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Game Animation Bootcamp: An expert roundtable Q&A

The game animation experts behind GDC's Animation Bootcamp answer questions from the development community. Even if you don't work directly in animation, this is worth a read.

March 7, 2014

36 Min Read

Author: by Mike Jungbluth

Zenimax Online's Mike Jungbluth rounds up expert insight into video game animation in this roundtable Q&A.

Last year at Game Developers Conference, a group of animators came together to create the first ever game animation-specific gathering any conference has ever seen; The Animation Bootcamp. Sure, there are other conferences that focus on or examine animation as a whole, but nothing that specifically looks at the unique challenges and skills required of interactive game animation. And with the continued focus on creating stronger character performances with more lifelike movement, the need to give animators a chance to gather and become advocates of their craft has never been stronger.

While creating an opportunity for game animators to meet and discuss their growing craft is the first step, having their voice join the chorus of other game development disciplines is just as necessary. This is the beauty of having the Bootcamp at GDC, as it takes a rather insular and misunderstood craft and opens it up to the conversations and applications of the broader game dev community.

With that desire for animation to be better understood and integrated into the hearts and minds of all developers, editor-in-chief Kris Graft offered us the chance to take part in a roundtable here on Gamasutra. We have collected a few of the Animation Bootcamp speakers to answer some questions we received online, as well as ask a few of our own. We are:

Kristjan Zadziuk (@KrisZadziuk- Animation Director, Ubisoft Toronto

Ryan Duffin (@AnimationMerc) - Senior Animator, EA DICE

Simon Unger (@Simonunger) - Lead Animator, Robotoki

Tim Borrelli (@Anim8der) - Lead Animator, 5th Cell

Mike Jungbluth (@Lightbombmike- Senior Animator, Zenimax Online

This should give you the perfect insight into the conversations we have at the bootcamp and how it affects more than just animators. While some of these topics are certainly craft specific, many also reflect the blurred line between art, design, and tech that animation often lives within and helps to define.

Animation in games doesn't start or stop with animators, so we look forward to hearing your thoughts below, as well as at the bootcamp on March 17th!

Luke Dicken and @kaleidomaru asked similar questions, which boil down to:

What are some of your preferred resources for someone looking to learn and study animation?

Tim.jpgTim Borrelli (left) - Reading list: there are three books I recommend, each with their own strengths:

The Illusion of Life: It’s not going to teach you how to become an amazing animator, but it’s worthwhile to understand the history of the animation craft. This book will do that in regards to the Disney way--it not only teaches the Principles of Animation, but it explains why they are important.

Simplified Drawing for Planning Animation: Planning is key, not only in film/cinematic shots, but for in-game motion as well. This book does a great job of teaching how to plan -- lessons that can be applied to not just 2D/hand-drawn animation, but to 3D as well.

Animator’s Survival Kit: This one has a lot of information, and not everyone agrees that all of it is valid, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more thorough tome of practical information about the craft.

11 Second Club is a great online resource, as is Animator Island’s 51 Animation Exercises. If you can afford it, check out iAnimate (over Animation Mentor solely for the fact that iAnimate has a games focus).

Most importantly, go out and be active! Do stuff! You don’t have to run a triathlon or learn Krav Maga, but you need to have experiences to draw from when you are creating something. Go to a firing range, go running, go lift weights, go swimming, go for a walk, whatever. As Brad Bird said, “You can’t create the Illusion of Life if you don’t have one.”

Kristjan Zadziuk - Observation and practice has worked for me. Don't be afraid to ask for feedback from fellow animators. I went to University to study animation 14 years ago, but I felt that the most valuable resource was being around like-minded people. Now with all the forums and courses out there such as iAnimate and Animation Mentor you get a very similar experience, but this time with lots of different levels of experience. On a practical side, I focused a lot on the biomechanics of movement, understanding my own reasons for why and how I move and studying videos of anything in slow motion where possible, as it really helps you understand the mechanics of a motion.

Ryan Duffin -  Yep. Study life. Always be watching people. One of the best things about GDC is that San Francisco has some of the most interesting characters I've seen anywhere. Watch how they move and go about their business. Try to define what about their movement and posture tells you their story.

Also, watch movies. Ones with real people who are great actors giving great performances. I love watching good animation, but don't imitate the imitators no matter how good they are; use life as your reference. I think this one is a big mistake of new animators, even though I know a lot of their teachers are telling them not to.

Simon Unger - Full disclosure, I'm an instructor at iAnimate and as far as online schools go, I'm a little biased. That said, I think there's a lack of breadth with many of the educational options out there and in a lot of the students I come across. I feel they tend to be a little too myopic in their focus. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I like my artists to be on the well-rounded side. I expect my animators to have a basic understanding of color theory, composition, storytelling, acting, etc. I don't expect anyone to be an expert in all things, but a healthy interest and willingness to learn is pretty important.

There will always be a place for specialists, but I feel a shift in the industry where people are wearing more than one hat on a dev team, especially at the smaller studios. For me, personally, I want to work with collaborators, not "outsourcers." Having an opinion and the knowledge to back it up is important to me. There's never been a better time to access knowledge and information when it comes to animation.

The best resource for getting better at something? Feedback. From anyone and everyone. Seek it out and eat it up. It will make you better. Push your stuff out there and celebrate the failures as milestones to becoming better at your craft. I grew up skateboarding and we always used to say "if you're not falling, you're not trying hard enough."

Tim Borrelli - I love getting feedback from non-animators because they won’t try to find an animator solution for you, they’ll just tell you what feels wrong to them.

@GamerMiller asks:

What is the most complicated or difficult thing or creature you have ever animated?

Ryan.jpgRyan Duffin (right) - Oh jeez, that's a good question. Some contenders would be: Ryan Reynolds and Mark Strong's neck in the Green Lantern movie. Dr Octopus' tentacles on the Spider-man 2 game. Choreographing and keyframing some of the multi-character fight sequences in Ultimate Spider-Man. And weird as it may sound, I spent waaaay too much time on Alan Wake's running up and down stairs animations.

Kristjan Zadziuk - Most difficult character: Realistic domestic dog.... on a biped rig... We all know what they look like but interpreting that into a believable character is tough, the technical constraints made things even more complicated.

Simon Unger - There have been a lot of tricky shots over the years, both subtle and extreme, but by far the most difficult thing to do from an animation perspective has been Hitman (Agent 47). Working on a character that has an established fan base and a lot of built-in notions on who and what that character is was so incredibly hard. The slightest twitch of the mouth or angle of the eyes would take him off model. On top of that, we were tasked with making the game a more "personal journey," which was a major detour from what he always was. A large part of my time directing on that project was spent worrying about whether what we were doing was taking him out of character. I can't imagine what animators who are given the keys to animate Woody or Buzz go through. Big, intimidating shoes to fill for sure.

Tim Borrelli - Player movement is by far the most difficult thing for games, in my opinion. There is a delicate balance between looking good and feeling good, and more often than not, looking good is sacrificed for feeling good. This makes sense -- if the player moves like garbage, then the gameplay experience can be ruined. The balance also depends on the kind of game being made. For example, a twitch game will have a much different feel than an adventure game. The real challenge is nailing the feel early so the animation team can experiment with the "looking good" part as much as possible, while staying within the constraints of the feel.

Mike Jungbluth - On Singularity, different animation teams used different software packages. This was a unique case for an animation pipeline, but a norm for modelers, so why not go with it, right? Some characters would be in Max, some in MotionBuilder, and the first-person arms in Maya. Easy enough. It worked well enough until I had a scene that had a multi-character interaction, each exclusively in their own package, and the nightmare began. I would have to hop back and forth, referencing each character or object, using MotionBuilder as a go between. Needless to say, it took a complex scene, made it take twice as long to complete, required specific tech art support that wasn’t going to be used again, and I was half as happy with the final product. So from that point on, I stopped arguing about which software package was best and decided to simply champion the one already being used, as having a unified pipeline is far more important than a multi-software preferential one.

Tom Kay asks:

Have any of you used the Lenovo LT1423P and would you recommend it to those of us just starting out? (Extending this question: how important do you think any specific tools, hardware or software are when starting out?)

Mike.jpgMike Jungbluth (left) - I haven’t used the Lenovo, but I have played around with some 2d animation on my iPad, which I imagine is a similar experience. In fact, as I work on some more personal projects, I plan on using that as part of the process. But ultimately, if you are comfortable with a tablet PC, then use a tablet PC. If you are comfortable with finger painting, use finger painting. Animation is hard enough to learn on its own, so choose a tool that removes the complications keeping you from animating. This is why so many old school animators say learn with a pencil and paper, as that was most known and comfortable to most people. But we have crossed that generational gap of technological comfort, so if a mouse, keyboard, stylus and software package are more natural to you than a pencil and paper, rock it!

Kristjan Zadziuk - Software, to me at least, is more important than hardware, as you find you adapt to the tools you have. (Showing my age) My first steps as an animator were with Deluxe Paint 3 on the Amiga. I didn't even have the RAM extension so unless I saved to disk each time I would lose everything. I animated pixels jumping off a building and splatting into the floor, it was so satisfying, I loved it and it taught me so much. Currently the gameplay teams at Ubisoft Toronto use 3DS Max and MotionBuilder extensively, and a talented team of TDs writes amazing, time-saving scripts which help to make our lives easier. But I feel we would find a way if we didn't have all those at our disposal.

Ryan Duffin - Don't get hung up on the hardware or the software; game animation, no matter how technical it gets is still an art. Basically, any good gaming rig will be a pretty good content creation rig. The only possible difference is a quadcore processor definitely isn't wasted money when running software like Max, Maya and Photoshop, as some people would say it is when building a games-only rig.

Simon Unger - As far as how important the tools are, my answer would be "not very important." We probably have more processing power in our pockets these days than what they had to make the original Toy Story with. I think the old saying "An artist never blames his tools" has some truth to it. I see so many people getting caught up in the minutia of tech specs and automation that they lose sight of the main purpose they all serve; great characters and movement. If you're looking to get in as an animator, great animation will always be worth more than all the cool lighting and render effects that a better box gives you. Save your money and take another couple months off work to focus on the craft. Animation principles and good acting transcends which software package you choose.

Now, after saying that, a lot of studios don't want or have the luxury to devote a ton of time to "on-boarding" new hires (not something I necessarily agree with, but it's a fact. This is a whole other conversation though...). A software package like MotionBuilder is not often taught in schools but is a very common tool being used in games. Also, being familiar and comfortable working with motion capture is a rare skill for a student to have. These two things have cost me a lot of production time, as I have to train animators how to use them. It would have been much better to bring someone on who had some experience with them.

Tim Borrelli - The only importance that tools, hardware or software have when you are starting out is that you have access to something. Max, Maya, XSI -- they all do the same thing, just differently. If you are starting at a studio that uses different software than you know, get the evaluation version of that software and learn the basics. Also, ask if you’ll get a ramp-up time to learn more of it, as well as the tools and tech the studio uses. Hopefully they’ll say yes -- there’s rarely a good reason to hamstring new employees on day one after making the investment to bring them on board! (There are obvious times this isn’t possible, especially if you are brought on as a closer to finish the project.)

Chad Moore asks: 

In what ways and how soon do you evaluate the character's animation set as a whole, regarding aesthetics and gameplay?

Tim Borrelli - How soon? As soon as possible.

Gameplay-wise, we start all projects with box characters. They’ll have rough proportions that we think will work for a character. We rig that guy or gal up, and start animating per design’s needs. In tandem, character designs are worked on, but they don’t need to match our proportions as we aren’t using the box character for style development, just gameplay iteration. The box character gives us a fast iteration time with design ahead of character art and rigging, so that once the real character is done, our roadmap is planned and we can just create content within the constraints of our style.

Give your animation team a week or two of pose tests and animation tests to get to know the characters they are working on once the final models are rigged. With these, you can evaluate if the character will hit some of the poses and extreme moves we may have to hit, within style and design constraints. Doing the work up front saves time down the road (planning!). Once you get through that phase, look at the work done as a team and decide what fits the character, and begin animation (again, based on the design iteration from the box characters).

It’s also important to note that if you want to have animations that are considered polish, make sure those will work ahead of time (variations of movement, transitions, etc). Try to do all of those types of motions up front with the box character to make sure the tech is there and that they’ll look/feel good. This avoids wasted work down the home-stretch.

Kristjan.jpgKristjan Zadziuk (right) - We also try and evaluate feel of the gameplay as early as possible with those involved with the look and feel, we will use stick men and rough posing to get an idea of gameplay timings, that will often influence how we might tackle the aesthetic.

When we get mocap data back we usually have a pretty good idea of how it will look, but the feel will be off, so we insert the raw data to assess just what needs to be done and go back and forth with animation and design until we are both happy. I imagine most studios are the same. Ubisoft places a lot of importance on playtesting and player feedback, and animation will be involved in this process too. I’ve sat in many playtests and watched the reaction of people when they use a move we have been working on. I still get a kick out of it when the reaction is positive. We place a huge amount of importance in the balance between the look and the aesthetic often making small changes to the place that is best to allow interruption to another move.

We have regular team reviews, but more often we will have smaller cell reviews such as combat/ai/navigation so everyone had visibility on each others process and get enough access to the leads for direction.

Ryan Duffin - The best way to evaluate your animation set is to do it in engine. Game animation is the sum of all its parts so it's best not to get hung up on the parts. Get it in game, then evaluate, at least once you're past the basic stages of creating an animation. And I don't just mean in test levels, jumping and running around either. Once you're in the later stages of development, you should be playtesting often and evaluating your animations in their native environment and context.

How soon? Well, gameplay matters a lot sooner than aesthetics do, in my opinion. Get the other departments what they need to do their jobs first and foremost, then you can focus on iterating to quality. I believe you should be planning, authoring and/or capturing animation with an aesthetic intent in mind but you can get a lot of groundwork done for gameplay with placeholder assets too. It's kind of like throwing your dog a bone to keep him busy while you finish your nice steak dinner.

Simon Unger - Animation in games is an iterative process. I'm a firm believer in getting to your successes or failures as quickly and cheaply as possible. "Fail fast and fail cheap" was a mantra while I was at EA and it's something I've really stuck with. I want to see movement in the game as quickly as possible and evaluate it there. I really don't care what the source files or the curves look like, the only thing that matters is what ends up on screen.

In the past, our tools have been tedious and slow and when that happens there is less iteration time. Longer iteration times equals less animation quality. This was a major factor in why the older games were such poor quality. I don't think people realize how much work goes into a simple locomotion set for a character in a game. We're rapidly moving towards a real-time asset creation pipeline in games. It's becoming more and more like turning something on a lathe rather than writing a pen pal on the other side of the planet.

CJ Burbage asks:

What can an entry level animator do to stand out from the other applicants looking to get into games?

Kristjan Zadziuk - We get asked this all the time -- there is no one answer. If there was and everyone did it, then no one would stand out.  But with that said I recommend keeping it simple, and not trying to hide animation with flashy camera moves. I want to see personality and weight in your walk/run cycles. Show interesting interactions between two or more characters. Please don't use dubstep to accompany your reel. I tend to turn the sound off unless there are dialogue pieces. Start strong... Edit your best work to the start. “No filler, all killer” -- don't add moves to pad out your reel.

Show a passion for games animation. If you know how to break a system down or understand how multiple animations would blend together, try and show me that. Oh and one last thing, and this is more a personal thing: Try to keep the three-point landings down to a minimum, but that's just me. So basically, show a combination of good animation and technical know-how and that will definitely get you on our collective radar. If you are applying to Ubisoft Toronto, no more than one three point landing per reel.

Ryan Duffin -  Realize that games animation isn't just about good looking playblasts and renders any more. It's not about a really nice, super-polished and cartoony acting piece you got to iterate on a hundred times under close supervision. We don't want to be your consolation prize because Disney didn't hire you.

Show us something what you wish video games looked like. Show us something in a game engine; even better if it's an actual game!  Show us that you know games and can speak games. Show us that you play well with a team. Show us you know version control software (the last two parts are better to put on your resume than your reel, obviously).

Basically, do everything you can to show us that you are a production ready game animator, a team-player, free of ego who can take direction but isn't going to need much hand-holding.

And keep your reel short. Seriously. Never pad your reel with anything you don't feel is your absolute top-notch work, even if that means your reel is short. Worst case? We'll ask for more samples. Unless you are amazing, the worst case for too long of a reel is worse.

Simon.jpgSimon Unger (left) - Every team is usually looking to fill a very specific void when they put out an ad for a new animator to join them. Here's a shameless link to a previous Gamasutra article I wrote on some common mistakes animators make when applying and interviewing at a company.

Beyond that, I really like to see an animator's voice in their work. Not literally your voice (though that would be awesome if you do some cool voices). What I mean is showing some of your personality, sense of drama or humor, whatever. Almost every reel I see is so obviously a product of whatever teacher/director gave them the shot and coached them through it. Seeking out feedback and implementing it is encouraged, but I really get excited when I see a fresh take on something.

Lastly, and everyone else is probably going to say this as well, but be easy to work with. I've lost count of the number of animators who basically had the job on the merit of their reels and resumes and lost the job at the interview. A bad personality or attitude will be your undoing. I spend more time with my team-mates than I do with my own family sometimes. I don't want to hang out with jerks. Plus, it's a small industry and word gets around.

Tim Borrelli - Yes! Personality-wise, don’t be a jerk. Be someone who everyone wants to work with, above all else. It’s a small industry, and both your merits and faults will follow you. If you meet people out at industry events (beer nights, GDC, E3, etc), make an effort to meet people, ask questions, and be respectful. You don’t want to be remembered as that overly drunk guy or the student who bragged about “how many beers he had that night and how many job offers he already had before graduation” at GDC.

Reel-wise, unless you are applying for a cinematics position or to a small studio, get the acting stuff off your reel for a game studio. Put it in a shorter, separate supplementary reel if you must, but in-game animation is not the same as cinematics. The lines are blurring at some studios, but if we are talking in the here and now, you are best off doing this.

Now, here’s what I would love to see, but rarely, if ever do: individual animations created for in-game use, which are then stitched together either via an NLE or a game engine for gameplay. I want to not only see that you can make awesome individual assets, but that those parts fit together to make an even better whole. Even better is if you can demonstrate an understanding of how blendtrees/state machines work.

I want to see something original! I want to see something that shows me who you are, not just a rehash of what games do nowadays. What’s your take on it?

Ryan Duffin asks:

With the final quality of games animation increasingly dictated by the sum of quality content and systemic solutions like layers and advanced state machines, which development field should be responsible for it? Is it a role that gameplay animators should be transitioning into? Technical animators familiar with the systems? Designers building the gameplay? A new job title altogether?

Tim Borrelli - It entirely depends on the toolset, its features and its maturity. I think long-term the role will be shared. Engineering will need to inform how the behaviors/state machines will need to be built per project, so that they function for gameplay engineering. Animators will need the systems to be human-readable so they can add states, blendtrees, transitions, blends, animations, etc. Design will need access to setting events/triggers/speed scaling, working with animation to ensure the look and feel meet the desired goals.

I could see the role becoming a separate job title, but it would live in the same area as tech art- service to design and animation disciplines. I think larger studios may embrace this role, but smaller studios will find their animation teams picking up the main duties for this as a part of their broader toolbox.

Simon Unger - I definitely see the toolset evolving into more of a "motion designer's toolkit," but I don't see the ownership going to anyone else. Animators are the only ones on the team trained to see and critique movement and as such, are in the best position to author, implement, and troubleshoot motion in the game. What I do see on the horizon is more artist-friendly pipelines that allow animators to prototype and test gameplay mechanics and features at their desk with little to no assistance required from programmers or designers. I know this has already been happening for some time at places like EA, but it has yet to trickle down entirely to smaller studios reliant on off-the-shelf engines.

At the end of the day, regardless of how the animation got there (keyframe, mocap, procedural, etc) it's still the animator who says "this is the best I can do with the time and resources I have available." How we get there will change, but the expectations of the end result will not.

Kristjan Zadziuk - I have heard that term “Motion Designer” thrown around, which I actually quite like, but call me old fashioned -- I like having the word “animation” in my title. But this is a role that I see animators evolving in the industry that separates us from TV and film. Being a gameplay animator really is an art form -- the ability to make an animation look good from all angles at any point is really tough.  But only focusing on the aesthetic alone will mean you miss the bigger picture. Games animators need to think in terms of the overall system. The balance we have at Ubisoft seems to work well for us and it is always evolving.  We usually have animators, programmers and designers sitting very close together.  The more understanding an animator has of the technicalities of how their animation is put together the better it is going to be for the overall feel of the game, but as soon as you put that control into an animator’s hands, then they may never want to give that control back. Its a very powerful skill to have, so use it wisely.

Tim Borrelli asks:

Given that animation can be heavily design-driven, does it makes sense for animation to be under the guidance of the art department/direction, or should it be its own department on a project? Or even under the design bubble?

Ryan Duffin - Great question! I firmly believe that the idea that games animation is a sub-discipline of art is an archaic and obsolete relic of the 80s and 90s. It made sense then but not anymore; it's just too big. Its father is art and its mother is design but it's its own beast now, with more in common with its mother.

With a few notable exceptions, most art and design directors don't have a background in animation and aren't the best people to give the final evaluation of animation quality. I believe it should be its own department with its own director and the gameplay animators should be sitting closer to the gameplay designers than anyone else.

Simon Unger - This is a tough one as it really depends on a lot of moving parts. How much animation knowledge does the Art Director or Designer have?  In my experience, these two roles usually have little knowledge of animation and it's inner workings. Ideally, game features dependent on or requiring animation (usually everything) should be a collaboration between all parties involved. This would likely start with design saying "this is something I want to happen/experience" and art/animation coming back with "here's how we can/can't get you there and why, and here's also where we think we can make this better." This goes back and forth until a plan is created and implemented.

A lot of the direction should typically be hashed out during pre-production and referred to constantly throughout production. I see a lot of teams rush through the pre-pro stage and figure stuff out on the fly. This is how crunch, half-baked features, and poor animation quality end up in games as you are developing in a reactive state, instead of a proactive one.

Kristjan Zadziuk - I’m not saying an Art Director can’t have a good eye for animation, but animation is definitely grown out from under that umbrella.  As an Animation Director I definitely feel we have more of an understanding of the design and aesthetic makeup of a system, partly due to it being our specialty, but we are always open to another perspective.

Ubisoft clearly separates the disciplines, but I currently sit next to the Art Director on my new project and we often exchange ideas, but the line is clear -- animation is the Animation Directors bag, we focus on motion and gameplay mechanics. My report has always been the producer and creative director and we are and should be our own department.

Kristjan asks:

With the shift towards more interactive storytelling, away from the traditional cutscene/gameplay dynamic, how does this influence or set apart the role of animators?

Ryan Duffin - I think it's definitely making work more scarce for the traditional, set-some-keys-in-Maya-and-call-it-a-day cutscene animator.  It's getting harder and harder to avoid doing any in-engine work, which highlights the diverging paths of film/tv and games animation, even for cinematics. Game engines have been good enough to handle cinematics for a while now and it's great for consistency, but it does make for some headaches, especially when the animator is responsible for seeing their work through to the engine.

I think new techniques in interactive storytelling mean that cinematic animators are going to need to be a bit more technical and less compartmentalized from the game team than they might've been in the past.

On the other hand, I also think people have been hedging bets on the death of the traditional cutscene since the first Half-Life in 1998. And isn't Metal Gear Solid 5 launching any day now?

Simon Unger - I'm more excited about the potential of AI and more believable behavior systems than anything in the coming generations of hardware. To me, that's been the main roadblock to creating fully-immersive storytelling via NPCs. I don't see cutscenes going the way of the dinosaur, as they'll always be a tool in our storytelling kit. I just don't see us handling every situation with the same tool in the future like we do now. Don't know how to transition? Cutscene! Need to establish a new character? CUTSCENE! I think they've been heavy-handed and over-written in the past and I'm glad to see a shift where we're giving our audience a little more credit for their intelligence and ability to interpret or create a story.

How do I see this changing the role of animators? I think we're going to need to be much better, more rounded collaborators moving forward. We have to transition from being widget-makers and start driving decisions when it comes to creating better, more appealing, more believable stories and characters. I want to make people cry, laugh, or be so scared they have to force themselves to turn the game on to find out what happens next. I don't think we're there yet, but we're close.

Tim Borrelli - I cannot answer this one any better than Simon did. He and I share a brain.

Mike Jungbluth asks:

What is the most common misconception or challenge you find yourself having to correct on games you have worked on or at studios you have worked at?

Kristjan Zadziuk - First, is that all we need to do is go to mocap or apply a facial capture rig and our job is done, nothing extra needed. Maybe one day, but not yet. Andy Serkis has a lot to answer for! Second, with every team I have been on or led, I try to make our team as transparent as possible. With that usually comes trust, and with trust usually your managers give you a little more room to experiment. That often results in some of our more creative work.

Ryan Duffin - The most common thing seems to be not understanding how much more complex and technical games animation is than it used to be. When modeling made a generational shift and started using Zbrush and normal maps, the results were plain as day to the rest of the team. It’s less obvious that what used to be one single animation exported from Max or Maya is now a bunch of layers running concurrently, one animation on top of another. In game, it still looks like a character moving and the difference is in how systemically flexible and nuanced it is; it’s not “suddenly game animation looks 10 times more detailed” so it’s understandable that this isn’t obvious.

The other is the idea that every game animator is a closet film animator-wannabe -- that we don’t understand anything or care about gameplay, that we just want to make things slow and flourishing with tons of anticipation. Responsiveness be damned!

Truth is, most game animators play a lot of games and get this stuff. We know it sucks when something happens a half second after you pressed the button for it. Thankfully, this misconception seems to be on the decline.

Simon Unger - The most common and consistent challenge I have had over the years has been the lack of understanding between the different disciplines on a game team. Taking the time to educate each other on what your work entails and the challenges you face can go a long way to fixing a lot of the issues that arise during production. I always hear artists complaining about late or arbitrary changes from design ending in throw-away work and overtime to compensate. It’s not design’s fault they have no idea what goes into a feature from your end, it’s your fault. Reminding yourself that everyone, ultimately, is chasing the same goal and tailoring your approach with that in mind will help alleviate a lot of the stress that comes up in development. It’s no coincidence that “lack of communication” is the most common complaint in post-mortems.

Tim Borrelli - I think a common misconception is the difference between exploration and iteration.

Exploration is trying to find that thing, that something that resonates and works. It’s the part where you get to the point where you think something will work. Iteration is the part where you develop that idea and figure out if it does. Sometimes you know right away, sometimes you don’t for a few weeks or months. It all depends on what feature you are developing.

Think of it like being out in the wilderness. You explore all around to find a good place to set up camp and find food. Once you find what you think is a suitable spot, you set up camp and try to make it your home. Sometimes the first spot works out great! Safe from predators, good cover, close to food sources. More often, though, something is wrong with that first spot. Maybe there are bears. Maybe it’s great in the summer but awful in the winter. Whatever the case, it’s time to move, and start exploring again.

This same thing goes for game development. Take the player character (PC). Once you’ve got your story outline and general game design done, you can develop your PC concepts. This is where you explore. Male/female, tall/short, skinny/athletic, etc. Color palettes, outfits, personalities all come out here. You iterate on silhouette and proportion here. Once you settle on a concept, you start developing the model. Sometimes 2D to 3D doesn’t always translate, so that’s an iteration step. Models get rigged, but sometimes proportions are off for animation. More iteration. Then we get the PC moving -- the rig doesn’t allow for some motions. Iterate! Even after all of this, any of the previous iteration steps might be revisited. Shoulders might be too wide. Colors might be off once in-engine. The face might not light well. More iteration.

Sometimes, however, the PC needs to change completely, like Sexy Minimalist-Armor Queen to Amazonian Princess Warrior. That requires new exploration. Unfortunately, this is sometimes sold as “iteration!” And that’s wrong. 

Simon Unger asks:

Who or what do you think has been the strongest, most fully-realized game character and why? Is there anything you would change or improve? What?

Kristjan Zadziuk - Recently I think I have to go with Trevor in Grand Theft Auto V, he was everything people hated about the GTA series embodied in an actual playable character and I loved it! It justified you playing it the way everyone wants to play. Very self-critical and I applaud that, I would actually make a point of swapping back to him to see what the hell he was doing. Such a clever idea to give a moment of personality to a transition. Everything about him serviced who he was. The only thing I would change would be to give him a spin-off DLC so I can enjoy more of his antics. I look forward to that influencing character development across the board for years to come.

Naughty Dog is also deserving of high praise, the relationship between Riley and Ellie in Left Behind is really fun to watch play out.

Ryan Duffin - Oh gosh. As much as I hate to admit it, I can fall in love with a character who's animations are shit if their writing (and voice performance, if applicable) is excellent.  With that said, I'm restraining myself from name-dropping a bunch of great game characters from the past 20-something years to answer the question as I assume it was intended, in regards to their animation and performance.

So to that, I would say either Nathan Drake, Ellie from The Last of Us or the latest incarnation of Lara Croft.  They all had different animation states to reflect their current experience and environments and they all interacted with the world they were in, in ways before just killing things. Whether these were whole new animations sets or simple, scripted cheats, they added to the character's sense of life and reminded us they weren't just a robot, doing our controller's every whim but without fighting our input either.

Tim Borrelli - Lara Croft in Tomb Raider 2013 [see an animation reel here - ed.] is my tops in recent memory, especially the PC version. They did so much with her character development through animation. Her movement through the world feels great, the combat feels satisfying, and the way they evolved her animation as her skills evolved was great (if you noticed it). They managed to get me to empathize with her and her situation, which is really difficult to do with a main character. Plus, the character tech was really well done (that hair! HAVE YOU SEEN THE HAIR?!?).

On top of that, the industry needs more strong female leads, and history of Lara aside, I think she was a strong main character.

Mike Jungbluth - I am a sucker for when the actual mechanics of the game are brought in as a character beat within the actual performance. I’ll try to remain spoiler-light here, but when you call for the ladder in Last of Us, and Ellie doesn’t respond right away, or when you have to use the other inputs to control the younger brother in Brothers, I melted. These are directly looking at the medium and tying the progression of skill and systems to the arc of the character. And those are the moments we really tap into the potential of an interactive performance.

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