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 commonplace as well as cycle lengths of more than two steps – all boiling down to 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 GDC, 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 prototype 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.