Glenn Entis, chief visual and technical officer of Electronic Arts, gave a keynote this afternoon at the Montreal International Games Summit on the importance of creating emotionally believable characters. Entis compared the improvements in video game graphics over the last few decades with the relative lack of consideration for issues like character awareness.
Beginning with a look at another medium that uses computer rendering, film, Entis explains how the superior game graphics have traditionally dominated the concerns of developers, yet their perfection has been a slow process. Movies makers, he says, have been able to perfect their art over the last century by improving on one platform.
Game developers, however, face constant changes with the introduction of a new generation of consoles every few years. As Entis points out, now that games too have reached graphical realism, they're beginning to face new problems that movies have faced all along.
Through a clip tracing FIFA since its inception in 1995, Entis shows that, even as characters get more realistic, they often appear less "real." This phenomenon is called the "uncanny valley." If we want believable, cinematic character performance, Entis says, these characters have to look good and move right, but they also have to seem aware. They have to give the impression of possessing interior lives.
Without the right balance between modeling fidelity and believability, characters run the risk of falling beneath the "zombie line." Entis cites Pac-Man as a character more relatable, for example, than the beautifully-rendered but "zombie-like" characters of Advent Children. Visual fidelity projects an expectation of motion and awareness, explains Entis; if characters can't deliver, they seem dead. After all, he says, "eight-bit characters aren't spooky."
Entis looks at this issue of character believability within the specific context of sport games. An athlete's movement must be bio-mechanically correct (his feet shouldn't slip on the floor, his hands shouldn't go through walls), athletic (the character should feel physically present), and stylish (players should be able to distinguish him from other athletes).
But these athletes should also be able to relate to one another, look at one another, react to one another. This interact Entis calls procedural awareness. Head and eye positions are much more telling that animated facial expressions, he says. They're the key to creating a believable inner life.
Entis also brought up the issue of EA's UCAP technique. Why not simply animate characters through captured performance? As an example, Entis showed footage taken of a woman making facial expression, that could then be mapped onto the face of a PS2 character. But this process is expensive, and though it provides high visual fidelity, it doesn't necessarily deliver on convincing emotional awareness.
In closing, Entis presented a UCAP clip of Tiger Woods, which, Entis says, Woods himself couldn't even tell apart from a video. Entis also pointed to the importance of thinking through overall character behavior, as well as making sure a balance is maintained between character development and playability. Otherwise, Entis says, you raise the question, "Why didn't you just make a movie?"
Though his talk was a little perplexing, and Entis never seemed to answer his own questions about moving beyond graphical power to create believable characters, he did end with poignant advice for the future: "Graphics are the easiest part of the problem going into this new generation of consoles... The real issue is making sure that for all the graphical improvements we make, we make emotional improvements, too."