Motion captured, NHL 2K9 slapsticked.
Rick Nash’s assault on the goal is about as clever as it is swift, swinging from side to side at top speed. He juggles the puck all the way to the net in wild sweeping motions, only to ease on the stick and effortlessly slip the puck past the goal post. It’s another killer score for the 2007 captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets, but it doesn’t end with the usual victory lap.
Nash suddenly tenses up onto his tiptoes and stops just short of a face plant onto the concrete floor. This is no hockey arena; it’s the motion-capture studio at 2K Marin, hidden in an unassuming warehouse just north of San Franisco. Nash is playing a few rounds of motion-capture hockey as the spokesman and cover athlete of NHL 2K9.
Nash’s “rink” for the day is a set of foam pads covering a half-court floor of an indoor basketball court. The space is just barely large enough to build up speed and take shots on the goal. The white, topmost layer on the foam padding is sprayed with a slippery silicon gel for ice skates to glide on. (Readers, please don’t try this at home, though I should ask Duke for a rink in the office, preferably next to the beer fridge.)
Like the makeshift rink, Nash’s outfit has been jury-rigged from a batch of odd parts: motion-detecting ping pong ball sensors, a brand new batch of NHL-approved hockey pads, and an old pair of skates. The most amusing part is seeing Nash’s slightly sheepish expression as he first steps into the studio, his body wearing the fuzzy black motion-capture jumpsuit.
“It doesn’t leave much to the imagination,” he remarks.
Motion capture works a lot like the Wii-mote. There are cameras around the room, each camera attached to an infrared lamp. The infrared light bounces off of the retro-reflective ping-pong ball sensors on Nash’s suit directly back into the cameras. On the side of the room, technical artists monitor a half-dozen computers, watching 3D stick figures mimic Nash’s movements like marionettes.
Fifty hand-hung cameras, hanging from every wall and corner, line the room. Some of them include several frighteningly high-up birds-eye rigs. The technicians arrange the room so that at least one camera is able to spot a sensor as the camera spins and dives around the room with Nash.
The lights are just one piece of the mo-cap puzzle here: Every ping-pong ball houses a motion sensor, which provide more than two dozen line graphs for the technicians. If a bone or muscle movement records incorrectly, the artists can look at the graph and figure out how much an arm or an elbow was supposed to move before tuning the animation.
Star athletes attract attention to games like 2K9, but what do they actually contribute to the product? Before Nash records his moves, he consults the 2K Sports team on player strategies and real-life experiences. This insider’s perspective goes toward making a more realistic AI and a more realistic playbook.
“The big thing is to make it as realistic as they can,” said Nash. “Highlight-reel goals sum up a video game. With 20 seconds left in a video game, you want those plays to be spectacular and realistic.”
On the ice, Nash is an amazing left wing – first pick in the 2002 NHL draft and winner of the 2004 Maurice “Rocket” Richard trophy for scoring the most goals in 2004. Nash scored the quickest goal in the history of NHL All-Star games in 2008, when he sank a puck within the first 12 seconds of play. A fan of all-sports games, Nash said his teammates settle big arguments over video games, with the younger guys favoring sports titles and shooters.
Though Nash and his 2K co-conspirators are mum on gameplay details, a few developers admit that they are aiming to simplify the basic gameplay like passing and shooting for newcomers, while special shots like Nash’s surprising triple-dekes will be feats for more experienced players to master. They were also hard-pressed to think of any mode or feature that will be removed since NHL 2K8, so it’s safe to assume 2K9 will be as ridiculously comprehensive as ever.
On 2K Sports’ artificial rink, Nash models 50 different shots in just half a day, with a rock-steady procedure to help the 2K crew breeze through the shot list. 2K producers and technicians coach Nash how to move for the shot, then they call out "ACTOR READY! MOCAP READY!" and proceed to record the shot. The quantity of high-tech sensor equipment and Nash’s spot-on professional precision make the shots go through in two or three quick takes at most.
Nash wraps his session, sinking into a comfortable armchair and fielding a few interviews. Today is the last step in a 20-day shoot featuring a dozen local and minor-league players, including at least two who took to the ice to record some new fighting moves. So you can thank motion capture for not only giving you the freedom to tip a puck in every direction and fling goalie gloves in every direction, but also send that extra uppercut into an opponent’s nose. (I’ll teach you to knock my Sharks out of the playoffs!)
Will the 2009 edition be a star player, or will it sit on the bench at your local Gamestop? Time will tell, as 2K puts the final touches on the game in time for this year’s NHL debut.