Skip to main content

Putting tech in motion

Torsten Reil on the tech in GTA IV, Star Wars and Indiana Jones

You might not know their name, but you'll definitely become familiar with their work — which will feature in GTA IV, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and the next-gen Indiana Jones game among others.

NaturalMotion is a creator of games technology such as Endorphin, Morpheme and now Euphoria - "dynamic motion synthesis" technology replicating the movement of the human body and the reaction of the nervous system in a way which allows developers to ditch canned animation in favor of real-time simulations.

At GDC 2008, the company invited to view its technology first hand in a variety of demos and through glimpses of its own internally-developed title - an American football game named Backbreaker.

Euphoria is being featured in some big-name titles this year - chief among them, Grand Theft Auto IV. Can you give us a specific example of how your tech is being used in the game?.

Torsten Reil: There is a drinking mini-game in very detailed form where you can get drunk and he can actually then stumble around and you have to get home. But all of that is fully simulated. So, it is not based on animation any more. It is actually all synthesized on the CPU. Which means that it has a completely different outcome every time you play.

For us, that's really the way forward for games. I don't want to make too big kind of words, but for the games industry, basically. Starting to move away from just creating lots of animation assets that we store on the hard disk and play back. And actually say we have so much CPU power now we are going to use it to actually create a live world, so to speak. It also has a nice side effect that we don't have to create all those assets any more, but you actually let the CPU synthesize them in real-time.

The big thing for us, the core mission that we've always had behind this, is the quality of unique gaming moments. So, rather than really treating it as a nice cosmetic effect where the animation looks slightly nicer — which you could do — we want people to use it in a way that actually opens up the game. So that every time you play the game something different happens. And that's obviously much more like real life than playing just back pre-existing assets.

You've already been mentioned in an article in Vanity Fair — hardly a hardcore gaming magazine — so it seems that there is a buzz about the new technology.

That seems to really resonate well with a broader audience, which is obviously the whole idea of this sort of thing. If they understand the technology like that, and they seem to be really impressed by it, they conceptually get that the characters are alive, I think that means that we are on the right track.

What can you tell us about Backbreaker?

Backbreaker is our internally-developed title which uses Euphoria to create completely interactive tackles. It completely does away with canned tackles. Everything is in-game.

The nice thing about this is it never looks the same. So, that means that if you take out somebody, you actually know "That was my tackle!" It seems much, much better to do that.

Interesting, when you play the gameâ¦And actually when we captured all of this footage, we actually controlled on split screen in fact just two players and just tackled this one AI guy. You can just spend hours doing that, because you never know what the tackle is going to look like because obviously it depends upon so many things that are happening.

And surely we think that's got to be how games are going to be played, particularly sports games. It becomes a real-life game. Not just playback of canned assets.

Euphoria is only available for the PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 platforms, right? Not the Wii?

For performance reasons. We think we can probably make it run on the Wii, but only in a limited way. And really what you want is for something like Euphoria is you want to have a lot of characters and you want to have them all interact.

I recall reading in an interview that you didn't like to use the term "middleware" when talking about Euphoria. Why not?

Specifically, in the case of Euphoria, because of the way we work with our clients. Certainly what we have done in the past which has worked really well is to have a very close relationship with them — which is a co-developer relationship. We like to be able to contribute something to a title, which is quite different from the usual middleware concept.

I think in many ways it is better to describe something as games technology, and that's really what it is. I just think "middleware" doesn't really get across the breadth of it.

Something as off the shelf as Morphime is, I think it is appropriate to call it middleware. Morphime is quite easily integrated and it is something that we supply support for, but the idea is not to necessarily have to work so closely with developers all the time.

Have you been approached by any publisher with an interest in purchasing your company, and therefore your technology? If so, might developers have a reason to become concerned — as they were with EA purchasing Criterion and Renderware?

Obviously I cannot go into any of it, but I think it is fair to say that in any industry in general, if you do stuff that is useful for other companies, you tend to get approached. And like other companies we do get approached quite regularly.

I think the big thing for us is we made a decision a couple of years ago that we wanted to be an independent company and grow the company. We took an investment from a company called Benchmark Capital, which is a pretty big venture capitalist. And the deal was, and is, to essentially grow a company that becomes very strong and, you know, then we can do some really cool stuff. And that's really the mode that we're in.

We are trying to structure our relationships in such a way that we can give customers enough comfort that they are not going to have the carpet pulled away under their feet.

Even so, if what you are providing is innovative and one company with a lot of cash has an interest in having your technology to sell their systems or their gamesâ¦

It's true, butâ¦I've obviously been in long discussions with our clients about that, because there are ways to accommodate that. And I think there are ways to accommodate that to make it work for both sides in a way that you aren't exposed to a risk like that. Iâd like to think this is quite a hypothetical thing anyway, certainly in our case.

Are you going to be self-publishing Backbreaker, your football game?

We haven't announced that yet. We are going to do that really, really soon I think, but we haven't announced that yet.

Why choose football when there are other possibilities? EA has the NFL license locked up. Midway has tried to get in there with NFL Blitz, 2K has its All-Star Footballâ¦It seems that football is one of the more difficult sports to get involved with, especially if you don't have the license.

It depends what you want to achieve. I think if you have the license, you have essentially a license to sell. You can make obviously a lot of money, and you pay a lot of money for it. That's what EA does and I think it makes a lot of sense.

I think the passion for football, the interest in football, is so big that there is easily room for titles that are non-licensed but actually bring something new to the genre.

We are actually doing a lot of things differently in Backbreaker. Not necessarily for the sake of it, but a lot of things we think make sense. The biggest one is the tackles. We think that, for a sports title in general, you shouldn't know exactly what's going to happen. Because if you watch a live game, for example, you don't know exactly what's going to happen. That's obviously the excitement.

That excitement doesn't usually exist in sports games that look exactly the same way. In Backbreaker we want to achieve that, and we can achieve that literally by doing something live - that is, by simulating or by generating live all the attractions.

That's the first thing. The other thing is that we have a completely different view of the field. You are actually on the field as I was mentioning earlier. So, it's a third-person football title where you feel much, much more the pressure that is on you as a quarterback but also the thrill as a wide-receiver of catching the ball and scoring a touchdown.

The control system is very different — and not in a way that is crazy and exotic, but in a way like maybe a title like Skate innovated over a title like Tony Hawk.

So there are quite a few things that we think are just ready to be done in a way that we think makes sense. And you know that's what we are trying to do. We are very bullish about it.

Football was, for us, a very obvious way to start but I think there are lots of things that we can do with this kind of technology.

But doesn't football, American football, have more appeal in the US? How are you going to overcome that in Europe? Why not go with European football/soccer?

Certainly in terms of what we're saying publicly, we're focusing on American football right now. In terms of territorial preferences, of course American football isn't as big as soccer is in the UK. (laughs)

But equally, if it is a title that you can pick up and you actually get a pretty good idea as to what you need to do very quickly, which is how we designed Backbreaker, I think⦠Actually the title in many waysâ¦Ironically, although it uses quite a lot of technology it is actually much easier to pick up.

And if that's the case, and this is something we are looking at in terms of target audience even in the US, then I think we can actually catch people who usually wouldn't touch a football game because the experience is so intense, and there's so much fun, even with just the tackling, that it is a game that you want to pick up.

This is also true for the US market. The Madden base is big. There is no doubt about it. But I think there is an even bigger base of people who are interested in picking up a game like this that it is easy to pick up, but it is very, very high fidelity, very interactive tacklesâ¦

So, will the success of Backbreaker help you decide what sport you are going to go on to from there?

We've already made a decision. (laughs) But we haven't announced it yet. We as a company try to be quite structured in what we are doing. We try to have the technology and the titles integrate very well.

So, for example, Backbreaker on its own right for us is important, but it is also very important for the technology side because we are pushing the limit of our own technology in that title in a way that some of our titles might do but others might not.

By us pushing them really early, and using early versions of our products like Morphim, for example, we are actually able to, you know, find bugs much more easily.

So that's why, I guess, we try to be quite structured about it, as in which titles we do. But we are quite ambitious as a company. We are trying to something cool.

When a gamer picks up Star Wars: The Force Unleashed or Indiana Jones, they know the characters and they are going to see LucasArts on the box, but they may not see Euphoria. How are you going to be able to brand your technology so that people will recognise your technology?

At the end of the day, it is obviously about the game. We are technology providers to our customers. Whether it is GTA IV or Star Wars, the game is the most important thing obviously.

In reality, 99.9 per cent of our time is just spent on that — trying to make the game good, because that's obviously how the game sells, and that's also how we get paid and hopefully we do better and better over time.

Having said that, branding obviously is also important for us. We do want people to know we're involved in it, but it can't be to the detriment of our partner. It always has to be in a way that our partner is happy with.

So, for us, the better way is to do as good a job as possible, have the partners talk about it and find ways — which we have, but I donât think we can talk about — find ways to get the brand out to people and essentially have this association between games that we think are very modern, very attractive and very alive with Natural Motion.

Well, if you look at how Unreal Engine is marketed, it is obviously possible for consumers to know about the technology underlying some of their favourite games.

It's a very good point. It is an important observation. Of course, if you do contribute, you want to somehow let the consumer know as well.

Torsten Reil is NaturalMotion's CEO. Interview by Mark Androvich. Thanks to Simon Mack, Chris Heintz and Wes Phillips.

Read this next