Game Design: Applying Animation Principles to Game Environments

Video games seem to often suffer from a lack of awareness of other fields; it’s not so much that video game designers and developers don’t know what they’re doing but rather that they seem to not communicate with other complementary fields. One of the things I’ve noticed as a game reviewer is that many games do not fully take advantage of known animation principles to provide a greater sense of immersion and activity to their environments.The first rule of animating is that you always have something moving in the scene. This seems like it’s pretty common sense, but there’s something that seems to be missing from a lot of games in this respect. One of the things that is appealing about games such as Audiosurf is that they hold a momentum of their own because the scenes are always moving. On the other hand, you have multi-million dollar games with great reception and massive teams that don’t actually manage to convey that sense of immersion and vivacity. Take, for instance, Metal Gear Rising. One of its greatest failures in environmental design is that there are times when nothing is going on. Raiden moves pretty quickly in combat, but in a game with stealth elements it’s necessary to have more than that. One wouldn’t even need to change major things about the game to implement some screen space motion that would make the game more engaging without having to sacrifice the experience and risk disorienting players. It’s one of the few things that Ghost Recon: Future Soldier did particularly well; it had the occasional dynamic AR overlay object that gave meaningless information to the player, but gave something to focus on while you were skulking about.

One caution with adding motion is that it’s necessary to prevent over-intensifying the game experience. An example of this would be the inevitable subway level; I’ll cite Carrier Command: Gaea Mission as an example, but there are at least a few dozen of these. Long story short, there’s some insta-kill threat coming through an area that the player has to avoid while they move. Heck, even Half Life 2 has (a rather easy-going) one of these. One of the most uncomfortable experiences I’ve had in recent games was in Ghost Recon: Future Soldier when I was crossing a runway with an airplane taxiing down it. On one hand, I was about fifteen seconds from being a future pancake, but I couldn’t break stealth to run to cover. It didn’t require any action or skill, just holding the movement button, but it was unnecessarily intense. Don’t put in a scene like this just to have something; the level would’ve been wholly improved by just putting me right next to the place I was crossing the tarmac to get to.

Another thing that would really benefit video games is a focus on lighting. Animators really understand the purpose of lighting pretty well, but game designers tend not to. One of my biggest gripes is that there’s a lot of big-budget titles that have horrendous lighting pipelines. Take Skyrim, for example. It’s a very pretty game, but it has an ambient lighting system that is absolutely absurd. Caves are well-lit from magic light sources that seem to permeate all of Tamriel. Heck, you almost have to go to a daedric plane to get things to go dark in the Elder Scrolls.

Animators use lighting very differently. It may not be technically feasible to run the same lighting pipelines that animators use in a real-time environment; it’s not the end of the world if each frame takes a second or so to render when the movie isn’t due out for another month, but if a video game took a second to render a frame it would be unplayable (or very jarring). However, many of the methods animators use can be easily applied. Use only realistic light sources, and design your environments accordingly. As a side-note, this will likely make your human-friendly environments more realistic; people tend to like having well-lit homes and work spaces.

Another thing that animators do very well is creating a sense of realism in their images using simple filters. Game designers tend not to do very well when creating an output chain, and it’s not due to technical impossibility. Bloom is used way too much in video games, and it’s one of the chronic killers of games. Heck, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is more than willing to blind players to get the impact it wants. Bokeh effect filters, which are incredibly popular in modern games for some reason, recreate a really rare phenomena. I’ve seen more or less every filter that allows animated content to look photorealistic implemented to excess within a video game. Most of the time, the solution is moderation; a little bit of chromatic aberration goes a long way, and you’d be surprised how realistic even very simple images look without too many filters.

I’d challenge any game designer working on a realistic visual effects pipeline to look at scenes made in Blender for photorealism to realize the ways in which animators have accomplished many of the woes of modern real-time photorealistic rendering in solutions that they could very easily apply to their own work.

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