Ubisoft shows off ZooBuilder, a prototype AI designed to animate animals

A wolf's animation skeleton.
(Image credit: Ubisoft)

Ubisoft has shown off its ZooBuilder AI tool, a project that the publisher has mentioned before in its early stages. It is essentially software that can be fed video footage of animals, which it will then analyse frame-by-frame, before constructing animated skeletons from the visual data. This thing builds lions. Kinda.

"It all started when we did not find a volunteer to setup the mocap suit on a bear," tweeted the Ubisoft La Forge account. But the ZooBuilder project has been going on in the background of the publishing giant for many years, first publicly mentioned in 2020 when it was presented at a specialist animation symposium. The project began at Ubisoft China's AI & Data Lab but is now being developed at Ubisoft La Forge, which is a Canadian studio dedicated to building technical prototypes based on the latest academic research.

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As explained in the video, one of the problems animators face with animals is fairly obvious: they're all different shapes and sizes, with different skeletal structures. I'm not going to pretend I understand how the next part works but, per what Ubisoft's saying, ZooBuilder is a bunch of algorithms that are fed basic data about animals and a bunch of raw footage, which it uses to learn patterns from, which then create synthetic or artificial data—then this thing should start, somehow, to pump out fairly reasonable animation rigs for a given creature.

There's also a practical element to this: you're not realistically going to get a leopard in a motion capture studio. But you can show the tireless algorithms endless footage of them.

All of which means what, exactly? Nothing yet for the player, as ZooBuilder has not been used in current Ubisoft productions. Given that the publisher is suddenly highlighting it, however, it's obviously going to have a role going forward and that will mainly be in removing busywork for animators.

The idea is not that Ubisoft's games are suddenly going to be filled with AI-animated fauna, but that its developers will be able to almost effortlessly prototype animals that are fully animated in 3D, after which point a human hand can finesse what ZooBuilder has produced to end up with the final form. Theory has it that you give the human artist more time on the polish and the little details, while letting AI do the grunt work, and you'll end up with a higher-quality end product: so look out for Far Cry 8 in 2027, when we'll probably find out if Ubisoft's pulled it off.

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."