- Bruce Woodside, Animation Director, Disney's VR Studio
- David Chiapperino, Animation Technical Director, Disney's VR Studio
- January 18, 2007
As Directors of the animation team at Disney's VR Studio, a lot of the functionality in Pirates of the Caribbean Online rests with us - beginning first and foremost with the avatars. The way we see it, avatars are a huge part of what can make or break an MMO. For a game like Pirates to be successful, players really have to be in it for the long run and to get this long-term commitment from players, our job is to provide them with characters they can grow with, and form an attachment to.
In developing the character generation system for Pirates of the Caribbean Online, we set out to give players as many character customization options as possible, so they can determine how their characters ultimately look and act. Players have tons of customizable features to create one-of-a-kind characters, which gives the game a level of richness and variety that really stands out among other MMOs. You can choose from ten different body types -- five male, five female, and then body proportions -- from skinny to plump to muscular or pear-shaped. All of the faces are completely lifelike as well, including complex animated expressions like smiles and lip curls. You can have wrinkled skin, a broken nose, and long beard if you're a salty sea dog --- but if you're a female buccaneer, you may prefer more symmetrical features and a smoother complexion that's kinder on the eyes. Both of these scenarios are completely possible in the game, with each character having a completely unique look and feel than the next.
In addition to the diverse set of physical features you can choose from, there are thousands of potential clothing combinations. You've got boots, pants, coats, shirts, and then you've got variations on each of those garments -- open-necked shirts, v-neck shirts, etc -- not to mention colors and textures. There are also variations based on gender, and further customizations for character body proportions.
One of the most unique elements of the character system is the player's ability to convert into a skeleton or a cursed pirate in order to engage in player versus player action. You're basically temporarily transformed into an undead state and what's really exciting about this is that you retain the physical characteristics of your living character. So, for example, your exposed undead skeleton's skull is really the same shape as your character's head.
As part of the animation team, we're in charge of literally everything that moves within the game - from the powerful Kraken all the way down to small insects. If the wind bends a blade of grass or a character engages in swordplay with an enemy, it's the animation department's job to make the action as convincing and true-to-life as possible.
The way everything moves in an MMO is crucial, so we have to think about the functions that characters perform and come up with physical forms that serve those functions. For example, if a character goes from idle mode to walking forward, you want a smooth transition, not a jerky, abrupt movement. The programmers are responsible for sewing the animation files together and for getting the cycle of movement to look realistic and consistent. We accomplish this through "staging," -- when the programmers bring individual files up on-screen and then we look them over to make sure everything looks accurate and the camera is angled correctly. If a character has to spring traps, wade through streams, board a ship, wield a sword, or hold a conversation, we have to map out the movements for each those actions.
In addition to all the character customization and animation, a lot of the game's personality is conveyed through the cinematography. Some games avoid this, because it can be expensive and time consuming but we believe it really engages the audience, so we've provided a lot of cinematic moments and filmed cut scenes. Great cut scenes are important because -- they really sweep you up into the emotion of the game, provide story background and advance the action.
These clips also help tell the story as it evolves, and introduce the characters from the movies, as well as new characters introduced for the first time in the game. We've basically taken the storyline and characters from the movies and merged them with unique characters and environments created by the VR Team. Even though players can't take on the roles of movie characters, they'll be able to learn sword fighting techniques from Will Turner, and other useful tricks from Jack Sparrow and others from the films.
Making an MMO is a complex task that requires you to balance a grand vision with a lot of attention to detail. It's absolutely a team project. It's impossible to create an MMO of this scope and quality without immensely creative minds behind it. Every art director, every programmer is responsible for helping make this game what it is and we are incredibly fortunate to be working with such a talented group. We're extremely pleased with the character generation system that the team has developed and are looking forward to watching players get creative with the game.