Basics: Look-At System

Recently, my DS charger has gone missing and I’ve resorted to playing MJ’s PSP. I’ve always been turned off by their size and reported lack of quality original games, but I just completed one that left me impressed enough to write about – Sony’s own Loco Roco.

Loco Roco Title

Created by Team Ico alumnus Tsutomu Kouno, this game is notable from a motion design standpoint for two major reasons. Number one, it’s the first character game I’ve played featuring a fully procedural (i.e. zero animation) movement system, using a physics-based world to tilt and shake the titular squash’n’stretch hero(es) around the levels, but that’s not the subject of this post. Instead, the second and more notable feature as generally relevant to a wider variety of games is what really caught my eye – the eyes.
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Basics: IK and Weight

The alsoran cautiously picked this up due to the series-damaging sequel, produced by the (apparently inexperienced) Ubisoft Shanghai studio. However, this latest offering comes from an internal team at the original Montreal studio, and despite the controversial defection of some of the key original Splinter Cell creators to EA, this third franchise installment captures all the near-future espionage thrill of the original minus the glaring flaws of the first two.

Building on the stealth-based reliance on gadgetry and darkness of previous installments, Chaos Theory offers a more open-ended approach to each situation, populating the less-linear levels with more forgiving (or fallible) AI, losing their super-human eyesight, allowing the player many more creative ways to dispatch of each enemy (or not) as they see fit.

SplinterCell Title

Gameplay aside, Chaos Theory features the most advanced realtime IK system the alsoran has witnessed in a videogame so far, making player character Sam Fisher convincingly connect with the environment and pushing the medium ever closer to true procedural movement that is entirely under the command of the player.
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Basics: Mario 64 Case Study

Back in the days when sprites were moved around the screen in a linear fashion, with pixel-perfect accuracy often required to overcome single-screen levels and similarly limited enemies, Super Mario Bros on the NES opened up opportunities for creative level design and an equal amount of creativity on the player’s part to navigate them.

This more freeform approach to character movement was mainly provided by a reliance on inertia, giving a constant sense of analogue manipulation of speed providing cautious walking, adrenaline-fuelled running and controlled jumping throughout each of the carefully created levels.
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Basics: Making Character-Driving Fun

Imagine a racing game where the cars grip the road with almost glue-like quality, that can accelerate to maximum speed in the blink of an eye, where races are dull affairs essentially comprising the movement of a weightless metal block from A to B in the most efficient manner possible. Doesn’t sound like much fun does it? That’s because the primary challenge, (and therefore gameplay), of a racing game centers around the relative unwieldiness of the car. This challenge can be further expanded upon by offering multiple vehicle-types, all with different handling characteristics, as well as a variety of road surfaces with which the vehicle traction can be affected.

Gran Turismo

So what relevance does a driving game bear on the subject of animation? Analogies aside, relative unwieldiness, created by inertia, is one of the most basic and often overlooked avenues of character driving with which we can improve that all-important fun-factor that games strive to produce.

Though touched on earlier in the article Player Control: Fast vs Slow, inertia does not deal with the speed and responsiveness of animations themselves, but instead with the movement of the character through the gameworld, which is closely linked to the animator’s driving animations.
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Basics: Animation Blending

In the past, animations on videogame characters have played sequentially. When one ends, another begins, regardless of whether the action is fire-and-forget or cyclic, as the cycle ends before playing through again.

Seen abstractly, 3D animation is just a series of numbers or values applied to virtual bones within the characters we see on-screen, (actually just 3D co-ordinates around which solid objects or skinned vertices pivot). For years, videogames required the realtime manipulation of numbers in order to simulate lighting, AI, rulesets and other procedural elements within our games, but until now the numbers that comprise animations have remained relatively untouched.
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Basics: Flashback Case Study

Developed by the late French developer Delphine Software, this spiritual successor (not a sequel) to their 1991 hit Out of This World (Another World in PAL territories) was initially released on the Commodore Amiga in 1992, and for DOS and the 16-Bit era consoles a year later.

You guide amnesiac Conrad B. Hart in his quest to escape the planet Titan, and later foil the plans of an alien race plotting the destruction of humanity. Like Out of This World, this is achieved by navigating obstacles and puzzles via some very realistic and fluid rotoscoped animation, using polygons rather than the sprite method of the day for memory efficiency due to the sheer number of frames required for the fluid motion.

Flashback Title

The reason the alsoran would like to concentrate on this decade+ old game is that a lot of the design related to the animation is still relevant today when creating games using 3D assets. For an example, just play any of the Tomb Raider series to see how similar the animation and level-design mechanics are to Flashback, with its standardized jump distances and set points for animation interruptibility.
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Basics: Fast vs Slow

Traditionally, videogames have three character archetypes around which all modern character selections are based. Slow but strong, fast but weak, and an average of the two. These basics can be deepened by additional attributes, but this basic model of advantages/disadvantages holds true to this day.

It should be the animator’s task to bear these characteristics in mind when balancing the gameplay-specific movement of any given character, as speed attributes are directly affected by the animation. Similarly, the responsiveness of the PC greatly affects the overall feel of the game, so an overview of the general pacing of the game should be at the forefront of the animators mind when designing motions and how they fit together.

Final Fight

As a rule of thumb, the “feel” of the PC should always take precedence over the aesthetics of the animations, so editing and 2nd passes should always be performed with this in mind.
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