Adding Weight to Your Game Design Part 9: Timing

Applying the animation principle of timing 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

The literal definition of timing in animation is how many drawings or frames it takes to complete an action.  But that simple definition betrays how deep this principle truly is.  Yes, timing controls the speed of an action or object, showing how it respects the laws of physics in the world it inhabits.  And that helps to define its specific weight.  If its big, it moves slow, if its light it moves fast.  And if your timing is too fast or too slow, the player will miss what it was that just happened.  But when you drill down deeper into the principle of timing, it shares a lot in common with music. 

Music is the universal language of what good timing is all about.  There is nothing more boring than the same note being played over and over in perfect time.  What people love to hear is a rhythm.  It moves them to tap their feet... dance... sing.  This is also true with how someone moves.  Don't just make them go from pose to pose, one action right after the other.  Make them HOLD on a pose if you want them to slow down and feel the moment.  Because much like squash and stretch, you want the contrast.  And those holds are the anticipation everyone waits for.  You want to keep the player interested in how and when the movement is going to happen. 

Animators break their timing down into a few different steps, most obviously seen when using pose to pose.  First, you find your key poses.  These are the fewest poses you can use to get across the action or emotion you want.  These are the most important, and the ones you want to make sure are the clearest.  These are the ones you make sure have the best staging, weight and expression.  Once you have those, you figure out how long each should be held, and shoot it as an animatic.  This is where you figure out your timing.  How long one pose should be held, how quickly one should transition into another, etc.  If done properly, not only will the actions and performance read, but you can already start to feel the character coming alive.

 The timing chart on the left shows how long the animator wants to hold each drawing on the right. It is sheet music for the camera.

 The timing chart on the left shows how long the animator wants to hold each drawing on the right.  It is essentially sheet music for the camera. 


Once you have the key poses timed out, you create the in-betweens.  And this is when you figure out the syncopation between the major beats of the key poses.  You don’t want to evenly put your in-betweens along the arc, as that’s essentially just using quarter notes for a song.  You want to pepper in some different spacing, as that is where the spontaneity of life lives.  

Timing, while simple to understand, is one of the hardest principles to master. There is no universal solution and it is something that has to be felt.  But you don’t want to rush past this step.  If you make the effort to perfect the timing in thumbnails or layout, before you fully produce the animation, you will save yourself a lot of work knowing that you have the heart of the character already beating properly. 

Applied to Game Design

In game design, these practices in timing translate one to one.  Knowing when to slow the player down, or when to speed them up is how we control urgency.  If we don't vary the timing, their sense of needing to continue on will halt quickly due to a feeling of boredom.  It doesn't matter how many explosions you throw at them if they are all the big and flashy.  It doesn't matter how big the enemies are if they never change their purpose or reactions. 

Good timing takes a lot of courage though.  It means you have enough faith in your abilities to slow it down sometimes as well as having enough faith in the player to stay invested in those slower moments.  The one thing I have encountered more than anything while making games is the idea of “Speed it up!”  If an NPC stops for a moment to talk or takes an extra second to think before acting, you can usually guarantee someone will say that sequence needs to happen faster.  And that always makes me cringe, because if you speed up everything, then nothing is fast.  Everything is just even.  Of course, on the flip side, if everything is slow and drawn out, then nothing really feels important anymore, because everything is treated as equally heavy.  

For me, when I am stuck with a tight deadline, timing is the first thing I focus on.  If you can nail the timing, you are nailing down the intent.  And even if you can’t focus on all the other fundamentals, if you can capture that intent, it can still feel alive.  And if your rhythm is good, the player will feel that.  It will play so smooth and naturally, that they will get through it even if it is a little rough around the edges and the arcs aren’t as fluid as you would like.

All of the other principles up to this point are used to spice up your timing.  How long you anticipate is your crescendo.  Slow ins and outs play a big part because you never want your holds to be flat.  Those flat holds are what designers and directors are always afraid of when they tell you to speed something up.  So to make sure those holds still feel good, make sure your slow ins and outs are appropriate.  Your secondary actions and arcs are what you use to link the different beats together.  

 Often on key drawings animators would put small timing charts like these in the corner of the paper. These are meant to keep them aware of the timing between key poses and in-betweens. Keeping these meant you could continue seeing the bigger picture while focusing so intently on single drawings.Often on key drawings animators would put small timing charts like these in the corner of the paper.  These are meant to keep them aware of the timing between key poses and in-betweens.  Keeping these meant you could continue seeing the bigger picture while focusing so intently on single drawings.


Timing is what drives musicians, comedians, and storytellers.  It is the lifeblood of connecting with an audience.  And in a time when “speed it up!” is a common phrase among developers, a better phrase may be “spice it up!”  Good timing and rhythm is the weight of the soul.  Make sure the soul of your game isn’t just a series of one repetitive note.


Next : Part 10 - Exaggeration 

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