Philadelphia Phillies all-star first baseman Ryan Howard didn’t realize until recently that having his swing and other mannerisms captured for a video game would mean wearing a tight-fitting suit that looked like red thermal underwear adorned with 50 high-tech reflectors. And he didn’t know what it would feel like to walk beneath 42 digital cameras and look up to see his steps mimicked by a robotic 3-D image on a big projection screen on the wall at Sony’s Motion Capture Studio in San Diego, Calif.
As the cover player for “MLB 08: The Show,” Phillies all-star Ryan Howard came to San Diego to participate in Sony’s annual update of its baseball video-game franchise. In the lucrative sports genre, game studios look to technology to help make annual editions more lifelike, must-have purchases. Last year, Sony Computer Entertainment America, which develops several sports titles and other games, sold slightly more than one million copies of “MLB 07: The Show,” making it the ninth most-popular sports game, according to the NPD Group. The top game was “Madden NFL 08,” from competitor EA Sports, which sold 5.8 million copies.
The video-game industry is characterized by a handful of blockbuster games each year amid a field of mildly profitable titles and money losers. Sports games provide a stalwart exception to that boom-or-bust rule. “The sports genre hasn’t really grown all that much,” says Anita Frazier, the NPD Group’s toy and video-game analyst. “With that said, it’s one of the largest genres in games and in 2007 represented thirteen percent of all video and PC games sold.”
Sports games have a big force pushing game-playing consumers to part with $60-per-year upgrades: changing rosters. Someone playing “Madden 06” would still have Drew Brees as the Chargers quarterback, the type of glaring inaccuracy likely to prompt an upgrade. In a crowded field, all competitors update rosters each season, so game developers turn to new features and added realism to differentiate themselves.
Howard came to the Sony studio as part of the push to make the game’s animation seem more like a live broadcast of a game. His steps walking to the plate and warm-up swings of the bat were recorded from all angles, as were his reactions to balls and strikes called by an imaginary umpire. The 42 cameras surrounding Howard recorded the movements of the reflective “markers” and fed the information to a computer, which calculated the location of each marker in the real world and recorded it in a 3-D virtual world. Essentially, a square of cameras creates a cube-shaped, motion-capture zone where the computer can track the movement of each marker in three dimensions: up and down, north and south, east and west. Because the system knows which marker is on which part of Howard’s body, it can apply them to a geometric skeleton of sorts that mimics the ballplayer’s movements. Later, an artist will apply a Phillies uniform, shaped to match the slugger’s physique.
The final step of capturing Howard’s video-game double came in a nearby room, where the contours of his face and head were recorded from the front and two sides. They will be converted into a highly accurate 3-D model of his head. As a marquee player, Howard will appear in the game with the highest level of authenticity. Most of the characters in the games will have their movements simulated by Sony studio employees.
“MLB 08: The Show” director Chris Cutliff and his co-workers will watch video of a player on the studio’s big projection screen. And then they will put on the “mo-cap” suit and mimic the player’s movements. If a player taps the plate with the bat, or bangs the dirt from his spikes, they will, too. And the system will attach that movement to the character. Cutliff, a former college baseball player, says they strive to capture a player’s personality for the in-game character, even less socially acceptable traits. “If they spit, we spit,” he says.
With the growing computing power of the latest game consoles such as Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360, developers have new tools to add realism beyond players’ movements.