Potionomics is brewing up Pixar-quality art and animation

Potionomics originally caught my eye while I was scrolling through the #screenshotsaturday hashtag on Twitter, where indie developers post screenshots and gifs of games either finished or in progress. I don't remember which gif it was that stopped me in my scrolling tracks, but a look at their Twitter account will show that it could have been any one of them. 

Potionomics is a management game about a witch named Sylvia running a magic shop, currently being developed by Seattle indie studio Voracious Games. They routinely post short clips on social media of their characters reacting and interacting, with a level of polish and personality that make them appear to have come off the big screen rather than an indie game. 

I sat down with Potionomics lead developer Aryo Jati Darmawan, its technical animator Anguel Bogoev, and character animator Sengamphon (Emily) Lattanavong to find out more about how they concoct such slick animations.

PC Gamer: I have this idea in my head of what Potionomics is, but what is it in yours words?

Aryo Jati Darmawan: Potionomics is essentially a game about playing the potion shop NPC in a fantasy RPG. You play as a debt-ridden witch apprentice who’s trying to make ends meet by running a potion shop on the frontier of an RPG. Players will be challenged to survive the rigors of business ownership by mastering crafting, customizing, and upgrading your shop.

...you’re in debt because witch school is probably really expensive. I can only imagine how much those books cost

Aryo Jati Darmawan

What makes our game really different is that we have a dynamic economy in our game so it’s a constantly shifting market where every price—every single value in the game—is changed depending on the market conditions. And the events of the story as you progress kind of emerge and change the economy. 

The players have a really big key role in being able to change market conditions themselves. This can be in the form of sending heroes out for quests or buying certain types of ingredients to create shortages or abundances to generate their own story along the way.

Your pinned tweet right now says "Have you ever wanted to play an RPG about an in-debt witch? I did, so I’m making a game about that." Was that the original catalyst for Potionomics?

AJD: That essentially is the catalyst for the whole entire idea. A lot of the witch stories were about kids in school and even now, if you look at like Chucklefish’s new game, it’s set in a school. I felt that exploring a story about a witch out of school—like what happens after school?

Anguel Bogoev: Life starts.

AJD: Right, life really begins and you’re in debt because witch school is probably really expensive. I can only imagine how much those books cost with those ingredients for potions class and having to make your way in the world as a witch. 

So entering adulthood as a witch is horrifyingly similar to entering adulthood in our world?

AJD: Absolutely, 100 percent. This game is relatable in that sense. I think we take a lot of our own cues from our lives and put that into the game. We’re running this new indie game business and that has really helped in generating a lot of ideas. Being a new business owner, trying to make things work.

It was originally the animation gifs on Twitter that really caught my eye. What do you think keeps other indie teams from working on such stylized animation? Just the complexity?

AJD: I think one of the biggest things—especially when we release a gameplay trailer in the future it will be more evident—there are a lot of animations per character in our game. We really want to give our characters a full gamut of emotions and ways to react to certain things. We want to make our characters feel lifelike with real emotions and personalities. Like Pixar or Disney are able to evoke those sort of characters in their films, it requires a full set of emotions. On top of the art pipeline itself, Sylvia [the protagonist] alone has more than 100, maybe 200 animations.

AB: I think the other thing is people don’t realize how many specialized scenarios come up. Animation is basically signaling what’s happening in the game through motion. In this case, emotional things are also being signaled, narrative things. The more you want to add for that, the more it balloons outward. If you don’t have experience dealing with that much animation content, it’s not only hard to keep track of, it’s also hard to make sense of how it’s supposed to tie together.

One consideration we also made was that most players will skip through dialogue pretty quickly. We do this all the time.

Aryo Jati Darmawan

Most people want to focus on a project where the character moves around and has some attacks but then that’s based on how many directions you can move in and things like that. The relative numbers there, you won’t get past 30 or so animations to have a relatively complete-feeling set of animations. That’s far short of what you need if you want to really make everything feel fully animated.

AJD: So while we don’t have combat in our game or other big features that games deal with, we still have way more animation than those games. I think that’s part of it. Often times when you play games, you just don’t see a full range of emotion from characters, except maybe in triple-A where you have motion capture and the ability to act out the scene with actors. We’re basically trying to create acting but with hundreds of different clips. Trying to string those together into a character that feels living and breathing.

They all look fantastic, the emotions you guys have! Even without dialogue, you get personality from them.

AB: That’s Emily’s fault

Sengamphon (Emily) Lattanavong: [laughs]

AB: That gets to something else I wanted to add, now that you brought it up. I think another thing that is limiting people wanting to go really far with stylized animation—I guess this is also advice to someone looking to start a project doing this—is the pose is so critical. I think that’s why Emily’s work stood out when I was doing all the animation tests. I’m pretty particular about what the poses are. There’s a lot communicated in every single frame. You have to be economical about it. That means each frame you make has to say everything. You can’t leave stuff out. You really have to think about every little nuance: how far the character’s shoulders are tilting, how open or closed they are, where they’re looking, eye lines. 

A lot of things you get to spend a lot of time on in feature animation but the requirements of gameplay often interrupt that or will cause issues. In general, the style that’s usually used for gameplay animation tends to focus on trying to block in motion more than blocking in emotion. Emotion can be represented with a single frame, with an image. That’s why memes are so communicative. Or even gifs.

S(E)L: It has to communicate clearly. You have such a short time to see each animation clip. At that time we have, the emotion has to be clearly expressed.

AJD: One consideration we also made was that most players will skip through dialogue pretty quickly. We do this all the time. When the player is clicking through really quickly, they’ll see a brief fraction of that pose.

AB: They’ll see like five frames.

AJD: Using those frames, the player has to understand the gist of the conversation through those poses. The player can skip through a lot of dialogue in the game and still understand what’s going on. I think that’s really important.

AB: It has to be able to hit deep just by seeing the first frame. Right when it starts you need to be able to understand what’s going to happen. 

How does building a pattern for each character work?

S(E)L: Before we start animation, usually we will discuss the personality of the character. Sylvia has anger issues. She’s very aggressive and tomboyish.

AB: If you imagine Sylvia being young, she was rambunctious. I guess that sort of goes back to the concept stage when we’re just coming up with who they are. Their visual designs are based on a lot of conversations about "How does this person interact with other people?" Once you have a sense of that, it’s easier to think about what kind of acting choices are appropriate. Also Emily is really good at making acting choices. Secret sauce!

We’ll get things where the arms freak out and break. Gruesomely.

Anguel Bogoev

S(E)L: We have a pose library where we save each emotion pose so it speeds up the animation process. We will sit together and pick out which pose works best. The ones that don’t work, we scrap them or rework them to make them better.

The rigging gifs you’ve posted on Twitter have been awesome. There’s a ton going on there for the untrained eye. Could you point out a couple things that a player wouldn’t have thought about or some of the underpinnings of how rigging a character works?

AB: Basically the controls to the face go directly to joints. If you look at her face, it’s kind of small in the gif. If you were to blow it up and zoom in, you can see there’s a bunch of blue rings across her face. Those little blue rings are controls that directly control the joints. When you move the joints around, it’s actually built so that they rotate around a point rather than translating linearly. It mimics the way that flesh slides around the surface of your face. The surface of a human face has volume to it, right? When you smile, the corner of your mouth doesn’t move linearly to the endpoint to where it is when you’re smiling. It actually slides around the form of the forward part of your face that holds your teeth. That’s an important rigging nuance.

You mentioned going back and forth. Are there any recurring issues in rigging that often get sent back to be reworked?

AB: Oh, yes.

S(E)L: Right now the main thing we’re dealing with is [Sylvia’s] arms.

AB: Sylvia wasn’t originally designed with the capacity for her arms to go noodle-y and to bend. That’s a high-level cartoony thing. We did add the function. However, the rig wasn’t built to have that feature initially so, to a certain extent, we put off the best solution for this, which is to retarget our animations to a new version of the Sylvia rig. It would basically be like when people capture motion capture data and they project things from different rigs. It would basically be doing that between two different versions of Sylvia. That feature has caused a lot of problems. The exporter does not like the way the arms bend.

S(E)L: We have weird exports, yeah.

AB: We’ll get things where the arms freak out and break. Gruesomely. It’s grotesque.

Any particular horror stories about broken limbs?

AB: Oh, I have a little folder. I call it "The House of Grotesqueries". I have a folder of images. At some point I do want to start posting them but I haven’t been able to decide if I want to post them individually or as a little compilation. Maybe set it to music. I’m not sure what would be most amusing.

Any other specific things you guys want to talk about?

AJD: We love our fans.

AB: And we love fan art!

AJD: We love fan art and we would love to see more of that stuff. We’re also announcing something else really soon so look out for that on Twitter and Tumblr!

Voracious plan to release Potionomics on Steam at a currently unannounced date.