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Why Capcom chose Spark Unlimited to take Lost Planet 3 in a cinematic direction

hiring a Western developer to bring a cinematic flair to the table

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Just as Capcom was wrapping up production on Lost Planet 2 in the spring of 2010, Kenji Oguro — Lost Planet franchise director at Capcom of Japan — came to producer Andrew Szymanski to discuss a potential third game in the series. "There's a lot of things I wanted to do with the first game [Lost Planet: Extreme Condition], but I wasn't able to for a number of reasons," he told Szymanski, who relayed the anecdote to me during an interview at New York Comic Con last weekend.

According to Szymanski, Capcom couldn't entirely realize its ambitions on the original Lost Planet, which launched in North America in January 2006 as "one of the first homegrown Japanese shooters." He explained that the developers were still "trying to get their heads wrapped around the [current-generation] hardware," and do it on their first iteration of the company's MT Framework game engine.

Oguro wanted to make up for some of those missed opportunities by making Lost Planet 3 a more cinematic, story-driven experience, which led Capcom to decide that it wanted a Western studio to develop the title. "It's not that [Capcom's] internal team couldn't do [that kind of game]," said Szymanski, "but it's not necessarily playing to their strengths."

As he explained during the Lost Planet 3 panel at New York Comic Con, Capcom chose Spark Unlimited — the studio behind the poorly received games Turning Point: Fall of Liberty and Legendary — primarily because of the company's experience in the film industry and its location in the suburbs of Los Angeles. But there was more to the decision than that, Szymanski told me.

Publishers of many modern big-budget games bring in multiple studios to help out with particular elements of the development process, and typically, a studio will staff up for full production and put its employees on other projects as production winds down. But Lost Planet 3 is being made in what Szymanski called the "studio system," likening the game's development to filmmaking. "People are brought on and taken off as necessary to meet certain goals," he explained. "So what that's allowed us to do is, if we have a specific niche that needs to get filled, we can hire somebody from that talent pool" — a pool that happens to be rather large in the Los Angeles area.

"We've set this project up in a way that we have access to those people when we need them," he said.

According to Szymanski, the first concept meetings for Lost Planet 3 took place in February 2010. At the time, its developers drew up plans for the usual development process on a game like this: hand-animated character models to which voice-over was added later. But the stylized art design that pipeline produced was insufficient to convey the subtleties of emotion that Capcom wanted to bring to the table.

"It's sort of uncharted territory. It involves scrapping everything we've done"

It was then that Spark proposed performance capture, a technique used in games such as Team Bondi's L.A. Noire. The studio told Capcom, "We can try it, but it's sort of uncharted territory. It involves scrapping everything we've done and implementing an entirely new character pipeline."

Capcom agreed, and the developers threw out nearly a year of work — after the concept phase, they had spent nine months putting together a prototype using the original character models. Here, said Szymanski, Capcom pushed Spark to "develop new tools that they were familiar with from the film world, but had never actually implemented themselves."

Many of the studio's employees have experience in filmmaking: Lead producer Kevin Scharff, for example, worked on the 2009 CG-animated movie Astro Boy. Spark had established a performance-capture pipeline for film, but it had to be reworked to interface with the Lost Planet 3 game engine. "That's where most of the work had to go," said Szymanski.

During the panel, Capcom and Spark showed off that work, as well as the fruits of their labor. The studio used a "digital doubles" system, hiring actors who both looked and sounded like the characters that the script called for. The developers scanned the actors' faces and bodies to produce 3D models, and then began filming Lost Planet 3's story cutscenes with their performance-capture process.

Spark explained during the panel that it's not as simple as pressing "record" on a digital camera — facial and motion capture data must be cleaned up in post-production, along with the faces themselves. "The first pass," Szymanski pointed out, "is pretty rough." Spark's digital artists apply elements like hair and makeup to the captured models; Szymanski compared the process to outfitting a film actor with makeup and costume. Animators also have to tweak the raw motion capture data, which can be finicky.

performance capture is not as simple as pressing "record" on a digital camera

According to Szymanski, Capcom and Spark dealt with "growing pains" in the process, which "took a lot longer than we thought [it would]." But the finished cutscene, which the developers played at the panel after giving the audience a behind-the-scenes look at its production, looked impressive indeed.

"We have that sort of nuanced performance that really is going to help for the type of story that we want to tell," said Szymanski.

Lost Planet 3 is set for release on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC in early 2013.

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