Made in Frame: Flavourworks Brings Innovation to Interactive Video
It’s always a privilege to meet our customers and discover the different ways they use Frame.io in the field. But in this installment of Made in Frame, we’re heading a little further afield than usual to find out how a UK-based game developer is turning live action video into a deeply interactive experience.
But before we do that, let’s go back a bit.
Insert coin to start
At the risk of sounding ancient, I get a huge nostalgia rush when the full-motion video (FMV) arcade games of the 1980s are mentioned.
LaserDisc-driven titles like Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair were a permanent fixture at my local arcade, and the younger me was always drawn to their vibrant Don Bluth cartoon visuals (yes, that Don Bluth) and gloriously goofy death sequences.
But what compelled me to shovel sweaty handfuls of coins into these cabinets instead of adjacent machines like Pole Position and Gauntlet was that they told a story.
And once I was engaged with the characters, I absolutely needed to find out how it ended. (I never did.)
Now I think about it, it was a pretty cynical business model.
When the technology required to play arcade games became domesticated, these titles were gradually allowed into our homes. But while the pixels and sprites of Galaxian and Pac-Man could be easily replicated by the hardware hooked into our tiny TVs, getting full-motion (analog) video to work on these early digital devices proved challenging.
Also, FMV games had to share the game development budget with video production and casting. And this often led to storylines, acting, and gameplay so bad the end results were amazing.
Because of this, FMV games developed a poor reputation that even big-budget titles like Privateer 2 and Wing Commander IV—featuring performances from Malcolm McDowell, Mark Hamill, Jurgen Prochnow and Clive Owen—couldn’t quite shake.
These days, graphics hardware and game engines can generate compelling, lifelike imagery in real time, so there’s no longer a need for FMV segments to carry a story forward. The technology that once ruled the arcade has fallen. The days of FMV are gone.
At least, that’s what I thought.
Alive and kicking
As it turns out, I was completely wrong.
Not only is FMV still going strong as a game genre, it’s also being pushed and shaped into entirely new styles of gameplay.
One of the companies responsible for this resurgence is UK-based developer, Flavourworks.
Led by CEO Zack Slatter and founders Jack Attridge and Pavle Mihajlovic, Flavourworks describes itself as a next-gen content studio, rather than a game developer. Working out of Shoreditch in London, the team already has interactive thriller Erica under its belt, is releasing the first chapter of Hush this month, and has other projects already in development.
So the first question I had for executive producer Jonny Wardle and marketing manager George Smith was “why FMV?”
And the answer, surprisingly, starts in theatre.
A new opportunity
According to Jonny, the penny dropped after the founders saw a show in London called The Drowned Man by Punchdrunk, a theatre company with a reputation built on innovation and audience immersion.
As Jonny puts it, seeing how a theatre audience could be drawn into the story and given a sense of agency through interactivity was an eye-opening moment.
“They realized that there was an opportunity here, as game developers, to let people reach out and touch the world in a meaningful way, and that there was much more that could be done to bring interactivity to video-based media,” he says.
“Jack [Attridge, co-founder] often says that his objective is to create experiences and games that his mum and sister would play,” he continues, “They’re not traditional gamers, but they will watch TV and films, so the question is how can we bring the game experience to a different audience?”
Getting in touch
The answer to this question is Touch Video, an in-house development engine and toolset that allows Flavourworks to blend film-based workflows with game mechanics.
This, in turn, lets the team create interactive narratives that go beyond the conventional branching storylines of typical FMV games.
That’s not to say Touch Video happened overnight.
In fact, it’s been an ongoing process of experimentation and refinement with the product evolving across a number of platforms before settling into its current home on mobile devices.
For example, Erica started out as a Playstation 4 exclusive with a mobile companion app, before moving to PC, where it’s controlled with a mouse and keyboard. But Flavourworks’ latest title, Hush, is a mobile-only experience, allowing it to lean more heavily on a purely touch-based interface.
“Touch has been a key driver for the founders, creatively.” George explains, “And this is where we find ourselves right now. In live-action gaming, there’s not been that much advancement in this field compared to other genres.”
“So our focus is on creating that lean in/lean back style of gameplay that everyone can become immersed in.”
So how does it work?
In basic terms, video playback moves the story forward, while the UI manifests itself as a glowing overlay that hints at the interactive elements beneath.
Interacting with these hints acts as a trigger point for clip cueing and playback. In some cases, your gestures might move a physical object in the world, like opening a box lid or rotating the chamber on a revolver.
In other cases, it might be choice- or reaction-based—like catching a gun as it’s tossed to you, or ducking behind cover—which then cues up the next scene based on the results.
It’s here that the benefit of an entirely touch-based interface becomes apparent; the synchronicity between video playback and the motion of your finger across a screen creates a far stronger connection between the game and the player than the simple joystick twitches of previous examples of the genre.
“In effect our game engine acts as an interactive real-time compositor,” explains Jonny.
“We’re combining video layers in real-time and adding effects on top of that, which can be post-processing effects or UI elements that react to the player’s input.”
But there’s far more to it than a unique tech toolkit.
With Erica, Flavourworks demonstrated a knack for storytelling with significant consequences—unlike games that let you reload from an earlier point to avoid a decision that didn’t go your way.
This makes the perceived risk higher and the rewards greater, as well as encouraging subsequent playthroughs to find a new path for the characters to follow. (According to this Eurogamer piece, someone has played Erica to completion 27 times.)
The obvious choice
Choosing live-action video over painstakingly keyframed or mocapped animations makes a lot of sense.
When you consider the enormous amount of effort and technology required to bring human emotion and subtlety into a computer-generated world—and how, even now, the results often fall into the uncanny valley—pointing a video camera at an actor and getting an immediate, nuanced performance seems the obvious choice.
And, on the face of it, creating the content for games like Erica and Hush follows familiar film-making conventions.
Most of the content is shot in a studio using a Sony VENICE with a typical production crew, then post-production teams step in to handle edit, VFX, color, and sound.
But the nature of the final project places emphasis on different areas, including the need to work concurrently with the game developers as it’s being built.
As Jonny puts it, “When we’re in the process of creating and building the game, we’ll have a conventional offline edit where we’re creating the narrative blocks. But it’s actually a lot more complex than that; we’re hiding invisible cuts, there are seamless transitions between the narrative blocks.”
“There’s a secondary process to make all of these as smooth and unnoticeable as possible, so we need to be incredibly accurate down to individual frames.”
To help things along, Flavourworks chose Frame.io to help facilitate their workflow, using it to bridge the gap between the edit and development teams.
“Historically, our technical team was looking for a solution that allowed us to integrate our video editing pipeline and VFX pipeline directly into our games engine,” Jonny says. “We needed integration.”
“So on the video editing side, we had the Frame.io integration with Premiere, which made life a lot easier for us. And also the ability to load up uncompressed data to Frame.io in codecs that contain alpha transparency, which is a really important part of our process.”
But it was Frame.io’s willingness to play nicely with others that closed the deal.
“We’re able to use the Frame.io API to plug directly into our games engine pipeline, so it’s fully automated. When our editors create a new version of a shot, we use Frame.io’s version stacking, and our game engine brings in the latest version so that our designers can access it and add the interaction and UI.”
All of which allows the team at Flavourworks to focus on polishing the narrative instead of shipping drives and trying to keep track of versioning.
Getting it out there
The first episode of Hush–called Crane–has already wrapped and will be hitting the shelves as a Samsung Galaxy Store exclusive on February 22nd.
Based on the positive reviews for Erica, Flavourworks is clearly doing something right, and it seems fair to assume that Hush will follow suit. It’s also worth noting that Hush has shifted to a more data-friendly approach, giving gamers the option to stream, rather than download, the video content.
As Jonny explains, “With Erica, you had to download the majority of the video to the phone, which is a lot of data. With the move to 5G networks, streaming this video instead becomes a solution for us in terms of reducing the size of these downloads.”
However Flavourworks decides to develop Touch Video, it’s clear that the future of interactive video is bright. And we can’t wait to see where they take us with it next.