Exploring Animation in Game Development

How Difficult is Game Development When it Comes to Animation?

When it works well you often don’t notice and when it doesn’t it can ruin your immersion. Animation in video games is a complex, often technical topic and there are many different elements that go into animating your favourite gaming characters. I’m far from an expert on these matters but after doing some reading on the subject I’d like to explore the differences between animation in games vs movies, what can result in bad animation and looking at some examples of animation done right and done poorly.


Why Animation in Games is Different to Movies

First of all, it’s important to recognise that animation isn’t one-size-fits-all. There are many different tools, approaches and software depending on the studio or developer making the product. One of the key differences between games and movies is the intent.. For a film, the animator is only concerned with what’s in frame and so spends all of their attention on that subject. The director is in control of what you are viewing at any one time in a film. Games on the other hand are interactive with the player controlling the character and the camera. This requires the game to look good from all angles requiring more widespread animation.


Naughty Dog are well known now for animating detailed facial expression aided by motion capture.

If you think about how much animation is in your traditional open-world game from the trees and grass blowing in the wind to your character’s movements then it’s easy to understand that games can be quite complicated to get right. The character being controlled typically has many different stances from walking and running to crouching and standing idle. As a result, animators have less time to spend on each scene than in movies because there is much more to do.

There is also a fundamental difference in philosophy: film animation serves the story, game animation typically serves gameplay and in more modern times the story as well.


What Causes Bad Facial Animation in Games?

When it comes to the quality of animation in the gaming industry it’s important to notice how far we’ve come from Pong and Mario to much more complex story-driven games like The Last of Us. Graphics have steadily improved over time and animation has to try and keep up otherwise bad animation becomes glaringly obvious. When it comes to animating humans in a game, the portayal has become more realistic and we’re approaching ‘uncanny valley’ levels of realism. Motion capture is becoming more and more common in games as developers look to immerse players in the story to a greater degree and some talent shifts from voice acting to acting.

Although there are many different causes such as an animator’s individual skill and technical problems, the quality of animation in a AAA game usually comes down to two things: time and money. Video game animators are rarely afforded the time to practice and refine their skills, there is more of a focus on being fast and efficient. Unless it’s a game that is mostly cutscenes such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead, most of the time you spend in a game is actually playing the game yourself. Consequently, more money is shifted towards what players will spend most of their time doing which is playing rather than watching. This is why some games have outright bad animation, it’s not an area that has been prioritised during development.


Case Study – Mass Effect Andromeda

Let’s take a look at a very recent example of facial animation gone wrong. Large RPG’s with lots of choice such as Mass Effect use animations generated by an algorithm which bases the animation on the dialogue or text the character will say. Animators will then typically go through and touch up scenes by hand to improve them.


This character’s blank facial expression became a meme after Andromeda’s release.

Former Bioware employee and current animator at Naughty Dog Jonathan Cooper had some interesting things to say about Mass Effect Andromeda a couple of months ago and you can see the full thread by clicking below:

To summarize here are some of the most important parts:

“In Mass Effect 1 we had over 8 hrs of facial performance. In Horizon Zero Dawn they had around 15. Player expectations have only grown.

“As such, designers (not animators) sequence pre-created animations together – like DJs with samples and tracks.

“The lowest quality scenes may not even be touched by hand. To cover this, an algorithm is used to generate a baseline quality sequence…Andromeda seems to have lowered the quality of it’s base algorithm, resulting in the ‘My face is tired’ meme featuring nothing but lip-sync.

“This, presumably, was because they planned to hit every line by hand. But a 5-year dev cycle shows they underestimated this task.”

Cooper also explains that it’s unfair to compare the animation in a game like Mass Effect with something like Uncharted since the former has so much more dialogue in it. He describes this as ‘simply a quality vs quantity tradeoff’.

All this seems to indicate that Mass Effect Andromeda needed more development time to iron out its issues. I have some sympathy for Bioware if you to take into account they were working with a new engine (Frostbite) and the fact that Mass Effect has a ton of dialogue. That said, it’s no excuse for a developer to have their animation take a step backwards and at the very least Bioware has put some patches out to improve matters somewhat.


Animation Done Well

When bad facial animation does crop up it can break the immersion and can’t really be ignored. When it works well though it can be truly engrossing to watch. Here are a few examples of really good animation in recent games:

Injustice 2

Injustice 2 just came out and there’s quite a bit off talk about the facial animation which has become much more realistic compared to the last game:


Notice the realism when Harley speaks or chews gum? The character’s are approaching uncanny valley levels but given that this a game based on superheroes it works quite well for the larger than life characters.

In The Witcher 3, CD Projekt Red not only used an algorithm to generate facial animation but also to generate gestures and movements. They then went through and auto-generated new gestures where appropriate:

As you can see the characters move realistically and gesture when talking, there are many games that are quite stiff when it comes to dialogue. Also notice Shani’s expression in response to Geralt’s line.

And there you have it, animating a video game is pretty complex when you think about it especially for large RPG’s with lots of dialogue and choice.

What are good or bad examples of video game animation that you’ve witnessed?

Share your thoughts with me in the comments.

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