Speed Brawl: The first video game in Unity/Harmony animation pipeline
Double Stallion Games plugged into amazing video game animation with Toon Boom Harmony
Double Stallion Games is an independent video game developer and studio based in Montreal, Canada. Founded in 2013 with the support of incubator Execution Labs, it disrupts industry conventions by harmonizing stunning, stylized hand-drawn 2D animated aesthetics with action-packed, innovative player experiences. Its team currently includes eight full-time employees, including three artists — a rare distinction among game developers.
"I come from a traditional animation background and, as a co-founder, this was perhaps my main contribution to the studio's identity. I have always loved 2D animation because it allows the viewer to really ‘feel' the drawings and craftsmanship," says Eric Angelillo, art director and co-founder of Double Stallion Games.
He continues, "When we launched, 2D games that weren't pixel-art were nearly unheard of. That has since changed, but I think there is still a lot of room for innovation and development in the 2D hand-drawn game space."
The studio's acclaimed first title, Big Action Mega Fight!, was released in 2013 on IOS and Android, subsequently on PC and Mac. Double Stallion Games would go on to partner with Cartoon Network and OK K.O.! Let's Be Heroes creator Ian Jones-Quartey to develop a game to launch a new flagship series property, OK K.O.! Lakewood Plaza Turbo!, that was released in February 2016. It was immediately featured as a "Best Of" title on the Android and iTunes app stores.
Always aiming to improve on the previous release, the latest scrolling beat-em-up video game from Double Stallion Games, Speed Brawl, is its first title animated entirely in Toon Boom Harmony. Launched in September 2018, it is set in an alternate universe Victorian Era where the British Empire reached and conquered the Moon and enslaved its drone-like denizens, the Selenites. With no work left to do, humanity becomes bored, restless and delinquent.
Source: Double Stallion GamesIn order to placate the masses, a blood sport —the eponymous ‘Speed Brawl'— was conceived, pitting the bravest, strongest humans in fights to the death against the Selenites. Gameplay is fast and furiously fun, brawling enemies while also trying to beat the clock. The resulting combat-racer is a mixture of Sonic the Hedgehog meets Streets of Rage.
Its character designs are decidedly exaggerated and referential of anime, classic arcade titles like Street Fighter and its 19th Century setting. The disruptive, dynamic result is timelessly cool and sets Speed Brawl apart from the largely 3D medieval and sci-fi-centred titles dominating the market, with its Double Stallion's trademark 2D animation brought to life by innovating a unique Toon Boom Harmony/Unity pipeline.
Conceptualization began in 2014 on a puzzle-platformer called Luna. While this idea never made it past pre-production, choice elements were recycled and became the foundation of Speed Brawl. Production on the latter began in earnest in 2016.
Double Stallion had three animators on the project: Angelillo splitting his time between animation, art direction and project management; one full-time animator; and a freelance clean-up and rigging artist (plus some summer interns).
"At production peak, we found it optimal to have most of our clean-up and rigging done externally so that our internal animators could focus on working closely with the combat designers to ensure great game feel by iterating with the rough animations," Angelillo says.
Source: Double Stallion gamesWhen it came time for creating the video game's hand-drawn animation, Angelillo switched from a Flash to Toon Boom Harmony pipeline. He had previously dabbled in the industry-standard software and was drawn to it when he found it was being innovated to work in conjunction with Unity game engine.
Going beyond the role of provider, Toon Boom Animation not only offered support and expert training to the studio's animators, but partnered with Double Stallion to create an original game pipeline:
"Since there are so few non-pixel-art 2D video games being made, there are equally few resources available for 2D animation software in games. It's always ideal when the software companies themselves are interested in working directly with game developers to improve the situation," says Angelillo.
Source: Double Stallion games
Switching from Flash to Harmony animation offered a number of video game pipeline benefits, including deformers and saving space by efficiently filling sprite sheets, allowing for the easy exporting and organization of multiple sprite palettes. Unlike the fast-paced Speed Brawl characters, production is often more of a marathon than a sprint. Fortunately, Toon Boom Harmony levelled up the process every step of the way.
"Flash had a lot of limitations when it came to exporting animation efficiently for games; on OK K.O.!, we had to resort to some external software to help package and organize everything. Toon Boom Harmony allowed us to get our animations into the game engine right out of the box," explains Angelillo.
Double Stallion Games was attracted to Toon Boom Harmony for its ability to hybridize frame-by-frame and cut-out animation, and allowing artists to draw directly in the program. Animating for video games also has unique challenges, such as consoles having more limitations than PCs. By combining frame-by-frame and cut-out in Harmony, the team was able to save on memory, gain more character customization and re-skin player characters and enemies much faster — all while embracing and evolving the studio's hallmark traditional feel.
Source: Double Stallion Games
"Toon Boom Harmony works really well with both frame-by-frame and cut-out animation, so it was a natural fit for Speed Brawl. My favourite feature was converting tweened animations to double exposure, which gives a more traditional look to cut-out animations," Angelillo shares.
He continues, "I get really bothered when games try to have hand-drawn looking assets, but the cut-out animations are so smooth that they just appear digital and bland. Harmony's exposure adjusting feature allowed us to keep the transition from frame-by-frame to cut-out seamless and always traditional-looking."
Using Toon Boom Harmony in a video game pipeline required bridging artists and engineers. For Speed Brawl, the process began with the combat designer outlining a move set for the character followed by the internal animators making a rough first pass. The roughs would then get tested in the game immediately, reviewed by the designer, art director and animator, and further edits would be made to improve the feel until it was ready for clean-up.
Source: Double Stallion Games
"If a punch felt too slow, frames would get shaved off. Or, sometimes the silhouette of the character would look good in a vacuum, but be unclear when integrated into the game's engine. Ultimately, no animation was ever fully approved until validated in a build," says Angelillo.
A key Harmony benefit was its efficient exporting and sprite packing, which allowed Double Stallion's team to squeeze in more frames of animation — strengthening overall quality without sacrificing performance. The software's robust brush system also offered more tools and techniques for the studio's talent.
Specifically, the team appreciated Harmony's handling of pen pressure, line weight and width as well as the ability to smoothly edit, clean-up and perfect individual strokes with the arrow and vector editing tools. Additionally, Harmony's features for splitting line and colour art layers also made character shading easy and efficient — a stark contrast from the painful experience of previous Flash productions.
Source: Double Stallion Games
A production challenge Double Stallion faced was exporting glows on animated characters. Fortunately, some creative thinking and Harmony's ability to import assets offered a solution:
"Because we were unable to use the glow node effect normally used in television and film productions, we had to find a workaround. Luckily our lead animator was able to create the glows in another program and re-import them into Harmony as bitmaps — the end result was seamless," says Angelillo.
When it comes to advice he'd give to another animator hoping to get into video game development, Angelillo says to get creative and be ready to learn: "Using Harmony for games is not the same as television or film productions — you don't have to unlearn everything you know, but you should be open to a new workflow. Not all the features work identically in a games pipeline, so you need to be nimble and think of alternative solutions."
Following its September 2018 release, Speed Brawl saw positive acclaim among fans of classic and contemporary video games, who universally enjoyed its hand-drawn style, internal environment and fast-paced gameplay.
Source: Double Stallion Games
"The world of Speed Brawl and its inhabitants are all beautifully animated, with everything in sight dripping with colour and vibrancy," writes Ashley Bates in a review for Cultured Vultures.
While Double Stallion Games cannot say what it will be doing next, fans should be rest assured it will continue to perfect its 2D animated hand-drawn aesthetic for video games — and it will be doing it in a Toon Boom Harmony pipeline. Fortunately, it will be able to re-use many of the assets it created for Speed Brawl. It has also partnered with Toon Boom to co-develop a plugin that will facilitate production for its next title and many others throughout the industry.
"Being the first studio to use the Harmony/Unity pipeline, it took some perseverance and cooperation between engineers at Toon Boom and Double Stallion, but the final product is a game we can all be proud of," says Angelillo.
He continues, "We've got some really exciting potential partnerships coming up. With these new projects, we're looking forward to levelling up our hand-drawn 2D graphics in Harmony — yes, even further!"
About Double Stallion Games
Double Stallion Games is a video game developer and studio based in Montreal, Canada. Founded in 2013 with the support of the game incubator Execution Labs, it specializes in bringing beautiful and stylized hand-drawn 2D animation aesthetics to innovative and polished player experiences. Its latest release, Speed Brawl, is the first video game created in a Unity game engine-Toon Boom Harmony pipeline.