’re unlikely to be able to find experienced actors. You’ll need to cast based on skill and find the ones who aren’t camera shy and can take physical direction well. Make the casting session as close to the actual shoot experience as possible so you can assess how they’ll handle the filming.
Make sure they can meet the shooting commitments and understand what they can and can’t do between shoots (example: no haircuts). Take control of as many aspects as you can to eliminate problems and misunderstandings: it’s safer to buy costumes yourself than risk an actor turning up in something with a logo you can’t show or a shirt that won’t work with the green screen.
Create a shot list, run through the flow of the game to make sure you’ve got everything, then check it all again. Omissions in filming can be a huge problem: if you miss a critical shot you could, in a worst-case scenario, have to throw away all the footage of that actor if you can’t get them back for another shoot.
Shoot everything you’ll need and everything you think you might need, and finally anything that could be useful. At the same time, assess how much edited video you can put on the disc and ensure your plan is realistic. Prioritise the shot list so that you can get the critical stuff out of the way first, and then order it to minimise equipment/set changes.
Don’t forget shots for PR purposes and consider having a stills photographer on set to get marketing shots of the actors. Do everything you can to avoid having to get the actors back for a pick-up day, but at the same time assume the worst and make sure they’ll be available in case it happens.
A day’s rehearsal will save lots of time
down the line. Make it as close to a real shoot as you can, and hire your first actor for an extra day. Consider any footage you get here to be a bonus: it’s likely you’ll spend the day ironing out glitches. Test the entire video pipeline, even if this means having a break between rehearsal and shoot: get some footage, post-process it, get it into the game so you can see it working.
Start early and minimise unnecessary breaks – have spare bulbs for the lights and two sets of memory cards for the cameras so that you don’t have to stop shooting to empty them. Make a call sheet for each day with everyone’s mobile numbers on it: have backup crew where possible in case someone’s ill. Get the actors there early so they can get in and out of make-up. Make sure your continuity person is on the ball and review footage as soon as possible.
8) Look after the Talent
Do everything you can to keep them happy: good quality catering, water, a dressing room, anything else they need. Make it as easy as possible for them to get to the set on-time: check they have directions to the studio, have make-up standing by and check costume sizes in advance. Every ten minutes your actors are standing around is another three shots you won’t get that day. Shoot intensively and take scheduled breaks once an hour to avoid concentration dipping.
A multi-camera set-up means you can cover edits with a cut to another camera, giving you vastly more freedom. Eliminate pauses wherever you can: don’t keep the player waiting. Decide early how much post-processing you’re going to do offline and how much will be done at runtime: we allow the player to train in different locations, using runtime colour correction
to ensure the trainer blends well with the chosen video background.
10) Manage the Pipeline
Video shoots produce massive amounts of data and release it all in a glut: plan accordingly. Immediately following a shoot we might have five video editors working through the footage, using in-house tools to splice it and mark it up with game data. Good editors are well worth the money.
Almost 20 years ago, we were using video to try to bring a bit of Hollywood glamour to Hollywood-inspired action games. Today, maybe instructional television can inform instructional games. CG is great at, for example, making cooking into a game (Cooking Mama). But if you wanted to actually teach someone how to cook, you wouldn’t put a CG chef slicing a CG carrot with a CG knife on TV: you’d put Jamie Oliver or Nigella Lawson in front of a camera. Sometimes, even in games, there’s no substitute for reality.
Phil Marley is the creative director of Lightning Fish Games. He has shipped around 40 titles across three generations of consoles, PC, mobile phones and interactive TV, including Buzz! The Sports Quiz and Microsoft Train Simulator. NewU: Fitness First Personal Trainer is out this autumn.