Soheyl Mohammad is no longer part of CD Projekt RED, but for the last two years he was Senior Animator animating and (mainly) supervising the work done with every bossfight in The Witcher 3. It was not the first time he worked in graphically powerful game, since his background includes the second and third parts of another renown franchise such as Crysis (Crytek).
Mohammad answered questions about motion capture and how it was implemented in facial expressions, and he talked about other resources such as the hair physics, horse animations or the work with actors during motion captures. We had to ask someone in the team about how they felt about criticism regarding the alleged graphical downgrade and, as in the rest of the topics we brought up, Mohammad didn’t mince his words.
Question – Tell us, in which parts of The Witcher 3 was motion capture primarily used and in which others you carried out a more handcrafted work?
Answer – It was an early decision that we would use mocap for the humans and we would hand animate the creatures. So the more human our characters are, such as the Grave Hag, more motion capture was used; but the monsters, such as the Wyvern and the Griffin, are all handmade using different preferences.
Q.- I was assuming you couldn’t use mocap with the beasts [laughs], how complex is the process of animating a fantastic monster?
A.- You tend to try to fit in everything with the style guide and, as animator, you tend to give more difficult tasks to more senior animators. For instance I did the last bosses, basically all of them are me in the mocaps. For that process to even begin you have to start with words because this game is based on previous written books, even if we didn’t follow them 100%. There are a lot of readers and here there are fans of the Sapkowski books as well, they tend to keep the same style and you can clearly see that in dialogues.
We do the same for animations, we try not to make them too fantastical. You won’t see any animated style posing, this is not Vanquish, this is not that type of game. Things are expected to move in a certain way to fit in with Geralt’s moving style as well. Everything is balanced, so if you add an enemy, he has to fit in with the rest of the balance and the later you make these enemies the more they have to fit in with the rest of the game, rather than us making a completely new feature only for those bosses.
So you tend to involve all the departments that should be involved; it is not straightforward, you don’t get a character and then you animate it. It is like a detective type of work: here is the murder victim, you see how he died and how we got to this pace and what is going to happen to the body afterwards. You have to do all this research as an animator, go to the different departments and involve them: everything from particle effects to audio, lore, story, and game mechanics, so all fits together.
“Even though The Witcher 3 is sort of a triple A production, we use double A budgets”
Q.- Regarding the beasts, have you reused any of the work done for the prequels?
A.- We basically used it as a base. To be very honest, we had some problems finding the source files for the previous work, however we had them exported in game so we devise a system that would export back to a usable editable system. But in most cases, when it came to the humans at least, we only used that at the beginning to rapidly concept how The Witcher 3 was going to be played. Actually we didn’t use it that much, I’d say 90 % is new animations, maybe more, some 95 %.
Q.- Tell us, why do you reject mocap for facial expressions in the NPCs?
A.- Well, the thing is that we have multiple languages in our game and for each individual language we have a couple of seconds where we need to elongate the animation. So, for instance, if the Japanese version of the kinematics is 5 minutes long and the Polish version is only 2 minutes long, we scale the animation to fit the actual dialogue.
It often happens that we pre-record these dialogues and kinematics and we don’t necessarily know what they are going to say. The facial system is a little bit tied into the voice acting and, with the facial animation being elongated for certain words, it didn’t work out so well. The thing is that it comes down to budgets and we just couldn’t cover all the languages in the world. So we decided that if we can only make it good for one, then maybe we just shouldn’t concentrate too much on that.
I think the kinematics came out pretty good for what they are. If you consider that if you play it back to back they are probably over 50 hours long and if you compare that with the workforce of a, let’s say, Pixar movie – which is only two hours long –, you have many more animators doing every detail. Even though The Witcher 3 is sort of a triple A production, we use double A budgets, so it was thanks to our hard working animators and kinematics synching.
“We try not to make animations too fantastical. You won’t see any animated style posing, this is not Vanquish, this is not that type of game”
Q.- We thought horse animations are a combination of what we saw in Red Dead Redemption (unbeatable yet) and Shadow of the Colossus. What’s your opinion about this? Have you looked to what is being done in other studios?
A.- There are some elements that we got inspired by, but we would like to use the word “inspired”…
Q.- … of course…
A.- … because you can only get so far with certain things. For instance, in Red Dead Redemption you don’t really have melee combats on horseback, so a lot of those mechanics just don’t fit. Same thing with Shadow of the Colossus, Wander rarely uses his sword, he uses the bow on horseback a couple of times and at that point he becomes a sort of rail shooter. So the mechanics work very differently. I actually had a talk in Sweden about this type of game mechanics and used Shadow of the Colossus as an example. There are certain elements that you just can’t use in other games and you have to live with the downside of certain things. For instance, in The Witcher 3 you don’t control the horse, you control Geralt who is controlling the horse and that means there is a delay in the system and the horse can do wrong things. You probably heard reviews about the pathing for the horse – and that also is one of those things –, if you don’t know what is on the road then the pathing won’t be correct.
Horses were actually something that we added very late in terms of development, it was around the second year when we decided we definitely needed a horse. This is a huge game and traversing it on foot was just not viable, so after horses boats came because we wanted to minimize the amount of fast traveling.
Now, the inspiration behind the horse and its mechanics comes from multiple games, but they are mostly custom made for our character. For instance, we wanted Geralt to be able to move very quickly so we tried to make the process of getting on and off the horse very smooth, rather than super clunky. This was something important for us, but other games do not really have it. I am not saying that our horse is unique per se, but we tailor made it to fit our game style. I will tell this to the animator who animated the horse, she will be glad to hear that you made such a comparison; those are probably her favorite games.
“Animation process is like a detective type of work: here is the murder victim, you see how he died and how we got to this pace and what is going to happen to the body afterwards”
Q.- Technology has considerably evolved in the four last years, now animations transmit better body language and facial expressions, are demands getting higher? How did you implement animations to be believable by the players?
A.- To be honest, I am a nitpicker. I don’t think we got to the level we wanted, we are close. The customers are not the only ones concerned about problems such as a downgrade because we want to bring the best quality we can to the players. However, we are forced to work with what we have. The believability behind the acting actually comes from the voice actors and from our audio director asking them for a good performance, and that brings the believability to it. Can I make spoilers?
Q.- Yes, of course…
A.- The whole situation with the Red Baron, the baby and the miscarriage wouldn’t be believable if we had a more unnatural voice actor. You can clearly see this, you can get away with a lot of things if the voice actors are good. Take Metal Gear Solid for instance, the story is totally crazy but it fits in with Snake, and the story in The Witcher 3 works for Geralt as well. He is supposed to be a little bit less emotional due to these mutagens and that fits in with what we can perform. We could make people more emotional, they could laugh and dance, but that is not the goal of the game so we concentrate on other segments.
In this regard, I think there is a problem with the demand. The demand is no longer that the main character is perfect, but also the rest of the NPCs. We normally group characters based on their importance: we have A level characters, those would be our main actor; B level characters, people the main actor is interacting with, and C level characters that are only in the background and never interact with the player. Customers now want C level characters to be closer to A level characters that you can approach, talk to, get items at shops and so on. You can clearly see that this is what our gamers or fans are really enjoying in the game. They go to Novigrad and there is a hundred million things to do, there are kids dancing, villagers complaining about the king, people approaching them and asking them where they heard that and telling them to stop… You get so many characters all at once that you just can’t get away with that. If the person is a C level character, he is just standing there doing nothing.
However, in CD Projekt RED, we don’t get away with certain situations. For example, when a person is shoveling, we make sure there is something on the shovel. We might not be able to change the environment because of physical limitations, we are not Minecraft, but we have that level of detail and that is what customers are demanding more and more of.
“In The Witcher 3 you don’t control the horse, you control Geralt who is controlling the horse and that means there is a delay in the system”
P.- El cabello siempre ha sido un aspecto difícil de replicar en los videojuegos y los resultados en The Witcher 3 son de lo mejor que hemos visto en la presente generación. ¿Qué proceso han seguido y qué tecnología hay detrás?
Q.- Hair has always been an element difficult to replicate in video games and the results in The Witcher 3 are the best we have seen in this generation. Which process did you follow and which technologies you used?
A.- We used APEX skin for the beards and so on, and this allows us to keep the uniformity in how facial hair and other hair behave. It is literally a different type of mesh and we didn’t want that classical plain effect because we wanted to keep the volume as much as possible. What happens with hair is that it has a certain type of volume, and usually when you move it around it doesn’t deform; it is not like cloth, so you have to handle it with different calculations.
Of course, there were many situations where we needed physical simulations. This is really good because as an animator you don’t have to worry about hair anymore, it is sort of automatic. In general, we are very happy with our hair, I think tech arts and the modelers should definitely get good credit for that, and also the physics programmer that made it possible to have so many physical calculations all at once. Because it is not only the hair, it is also the trees and other elements based on physical properties.
Q.- We would like to make clear that next question does not refer exclusively to your department, but we had to make it to someone, how did the team feel about the alleged graphic downgrade?
A.- The footage of The Sword of Destiny wasn’t done by anybody else in Pixar studios or something like that, it was our engine, it was our assets. So that conspiracy fear is wrong. We had that level, the only problem is that with the restrictions of the current generation we are forced to work backwards with our graphics. We can get a super high quality, but it is not optimized and we have to work backwards.
At that point, I think we made some predictions that were a little bit off in terms of how much power we can get, and it is very hard to make those predictions. But at the same time I don’t think that anybody at the studio believes that we actively tried to fool people. We constantly sent reviewers copies of previews and showed them the actual graphics. We kept updating. Everybody is complaining about why we can’t have graphics like in a video that is 3 years old. We sent over 40 videos showing the current engine graphics and, as it got closer to the release date, it got more and more consistent to what you actually get. I would say that even a year and half ago we probably showed to you the type of graphic level that should be available in the final product. Ok, the still shots were always a bit more beautified but that’s how it always works, you want a still shot to make a poster out of it.
At any rate, nobody in the studio thinks that we lied, nobody thinks that we did wrong. We are actually a little bit ashamed that we couldn’t meet more people’s expectations. At the same time, if we look at other games and to what they are sacrificing for their arts or their graphics – and I am probably alone to say this –, those are not games. You have to compromise everything, you have to deliver and make the best for your fans, that’s the most important bit. We have to optimize and cut a little bit of things that we are not able to put into a good quality. It is also a question of resources. We definitely don’t have the manpower of Naughty Dog or something like that. To be perfectly honest, I also think that industry wise, CD Projekt RED is probably one of the few studios that is really, really trying to avoid making any unwanted comments or predictions that are going nowhere. We are trying to work hard to build our fan base because that’s how the company survives. There’s a reason why we had the little note inside of the case saying ‘Thanks’, we mean it.
“We were forced to come down to the console level, there is no walking on eggshells here: the PC process in power is immense and in two years is going to be even more”
Q.- We suppose one of the most difficult aspects in animation is to smoothly work with gameplay. Combats are a good example, what is the most difficult aspect in this regard?
A.- Have you used the last combat system out on patch 1.07?
Q.- Yes, so it would be interesting if you could explain us why you made that decision.
A.- We improved it because people were complaining that it wasn’t as smooth as it could be. With the patch, we have a system for movements that is completely new, but optional. You are able to choose the old system or the new, and it really makes a difference.
Q.- So, could you explain in more detail what are those differences?
A.- We tried to use as much of the old assets as we could and we essentially made it so Geralt feels like you have the right control over him, because before you had this delayed response that comes with the territory.
But, in those terms, we know we can always improve the game. We feel we could have done more and we can still do more, but things are limited. Even if we are happy that the quality level is good for most players, we are not always happy about the level we reach. It is amazing when you have a controller with so many buttons and you run out of buttons to assign things on. We almost wish everybody could have 15 extra buttons everywhere, maybe a pedal like in a car [laughs.]
Q.- At any rate, my question was not criticism.
A.- We welcome criticism, we like that people enjoy the game, but we want to improve. Please, point out those things that you didn’t enjoy as much, give reasons for them, and we can try to address them. For instance, we had a bunch of fans that were colorblind and we are working on it. We are doing things based on the feedback. We listen to fans, we have forums, we have social media and we do those things after the release. And for free! [Laughs.]
“If we made it only for PC, we wouldn’t have been able to recuperate the money and the resources we spent, and next game would have maybe even less”
Q.- In terms of art, the personality of each of the main characters is very important in order to transmit consistency, how do you work with actors in this sense?
A.- We use a very famous mocap actor, Maciej Kwiatkowski who was the mocap actor all through The Witcher I to The Witcher III. He is literally Geralt! We didn’t train the actor, Kwiatkowski just fitted in with what we wanted and it worked very well. I had the opportunity to work with him in England when I was working for Crytek. Kwiatkowski is very well known in Europe, he gets sent all over the place, he is in movies, he does stunt acting, he is a manager for the stunt group he’s holding and he is actually training juniors. Just like the voice actors, we had really good talent and then directed them as well as we could.
With Geralt and his movements, it was trial and error for us. We tested everything we had time to test, we brought it back into the engine, we saw if it worked and then we communicated the result to the actor. We told him for instance “this is how we got your movements and you can see your shoulder is a little bit twisted, we would like a variation of it” and so on. The biggest issue we had with the actors was that we didn’t have enough mocap space so we had to constantly go out of town and shoot, and that would delay things. But we have invested now in ourselves and we should be able to handle these situations much easier now.
You have to work with people who want to do the job, if they have their own motivation you won’t need as much disciple. From my experience, it is easier to work with actors when we appeal to their emotional side, when we get them to understand the character and to portrait it. So for someone like Kwiatkowski, it is natural, he has been doing this for over five years. Geralt de Rivia is also about sword play, so he is like a sword master basically.
“The downgrade is going to be true for any game released on this type of consoles, unless you start doing weird things like lowering the resolution, including a black bar, making the game follow a very linear path or adding quick-time events”
Q.- What particular limitations did you find given the open world in The Witcher 3?
A.- The limitations were more related to what fitted with the lore and the story. There were a couple of things that we wouldn’t do. We wouldn’t necessarily do any type of character that was only good, it has to be bad somehow, because everybody has two faces, two sides, at least. So when you construct a new character and you try to push things in a certain direction, it needs to fit in with the rest of the universe and this limits what you can do a bit. For instance, there isn’t a beast that talks, we have creatures that are cursed that can talk and that was a limiting fact. We have to obey certain rules. Magic doesn’t always happens in the same way, for example signs are not necessarily sorcery and herbs are not necessarily chemical, they can be magical, so you have to define how far you can go. For instance, when developing the last boss, we had to consider that he doesn’t have any superpowers, his sword does. In order to actually check this, we need to go to the lore and to the story, everything else is just your opinion. It is like a water bubble, you try to fill the bubble with as much as you can, but you try to keep it from actually bursting. I think that’s what we try to do, but it has to be within the bubble itself. I don’t know if this was too vague of an example…
Q.- … It is a good metaphor. Regarding platforms, this is the first time you simultaneously release a game for PC and consoles, you have already suggested that this was somehow limiting, in which ways?
A.- Definitely, first you have to keep in mind that if you take a look at the PC sales and the console sales, you can clearly make a predicted curve. This means that if we made it only for PC, we wouldn’t have been able to recuperate the money and the resources we spent, and next game would have maybe even less. It is also a little bit based on investing money. So we were forced to come down to the console level, there is no walking on eggshells here: the PC process in power is immense and in two years is going to be even more, so how can the consoles keep up? What we have to do as game designers is to concentrate on the game and its value, and that’s what we are doing.
But there will always be people complaining about frame rates, which is a legitimate complaint all in all, but if you keep in mind that they are also complaining about the graphical downgrade… yes, you have a downgrade and you also have slower frame rates, guess how The Witcher 3 would be if we actually used those demanded graphics: you wouldn’t be able to run it or maybe you would if you wire two consoles together [laughs]. On my previous company, we used to joke about putting two Xbox 360.
So for us, we had to go in this direction and, therefore, we made a conscious decision that in order for this to run equally well on both platforms we had to move back a little bit. This is going to be true for any game released on this type of consoles, unless you start doing weird things like lowering the resolution, including a black bar, making the game follow a very linear path or adding quick-time events. You are going to have very nice graphics, but a horrible story. And that’s not what we were going to do. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nintendo upgraded their graphics at some point, and they were equivalent to those in the PS4 and XBox One, that we would try to release for them as well.
A.- … By the way, you should see the Japanese covers of The Witcher 3, they are amazing. So there’s a market for us there as well and, sadly, those types of consoles (except for PS4) doesn’t sell too well. There is a completely different market that we can explore; of course I am not the business decider, but I can clearly see that everybody is forced to do this if they want to make a triple A, unless you make a deal with the publisher.
Q.- What is your department working on right now? Have you spot any mistakes that you are planning to solve with a patch?
A.- During the development of The Witcher 3, we made sure that none of the things we were working on were DLC things. This means that there were no premade assets and now we have a legitimate reason to charge people for new content. Expansions are going to have a significant amount of gameplay. Ok, I can maybe tease you and say what I think about what I am working on. It is a very interesting character you never had before and there are some technical features that go with this character. We are working very closely with the level designer to create a perfect situation. I don’t know what they are doing in terms of marketing, but this could very well be a significant high level character for the expansion. I am actually enjoying working on it because it is amazing. It is like that bubble I talked about, it is making the bubble expand but without popping it. So I am excited to see it in action. Sorry for teasing you, you just have to wait [laughs].
Photographs by K