Monday, November 7, 2011

Who Designs Animation?

This blog was also posted here.

Designers, do you work with animators or an animation lead who think they can design better than you with regards to animation? Animators, do you work with designers who don’t care how the animation looks as long as the gameplay feels right?

Well stop that and play nice!

My stance on animation vs. design has been documented before. Long story short, I feel that animators are not designers, not in the traditional sense. We serve the vision of the game, and we animate FOR design and gameplay. Yes, everyone who is part of a game development team has some amount of influence on game design, but that doesn't make us all designers.

That doesn’t, however, mean that animation isn’t an integral part of design.

Technical Creativity?

This topic comes up in conversation frequently- in my case, when I was recently invited to be a guest on the Reanimators Podcast. During the podcast, we discussed where next-gen console development (the real next-gen, like PS4 and XBox 720 or whatever) was headed in regards to tech animation and animation overall.

Topics like more realistic cloth sim, improved skin and hair dynamics, and better body physics were brought up as needing attention on the tech side. When we shifted to animation, the topic of animators being “motion designers” came up in regards to how more and more animators need to become technical in order to use animation network editors. Where 10 years ago animators may have begun to rig and write facial animation toolsets out of necessity (giving birth to the tech animation discipline), now they need to understand more than the basic logic that goes into how animations behave with one another to use these editors.


During the podcast, I believe I made the prediction that tech animators will be rebranded as Character TDs, and that tech animation will be more of an animation heavy role that involves animating AND building up these animation networks. I’ve thought about it since then and am changing my prediction a bit.

Motion Designers?

While many studios and animators have already been using network editors, I’ve noticed a split on who uses them. Some places have a tech animator setting up the networks full time, while some have the animators do the simpler blendtrees/state machines and pass them off to programming for the more complicated behaviors. And in some cases, even the designers set up the networks. In any case, there is still a back and forth between the owner of the animation networks and design.

With all of the potential hands in this pot, the question I’ve been thinking about since the podcast is this: Will the need arise for a “motion designer” discipline?

I’ve spoken with animators who think that the discipline should exist, and that it should have an animator-driven workflow. When pressed for reasons why, the typical answer has been “because designers don’t care about how the animation looks, they only care that it’s fast enough to be fun.” Well no kidding. Of course designers care about gameplay and the game being fun- that’s what they do! That doesn’t mean they don’t care about how the animation looks, and even if they really don’t, creating an entire new discipline wouldn’t solve the problem! Designers will still want to get in there and tweak values in the animation networks to make it “feel” right for gameplay, and they have every right to want to do so.

Pop Quiz! Animator or Designer? 

On the other hand, it IS the animation team who knows how they intended their animation to look and feel within the design constraints. Where design may ask for a reload animation that is 3 seconds long, animators will create an animation with the timing INSIDE those 3 seconds that looks best. They don’t want design going in and scaling the speed of the animation to 2 seconds, as the timing would then be off from the animator’s vision. If they are lucky, the weapon balancer will alert them to the change ahead of time so the animation team can get updates scheduled and executed (I'm fortunate to be in this situation), but this is not always the case.

Additionally, where design might want a hero character to have a “tough, Clint Eastwood-looking motion set,” the animation team will base that look on not only their individual poses and animation timings, but also how each of those motions blend and transition between each other. Tweaking even the slightest of blend values or cutting transitions out for the sake of a faster pace can break the immersion of the character being that “tough guy.”

So does that mean we absolutely need a “motion design” discipline?

Yes. But not in the way some might think. Motion design is a needed discipline, but it already exists. Instead of it being an individual role, however, it’s a team effort, combining the talents and hard work of animators AND designers. Unfortunately, the case can exist where each side (animation and design) doesn't see it this way. It may not be intentional, but all too often there is a gap between the two disciplines when it comes to seeing eye to eye on looking good vs. feeling good.

How Can We Bridge The Gap?

Not all studio cultures allow anyone expect designers to have influence on game design, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Both animation and design side can make the effort to bridge the gap between their disciplines, by working to resolve some of the following behavior patterns:

Designers, do you work with animators or an animation lead who think they can design better than you in regards to animation? Find out why they think that and work with the team or the lead to figure out what the design team can do to get them what they need to animate effectively for the design vision. Remember, however, that you need to respect the ability of the animators to create animation that will allow gameplay to come first. Ideally, you’ll have (or seek out) an understanding and appreciation for animation so you don’t just grab that animation speed slider and butchering the timing of animation.

Animators, do you have designers who don’t care how the animation looks as long as the gameplay feels right? Ask them what makes the gameplay feel right when they scale animation speed values, and offer them animation solutions that both look AND feel good. You also NEED to understand that gameplay should come first, and you should build an understanding and appreciation of what design wants and needs a set of animations to do for gameplay.

The Answer

It also helps get stubborn knots out of your back.

Animation and design are disciplines that often have desires that are at odds with each other, causing conflicts in determining the ownership of motion design. With the advent of network editors and a concentration on character performance in more and more games, the question of ownership has become a much bigger topic of debate.
However, the game and its gameplay should always determine what motion design and character performance the end user experiences. The best, and in my opinion, only way to deliver the best motion possible while providing the most compelling gameplay is to have animation and design working together, without the need for an individual “motion designer” position the be created.

So I say again: Animators, make it a point to understand where the designers are coming from. Designers, make it a point to understand the passion that the animators have when creating the motions you request.

And both of you: Stop that and play nice!

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