Breaking in the Digital Horses of Red Dead Redemption

Rockstar San Diego's art department director Josh Bass talks about the creation of your main mode of transportation in the upcoming Western-themed game.

The world of former outlaw John Marston in Rockstar's upcoming Red Dead Redemption is a large one, covering diverse landscapes, such as open deserts, dusty savannahs, sweeping hills, bustling towns, remote settlements, and much more. With the game set at the turn of the 20th century, automobiles are but unique curiosities. This means your trusty horse will be your main method of traversing the gameworld. And according to Rockstar San Diego, the same amount of thought went into creating the game's various steeds as its human protagonists. We chatted to art department director Josh Bass about the importance of horses to Red Dead Redemption, the adventures of motion capturing, and what technology had to be created to make these animals look and act as realistically as possible.

Horses for courses, so to speak.

GameSpot AU: Obviously, the horse is your main mode of transport in the game. But how important are they to the overall gameplay experience?

Josh Bass: No portrayal of the American West is complete without horses and the people that rode them--it’s integral to the whole experience but something we were nervous about when we began work on the game as it has never been done that well before. In addition to being the primary mode of transport, horses remain one of the most iconic wild animals of the western plains. It became crucial to depict their appearance and movement as close to perfect as we could possibly manage.

Getting the horses to the level of realism we needed required a combination of research, heavily detailed motion capture, Rockstar’s own RAGE engine, Natural Motion’s Euphoria technology, and some highly advanced facial animation technology that we had previously only used on human characters. We think the horses of Red Dead Redemption are the most realistic, believable, and beautiful horses ever seen in a video game, as well as being a lot of fun to ride.

GS AU: How did you decide which specific type of horse breed to include?

JB: We tried to include a range of horses that captured the spirit of the West and that would also be recognizably different if you stumbled across them in the wild. In terms of modelling the horses in-game, our research team decided that the ideal horse to base our horses on was the Mustang--a feral horse that was historically connected to the Old West. The anatomy of the Mustang also gave us a good template to work from. We needed the horse’s dimensions and scale to appear realistic and visually appropriate to the rest of the game.

Next, we had to create a variety of horse breeds, with different coats and structure. We selected the Buckskin, Palomino, and Pinto but also more iconic breeds like Friesian and Appaloosa. To diversify each horse, very specific markings were also chosen--along with coat color, mane and tail--to create variety. We even concentrated on structure: crafting everything from diseased, malnourished horses with low stamina to beautiful and muscular black stallions with greater endurance.

Even the most minor details like each separate element of the horse’s tack, including the bridle, saddle, harness, and stirrups were researched and implemented. Look closely at the horses in the game, and you will notice that wild horses don’t have horseshoes, while the domesticated horses do. If you decide to lasso a wild horse and tame it, you will break and mount it bareback using only a bridle made from the player’s lasso.

There are also donkeys, of course, for moments when you feel appropriately humble.

Both horse and rider had to be mo-capped.

GS AU: How about animation? Did you actually mo-cap a real horse?

JB: Yes we did, and it turned out to be an adventure of its own. The horse we used was a long-time Hollywood ‘stunt horse’ named Blanco. His owner was a proper old-time cowboy, and we were assured that Blanco had seen far more studio time than any of the staff on the shoot. It showed in the end results--Blanco turned out to be the consummate professional and skillfully performed every move necessary in order to get the shots and moves we needed. Blanco didn’t have to ride a treadmill, but we did have to glue positioning markers all over him in order to capture the movements correctly, which was definitely an unusual sight.

At first, we had to spend some time trying to determine where we needed to place the markers in order to capture the best data. Once we resolved that issue, we went straight into shooting, pausing after each take to replace the markers that had fallen off the horse during the take. After every take, we literally had to pick up a dozen markers off the floor and glue them back on, trying to figure out where they’d fallen from before we could continue.

Once we’d mo-capped the horse, work began on modelling the barrel and hindquarters of the horses, as this was the anatomical area we knew would be viewed most by players, given the third-person camera. We then shifted our focus to the specific types of movement: the various types of motion, or gaits, that horses use. Research came from live, image, and film studies, as well as a state-of-the-art motion capture recording, breaking movement down to five common states that translate best into in-game motion: idle, walk, trot, canter/lope, and gallop.

As the primary mode of transport in the game and one of the most significant animals in every aspect of Western iconography, the horses needed to move realistically in all contexts: domestic settings (such as bearing riders or pulling stagecoaches), as well as out in the wild, traversing more rugged terrain like rocks and mountains or climbing steep slopes.

Are you man enough to tame this stallion?

The horses needed to feel graceful but also fluidly transition from small, slower steps to larger and more aggressive movements. In Red Dead Redemption, you can chase down a feral horse and attempt to break it by mounting the horse bareback and holding on to the mane. Such large, aggressive movements had to display strength, anger, and fear. These are wild animals and had to come across that way in game.

GS AU: Now, of course, horses in the game are meant to be ridden. What work did you do on animating how horses interact with humans?

JB: A huge part of creating a believable Western experience meant creating a natural interplay between horse and rider: Player movement needed to relate and react to standard horse gaits, as well as aggressive movements like rearing and bucking.

Capturing the horse and rider together was critical to the success of the shoot. We hired an actor who was also a professional stuntman and an expert horse rider for the session. He had never ridden our stunt horse Blanco before, but they formed a bond quickly. The owner gave the actor a few pointers and commands that Blanco would respond to and we went to work.

The shoot wasn’t without its issues. We were shooting in a sound stage and had to come up with our own set of gestures that we used to communicate with each other on set. Unbeknownst to us, one of the gestures we were using was also the same command that made Blanco rear, turning our accommodating stunt horse into a horse at its most intimidating and also a nightmare if the rider happened to be mounted at the time. Several times, we accidentally commanded Blanco to rear while recording scenes that required something completely different. It made for some great and spontaneous shots, but our stuntman wasn’t too happy, as he had no idea when it was coming. He would be in the middle of a performance and suddenly Blanco would rear into the air, while the stunt man was doing everything he could just to hold on. Luckily for us, the footage was amazing. If our actor wasn’t so experienced on a horse, we probably would have captured footage of him flying off and earning a serious injury. Instead, we ended up simulating any of his ejection and impact scenes using the close integration of Natural Motion’s Euphoria physics system and our own proprietary RAGE physics engine.

GS AU: We’ve spotted some pretty good detail in horses in Redemption, even down to realistic-looking muscles. What was the process behind making these horses look real?

Rearing horses aren't always great in mo-cap sessions.

JB: We went to great lengths to craft animations for all human characters so that interactions like mounting and dismounting horses looked as fluid and natural as possible. We also animated the various permutations of using weapons on horseback. It all helps to integrate Marston and the horses into the world seamlessly. We made sure to create believable idle animation too. You will notice that Marston even tends to his horse, gently calming it with a pat on the neck or hindquarters.

The final piece of the puzzle involved taking the overall physique and detail of the animal to a level never seen in a game, and that required some lateral thinking. We came up with the idea of using the same facial technology we used to show animated “normal maps” (a way of realistically lighting bumps and dents on the faces of our human characters) to properly showcase the muscles of the horses in motion--specifically the hindquarters, muzzle, shoulders, and ribcage.

The results can be seen in the way the animal’s hindquarters contract and release as they gallop or flex to take the weight of both the horse and its rider when they rear up on their hind legs. Re-creating a horse’s skeletal and muscular systems was challenging and has taken us years to complete, but the end results are stunning, and made the efforts well worth it.

GS AU: Josh Bass, thanks for your time.

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Discussion

300 comments
jacf182
jacf182

@BLAU_the_Pwnr Sure, he only kills people and stuff, but cheating on his wife? That would be way too much.

Broadcloak
Broadcloak

Beautiful, just beautiful. Can't wait for tomorrow to get here!

megabig
megabig

This game is very exciting to hear about can't wait to just pick it up

FlashHawk79
FlashHawk79

The perfect song for this game is The Devil's Right Hand by Steve Earle. Look it up on Youtube, it's a song entirely about gunslinging.

mimicus
mimicus

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

mumzy10
mumzy10

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Luminious0
Luminious0

Imma gunna hog tie some whores while shooting my pistol off in the air!

Artoisol
Artoisol

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

Artoisol
Artoisol

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

Artoisol
Artoisol

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

Artoisol
Artoisol

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

BLAU_the_Pwnr
BLAU_the_Pwnr

@jacf182 good luck with that because apparently Marston is too happily married to pick up women.

jacf182
jacf182

As soon as I get this game, I'll catch meself one of them fine Mustangs, attach a fancy carriage to it, and pick me up a naughty young lady at the good ol' Saloon. My carriage shall shake like them crazy rodeo bulls.

NooDLES-666
NooDLES-666

@ McBAIN-NZ- Tiger would play golf while bangin bitties. So pretty much if you aren't bangin or hanging out with hot girls, then stick to the game.

McBAIN-NZ-
McBAIN-NZ-

Just bought a new 50" plasma pretty much for this game. The sad thing is on the day of release I'm now supposed to go on a road trip with friends. WTF. Of all the days. It literally has come down to girls or the game. FFS. WWTD (What would Tiger do).

merc7523
merc7523

@ hgerrison the 360 usually has better framerates and lighting. not being a fanboy just saying thats usually how R* games go.

LitterBoxHero
LitterBoxHero

wow, that is definitely a testament to how the making of video games has evolved from the days of sprites and primitive animations. I can't wait for this game, everything about it just sounds so amazingly awesome.

xtremeflem2day
xtremeflem2day

@mumzy10: Just because you like xbox 360 exclusives better than PS3 exclusives, it doesn't mean they are better than ps3s exclusives. You forget that killzone 2 has the best graphics to offer on a console (Crysis on PC still remains #1), and they also got uncharted 2, Littlebigplanet, demon souls, just to name a few. Most xbox 360 exclusives are available on PC anyway, and Halo is a good game, but Micro$oft is milking it like crazy. You seem to be forgetting that this is gamespot, not an xbox 360 fanboy site.

mumzy10
mumzy10

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

BountyHunter378
BountyHunter378

id like to say first off braid was on xbox live long before the psn got it an home sucks. i own both systems an im getting it for xbox live why because u can private chat an party chat 2 things u cant do on the psn

BombayNugz
BombayNugz

yo when i get this game ima be playin it like mad on PS3 the names BombayNugz420 hit me up oh yea and theres nothin different between psn and xbox live except xbox live is mainly 7 year olds who seem to have the highest voices in the world..yea thats pretty much sums that up

fluffyninja4
fluffyninja4

@mumzy10 psn has exclusives as well... such as ps home... and one of the best reviewed games on this website... Braid

hgerisson
hgerisson

anybody i need some advice on whether i should get red dead redemption for the xbox 360 or the ps3 help?! and dont care much about playing in it on line just the game and its storyline

xtremeflem2day
xtremeflem2day

Ah yes, Rockstar never fails to please its audience. Rockstar has the most unique games, hands down, no debate.

bencarps41192
bencarps41192

IM going to get this one on Xbox 360 because thats what most my friends have and my PS3's ethernet connection got fried when the power blew. Sux I know. Gonna be an amazing game though

mumzy10
mumzy10

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

doontime
doontime

The only good western game!!!!

mumzy10
mumzy10

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

TheBusterMan
TheBusterMan

I think it's safe to say this will be better than the godawful GUN.God that sucked.

mumzy10
mumzy10

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

ermus
ermus

Lol, it's funny how many people found it offensive that I mentioned that there was no horse genetalia, I really don't care, it does take away some of the realism though. Thumb me down for all it's worth again. Thank you.

RO-nIn187
RO-nIn187

about the pc-version: i bet there will be one coming after a couple of months like gta 4, i think they want to get their sales up since most of the console owners play originals (ps3 still wont play copies as far as i know) so just wait a while a month or so after the console release maybe rockstar will announce it...

DKHardee
DKHardee

I hope this game doesn't have over the top language like the GTA series has.

xboxkane
xboxkane

i wish they had a version for PC's..would be one hell of an eye candy. cant wait for this game

sniperasap
sniperasap

they dint say anything about shooting the house

geoff-uk123
geoff-uk123

@64-bit: Seriously, stop judging this game, especially when it hasn't even come out. There's alot more to it than just missions you know.

RO-nIn187
RO-nIn187

@ Shadroth888 havent even thought of that yet but true... if they are sooo realistic it would be fun to have it take a dump now and then, maybe even water the desert a bit :D anyway, looks amazing, i already preordered it and cant wait to see it on my ps3... if rockstar put some effort into it to use the ps3 advantages it will break the xbox (and every xbox fanboys heart) :D

Shadroth888
Shadroth888

why hasn't anyone asked if the horses poop yet?

GuitarGOD101
GuitarGOD101

until i saw these pics of the horses. I thought Oblivion had the best horses.

juggernautxz
juggernautxz

I am so going to wear a poncho while riding an ass.

shadex4555
shadex4555

This is easily the most impressive horses Ive ever seen in a game.. The muscles look as beliveable as they possibly could. Im sure if Rockstar decided to profit on this, they could easily use the progress they made here to profit big time on a riding simulator.. As someone who work with horses every summer I have to say this Is damn Impressive! Cant wait to see them ingame a week from now. I mean Ive been overhyped for games before, and payed the price.. but here I must say even if the gameplay turns out to be complete crap (which I REALLLYYYY doubt), the game graphics would be enough to jump it to a 9.

candyman305
candyman305

ive been playing the halo reach beta and it is the same bs as the last one i was very disappointed it reminded me of mw and mw2 people keep saying the visuals are nicer stop bsin bc their not nicer they are almost the same ive came to the conclusion of screw the beta im just going to wait for red dead redemption at least that will have fresh brand new ideas unlike halo which has been the same for almost 10 years

Rckstrchik
Rckstrchik

Sounds like alot of fun! Looks epic! :)

johny300
johny300

if anyone says its going to have a lot bugs i say youre wrong. come on rockstar has been working on this game for 5 and half years so they must be testing the game a lot and it was supposed to be out in APRIL 27 so im sure they fixed almost everything.

Zensword
Zensword

I agree the horses in RDR are the most realistic and beautiful horses in videogames.