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Adding Weight to Your Game Design Part 8: Secondary Action

Applying the animation principle of secondary action 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

Secondary Action 

Applied to Animation

Secondary action in animation is everything from hair, to capes, to tails, to flags.  It is the parts that aren’t necessary to the core action, but add extra visual flare.  When you look at a person, the root of the body is the main action, and everything else is secondary.  It is ambient, but reliant on whatever it is tethered to.  It is the icing.  It is also a great way to see where the weight of something has just come from or where it will be going as secondary actions are often very light and almost weightless.  In fact, a lot of secondary action is shown by using follow through and overlapping action

The secondary action of Luxo Jr's forward motion is the rippling of his power cord.

The secondary action of Luxo Jr's forward motion is the rippling of his power cord which shows clearly where he came from and how he moved.


Where secondary action really becomes powerful is when it comes to acting in your animation.  The secondary action is what can be added to help establish and push the personality.  So instead of just adding a bounce to the step of a happy person walking, you can also make them whistle.  That whistle isn’t necessary for the character to continue walking, but it helps to establish their pleasant mood and makes them feel even more alive. 

Applied to Game Design

In games, secondary objectives and powers need to work the same way.  They can be their own entity, and they can be beautiful, but they must stay tethered to the main objective and not become so elaborate that they distract from it.  They should feel like a natural extension of it, or at least something that is relevant to the main purpose of the game.  They should feel like that whistle, adding to the overall mood, atmosphere or purpose, but not necessary for that purpose to go on.  In and of itself, it is very light, and almost weightless, like a random swatch of cloth blowing through the air.  But, when attached to something more substantial it helps to define the form underneath or trail behind showing off just how much power it is attached to.  It is transformed from being just a random piece of cloth floating in the air into a flag, proudly displaying any number of symbolic and meaningful messages.

Think of any secondary mission or quest that quickly grew repetitious.  More than likely it had you collecting something you didn’t care about and in all honesty the game world itself didn’t care about it either.  That is probably because it didn’t match the main action of the game.  Because without that anchor, secondary actrions are lost to the wind, aimlessly floating in an ocean of meaningless grind fests. 

It is also important to use secondary action before or after a major action.  If you try to use them during a large main action, they can get lost.  Take for instance a facial expression.  If you have a change of expression, which is signifying a change in thought process, during a fast action, it will be lost in the motion.  The change in expression should happen before or after a move.  This is just another way to keep it tethered to the important action.  If you layer too many secondary objectives during a major, important quest, you will run the risk of overwhelming the player & having them become lost as to what is really important at that moment.  Likewise, if you give a power, weapon or mechanic too many secondary functions, or introduce them during intense moments, the player can miss it because they are too focused on what needs to be done immediately.

Imagine each attachment of a swiss army knife is a bullet point on the back of the box. Sure, the back of the box looks impressive, but when put into effect, this is all secondary without any primary to hold it together.

Imagine each attachment is a bullet point on the back of the box. Sure, the back of the box looks impressive, but when put into effect, this is all secondary without any primary to hold it together.


The secondary action is often what players notice first, and often times is what they are instantly drawn to.  Because they are so emotionally and visually loaded, its easy to overdose on them.  But they themselves are only a way to help add attention to the weight of the core, and should be only heavy enough to not get lost in the rest of the game.  Just remember them as a flag.  It says a lot about the people, country, and ideology of where it is located, but without a flagpole to attach it to what is really important, it is just a piece of cloth floating in the breeze.


Next : Part 9 - Timing

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