People often think that a 3D fighter is more technically advanced than a 2D fighter. Actually, it could be argued that the opposite is true. 3D fighters are, in effect, more similar to puppetry. A model needs only the application of mathematics in order to dictate movement. 2D fighters require significantly more artistry to work. If you want to make a movement change, you can’t simply assign point X to move to point Y in Z time. You have to draw the frames individually.
When Arc System Works originally developed Guilty Gear, taking concept drawings and turning them into sprites was a painstaking process. A team consisting of a number of artists all work on one character, which inevitably leads to stylistic differences. These then need to be brought together into a consistent character design in order to animate properly.
Four years before BlazBlue went into production, Mori was developing a technique that would streamline the process of sprite creation without compromising on the visual flair expected from an Arc fighter.
There are five key stages that each character goes though in the process from concept to final the sprite:
1 – All the characters in BlazBlue start life as 2D concepts and each animation frame’s pose is drawn by hand.
2 – A 3D model is made of each character and posed according to the concepts and animation frames.
3 – The 3D model is then used to create a consistent 2D line image as a guide for the final sprite.
4 – Light and shadow is then applied and additional detail worked into each individual frame…
5 – …which is then turned into the dot image – the sprite itself. But the work doesn’t end there!
While this new technique certainly accelerates development time, Arc doesn’t skimp on the detail. Every single frame of animation is accounted for in a seemingly endless collection of meticulous animation notes. Every move, every punch, every fall, roll, dash, kick, and slash is hand drawn and communicated. Given that a number of frames can greatly affect a fighting game’s balance, they must all be detailed and each move, action path, and animation flow explained. In all, each character in BlazBlue has around 1000 frames of animation.
These are Konte, literally ‘Storyboard’ – drawings, frame by frame details of characters in various action states. Each frame comes with a wealth of information. In this case, one of Rachel’s falling animations. Taking into account how her dress animates, Nago’s reaction and annotations for motion.
This Konte details a minor event, Noel taking a hit and the animation flow in this instance can go one of two ways. Either she takes the hit and falls (as in the middle path) or she successfully blocks and so returns to her neutral state (as shown in the bottom-most path). I combined the finish sprites into the image to show the finished example – and just how closely the final sprites match the original animation storyboard.
These are just the basics of getting movement right. Once this template is laid down for all the characters there is still a huge amount more work to be done. Individual sprites are reworked to give a certain anime taste. Fists are enlarged at points of impact and limbs are elongated for kicks.
Flourishes need to be added for certain moves to visually express impact, speed, grace, power, and purpose. All of these elements need to be conveyed somehow and worked into individual frames – not just to add to the spectacle of the gameplay, but also to give characters the kind of warmth and organic finish that 3D fighters are unable to match.
BlazBlue is one of those games where the characters and universe are unreal and fantastical, but still grounded in reality. Movements are wholly unrealistic, impossible even, but despite this it’s completely believable within its universe and the framework created for itself.
Every sprite – around 19, 000 of them – are tweaked and manipulated. This is done no just to help convey motion and impact, but also attitude and personality.
BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Extend comes out on PS3, Xbox 360, and Vita next week in North America and February 22 in Europe. Check out the BlazBlue fan page to see Toshimichi Mori as a Soulcalibur V fighter. Arc System Works explains how they create backgrounds in Part 3.