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Moving On Up

Thu 22 Oct 2009 7:00am GMT / 3:00am EDT / 12:00am PDT
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Audiomotion's Mick Morris on outsourcing, dev costs and why the industry needs to present itself more effectively

Motion capture specialist Audiomotion has worked on some of the industry's key titles in the past few years, as well as a host of well-known TV commercials and Hollywood movies.

Here, the company's MD Mick Morris gives his views on how outsourcing - and specifically motion capture - has developed over the years, the rising cost of making games and why the industry needs to show a more representative face to the public.

Q: Consumers won't often necessarily know, when they play a videogame, the company that created it - and even less so a company that's created a component of a game, as with Audiomotion. It's part of the business, but does that frustrate you sometimes?

Mick Morris: Well, it is part of the business really, and it doesn't annoy me that much, because the actual work we do - I wouldn't say we're unsung heroes, but for example some of the film work, if anybody were to spot that those characters in Poseidon were CG, then somebody hasn't done their job properly.

And the same for Prince Caspian, with all the horses and centaurs - the work is supposed to be unseen in that respect, so sure, getting credit when it's due is nice, but quite often it's not the case. But we're not really in it for credit, we're in it because we love it.

Q: So where did Audiomotion come from?

Mick Morris: We started in 1997 as part of the Jeff Brown Holdings, so sister companies were Silicon Dreams (who did all the football titles), ATD, Pivotal Games, and a few others. We were set up at the time to service those companies, and Jeff Brown at the time had enough foresight to realise that motion capture was going to become an integral part of games and the CG industry.

We started up in Banbury (UK) with about 17 cameras, but in 2001 the group started to get itself in a bit of trouble, and in 2003 we effectively put together a management buy-out... so really you can take our history from there, with the current management team as it is now.

We got rid of the audio studio - hence the name Audiomotion - and everything else was hived off so we just ran with the motion capture, and we still do just that today. We're not going back down the road of being fully CG - our clients come to us with whatever their needs are, and we then deliver back to the next specialist, be it an animation studio, a post-production company, or game developer. It's a ridiculously niche business.

Q: Since 2003 the game industry has turned next-gen... how has the business developed in that time?

Mick Morris: We went from 17 cameras and very few clients then, and we've just been building slowly but surely since then. We've now got 130 cameras, which means we can do lots of things. We can be shooting here in Oxford as well as on location in Barcelona or wherever. As the industry itself matures, and demand for more realistic performances increases, we're responding.

In some things we're innovating, but quite a lot of it is in response to the needs of game developers, so you're not going to get away with shoddy animation any more because the critics are going to pan it. You're not going to get away with poor storylines and poor performances from your characters, so that does drive the whole performance capture route.

Being able to capture faces, and fingers, and full audio - all in one sitting - with directors that come from the theatre, directors with film experience, writers, screenwriters... all of that stuff is now coming together quite nicely, and hopefully the end result is a more compelling experience for the gamer.

But then I guess you've got the whole argument about having to sit through cutscenes in the first place, which is that ever becomes a winning argument our revenue is set to fall somewhat... but we'll innovate and find a new route.

Q: I remember a conversation I had last year with Glenn Entis from EA in which we talked about the Uncanny Valley - that's a classic barrier between virtual and reality in terms of visuals, but does performance capture bridge that gap?

Mick Morris: I wouldn't say that it does. A few people in the industry have made the claim that they've crossed the Uncanny Valley - it's a very interesting concept in itself, and I can totally understand that the closer a character becomes to being photo-realistic, the more repulsive in a way it becomes.

I think a lot of people avoid that by going for something that's a little bit more stylised, and I think ultimately that's always a little bit more interesting than this pursuit of photo-real. People who don't know anything about the industry at all sometimes ask why do any of this, when you can just film real people... but then when you show them space marines and funky stuff like that, they start to get it.

Q: That's nothing new though - games like Command & Conquer started that years ago... but some would argue it never quite fits in fully with the game environments, because they don't translate into the gameplay itself very well...

Mick Morris: And that's a stumbling block for sure. But it was interesting listening to Graham Lineham who, as a TV comedy writer, was having a bit of a go at script-writing and narrative in games - but as a gamer he does find that he gets emotionally attached to some of the characters he plays. So hopefully that's where we're helping to breathe life into those characters.

Q: Are there any cutscenes in games that you particularly admire from games in the past?

Mick Morris: Most recently... although are they cutscenes or pre-rendered? Uncharted 2 looks absolutely fantastic, but that's just in the gameplay itself - the fluidity in the main character is absolutely stunning.

But where they're going with Assassin's Creed - the benchmark they're setting with that in terms of visuals... but again, stuff that's pre-rendered, is it going to look that good in-game? I'm not sure. The whole pre-rendered versus in-game cinematics has always been an interesting one. We've worked on quite a few of those where we're working on the trailer of a movie, in tandem with helping the developers make the game, and it's how the marketeers use our services on products like that.

Something like Killzone 2 had about 5000 in-game animations... about four years of work gone into that on our part. Not constantly - we'll typically see a client, over the course of a project, maybe once every couple of months. But something the length of Killzone 2, that's over a period of four years. It's a bit of a weird business in that respect.

Q: Games cost a lot to develop now - Killzone 2 is a good example of that. Where do you think that's heading, because you're a part of that chain? Are games getting too expensive?

Mick Morris: It's difficult, because the whole casual market isn't particularly good for us, but those big-budget titles are our bread and butter. The ones that do need thousands of seconds of in-game, the ones that do need 90 minutes of cinematics - movie-length work.

Q: Those are games for the core audience though, and those people aren't going to go away, are they?

Mick Morris: I would hope not, no.

Q: Me too, as a core gamer...

Mick Morris: Is it plateauing? It's such a hit-driven business, and the risks and rewards are absolutely huge. The flipside to it is the tragedy, for example, of GriN this year - we did three of their games last year in Wanted, Bionic Commando and Terminator... that's twelve years of hard work down the pan in what seemed like a few short months.

It would be nice if that model could change somehow so that the twelve years of your life, your effort, isn't just suddenly wiped off the face of the map like that.

Q: But isn't that part of the reason that companies like yours exist, because that model is changing? Companies don't need to necessarily have 300 people in-house to create a game, which is heading towards a Hollywood production model...

Mick Morris: Absolutely true - it's the whole outsourcing thing. Or in any other industry we're called contractors, but for some reason the games industry has taken on that moniker...

Yes, we do take the risk out of it to some degree, and there were a few publishers buying their own motion capture equipment and taking it in-house... insourcing maybe... and I was worried about that for a while. But it's just not as straightforward as that.

Even the likes of EA - we did Potter for them last year - they've got a massive mo-cap studio in Canada, but the logistics of a team flying out there to do that when there's a service on their doorstep... that's not turned out to be as much of a threat as I thought it would be.

We're a safe pair of hands - I like to think we take the risk out of things. And the whole game-film model, the movies that we work on, typically the studio hires the VFX producer who then decides which post-production houses are going to get which shots. But they'll hire an office somewhere, be it in London, or Pinewood, or wherever, which starts off empty and then they populate it.

They hire in the cameraman, the lighters, the riggers and all the rest of it, and at the end of that process everybody disappears and that's it. A multi-million pound movie is born - but can you imagine that happening in the games industry, where you take a games publisher into an empty room and say: "In six months time the coders will be over there, the art department over there... can I have a multi-million pound contract please?" It just doesn't work like that.

Q: How different is it working on a games project as opposed to a film or TV project?

Mick Morris: Well, the basics are the same - people need good quality animation, but I think if anything we find ourselves pushed harder by developers than we are by the film industry - because there's so much innovation, things are changing so quickly, with different engines, software packages, methodologies...

I don't see that same pace of change in the film industry, but the film industry has matured - it's working practices are set. Yes, there'll be advances on the CG side of things, but they seem to have found a fairly robust system.

The games industry is so fluid, so it's development that's pushed us to innovate the most - the facial capture, demand for finger articulation, all that sort of stuff. You've got to keep ahead of it, and that means we have to work as closely with teams as possible. We're often considered as an extension of the animation department, because our guys will work so closely with their opposite numbers.

That's different again from the film model - but you've got the crossover from people who specialise in things like writing, or lighting, or other things, who are looking over to the games industry and thinking it looks pretty exciting... whereas before they would have treated it with some disdain, they're now thinking it's more exciting than what they've been doing for the past few years.

Q: It's been a tough year for the industry - how has Audiomotion fared?

Mick Morris: Well, the service companies to some degree have been feeling the tail end of the financial woes - perhaps with money being tight, a team of lads who might've gone to a venture capitalist a few years ago with a great idea looking for funds... there's a lot less of that.

And with publishers seeing their shares performing maybe not quite as well as they have been, they've become more cautious. Because we've been working on projects that were green-lit two years ago or more, if there was any pain there it's been mercifully short.

We can see that the industry is gaining confidence again - it's still tough out there for developers, but it does seem to be getting its confidence back.

Q: And are you positive about your outlook for the next 12 months?

Mick Morris: Oh absolutely. We take the risk out of it by not working exclusively in videogames, but also in film and TV, so we don't have all eggs in one basket.

Q: And have the other media industries been hit>

Mick Morris: Film seems to be fairly robust at the minute. They were suffering from the fallout of the writers' strike some time back, and that meant that if the writers were on strike then nothing was being green-lit, and that was causing quite a bit of grief.

As it turned out the writers were on the picket lines during the day, and busy writing away in the evening, so there was a stack of stuff ready to go - but it was interesting having this conversation with developers and publishers because some were looking over there and thinking it was tough, but that it wouldn't affect them... I was gently pointing out that the franchise of that movie, the videogame now isn't going to happen.

The two industries are intrinsically linked - but that all picked up. The UK film industry is in great shape, which brings us on to some degree about the benefits of tax credits. Because the amount of Hollywood movies that are being both shot and post-produced in the UK as a result of attractive tax breaks is phenomenal. There's an awful lot of work coming into this country as a result, both because of the financial benefits and because of the talent that's here.

So it is an attractive place to work, to bring big budgets, because you know you're going to get them made by talented creatives, on time and within budget... so shouldn't the games industry be getting a little bit of that action?

Q: That talent's attracted as a result of the work coming to the UK though - do you think a similar effect would happen with games, that more talent would come to the UK?

Mick Morris: I think the talent's already here, and if we did have a level playing field between games and film... the games industry is haemorrhaging these talented people to Canada and various regions where the tax breaks exist, so would they then come flooding back? I don't know.

Ubisoft's Gareth Edmondson made a good point in Newcastle, probably 12 months ago, where he'd told local government he wanted to create a studio there with 1500-2000 jobs, but needed them to help him. But the government's not interested, they don't understand it, it's controversial.

Q: If we saw a change in the political landscape in the UK in the next year, do you think that would change - or is it too entrenched a view with the people that are at the top?

Mick Morris: I don't know - I think the industry as a whole suffers from a PR problem. The perception of the games industry needs to change.

Q: How does it need to sell itself better? Is it the stigma around violent games, and the negative press they get?

Mick Morris: I genuinely don't know the answer to that. I think we could be a bit more responsible as an industry - I'm not saying censorship is a good thing in any way, but perhaps we don't do ourselves any favours. There's a perception that we're mainly about violent content.

Q: That said, the recent best-selling game is FIFA, and other top-sellers this year include Wii Fit, Wii Sports Resort... it's not an accurate perception of the variety of games out there. Is it that which needs to improve?

Mick Morris: Like I said, we've got a PR problem that needs to be fixed. I think on the political landscape, are the Tories just trying to score points with the games industry by saying they're going to take us more seriously should they get into power... will they do nothing when they then get into power? Or they might be genuinely serious, that we're a really important part of the creative economy that generates a lot of revenue.

Q: Whose responsibility is it to better PR the games industry?

Mick Morris: It's a very good question. I'm sure the trade bodies are playing their part to some degree, but are they being proactive? It's all very well having a Manhunt fiasco, ill-informed and incorrect as the reporting actually was - at that point we trot out somebody to make a comment, but should those trade bodies be more proactive and be doing a bit more about the good side of the industry... and not just shouting about tax credits, although I do think that's important.

But then how do they do that, how does the message come across, and what are the positives? Look at the Change4Life campaign [which linked videogames to childhood obesity and death]... I wrote to the Advertising Standards Association to say that I found that offensive, but there wasn't enough fuss made about it I don't think.

If that's the perception, if that's what the country thinks playing games is going to lead to, however tenuous a link that is, then it comes back to us having a bit of a PR problem - but I don't know what the answers are.

Mick Morris is MD of Audiomotion. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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