Q&A: The operatic art of 2D animation in Eastern Exorcist

"We had all worked on 3D projects until now, so moving to 2D with Eastern Exorcist meant we had to learn and master a lot of new techniques."

The story behind Eastern Exorcist, the 2D side-scrolling action RPG from Wildfire Game, is quite something. The small Chinese studio started out developing the title on a second-hand sofa in a tiny, dimly lit room, but despite those humble beginnings managed to secure a publishing deal with media giant Bilibili that will usher in an Early Access version, and eventually lead to a full release on PS4 and PC. 

Though we're not sure what exactly sold Bilibili on the project, we're inclined to think the game's unique hand-drawn visuals had something to do with it. We're told the aesthetic is inspired by the Chinese opera, an age-old art form that combines and exaggerates elements of music, dance, mime, comedy, tragedy, acrobatics, and martial arts.

Curious to hear more about how Wildfire refined and implemented its operatic approach to animation, we caught up with Eastern Exorcist game director Shao Yan for a quickfire Q&A.

The following Q&A has been edited for clarity. 

Gamasutra: I want to take a deep dive into your animation processes, starting with the player character. How did you animate the protagonist to ensure attacks felt both fluid and powerful?

Shao Yan: That's nice of you to say but, I still think there is still more we could do to improve the quality of our animation though. Let's talk about our general design approach, which is the combination of hand-drawn key-frames and software tween frames. 2D animation production has its advantages. Compared with 3D animation, the exaggeration and deformation that occurs in 2D animation and seems to violate mechanics is more expressive.

This is a benefit of traditional animation, and we take advantage of it. For those keyframes of hand-drawn frames, specifically with regards to the turning animations, you need a lot of patience and attention to detail because it involves many aspects of the character. Honestly, it's a massive workload. 

What was the biggest challenge you encountered when creating those animations? Was there a specific move set or attack that proved especially difficult to animate? How did you overcome that hurdle?  

Yan: The biggest challenge we faced was how to better combine the hand-drawn key-frames with software tween. We had all worked on 3D projects until now, so moving to 2D with Eastern Exorcist meant we had to learn and master a lot of techniques that were new to us. 

In addition, the game features some martial arts based animations, such as turning around and turning over. We knew that if we wanted that to look good, we needed to draw them out by hand. However, a completely hand-drawn animation would have taken up way too much time, so we had to master combining those hand-drawn frames with the ones generated by software so that the whole thing worked as one. As such, how to better combine hand-drawn frames with software-made animation frames was the biggest challenge throughout production. 

From the beginning of production to now, the software we’ve used has changed twice, and the action resources for our protagonist has changed three times. Take the animation we used for the "parry" move, for example - we tried at least 10 different versions. Performance resource usage for some actions was also very difficult to debug, so we would have to start from scratch with those moves. There's no shortcut. It's just patience and polishing.

What tools did you use to animate characters and attacks? What benefits and caveats did they bring?  

Yan: We used Unity3D, as well as Spine and PhotoShop. The advantage of the software is that it speeds up efficiency. In fact, we chose the hand-drawn animation and 2D action production scheme more for the consideration of effect, expressiveness, and production cost.

With the 2D hand-drawn method of character animation, at least what you see is what you get. The result is better controlled. On the other hand, we were relatively short of hands when it came to THE 3D part, and are a little worried that the 3D role restoration is not good enough nd the potential cost of the 3D role production.

Players can deploy a range of attacks, from basic slashes to strikes and spells infused with magic. How did you use animation to create a visual language that allows players to easily identify what's happening on-screen?  

Yan: Our goal is to reflect the primary and secondary relationship whilst maintaining a low saturation of the overall gray tone. We hope the overall graphic will feel intuitive, as it involves the role, scene, special effects, UI and other elements. As an action game, we have to balance those elements otherwise the screen saturation will be too high and players might struggle to take in key details.

We painted the scene with Chinese style ink painting as its keynote, which imbued the scene with a clear artistic style and endowed it with a gray tone. Our characters are slightly stronger than the scenes they inhabit and produce colorful dynamic effects, which helps them stand out during combat. 

Being a 2D side-scroller means players can attack in multiple directions. How did you create the animations for those multi-directional attacks and movements, ensuring smooth transitions and fluidity as players dispatch enemies on all sides.

Yan: In the animation production process, the motion is fixed, but more consideration should be given to the effect of displacement. In addition, we set up the game program gravity, steering, and other related adjustment interfaces to add realism and flexibility to game debugging. Unlike 3D games, 2D games have only horizontal and vertical attack directions, and camera control is relatively simple.

However, simple doesn't mean easy, because the player becomes more focused on the action. Attacking hit frames, hit actions, interactive chatter mirrors, hit effects, sound effects might seem simple individually, but taken together, it takes a lot of work to configure them to perform well.

As for the enemies, how did you use animation to imbue each foe with a clear sense of identity, allowing players to learn and counter their attack patterns and behaviors?

Yan: This is one area where I think we are still improving and adjusting. No matter whether we’re talking about a 2D or 3D action game, in games like ours, the starting action before monsters attack is very important for players to distinguish the monster’s moves.

We tried to make the starting action of different monsters as clear and identifiable as possible so players can adapt to the battle routines by learning and repetition. Overall, I think design identification in 2D titles is more complex than in 3D games, so we're looking to improve in that area by adding some sound effects or special effects tips for the starting actions of monster attacks.

Speaking more broadly, what was the biggest lesson you learned working on the animation for Eastern Exorcist? A 'golden rule' you might carry forward into future projects, or pass on to other developers.

Yan: The most important thing I learned is that 2D games are hard to make! I think its crucial to be patient and be careful. That's a very important mentality to have when polishing your game. I hope our future projects will take fewer detours, and perhaps integrate elements of RPGs, exploration elements, weapons, and so on.

We can always improve and create better games. However, I think the most valuable thing we’ve taken away is, as I said before, that cultivation of patience and carefulness, which I think are traits that will help us grow in the future. 

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