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Dragon Commander motion capture video reveals how the strategy RPG’s conversation system was saved from silence

Dragon Commander

You can’t have a simple conversation in a video game today without being greeted by a performance-captured face. I think we can probably all agree is a good, if prohibitively expensive, thing.

Fantasy RPG specialists Larian are managing to keep up NPC appearances for Dragon Commander, their wonderful-seeming synthesis of turn-based strategy, dragon combat and skeleton marriages – but for a while there it was looking like an impossibility for the independent studio.

The video helpfully follows the motion capture process, from white dots on a man’s face, via disembodied lines on a screen, to small humanoid creature with a clockwork hat. What’s especially fascinating is the extent to which voice actor Farhang Namdar is forced to elasticise his face just to ensure we can register movement behind those lunatic character models.

The story the video doesn’t tell is the bind Larian were in before acquiring new cheaper motion capture cameras, which produced cleaner results for animators to work with. The cost of animating all possible conversations in a choice-heavy RPG was to prove so expensive that the studio were contemplating animating only the opening lines. Which would have been rubbish.

“Having clean motion capturing abilities allowed us to proceed to the next step of our cunning plan i.e. mixing motion captured body animations with facial captured emotional expressions and automatically generated phoneme based lip animations,” said Larian head Swen Vicke on his blog.

“Tbh, we didn’t expect the results to be that good. They were remarkably convincing and not that different from the really expensive full body/facial capture tests we’d seen from various studios.

He added: “Today, all we need to get some life in the dialogs is our writer deciding what emotions are going to be present in a dialog and a certain process being followed during the recording of the voices. The rest comes for free, meaning that we can adapt the entire thing for each language, giving us pretty cool localization abilities.”

Pretty cool, eh? Vicke reckons full conversation animation in Dragon Commander would have cost Larian between $500,000 and $1 mil.Just imagine the cost of the same in Star Wars: The Old Republic. It can’t possibly be worth it. Can it?