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Cryptic Studios - Cryptic Animation Rig & the Marvel Universe

Carolyn Koh files her third report from the recent Online Game Developers conference. In this article, Carolyn had the opportunity to talk to some of the people over at Cryptic Studios about their recent decision to release their animation tools to the general public.

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Cryptic Studios announced that they were sharing their Animation Rig (known as Cryptic AR) on Wednesday, May 9th and launched their website www.crypticar.com at the same time, following immediately with a presentation by Sean Burgoon - the talented programmer behind CrypticAR and Shayne Herrera, Cryptic's Art Development Director.

Shayne opened the talk with a simple greeting, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." This writer chuckled appreciatively at his deep voice, a fair imitation of Cash's distinctive opening, and waited to see if he would be talking about CrypticAR with evangelistic fervor.

The Cryptic Animation Rig has been released under the GNU General Public License and is free to download and use. CrypticAR will allow animators of all experience levels to familiarize themselves with some of the tools used in a professional development environment. Unlike other free animation rigs, Cryptic AR is not an approximation of production tools, but the very tools currently being used to produce next-gen game visuals at Cryptic Studios. This is the same software that is being used to animate the upcoming Marvel Universe MMOG. The core concept of the rig is to provide the artist community with a free set of tools.

Version 1.0 comes with three pre-built identities (IDs) or character skins, and more are planned in the future, but the plan is for users to submit and share IDs that they have created, through the community forums at CrypticAR.com. The three IDs are the Knight, the Hero and the Soldier. A few props are included, and again, the developers look forward to seeing what the community will contribute.

The rig also provides body scaling, allowing changes to mass and scale, IK/FK (Animator speak - Inverse Kinematic / Forward Kinematic) support, squash and stretch, finger details, pose lists and presets, to name a few more features. Sean Burgoon ran the attendees quickly through the use of the AR. I had never seen such software before, but the controls looked very intuitive.

"There are a lot of rigs out there that are really hard to use, as they take a long time to learn," said Sean. "CrypticAR is easier to use and a lot of fun."

CrypticAR is not a "light" version of what Cryptic Studios uses in producing their games, it is the full, production version.

"We thought of providing a 'light' version," Sean said, "But then we would have had to figure out what to take out, and how to take it out."

Why give it away? The response was, "Why not? What do we have to lose? There are two ways to gauge success," Shayne told me. "One is the money you could earn from selling it, and the second is the number of people using your software." Obviously, Cryptic Studios is more interested in the second option.

"Cryptic is about innovation, change and growth," he said. "Our philosophy is about community and culture. About fostering talent and skills." As a case-in-point, he smiled at Sean. "Sean here was working in Tech Support at Blizzard before coming to us. This was the talent that only needed the opportunity to shine."

I asked how Cryptic decided to provide their AR for free. "I was having lunch with Michael, the CEO, and I think I said 'we should just give it away' and about 45 minutes later, it was a done deal," Shayne responded.

"How did you feel about it?" I asked Sean. "Psyched!" was the immediate and enthusiastic answer. This was just after the Christmas break, and the last three to four weeks have been intense, I was told. Deciding to release CrypticAR to the public helped Cryptic Studios' internal development of the rig, Shayne shared. "Whereas an animator could come over to Sean and say, 'Hey, this is broken / buggy' and Sean would fix it, we had to make sure we were releasing a polished version to the public."

I continued my questioning, asking if they really thought this would take off. "Artists have a strong sense of community," Shayne responded. "We wanted to give to the community and see what they give back."

"We won't lose anything," Sean chimed in, "and this connects the community to games."

The developers are anxious to see what will come out of their project and indeed, not two days after launch, there are already some demo reels linked in their Gallery forum. Both Shayne and Sean were blown away by the number of downloads only two days after the website went live.

"We've had 12,00 downloads so far," said Shayne, repeating the number in awe, "12,00. That's about twelve times what we expected."

Cryptic Studios hopes to be able to release a reel of the best from the community every quarter or so, and Shayne admitted, "If we find some remarkable talent in the community, it might even prove to be a good recruiting tool!"

All this also tied into what Victor Wachter, Cryptic's Online Community Manager hopes to build for the studio. "I would like to build a community of Cryptic Fans. Not separate communities for different games, but a community where they can talk to us outside the context of the game."

To that extent, Victor has been building his web team with talent from other fields. He hopes to recruit writers with journalistic backgrounds, graphic artists with news site backgrounds and make use of Web 2.0. He waxed eloquent over user-managed content.

"We're at a point that we should be looking at that. Community Managers shouldn't be the gatekeepers - and we do a lot of that for example, with screenshots. Why shouldn't we accept and display 2,000 screenshots of the same dragon? With user managed content and ratings, players can decide to look at the latest submitted or the best picks. The lowest ranked over time can fall off."

"I want a huge participatory element," said Victor, chuckling as he added, "That's a word you'll hear me use a lot. Participatory. I want to engage the community. I want them not only to read content but to participate. To show off and be recognized."

There wasn't a lot that Victor could say about Marvel Universe Online, other than the fact that he believed it was an excellent IP to translate to the MMO field. "Marvel has a Universe. There's a consistent world story. Heroes meet each other and interact with each other."

He ended again with fat hints of information at ComicCon.

Cryptic is the Studio that could. That tried, that grew City of Heroes, City of Villains and is growing yet again with Marvel Universe. Keep an eye on it. The way they are recruiting talent, more good things seem sure.

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