We were approached by HBO to create an experience that uses technology to create a sophisticated, responsive and highly personalised virtual creature, that lives through a users phones via Augmented Reality. This would allow fans to immerse themselves in the House Of The Dragon world and raise their own dragon.
The main conceit behind DracARys is exploring what it would mean for the dragons of Westeros to exist in our world - an idea that very much has AR at its core. Designing the creative experience around the concept of AR ensured there are less leaps of understanding required by the user to immerse themselves in our world. It should be easier for them to enjoy playing with their dragons if they can take what they see on their phone screens at face value. For our dragons to feel convincingly integrated into the world we really needed to lean into the new developments in AR technology which were the driving force behind the project in the first place. Consumer facing Augmented Reality has evolved in stages, from the days where we could attach digital content to flat floor planes, to Pokemon GO which used GPS locations to turn the globe into a canvas. We wanted to, and knew we could, go better - to have a creature that would recognise the space immediately around it and behave accordingly.
Dracarys is the result of a long collaborative partnership with HBO. It was born out of an initiative to combine emerging technologies with the promotion of HBO IP in the pursuit of something novel and interesting to fans and potential fans. For this project our goal was to work with HBO to assemble a bespoke brief that could satisfy the creative and technical ambitions of both HBO, The Mill and the House of the Dragon brand.
What we arrived at was the aspiration to allow fans to raise their own dragons, using technology to create a sophisticated, responsive and highly personalised virtual creature that lives through their phones via Augmented Reality.
Once it was decided we would be making Augmented Reality dragons we proposed and agreed upon a set of pillars for the experience:
The pillars were designed to blend the boundaries between creative, user experience and technology to ensure we were achieving our project goals. With any project involving creative technology it’s the technology that determines feasibility and the project’s scope with the team’s technologists, developers, artists and designers tasked with bringing it all together.
Here we’ll take a look at how the team worked out how to best hit those pillars while seeing how new developments in AR could help bring the dragons of Westeros to life.
The dragons of Westeros have until now been seen as as fleeting monsters, providing moments of horror and spectacle. And a lot of that sense of fear comes from the sense that these are wildest of creatures, intimidatingly gargantuan, triggering long held human fears of sharp teeth and fire. It’s one thing to see these creatures alongside heroes and villains of the screen, perched atop an old castle or flying across a vast ocean, but what about in your living room? Or above your house? At the train station on the way to work?
How would that feel different?
The main conceit behind DracARys is exploring what it would mean for the dragons of Westeros to exist in our world – an idea that very much has AR at its core. Designing the creative experience around the concept of AR ensured there are less leaps of understanding required by the user to immerse themselves in our world. It should be easier for them to enjoy playing with their dragons if they can take what they see on their phone screens at face value.
For our dragons to feel convincingly integrated into the world we really needed to lean into the new developments in AR technology which were the driving force behind the project in the first place. Consumer facing Augmented Reality has evolved in stages, from the days where we could attach digital content to flat floor planes, to Pokemon GO which used GPS locations to turn the globe into a canvas. We wanted to, and knew we could, go better – to have a creature that would recognise the space immediately around it and behave accordingly.
With such high technical demands on new and nascent technology we needed to assemble the right team to balance all the parts, with a heavy lift on procedural creature design, mobile performance optimisation and technical art.
A project of this complexity required splitting our team into sub teams to take on different aspects. Alongside the app development and the audio team we had a team at The Mill dubbed The Dragon Team who were tasked with bringing the dragons to life. Each member of the dragon team had a slightly different focus when it came to making the dragons and we asked each of them how the dragons were made and what their main considerations were:
Rikke Jansen, a real-time character specialist, was responsible for making sure the dragons looked good and different from each other. She built the “Wyvernator”, a tool that was used to test different combinations and was also used later in development to create the different colour palettes.
“I had to make sure every player had a distinct dragon compared to their friends’, and that every dragon looked like it belonged in our universe – despite their features being dynamically generated.” Says Rikke. “Performance on mobile was also considered heavily from the start when creating the shaders and art pipeline.”
“The tool for putting together and previewing all possible dragon combinations was called The Wyvenator”
Duncan Walker lead the dragon’s procedural animation systems, the systems that allow the dragon to adapt to the environment around it. He enjoyed this immensely, “It was so much fun making the dragons! We had an initial phase of design and sculpting, followed by modelling and rigging. Then we brought it them to life with fancy materials and animations. Our main goal on the dragon team was to make the best dragons! We had to consider everything from the dragon sizes, personalities, behaviours and breeds from the biggest wings and tails to the tiniest scales, teeth and eyes.”
“Our main goal on the dragon team was to make the best dragons! We had to consider everything from the dragon sizes, personalities, behaviours and breeds from the biggest wings and tails to the tiniest scales, teeth and eyes.”
Glen Southern, an expert modeller and self confessed “dragon-nerd” was our concept modeller, a way of saying that he could concept things in 3D saving us a lot of time and giving us more room for experimentation.
“The dragons were made by magic of course!” jokes Glen, “..well, it’s sort of magic if you’ve never seen anyone digital sculpt before. To make the Dragons we used a range of tools including ZBrush, Maya, Silo, Nomad Sculpt and Blender. The main work was done in ZBrush which is the industry standard tool for creating organic sculptures and it is perfect for creating Dragons. In most projects like this we would sculpt a Dragon from a concept then worry about how the underlying polygons needed to be created to make it work on mobile devices (retopology in industry terms). We took a different approach and made them technically accurate first and then sculpted the details later saving time and making it very efficient for us all. We actually did a lot of the concept work in 3D before putting pen to paper (or stylus to graphic tablet these days!).”
“"One of the big things to focus on when creating fantasy creatures is to base them on real world anatomy and make them look believable as living breathing creatures." ”
According to Glen, “Polygon count is always the driving factor on a technical job like this. We have to keep as close to the design as we can but not make the model too large in terms of polygon count that it doesn’t then run smoothly in the app. We have to make sure we make the model in the most efficient way. It also has to work for rigging (the bones that make it move) and capable of doing all the things the animators need it to do. This is why a good, clean polygon workflow is essential. It’s the same in all AR experiences and true in most games too.”
Of course there were many challenges. Each had to be tackled in its own way. Leo Marques, Technical Director on the project not only had to coordinate builds and processes between all the teams, but also remembers the team having to solve the many conundrums related to navigation:
Leo: There were several technical challenges in this project. One of them was navigation. Basically how would the dragons navigate around in the AR environment in a convincing manner?
After prototyping in the early days with navigation features that were built into the software or SDK (Software Development Kit) we encountered major issues and limitations when feeding the dragon. We found the dragon would sometimes get stuck or food items would be unreachable. Our solution was to create a new AR navigation system. This new system would generate dynamic navigable surfaces at runtime which gave us more control and also meant we could use powerful features like NavMeshAgent (for pathfinding), NavMeshLinks (for jumps) and have better integration overall with other Unity systems.
Rikke, Duncan and Glen worked hard to ensure that all the different combinations of the dragon designs could be generated and then run and animate on a mobile device at the best possible visual quality:
Duncan: There are always technical challenges when working with augmented reality. Everything from lighting, shading, environment meshing and more.
We decided early on that we wanted to use procedural animation to make the dragons feel alive and responsive. We ended up using a combination of real time IK and keyframe animations to bring the dragon to life and have it behave across a range of surfaces and environments.
Glen: The main challenge at first was making sure the model could do everything the team wanted it to. Making the model in a way that worked from a design standpoint, for the texture artists, the rigger and the animators is always a balance between technology and art. Both matter equally and that’s the technical challenge we faced. Also, the Dragons have hundreds of variations of horns, beards, scales, patterns, colours and much much more. Getting all of that made, packed into manageable chunks and into the app was a real challenge for us all.
Rikke: In order to blend the various spikes and horns into the dragon a shader had to be specifically created for this purpose, and we had to make some tools for designing the dragons. A texturing pipeline had to be developed for the various special maps needed to color the dragon, as dragons are coloured using a combination of masks and grayscale albedo. We had to do several passes on performance and the dragon asset had to be developed so that it would be easy to cut things if needed. All of the attachment textures are atlased and baked down to as few trimsheets as we could.
Seeing users share images of their dragons each one different to each other is validation for all the hard work the team put into their craft. A further big moment when all the dragons raised to maturity became free to roam the Earth and every dragon owner was able to see adult dragons made by users from all over the world flying in the skies above them. A world awash in dragons.