Next up, in the first of three animation-related GDC ’08 presentations giving us an insight into modern-day Japanese game development, here are my notes from the Postmortem of Feelplus’s Lost Odyssey, one of two Japanese RPGs created exclusively for the XBOX360 under the watchful eye of Microsoft Game Studios and Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi.

Feelplus: Looking Back at LOST ODYSSEY – The Challenge of Cross Cultural Development

Ray Nakazato – President, Feelplus Inc.

As with each of the Japanese presentations, Nakazato began by detailing the hierarchy of the companies involved in the project. Feelplus Inc. was established in 2005, with the team quickly growing in size to the final headcount of around 100 developers, many of which came from Microsoft and SEGA. Feelplus is 1 of 3 companies under the AQ Interactive Group, (including Artoon and Cavia), and the project was a collaborative effort with Sakaguchi’s team at Mistwalker who formed the core desgin team.

Of interest, Feelplus found difficulty in hiring staff under the Microsoft banner. One imagines that much of the staff was populated with juniors as a result, as can happen here in the west when attempting to ramp up into production quickly. The total timeline for the project was given as:

  • 8 months to prototype
  • 11 months to achieve First Playable stage
  • 8 months to reach Alpha

This is an incredibly short time for an RPG of Lost Odyssey’s scale despite the 100-man team size and is testament to the efficiency of their working practices. Their engine of choice was Unreal3, which may have expedited some of the risk associated with building a brand new studio but I know only too well how difficult it is to shoehorn an RPG and all the unique systems it requires into an engine built primarily for shooting games. As such, their experience was all-too-familiar, with integrations of new engine builds often holding up production, taking 3 people 6 weeks for each integration.

Nevertheless, the in-game animation production actually went quite well:

In-game Animation:

  • At peak production, there were 20 ingame animators, with Animation falling under the charge of the Art Directors.
  • A “Setup Group” was employed to integrate animations into the game.
  • Characters and creatures were done on time.

However, the cutscene production provided several challenges due to the sheer quantity and variable quality as a direct result:

Cutscenes – What went right:

  • The cutscene Visual Director came from the movie industry, bringing with him a wealth of experience.
  • Facial expressions were keyframe-animated as the automated method (presumably via the Unreal-integrated FaceFX) proved too low quality. Nakazato was especially proud of the pupil movement.
  • Events were of high story-written quality.

Cutscenes – What went wrong:

  • Battle, Adventure and Cutscene systems and scenarios were developed seperately.
  • Too much time was spent creating locations that were passed through swiftly, therefore negating the effort put into them.
  • Over 300 cutscenes were required, with 4 different quality levels:
    1. FMV (Full Motion Video) Event – Pre-rendered cinematics.
    2. A Event – In-game, with keyframed facial animation and specifically recorder Motion-Capture.
    3. B Event – Off-the-shelf mocap.
    4. Scripted Events – Purely in-game.
  • Looking back, FMV and A Events used same assets, so there was an unusual inconsistency despite using all the same models.
  • Users were confused over inconsistent quality as they were not aware of what was an A or B in-game cutscene.

I’m sure many players are aware of the visual disparity when mixing up pre-rendered and in-game cinematic cutscenes. Even if they use the exact same models the difference in lighting, texture resolution or even full-screen effects like motion-blur become immediately apparent. It cannot be denied though that pre-rendered cinematics, by their very pre-made nature, are much more stable and easy to integrate into a game. Not much can go wrong with simply playing a video, plus you can render out at a much lower framerate and therefore throw in more characters and visual effects into a single scene that would otherwise slow down the engine, but something like visually customisable characters can prohibit their use entirely.

Nakazato said of this incosistency, “So we did two different methods, but we ended up that the players didn’t know which one is A event and which one is B event, so they just felt that the quality of the entire movies are inconsistent. That’s what we are regretting at this point.” However it’s not all bad, with the game’s opening sporting one of the most seamless transistions from pre-rendered cutscene to in-game action since Final Fantasy VII and the original Abe’s Odyssey, which you can see below – (skip to around the 3-minute mark if you’re the impatient type).