Planet Zoo’s animal animation tools are “too good for games”

We chatted with Chris Marsh and Ollie Powell about how Frontier’s animation department created animals with authenticity

Never work with animals or children, that’s what they tell you in the ‘biz. Too unpredictable, need lots of attention, and can’t be controlled. But Frontier has instead leant into these seemingly negative attributes with new management sim Planet Zoo, and flaunts them as proof of each animal’s authenticity.

The many birds and beasties that feature in Planet Zoo are incredibly detailed, and to get them to that point, the studio has had to get all eyes on them. While speaking to us about how Planet Zoo is a wild, endearing hybrid of the studio’s previous games, Planet Zoo game director Piers Jackson highlighted the research and work that goes into creating each of these believable creatures. The way the animals move, look, and behave was a top priority for Frontier, and solving this challenge lay in capturing the unpredictability of wildlife.

Much of the responsibility for nailing this fell onto the shoulders of the animation department. While at the studio we took the opportunity to speak to Planet Zoo lead animator Chris March and principal animation programmer Ollie Powell about the challenge of building something so organic and natural using tools that rely on structure and code.

PCGN: You’ve said that part of your job on Planet Zoo is ‘breathing life into the animation of the animals’. Could you explain the process behind that?

Chris Marsh: Everybody has an expectation when they see something. They have a subconscious expectation of how something’s going to behave or whether the weight of something feels right, or the timing feels right. When it comes to animals people think they’re an expert. They’ve all seen the nature of documentaries and they’ve all seen the David Attenborough shows. For us it’s about making what their expectations are.

That’s how something is believable or not and gaming development has an extra layer where sometimes something unbelievable happens in real life and it’s like, ‘If I put that in the game, people are not going to believe it’. There’s this constant judgement call of, ‘If I put this in the game are people going to buy it?’.

Animation is all about, ‘Are people really going to believe this thing that I’m putting in the game? Is it believable when they see it happen?’. So for animals it’s a case of measuring if people expect this. People have seen chimps grooming and they’ve also seen lions roaring…

Ollie Powell: Yeah, people are experts because they watch the documentaries and they have a lot more knowledge than they think about how certain things behave like what a chimp’s mannerisms are.

CM: I think if you asked someone who points at something and goes, ’Oh, that’s a bad animation’. They might not be able to give the reasons why but the real reason is because none of what they’ve seen in the animation is believable. When you choose to put an animal in your game and give animations, it’s a constant balance of, ’This thing that I’m putting in this game, is the person playing it going to believe it and understand it?’. Sometimes you can go too far, you can choose some behaviours that are too obscure.

Could you give an example of a behaviour that has been a surprise to you when researching animals?

CM: We do a lot of work on social calls and vocalisations for animals, and we work quite closely with the audio team. We’ve got a really good relationship with them and will often bounce things backwards and forwards. Sometimes we’ll go, ’I need to do this social call for this animal, do you have the audio for this?’. And they’ll play something for us and we’ll go, ’Nah, that’s not helpful’, and they’ll be like, ‘No, this is what happens!’.

With the big cats, there’s a lot of the kind of chuffing that they do and then the low vocalisations. It’s very like, ‘Ok, this is very interesting. I didn’t know that’. With Planet Zoo, the balance we try to strike is education, and maybe there’s something that someone has never seen or heard before – you’re then educating them. I think there’s a line there where you don’t want to ask them to stretch their belief too far.

OP: A big focus in general has been finding the time and space to do all these lovely flourishes per animal because that’s a really expensive thing to do. Those identity animations and sounds really carry across the character of the animals, and it’s what we’ve been trying to do.

We want to get across a chimp that’s believably a chimp, like a chimp grooming another chimp. You put them in your habitat and when they do that, you’ll be like ‘Yeah that’s what chimps do, chimpy stuff’.

What are some of the smallest details that have gone into the animal animations?

CM: The animation rigs that we have on some of our creatures, it’s crazy how detailed they are. They’re too good for any games, really. We have a whole additive partial system to spice up some of the walk cycles for animals, for instance. We will have an additive animation that is on a random trigger. So you’ll never see the same walk cycle twice because the eyes will always be doing something different or the ear flicks and the tail swishes will be different.

OP: When you layer on all the things we have like the head look, the foot planting, and the ragdoll – within the animation layers you start to see lots of things emerge that you wouldn’t have expected, even if we’re testing it over and over again.

Were there any big challenges in transitioning from animating rigid and metallic roller coasters to the natural movements and behaviours of animals?

CM: The way that we treated it, I don’t think Planet Coaster would have been as successful as it was if we hadn’t have done our homework on the roller coasters. We had to become experts on roller coasters in a way that you have to become an expert on anything if you’re trying to make it convincing and believable. We really learned about the hinges, the wheels, the brackets, everything, and it wasn’t so much a change of pace to suddenly do that for animals because it’s a similar mindset where you’re going, ‘Ok, these animals are our roller coasters for this game, I need to put in the same level of research, depth, and detail’.

So in terms of shifting mindsets, it wasn’t really that much of a difference in terms of our work and practises. I made a roller coaster in this game and now it’s a lion – it’s about what are the fans going to pick up on. That’s another thing with our games is that they’re always so entrenched in the community and we have to meet their expectations, we can’t just cut corners.

OP: We were lucky because Jurassic World gave us that feeling for creatures. Although they are definitely very different creatures than animals but yeah, we had a creature mindset and ready to go on to Planet Zoo after Jurassic World.

CM: I’ve been here for 10 years now so I stretch back to the Kinectimals days. So a lot of our games that we’ve made have been very creature based. So shifting from Planet Coaster to Planet Zoo was very natural for us because a lot of us down in the animation department are well versed in creating creatures.

Do either of you have a favourite animal that you like working on?

OP: I like the elephant, just the plodding elephant. They are so strange, you look at their feet and their toes and their toe starts up where you think their ankle is. The anatomy of an elephant is crazy.

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CM: When you look at the cross section of an elephant’s foot it’s actually very similar to a human’s. They just have this big spongy bit under the heel where a humans heel would be but the actual skeletal structures it’s very similar. I think my favourite is the peacock, mostly just because I didn’t think you would expect to find a peacock model in a game with the level of detail that we’ve put into it. And also, as an animator, birds are really lovely to animate as well because they’re very twitchy and there’s a lot of character to them.

OP: There’s a lot going on when they flourish.