NaturalMotion: From GTA’s physics to App Store success

CSR Racing

CSR Racing

Back in 2008, NaturalMotion’s profile was skyrocketing, helped in no small part by its work on GTAIV. The software developer’s procedural animation technology, Euphoria – which enabled dynamic animation on the fly of multiple 3D figures – ensured that the population of Liberty City felt as alive as the city itself. People stumbled believably when shoved, pin-wheeled horribly to the pavement when clipped by a car, and staggered utterly convincingly out of local bars. As advertisements go, it couldn’t be bettered; after a shaky false start with a cancelled Indiana Jones title, the biggest game of the year was now showcasing the Oxford studio’s tech.

For many software developers, the obvious next step would be to wait for more clients to call. Founded in 2001 by CEO Torsten Reil, who realised that his research on human and animal movement for the University Of Oxford’s zoology department could have commercial applications, NaturalMotion had built up a diverse suite of technologies by 2008. As well as the procedural generation of Euphoria, it had game animation engine Morpheme (the later incarnations of which would be used by Ninja Theory in Enslaved) and Endorphin – a technology that provided “virtual stuntmen” for films. Reil, however, didn’t want NaturalMotion to be simply in the business of licensing tech for other people’s creative endeavours. He wanted to make games too.

“With this technology, there were whole game genres we could do differently, and we felt that we had a pretty good handle on how they could be done”, Reil explains. It was rough, full contact sports games that the studio turned to first – the world of scrums, tackles and dives was particularly suited to Euphoria’s animations. So work began on Backbreaker, an American football game where everything is simulated, every player interaction unique.

A switch to game development meant hiring a new team, since NM couldn’t spare experts on the tech side, not with technology to work on and clients to provide for. “It took us quite a long time to do it”, Reil admits. “We did it with quite a small team: six people, and then 12 at peak, which was quite small for a next-gen team at the time.”

NaturalMotion Line Up

Backbreaker was released in 2010 on PS3 and 360, to mixed reviews. Some less positive appraisals suggested it was more advertisement for Euphoria than a game, a suggestion that causes Reil to bristle even now. “It kind of annoyed us that people thought it was a tech demo”, he says. “It wasn’t a tech demo. We took it very seriously. The tech demos are the games that had already been published. Games such as GTAIV speak for the technology, and we didn’t need to do other games to show people.”

But if success was modest on console, Backbreaker fared better elsewhere. Midway through development, the studio realised that the iPhone 3GS was capable of running its animation engine, Morpheme, so work began on a simplified port. It was a pretty left-field manoeuvre. The procedural generation offered by Euphoria was the more innovative, disruptive technology, and after its debut in GTAIV, NaturalMotion was well placed to continue to showcase its capability with further console releases. That said, Morpheme was capable of producing animations of better quality than anything seen on iOS thus far, so the studio wanted to capitalise on this gap.

“We thought it would be great to combine high quality assets and graphics and visuals, particularly animation, together with gaming that everyone could pick up”, explains Reil.

Mobile gaming brought its own learning curve – users less accustomed to gaming than console owners needed clear, simple UIs, for a start. “We literally got people from the street – people who used iPhones, but not necessarily for gaming. We gave them the game, and I remember the first usability test out of ten, ‘How much do you enjoy the game?’ scored four”, Reil recalls, laughing.

The mobile device game was simpler than its console brother, focusing on the instant action of arcade-like point scoring mode Tackle Alley – a minigame in the console release. Backbreaker Football: Tackle Alley’s iOS release pipped the console version’s debut by a number of months, and the mobile game went on to outperform the Euphoria-powered sibling. To date, Backbreaker on iOS has been downloaded over 5,500,000 times, and – in contrast to the console version’s reception – user reviews are glowing.

Backbreaker Football came to define the blueprint for NaturalMotion’s subsequent games: the combination of Morpheme-powered graphics and tight gameplay loops can be found in Backbreaker’s sequel; the hockey-themed Icebreaker, and even equestrian pet simulation My Horse. And despite the popularity of graphically simple titles on iOS, NaturalMotion attributes much of its games success to the animation.

“From the very beginning”, explains VP of games, Barclay Deeming, “especially with the iPhone version, we had these word-of-mouth moments where players think ‘This looks amazing’, and they want to show it to their friend. That’s why we have the replays in Backbreaker – so that, you know, we would imagine a kid at school saying ‘Oh, check this out!’ We wanted to games to spread virally that way.”

This viral, over-the-shoulder appeal makes smartphones and other mobile devices a natural home for NaturalMotion’s games, and Reil acknowledges that the studio is now no longer interested in making traditional console games.

Backbreaker Football: Tackle Alley

“Obviously for our technology side, we are super interested in console, because those are our customers, but for us ourselves creating IP and developing our publishing business, iOS is definitely our only platform”, he reveals. “Firstly, it has a large installed base and there isn’t a lot of fragmentation, so in that sense it’s more like a console. Secondly, we believe there’s a huge disruption in the market right now, which gives us an opportunity to innovate.”

It’s hard to get Reil to reminisce fondly about his experience of console publishing. “Dealing with retailers was a pain in the arse – an absolute pain in the arse, and I don’t want to do it again. And dealing with all the middlemen involved in general retail was difficult, getting shelf space for the game was a nightmare, when you find there are so many vested interests already, there are other publishers dominating and determining what the shelf space is, it’s really hard to get in,” he says. “As a company who have a lot of passion for their games, seeing all of those blocks, it was a scarring experience, to put it charitably. And, you know, that’s not true of iOS.”

As well as iOS, the studio has embraced the free-to-play model, too, starting with My Horse. “We did five paid games first, and the average turnaround investment for our paid games was five times, so they were quite profitable, and it looked like quite a good business,” explains Reil, “But it was becoming increasingly clear at the beginning of 2010 that F2P was a superior business model, because now the game is free you can use the game itself as an ad – people can download it for free, so there’s no barrier. That’s where word-of-mouth moments work really well.”

Indeed, NaturalMotion’s increasing confidence with – and success on – the App Store has culminated in the release of CSR Racing, a street racer developed by Boss Alien that’s notable for containing none of the human animations for which the studio is renowned. Its tap-based racing mechanics and shrewd monetisation are a reflection of the lessons learned over the past four years. “There’s no fat on there,” says Struan Robertson, product director.

“Everything is drilled down to that core experience of playing those races, improving your car and beating faster and faster opponents as you go. What we’ve we learned from My Horse and CSR is that it’s not about horses [or cars], it’s about user behaviour. What can we learn from that game that we can then put into this game, and likewise, we were talking about CSR Racing, and the player model in there. Our thinking has moved on again, and there’s stuff there we’d change for the next game. Using knowledge from the car game to do games that aren’t necessarily about cars.”

NaturalMotion studio

CSR is released the day we visit the studio, and there’s a palpable sense of pride and nervous expectation as Deeming and Robertson occasionally rush to the monitors to check analytics. They needn’t have worried – CSR reached the peak of the App Store’s highest grossing charts within days, boosted, perhaps, by its appearance at Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference earlier in the month. “If you really push for quality as a developer or a publisher, and really really push, then Apple will notice your game”, explains Reil. “But we never assume that Apple is going to take an interest. They call you.”

The studio – located in North Oxford’s affluent Jericho, is evenly split between the technical and game design team – who work under the banner of NaturalMotion Games. Their work is separate, but the only clue that we’re going from gaming to technical development as you walk the office floor is the sudden absence of concept art on the walls. While the teams don’t work together on individual projects, they benefit from being under the same roof.

“There’s a reasonable amount of crossover in terms of some of the skill sets,” says Deeming. “And in terms of our ideas and developmental technology, there’s a lot of chat and discussion, and there’s a great deal of interest from both sides of the company in what the other side is doing”.

“There’s a lot of respect from both sides”, continues Robertson. “There’s a lot of socialising as well. I think when you’re out of the building, no one considers us to be two separate companies.” It is, however, important to keep some degree of separation, claims Reil. “We made sure that the teams are ring-fenced, so that when our technology customers feel they needed support, the tech team isn’t working on games”. It’s indicative of a continued commitment to the technical side of the business, which has seen Morpheme and Euphoria appear within a host of console releases even as NaturalMotion has been building up its iOS catalogue – most recently, Euphoria ensured Brazilian gangsters staggered back realistically from gunshot wounds in Max Payne 3. Indeed, Rockstar has continued to be one of the most enthusiastic clients. “Rockstar always has a desire to do something new, and to do something that wows people and gives them something that they haven’t seen before”, says Reil. “And I think, you know, that Euphoria actually panned out that way. Euphoria was a different way to have characters move, and to make them much more interactive, and surprising.”

One place Euphoria hasn’t appeared, however, is on iOS. Reil is cagey when asked about it, but it seems likely that a game featuring truly procedurally generated animations will appear on an Apple device eventually. “The full-on simulation of Euphoria on iPhone, we haven’t shown the public yet. It doesn’t mean that it hasn’t impacted our design”, he concedes. In the meantime, however, NaturalMotion is more concerned with the matter of an imminent office move to a new location in central Oxford, as well as closely monitoring CSR’s fortunes. The studio also recently raised $11 million in venture capital, which it’ll be using for further expansion.

With success in two very different fields, NaturalMotion is in a position to rest on its laurels once more. Instead, Reil and his team have decided to aim even higher. “We want to be one of the leading, if not the leading next-generation game publisher. We don’t want to be a small developer that does a couple of games. We think there’s a huge opportunity now to bring incredibly high-end content to a huge number of users. So that’s our ambition.“