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Adding Weight to Your Game Design Part 3: Staging

Applying the animation principle of staging 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

Staging lets the player know what in the world has the most weight.  This means you must know what you want to tell the player, and have everything else frame that focal point.  Clarity is the key and being aware of the entire scene is essential.  In animation, this means everything on the screen and the performance needs to be designed to keep the focus on what is important. 

The environment, the pose of the character, the way they motion with their hands, where they look with their eyes... it all comes together to focus the player's attention on where and what is important.  Even without words or sound the player needs to instantly understand and connect to what they are seeing, and clear staging is the key. 

Staging is also how you can psychologically impact or deceive the player when the character or scene’s deeper intent is not what they are being lead to believe.  How you tilt a camera or place objects in an environment can quickly make the player feel a sense of emotional weight in a very subtle way.

Applied to Game Design

In game design, think again of the whole scene.  Think of where the characters are standing.  Think about the lighting.  Think about the placement of power-ups.  Think about the clutter, and the definition of shapes surrounding the environment.  How does a long corridor with lots of debris feel compared to a wide open room?  When in a forest, think of the difference of having gnarly, spiney trees vs towering redwoods or young, sprouting saplings. 

Figure out your intent and theme, and everything else should lead to what is most important at that moment, to the level, and to the narrative being delivered.  Then after you have established those major points, make sure everything else in the scene supports that focus, and does not compete with it. 

Because when they compete, that is when you get players confused on where to go, what their objectives are, what a mechanic is used for and what to do next.  And once you or your game are no longer clear of what you want with the player, they will lose their investment on where they fit in the world.  And once investment is lost, getting the player back is harder than establishing it in the first place. 

A Milt Kahl key frame from Jungle Book. There is no question where the player should focus

A Milt Kahl key frame from The Jungle Book.  There is no question where the viewer should focus. Notice where the most detail is and how everywhere else is minimal, leading the eye where it should be.


This isn’t to say you can only have one thing going on at a time.  Just stage the most important gameplay elements for the player as the core.  Make sure both you and the player are focused on what tool or mechanic best fits the situation, and have all the other elements and mechanics support and frame the focus.  This will make that element feel stronger and carry more weight in the world, which will organically connect the player, the game and the designer. 

Depth and space are big parts of staging.  The quickest way for a character on a 2d screen to look like it is immersed in the world is to layer the poses and performance depth.  Animators do this through overlapping body parts, being aware of the negative space throughout and around the body, and making sure their silhouettes read.  They think of the foreground, middle ground and background, and pose the character in a way that the depth makes the focus feel all the more supported. 

This same attention to depth needs to be defined in your core gameplay.  You don’t want to have all your mechanics be at the same depth in the same scene.  Layer them, so that some are in the background, receding into the back of the players mind and others are at the forefront. 

This is especially key when introducing new features or upgrades to a mechanic.  This could also be used for the mechanics that are second nature and always in the background.  They can be instantly identified without too many details if you have something in the foreground that requires more attention, such as a high level mechanic that requires more concentration from the player. 

The quickest way to see if your staging or pose works on animation is to reduce it to a silhouette.  And this is something game design can benefit from a lot.  What you are essentially doing is getting rid of the white noise. It helps you get past all of the details.  It says, can you read and understand what is going on with just the most minimal of information and is the core strong enough to stand on its own.  Is the character or emotion instantly recognizable based solely on the shapes. 

This can be done with game design in many ways.  Build the game with rough geometry to make sure playing through the area is fun even without the art.  Without any lighting, see if you can frame your level in a way that leads player in the direction you want them to go.  Keep characters in T-pose to see if you can build the scenario you want without adding elaborate animations. 

Can you make a chase feel tense based only on the speed & timing of the enemy, without all the sprints, jumps and tackles?  Can you make your environment come alive with the proper placement of T-posed characters pathing through the world?  Because if the silhouette of the game is strong, then everything the player does in it will have weight. 

 With just the silhouette you can tell the age, emotion and action of the character

With just the silhouette you can tell the age, emotion and action of the character


If players are getting lost, either on what to do next or just losing interest in general, checking your staging will go a long way to figuring out why that is.  Either your performance is being lost or your core gameplay isn’t being framed properly by the rest of the experience.  But if you always keep in mind your staging, and always ask what is the focus of the moment, both you and the player will be able to move forward.  And when you have everything staged properly, the weight of everything you create will be easily defined by everything else around it.

Next : Part 4 - Straight Ahead & Pose to Pose

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