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Pitch & Produce | GUARDIAN MAIA: Film & Game Project to Engage and Inspire Younger Māori Generations

Maru Nihoniho – Founder & Managing Director of Metia Interactive

Maru Nihoniho

Hi my name is Maru Nihoniho and I’m the founder of Metia Interactive a games studio based in Auckland, New Zealand. As a games designer and producer my focus is on indigenous storytelling as culture-based stories are hugely influential and are a powerful outlet for engagement and learning. I have designed several projects that tell Māori stories.  They have been produced to engage and inspire our younger generations and a great way to connect everyone to our culture as well.

Our biggest story development to date is a fictional story called Guardian Maia.  It is a story we have designed that incorporates the mythology of the Māori culture.  The story follows the journey of a young woman named Maia through a dystopian New Zealand. The first part of the story Guardian Maia Episode One is currently released as interactive fiction on the App Store and Google Play with the conclusion being released in early 2021.

Since releasing our story, we have looked at ways to bring the story to life. Our first step was to create imagery including storyboards which then led into the idea of creating an animation. Our challenge was to find a pipeline to help us develop an animation efficiently with a small team. We found that the Character Creator and iClone Pipeline met our needs and provided the essential tools to create our animation and yet be flexible enough to allow us to bring in other assets into the project if needed.  Through the animation process, we realized that using the Character Creator and iClone software with the Unreal Engine a real potential to build a game prototype existed; that will be our next project to work on as soon as our animation is finished.

“Easy to use, flexible, timesaving describes our experience with the Character Creator, iClone and Unreal Live Link pipelines.  A great solution for quickly creating and bringing content to life especially so for a small team like ours.  The Reallusion products are now an essential part of our design and development pipeline.”

Maru Nihoniho – Founder & Managing Director of Metia Interactive

Q: Hello Maru, and congratulations on being a Pitch & Produce recipient for Guardian Maia! Kindly share with us how you started this project, along with its background and challenges.

Thank you for the opportunity, it has been a great experience for us to use Character Creator and iClone along with Unreal Engine to bring our Guardian Maia animation to life.

Guardian Maia is a hybrid historical/science-fiction story that draws on the mythology of the Māori culture of New Zealand.  It is also a global story and taps into the universal human need to belong and understand the mysteries of the world.  Guardian Maia showcases some of the aspects of our culture such as ‘mana’ which is about prestige and personal power.  It also highlights our beautiful landscapes here in New Zealand. The story is centered around a woman called Maia.  Maia is a guardian, and her duty is not only to protect the people but to ensure the forest and its beings are also protected.  She is strong, agile and knows how to use the traditional weapons to defend herself against invaders. 

It has been a long journey to get our story developed beyond a script.  Our initial idea was for the story to be a 3rd person action adventure.  We knew that the cost of development for these this of game would be remarkably high and with a small team wasn’t achievable.  We had to rethink how we could still achieve what we wanted to do, so the next step was to design our script with narrative strategy which became interactive fiction.

Guardian Maia Episode 1 has been published as interactive fiction on Google Play and the App Store.  The current release is part 1 of a duology called Guardian Maia Episode 1 with part 2 being released in 2021.  It was during the development of the interactive fiction that we had the idea to showcase the characters and the world visually.  This is when the idea to create and animation was borne.

As we are a game development studio, we have only animated for games, so this project took us out of our comfort zone. 

“We started looking for an animation pipeline where our small team could achieve bringing to life a 3-minute animation in a short amount of time.  We also wanted something that was easy to learn and to use. We found this solution with the Reallusion pipeline and the bonus was we had a good reason to use the Unreal Engine as our real time renderer.”  

Maru Nihoniho – Founder & Managing Director of Metia Interactive

Q: The main character Guardian Maya’s looks were based off of a real person, where you used Character Creator along with the Headshot and SkinGen plugin. What are you thoughts on these tools, and how much time do they save compared to traditional character workflows?

For the interactive fiction, we based the main character Maia off a real person.  We wanted to carry that look through into the animation, so it was important to get the look as close as possible.  The Headshot plugin for Character Creator was a great start, as all we needed was a high-resolution photo and then we had the character’s face with texture in place.  We were able to edit the texture map that Headshot had generated which was great because it had the right skin colour. 

The next part was to use a photo of the profile of the face and use the morphs to achieve the contours in the side on view.  This initial process took a couple of hours and then we spent a little more time defining certain areas of the face like the eyes, nose, and mouth.  We were able to edit further with the SkinGen plugin for Character Creator 3 by adding skin blemishes, scars and editing the skin maps further where needed.  It was easy to enhance the look of the 3D character where needed and creating her own look. 

“Within a week we had a formed the Maia character and then took our time to adjust as we started the animation. Using Character Creator was a huge time saver, as we know how time consuming it is to create a character from scratch in 3D modelling software.”

Maru Nihoniho – Founder & Managing Director of Metia Interactive

Q: Your team also employed a Vicon Optical Motion Capture system , with iClone Unreal Live Link and Unreal Engine. What are your experiences with these powerful tools, the benefits/advantages and what advice would you give other studios thinking about using the same?

We used the Auckland University of Technology’s Vicon motion capture suite to capture game motions for previous and ongoing projects. Our lead animator has used the suite multiple times for several projects. The accuracy that can be obtained through the digital capture of motion is next to impossible to replicate through traditional 3D animation.

However, the quality of the capture depends on understanding of the performance itself.

If one had the privilege to use such an amazing capture environment, I would recommend a few things:  Before we set out on the capturing the motions, we planned out exactly what we needed and rehearsed.  Acting decisions on the part of both the actor and director heavily influence the feel and output of your product. Have a well-versed animator and/or mocap technician on your team or who you can work with who’s savvy with software like Motionbuilder and Maya.

The advantage of doing your own motion capture is that you can capture unique movements that are otherwise hard or time consuming to recreate by hand.  Our need for this project was to capture some of Māori traditional fight moves that our character Maia is skilled in and bring those into iClone.  The bonus was we were able to mix and match iClone’s motions with our own and create new motions with relative ease.

Q: Metia Interactive’s next project is to create a game by using the same Character Creator and iClone assets into Unreal Engine. When can audiences expect to watch the first final animations of Guardian Maia, and when can they expect the playable game?

Creating the animations was a great way for us to become familiar with Unreal.  We have already written the story, designed the characters, the world and have an interactive script, so we have a great base for our game. 

Currently we are at the beginning of building the game and have a nice head start with some of our characters that are ready to go from the animation.  We have a lot of characters to create and will continue to use our current pipeline as it suits our needs as our team is now familiar with the software.

The Guardian Maia animation will be released at the end of February 2021. 

We will also be releasing Guardian Maia Episode 2, the conclusion in May 2021.

We aim to have a prototype of the game done by May 2021.  The goal then is to pitch to funders to help with completion of the game.  The animation shows a small part of Guardian Maia’s world and we can’t wait to show the rest in the game.

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