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Adding Weight to Your Game Design Part 2: Anticipation

Applying the animation principle of anticipation to game design.

Part 1 - Squash and Stretch : Part 2 - Anticipation : Part 3 - Staging

Part 4 - Straight Ahead & Pose to Pose : Part 5 - Follow Through & Overlapping Action

Part 6 - Slow In, Slow Out : Part 7 - Arcs : Part 8 - Secondary Action : Part 9 - Timing

Part 10 - Exaggeration : Part 11 - Solid Drawing : Part 12 - Appeal


Weight is a physical and emotional sensation that people feel everyday.  And conveying that in a visual way can be incredibly challenging.  But it is something animators do all the time, and the principles they use can be applied to game design. 

In fact, it needs to be, as many of these principles are sacrificed by the animator for the good of playability.  Thankfully, since both animators and designers have to juggle multiple disciplines to bring their creations to life, they speak much of the same language.  They just use a slightly different alphabet.   

Each part will lay out the 12 principles of animation, and how they are not only used in animation but how they directly relate to game design.  Both animators and designers will realize quickly that many of these are unspoken truths, but the benefit comes in knowing that they can now speak to each other on a deeper level.  A level that takes animation and design past being purely functional, but now fully functioning towards creating an honest experience. 

It is how both can add an extra sense of weight and purpose to the game and the characters within it.  Many of these fundamentals are inter-connected, and it is through a combination of all of these working together that you will have characters that move with weight and emote with weight.  And that is what will stick with players.

 “It is important for the animator to be able to study sensation and to feel the force behind sensation, in order to project that sensation.” – Walt Disney


Applied to Animation

In every action, you have anticipation.  This may be the most important tool animators have when it comes to storytelling and action.  And at its core it is one principle that is most commonly used by game designers.  Not only is anticipation in every action we do, and needed to convey a sense of weight, but it is also used to draw the attention of the player before an action happens.  For a visual example of anticipation, think of a baseball pitcher.  First they will wind up before they even release the ball.  Without anticipation, actions become confusing and lose weight without anything to describe HOW they get to where they were going.  Anticipation is also the first step in getting the player invested in what is going to happen as they actively engage their mind in the possibilities for what is coming next.  And that is an incredibly powerful tool to have when trying to convey a story, movement or emotion with any sense of weight.

The batter knows from that first frame what is going to happen

The batter knows from that first frame what is going to happen and begins thinking about how he will react.

Applied to Game Design

In games, anticipation is most visible and commonly used with enemy attacks.  To really have a powerful hit or to get the player invested in what is going to happen next, anticipation is employed.   The enemy will rear back and give the player a tell, to let them know what is coming.  Visually the twist, torque, and shift of their whole body weight makes what is about to happen feel powerful.  But it also engages the player to think about when the attack is coming and how best to deal with it.  And those moments of drawing conclusions and problem solving is why people play games.  Without anticipation, there is no weight to any action that takes place within the digital world or the player’s investment into the world.  And the longer you anticipate and build up the action, the more powerful the implied action is expected to be.  Likewise, smaller anticipations mean smaller payoffs.  You can see how anticipation builds directly from squash and stretch.

Anticipation is also when you can also add a lot of character and personality to the action or mechanic.  This is a big reason PunchOut is so successful in not just creating memorable characters, but also great gameplay.  The anticipations perfectly match in visual, payoff, gameplay and personality to craft fully fleshed experiences.  If a character anticipates, it shows they are thinking about what they will be doing next.  If they anticipate in a unique way, it gives some sort of insight towards HOW they think.  And giving a thought process to a character is the number one way to make them feel alive and aware of the world.

 King Hippo from PunchOut is iconic because his actions perfectly blend his personality and gameplay

King Hippo from PunchOut is iconic because his actions perfectly blend his personality and gameplay 


But beyond just conveying the actions of a character, it is also used to prepare the player for something that is about to happen.  Think of the age old tactic where you let the player stock up on health before a big encounter.  When you come across a big cache of ammo and health, you anticipate a big battle.  And because of it, you better deliver a great battle as a designer, because they are aware of what is coming, and in their mind are already starting to come up with an idea of what it could be.  And that is the sweet spot, because you have engaged the player's mind to start thinking through the rules of the world and piece together a solution to a problem that hasn’t even been posed yet.

And while it can be very satisfying to match or beat those expectations, it isn't always about delivering on that expectation.  You can build something up, but then flip those expectations on their head.  And if it is appropriate to the anticipation, it can be even more meaningful.  In fact, any successful twist is playing on those pre-conceived assumptions associated with the anticipation.  The action can also be smaller than the anticipation, which is a staple of the comedy genre.  Take the pitching analogy of before.  Think of the Disney animated short where Goofy begins an elaborate wind up, building intense amounts of energy, only to finally pitch the ball by gently flicking it forward.  Over the top, and slightly cliché, though still good for a giggle.  But, when done subtly, it should be felt by the player, not seen.  If it is too much, it will pull the player out of the game, because it will no longer be believable.  If you have none, they will be pulled out because it doesn’t feel real or attached to the rest of the experience.  But both have to be rewarding to the player and the payoff needs to match the anticipation. 

This is one of the most powerful tools in our box, as it is entirely built around involving the player.  And because of that, their investment is immediate and our ability to deliver can go beyond just narrative or visual payoffs.  Their investment means they can react to the anticipation and either allow it to play out, or change the outcome.  And for those changes to have weight, not only do the repercussions need to be meaningful, the anticipation leading up to those player choices is what will make them care about getting the chance to make them in the first place.


Next : Part 3 - Staging

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