Each week we feature the best content from #AltDevBlogADay, a blog site on which developers write daily about things that they find interesting. This week it's the turn of WB Games' Mike Jungbluth.
When you are an animator for games, the one thing that you will always be confronted with is, "Why aren't you working in movies?" Be it from people you meet or the people you work with, there seems to be an unspoken rule that if you work in games as an animator, secretly you would rather be working in film. And for most animators, that is probably true to some degree. Hell, I won't lie and say that it hasn't occupied my mind at one point.
Game animation just isn't as luxurious as film animation. From the rigs, to the models, to the amount of time you have to polish, the amount of creative control you have driving the project's feel, film has us beat. They get to craft performances that the audience can relate to in a way we will always be struggling to achieve. And while I think we can certainly focus and grow the craft more in the traditional sense, making relatable characters is only going to get us halfway there. Where we really need to start focusing on game animation is beyond where the audience just relates with a performance but how they interact with it. It is a slightly different mindset than doing traditional film style animation, and not as well defined or understood, but that is how you know you are tapping into what this medium is truly capable of.
Two places of player interaction that we can influence as animators that we typically gloss over are transitional animations and input controls. Those two moments are when the player and the digital character speak to one another on a core level and can really be felt by the player if paid attention to.
Let's get this out of the way upfront. When handed a list of transitional animations to work on, animators get a little bummed out. 'Idle to walk turn 45 degrees left' makes the eyes of every animator glaze over and their internet browsers instantly open hulu as they spit out another purely functional yet bland animation so that they can get to something more exciting to work on.
But those transitions are the moment when a character has made a decision, or is in the process of making a decision on where they want to go next and what they want to do. And thought process is something that wets the lips of every animator out there. Thinking and decision making is what drives a character's performance, which is something every animator wants more of in games. So what can we do to make those more exciting for us to work on and the player to feel their importance beyond just serving to rotate the character?
"It is not necessary for an animator to take a character to one point, complete that action completely, and then turn to the following action as if he had never given it a thought until after completing the first action. When a character knows what he is going to do he doesn't have to stop before each individual action and think to do it. He has it planned in advance in his mind." – Walt Disney
We start by how we should start with every animation. What is the character's purpose, personality and goals? If they are headstrong and brash, they wouldn't worry about looking first to where they are turning, they would just turn assuredly knowing that wherever they end up pointing, that is where they will go. Or if they are mousy or scared, they would look first, then turn more slowly, not necessarily ready to commit to the action.
Think about a character's acting patterns and how those transitions allow you to flow from one action to another. Maybe when a character is walking it signals a different emotion than when they are running. The transition is what will sell that emotional change. Think about which body part leads their actions, be it the head, the chest, arm or leg making each character visually feel as if their driving core comes from a different place than the last. Transitions are also when a character is anticipating what they are about to do next, and anticipation is something game design thrives on even if as animators we often have to sacrifice an action's anticipation in an effort to speed things up. Transitions are pure anticipation of what is about to happen next, so relish in it!
You can also use transitions as a take, to help add comedic or dramatic beats to what is happening. If instead of having the enemy simply turn at you to shoot, he first looks, does a double take, then quickly whips around gun blazing, it will feel noticeably different than when a superior officer notices you and quickly and precisely turns and pops off a couple controlled shots as he settles into position. Both serve the gameplay and character's narrative, which is what draws both the player and us as animators into a performance.
I know we don't get a lot of frames to actually turn a character, and as always, it has to be responsive. But for NPC's especially, we as a whole should spend more time on transitional animations. Making those believable and emotive will go a long way towards making more fully realized characters for the player to interact with.