10 Years of Game Animation

This month a decade has passed since starting this blog. I initially began writing because there was, (and sadly still is), a notable lack of game-specific animation resources online for what I perceived as an exciting and growing medium. Now there are over 150 game courses across the US alone with many more around the world. What was then only seen as a hobby industry with widely varying quality levels across all manner of platforms has, from where I’m standing, become more focused with quality winning out at both ends of the spectrum – large budget and indie development.

It may be surprising, but despite games I’ve worked on being played by tens of millions around the world it’s rare that I get to interact with those players or my peers due to the largely insular nature of game-development. This blog was started in the pre-social media days in part as a way of starting some kind of conversation between myself and other game animators out there. Nowadays, interactions with players and peers have moved from the static, uni-directional conversations of blogs to the real-time updates and conversations of Facebook & Twitter. We’re still going through the growing pains of this more open conversation but I feel its worth it – for every malcontent lashing out at perceived unfairness in their self-stated role as consumers there are tens of positive and informative conversations I’ll have with potential future colleagues – leaving me optimistic for the future.

And what a future it is – these are very exciting times for video game animators. The previous console generation finally brought characters to a fidelity where we could bring cameras in close to show real emotion on characters that were more than just blurred and blocky facial facsimiles. In my eyes this was the single biggest increase in what players expect from their virtual avatars last generation and which made way for animators, (and others involved in character and story creation), to be given an equal level of importance as other previously-established disciplines like design and programming. These days studios with even the slightest aspirations of storytelling must take animation seriously to compete, with players’ expectations only increasing in the ongoing arms-race of believable characters.

With every new technological and artistic breakthrough game developers are forging the do’s and do-not’s of video game creation as it increasingly becomes a medium for more than just fun. It has always been my belief that stories are best told by characters we truly believe in, and for that to happen we strive to remove all the “gamey” instances of unnatural movement that take us out of the experience. This new generation ushers in a higher fidelity of characters via previously unprecedented modelling advancements in sculpting; and texutres are making way for shaders, allowing artists to sculpt and paint characterful faces in a manner more similar to classical art than the cold digital computer interfaces of the past. The industry-wide adoption of motion-capture, a controversial subject ten years ago, has allowed us to more quickly assemble an all-encompassing set of movements that bring these characters to life, and if done right, relies as much on proper direction of actors as it does the classical principles of animation.

It wasn’t without a cost, however. Artists and animators had to relearn their trade in a manner similar to the transition from 2D hand-drawn animation to 3D in the animated film industry years earlier. Teams have swelled in size, skills became more specialised, and expectations from players are that quality will naturally only increase as we move forward. In the future, videogame animators will once again have to learn new techniques to keep up. Animators must still create amazing actions as they always have, but now more than ever need to follow through and maintain them in game, providing additional data to ensure that they blend together seamlessly with correct weight and balance. The days of animators hitting export and kicking it over the fence are over.

The upside of all this is that they will need to spend less and less time creating uninspiring and purely functional actions required to have convincing movement in video games; instead spending the bulk of their time maintaining a more varied and colourful cast of characters than they have been able to in the past. Just as mocap, for all its technical merits, cannot hope to capture the larger-than-life actions of our characters during gameplay, (easily the juiciest and most challenging actions that animators relish), this frees animators up to concentrate on hand-creating these performance and action-heavy moments with the purely functional falling on systems and technology.

The last ten years have been a great learning experience for myself as an animator following the move to North America, which I expect to continue. As such, below are my predictions for the next 10 years in this ever-evolving medium. Some of which are already here, some just around the corner, and others perhaps wishful thinking but still grounded in where we’re already headed.

More Memory

Already having an effect, more RAM on the new generation of consoles instantly meant less compression of animation, but moreover opens up opportunities for being less frugal about animation-sharing between characters. This means less homogenisation, with NPCs no longer necessitating repetitive, identical moves, and one-off actions being much more common-place as well as cycle lengths of more than two steps being commonplace – again meaning less repetition. We are now mostly limited by our bandwidth (time) to create these animations, but if history is an indicator our workflow will grow in efficiency in lockstep with the workload.

Ingame Workflow

The current workflow of animating in a Digital Content Creation software like Max or Maya then exporting to the engine will be obsolete once we move wholesale to animating directly in the engine via either realtime connection plugins or controls added into the engine directly. No more will animators create beautiful animations on temporary characters only to see them dumbed down or flat out not work in-game. The ability to work in realtime with the correct camera, fully rigged and easily-swapped characters, and the ability to pause the game at any point and readjust arcs and timing to fit in with the rest of the game in full context will not only speed us up, but remove a lot of the guesswork and the unknowns lost in translation between DCC and game engine.

No More Cycles or Poses

Almost a decade ago, I attended a mini conference in San Francisco that informed and expanded my ideas on the potential of animation blending. Beyond parametric blends, the academic present floated the idea of what we now call Motion graphs & Motion Fields, whereby player input would determine different sections of a larger bank of motion capture, automatically finding the best blend phases by pre-tagging the data via pose and velocity-matching. At the time, this approach was unfeasible in video games due to memory constraints, but having performed preliminary tests with this approach I can attest this is the biggest thing of interest on the video game animation horizon, not just for improved visuals but better player handling and an exciting change to our approach to characters.

No longer will we have set idle poses and move cycles we must curate throughout the project, instead maintaining large motion-capture sets that finally unlink player responsiveness from visual fidelity, freeing us to create the best we can possibly create. With the ability to display more animation at a higher fidelity, our new frontier will only be limited by the amount of animation we can create during a project cycle. Historically, game animations are exported and read merely as position and rotation values on bones but this new approach will parse data on weight, momentum, velocity and matching poses to offer automatic and flawless transitioning between animations.

Runtime Rigs

Currently required as a means to share animation for both time and memory efficiency, standardisation of skeletons will be a thing of the past, with animation data being easily transferable cleanly onto a variety of skeletons with different sizes and proportions, allowing future games to have a more diverse cast of characters with a variety of silhouettes. I’ve shipped games with realtime re-targetting via Autodesk’s Human IK and we’re already seeing the benefits of character variety in games like Bungie’s Destiny and in engines like Unreal 4. A wholesale adoption of this approach is right around the corner.

Procedural movement

With animation no longer exported as just position and rotation values, rather than building trees of animations required to blend together, animators will instead feed animations into systems that take their work and break them down into component parts that the animator can then adjust with a variety of parameters to fill in the blanks, foregoing the need for functional transition animations and allowing the animator to concentrate instead on a smaller set of character-defining animations. More than just ragdoll physics, procedural movement will handle correct shifting of weight and momentum, as well as better (non-linear) blending between animations to help marry the joint goals of every video game animator – fluidity and responsiveness.

Democratisation of Game Development

Beyond the primary game engines (Unreal & Unity) going free at this year’s E3, affordability of depth-perceiving cameras like Kinect have given birth to middleware software that allows users to string a few cameras together to create a rudimentary motion capture volume. Movement based on video footage has been in the works for years, and despite its rudimentary quality I expect to see motion-capture taken up by smaller studios and single-person teams, broadening the scope of small projects from a character perspective.

These are the major developments that I see on the horizon, and I haven’t even made any calls on the massive elephant in the room of Virtual Reality beyond what I’ve already said here. Again, these are exciting times and I can’t wait to see what others are bringing that I haven’t even considered yet.

 

GDC 2015 Panel

Our GDC 2015 panel Women Are Not Too Hard To Animate is now available to view for free on the GDC Vault here. Stick around after the quiet intro – my mic is turned on at some point I promise.

Following last summer’s controversy, (in a year of controversies), on the work required to animate female characters I was invited to elaborate further on how we typically approach character gender when animating large games, along with awesome co-panelists Mariel Cartwright, Brianna Wu and Tim Borrelli.

The discussion is deliberately high-level to speak to a wider audience than just technically-minded game animators, and from speaking to others at the conference it’s not animators that are the issue here, but rather a simple lack of awareness or consideration for better representing all players in our evolving medium. The fact of the matter is that animating diverse characters, as with anything in game development, is a matter of priorities.

Unveiling Uncharted 4

Last weekend in Las Vegas at Sony’s inaugural Playstation Experience event we unveiled gameplay of Uncharted 4 to a cheering crowd of thousands. It was an amazingly tactile experience as game developers usually put videos out online and can only see the reaction from comments. Hearing the crowd roar when they realised it was live and ingame was incomparable; confirmed by an accidental drop into the abyss where we’d yet to create the death animation sequence. I hope the 15 minute video below shows the lengths to which the team has pushed the fuidity of movement and overall character fidelity – animating this guy for the last three quarters of a year has been a blast!

Later on, the character team gave a presentation on the Nathan Drake model and the level of fidelity they are achieving, from physicalised hair and clothing to shaders that render mud, water and sweat. At around the 50-minute mark you’ll get a glimpse of the 800+ poses we have at our disposal when animating Drake’s face, requiring animation controls that have been as much an exercise in usability as in displaying emotion.

On Photo-Realism In Games

Below is an interview I gave a few months ago for a UK magazine on the topic of photo-realistic graphics that I have kindly been given permission to reprint. I provided an animator’s perspective as it also featured insights from developers working on racing games that are at the forefront of realistic mechanical rendering – something I hadn’t considered before. It would be interesting to know others’ thoughts on the matter, as it touches on that timeless classic, the Uncanny Valley.

From an animation perspective, how do you view the prospect of photo-realistic graphics?

I believe that years ago the game animation community realised it was something of a false god – that rather than realism we should instead be pushing for believability, (not realism), in our characters. It’s a lot easier to make a convincing performance with a character with exaggerated features when you can concentrate solely on acting instead of worrying about details such as the perfect movement of skin and muscle across a skull or the most accurate rendering of wetness in the eye. Ultimately it depends what kind of experience you’re hoping to achieve with your game. Assassin’s Creed simply wouldn’t work as a cartoony game, and the reverse is true for the Mario series.

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Women Are Not Too Hard To Animate

Well, that was an interesting E3 this year. For my part, I ran around the show floor and made executive decisions on which games are currently “bringing it” in terms of animation and character art. That’s always been my favourite part of the spectacle, showing where the bar is set for the coming year to know where we should be aiming. Then came the reaction to a tweet of mine calling out an argument I feel strongly about, (that of inclusiveness in games), which added fuel to the #womenaretoohardtoanimate hashtag.

Thankfully, this site allows me to elaborate further on the reasoning behind those 140 characters. But first, a qualification of the “2 days” estimation because, after all, this is a blog on video game animation. On reading comments in the aftermath it would appear many people online fell into one of two camps:
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Now at Naughty Dog

Since moving to Canada almost a decade ago I’ve been making games that involve hundreds of characters with hours upon hours of systemic and open-ended narrative. Now I look forward to channeling all that energy into an altogether more intimate story and cast of characters. As of late February I am now based in sunny Santa Monica, California working with the talented guys and girls at Sony’s Naughty Dog studio on the next installment of the Uncharted series for Playstation 4.

When working at an art-centric studio such as Ubisoft Montreal I had been hard-pressed to find anywhere that takes video game animation as seriously as there, but I’ve long held Naughty Dog up as a titan in video game animation, ultimately being won over by their game-changing work on The Last of Us. It’s no understatement to say, in my opinion, that that game has set a new standard for tone and characterisation in video games.

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Animating The 3rd Assassin

GDC 2014 is fast approaching, and the guys over at The ReAnimators Podcast have interviews with all the speakers at this year’s Animation Bootcamp. Here’s the write-up of my GDC 2013 talk, (available on the GDC Vault behind a paywall), on the approach we took in refreshing the animation of the Assassin’s Creed series for its third major outing.

Introduction

Assassin’s Creed III was my first game after arriving at Ubisoft Montreal back in early 2010. I can’t tell you how fortunate someone like myself was to work on Assassin’s Creed as to me it has been a standard-bearer for animation since it’s initial release in 2007. Many people at the time told me that AC was the studio leader in animation, so with the position of animation director came a lot of responsibility – the pressure from above to not screw up what came before was immense.

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The Last of Us – Cinematic Journey

It’s currently tapped for several game of the year awards so now is a good time to write up my notes on David Lam’s talk from the 2013 Montreal International Game Summit on the cinematic process of The Last of Us, which he also kindly gave at our studio later the same week.

David was tasked with supervising the animation for cutscenes on The Last of Us, where he said there was even more of an emphasis on story and characters than Uncharted. In particular, there was a strong focus on the relationship between the lead characters, primarily the 180 degree transformation of Joel’s attitude towards Ellie over the course of the game. While being mindful of sensitive story elements, David jumped straight in by showing everyone present the final scene of the game – (note: there are story spoilers below also). This scene, he said, best illustrated the team’s mantra of “Grounded Realism”, with a down to earth, life-like approach to performances in order to create empathy.

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Watch_Dogs Mocap Process

Now that the busy holiday period is over, here are my belated notes from my colleague Colin Graham’s 2013 Montreal International Games Summit presentation entitled Are We Ready For Animation On The Next Generation Of Consoles? – Lessons Learned From Developing Watch_Dogs.

Colin started with a series of disclaimers, the first being that as the game was due to be released the week of the talk before being delayed we were getting an edited version. Still, there was much to take away despite his self-professed “controversial” approach to motion-capture pipelines, posing it as a counter-point to Brent George’s talk I attended the previous year on how we must bend mocap to our will. That said, he agreed there is no real right or wrong way to do anything, and often “counter-intuitive” thinking leads to innovation.

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Prince Of Persia Rotoscopy

I found some great rotoscoped frames from the development of the original Prince of Persia, showing creator Jordan Mechner putting younger brother David through the paces almost three decades ago. The poses and actions are so iconic I can remember them even without the accompanying video below.

Released in 1989, the game was way ahead of it’s time for animation and certainly foreshadowed what we would later accomplish with motion capture in 3D. I especially like the excitement you can read in Mechner’s journal entry from the time as he begins to realise the potential of this breakthrough approach:
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