Pitfalls of animating for games and how to avoid them
Updated: Jan 8, 2021
3D animation is great, because 3D animation lets you save money if you approach it correctly. “How can that be,” you may ask. “3D is so expensive and 3D animation is also expensive?”
That’s true. Try hiring a 3D animator and if you don’t know what you’re doing (or you never worked with an animator before), you will either end up with mediocre results or you will waste a significant portion of your budget. Even if you are dealing with a good animator.
Introducing changes at this point usually means either seriously editing or completely redoing the animation. And that comes out of your pocket, of course, since you've approved the blocking.
At our studio we are lucky, because we are an animation studio. We hire external animators for only some of the tasks. But for our Red Rust project I’ve been doing all the animation work myself. Even with 15+ years of experience working primarily in games I’ve encountered things I didn’t expect. Let me share it with you.
So what are the things to watch out for?
First question on everybody's mind is this: how do you control the work of an animator? If you give an animator a task and then a few days later he/she shows up with an end result, how to make sure the final animation is appropriate for the specific in-game situation?
Because, remember, in games it’s much more important to make sure the animation works well for the game than the actual appeal of it. If you can get both, it’s your lucky day. Even very experienced animators sometimes miss the mark. I know I did.
...on Red Rust we had to redo the basic attacks a few times. Initial version worked ok in the editor, but in the game it was not crisp enough.
Creating a single animation should be approached in steps. First step: the thumbnails and the blocking. If someone on your team can draw poses, doing quick sketches will help you and your animator greatly.
Feature animators know it well, they never skip this stage.
If no one around you can draw, don’t despair, just go to blocking right away. Blocking is the series of most important poses that convey the action.
You can watch this video where I talk more about blocking and the types of animation poses:
What is the advantage of doing thumbnails first?
Drawing is free from technicalities. When you draw you are not dealing with gizmos, parameters or rigs, and it frees your mind to be more creative. You can skip thumbnailing though (some in-game animations are too simple/short to thumbnail them), but blocking in 3D you should never skip.
I was very surprised working in different game studios in the early days, that gamedev people hardly ever did blocking. Yet blocking is essential if you want any control over the work of an animator.
A good animator knows what result she is after, but you don’t! You cannot peek inside the head of an animator. Blocking is a way to align your visions and you need to develop this skill to see the future animation through blocking.
Refining the blocking
Initial blocking can have only a few basic poses. That’s enough. Let’s say you’ve seen the poses and you’ve asked for certina adjustments to be made. What's next?
If you trust the animator you can say ‘Let’s spline it!’ Splining stands for basically finishing the animation (spline is the curve that defines the motion). Once the animation is splined it is done. Introducing changes at this point usually means either seriously editing or completely redoing the animation. And that comes out of your pocket, of course, since you approved the blocking.
The more careful way would be to ask your animator to refine the blocking. Add some more extremes and breakdown. The rule is: the more complete poses you add the better the end animation will be.
Aiming and missing
Let’s say you did all that, you were very careful with your feedback and the final animation still doesn't work in the context of the game? Yes, it can happen and happens all the time.
For instance, on Red Rust we had to redo the basic attacks a few times. Initial version worked ok in the editor, but in the game it was not crisp enough. In fighting games punches usually use almost no in-betweens, what matters is the contact pose that you have to hold for a few frames. Pretty obvious stuff in theory but it takes some trial and error to really understand it.
Another example is the uppercut. Again it looked ok in the editor, but in the game felt stiff and not dynamic enough. So what did we do? We had to completely replace it.
To sum it all up, animation is tricky and there’s no sure fire way to achieve great results. What you can do is decrease the percentage of mistakes and hours wasted by doing thorough planning and controlling all the stages of animation work.
So why 3D animation is cheap
Getting back to this initial question. If it’s so complicated then why did I say 3D animation is cheap. When we are talking about medium to high production value, 3D animation is definitely cheaper and more customizable than 2D.
Easy example: on Streets of Rage 4 they drew thousands of frames of animation and got very impressive results. It's obvious though it too a lot of man-hours and it's affordable usually for an indie developer.
With Red Rust we are still at the prototype stage essentially but we also have thousands of frames of animation. It was laborious but manageable.
In other words once you have your character designed, modeled and rigged animation becomes much cheaper than in 2D. But you do need that initial investment to make the character rig.
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