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How to Run Realistically with Henry LaBounta

According to Henry LaBounta, Chief Visual Officer for EA Black Box, Game Art Direction has three main focus areas – the look of the game, the characters and animation, and the graphic design (menus, user interface, and fonts) – and most of the unsolved problems are with the characters and animation.

Henry LaBounta

Kaila Colbin reports from AnimfxNZ.

As Chief Visual Officer for EA Black Box, Henry LaBounta works with art directors and studios to define their visual goals in preproduction and help them execute.

Game Art Direction has three main focus areas – the look of the game, the characters and animation, and the graphic design (menus, user interface, and fonts) – and most of the unsolved problems are with the characters and animation.

One of the interesting things about this conference, and something I discussed with Henry after his presentation, is that video games have come so far in the past 14 years that we can actually have a conference like this one, where the issues facing movie animators and the issues facing game developers can overlap. In fact, when Henry first got into gaming from his TV, movie visual effects and feature animation background, he was surprised at how many similarities there were.

More...So if that much has changed in the past decade and a half, what can we expect for the next era of gaming? That's what keeps him going: the pace of change in this industry is relentless. Just when we think we know what we're doing, a new console comes out.

When it comes to art direction in games, there are four Golden Objectives: • Create a distinctive look and style you can own that is culturally relevant for that game • Understand what you're trying to communicate visually and what's visually most important • Create an immersive experience in which all visual aspects work well together; don't break suspension of disbelief • Provide visuals that support and enhance game play

So when he started looking at driving games, he first had to understand how his audience looks at cars. They see cars in car commercials, and car commercials have a very distinctive look, so Henry looked at those commercials for reference.

You've got to focus on what's important to the audience. Some developers get hung up on not having enough texture resolution, when basic things like the look, style and cultural relevance are off. Basic exposure control with balanced black and white levels are also a common problem in games. The eye is attracted to bright areas, especially during game play, but some games miss the mark on this fundamental issue– cars blend in with backgrounds, and the focus of attention is off or unclear. Asphalt isn't black. For these games, the problem is not texture resolution!

Of course, games are far more difficult than film. They've got specific challenges that don't come up in movies, such as open worlds where the camera can look anywhere. In addition, you've got to create a dynamic look for the game, otherwise the eyes get used to it and it gets boring visually.

But the Holy Grail of unsolved game problems is with dynamic characters: creating a believable character that performs and moves the way you'd expect it to. Although they've gotten pretty good at rendering static characters, they're still working on:

• Believable motion • Foot planting • Sense of weight and momentum • Responsiveness • Non-cyclic motion • Player contact • Player individuality, unique motions • Intelligent motion

In the past there was always a tradeoff between responsiveness and natural motion. The focus now is on having both.

So what do they work on? They want the guy catching the football to look towards the football, even though he's running in the other direction. They want the guy playing basketball to see the telltale weight shift that presages a move to the right. They want the soccer player to start to slump as he gets more tired.

All of these things have something in common: they're critical to the experience of playing the game. Get them wrong, and they distract from the experience and generate frustration. Get them right, and the game gets a lot more fun to play.

In short, they want a better experience.

Kaila Colbin, the founder of Missing Link, is a frequent contributor to a variety of magazines.

Check out this video interview with Henry LaBounta.