Hi! I'm Floyd Bishop, a Senior Artist (Animator) on Free Realms. I recently did a UStream Event (http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/3233553) where I went over the steps involved in animating a character for Free Realms. During the session, I animated our TRex pet doing a push up trick. Look for this animation in a future game update.
As an animator, I make things in the game move, but animation is much more than that. There are a few things I have to keep in mind before I start animating.
-What is the purpose of the animation? Is this an emote, a locomotion (movement), a trick, etc?
-Are there any design specific needs for the character's animation? Maybe they have a very specific need based on lore or quest specific actions? (This type of character is scared all the time because a spell was cast on him long ago... things like that)
-Are there any technical limitations on the character that would inhibit a certain animation? For example, a rig might have two attach joints, but I want a character to juggle three things. (We actually overcame that with the Robgoblin Jester. You can see him juggling away in a few different spots in the game.)
-Does the animation I'm planning fit with the look, mood, style, and rating of the game? We are an E 10+ title, and as such, you shouldn't be seeing anything racy or gory in Free Realms.
Once I have a little better understanding of the game related guidelines for an animation, I can start in on what the character is all about, and what I want to do.
These kinds of details really help an animator flesh out a character:
-What kind of character is this? (Main character? Ambient wildlife? Pet? Enemy?)
-What kind of personality does the character have? (Happy? Sad? Angry?)
-What kind of back story does the character have? (Favorite foods? Where is he/she/it from?)
Once I have all of that in place, I sit down and sometimes do some very quick thumbnail drawings of the animation I plan on doing. I only worry about key poses. What are the fewest number of poses I can use to get the idea across? I think of it as a comic strip panel. How many drawings does it take to get the main idea across? If it's more than a few, then the animation is probably too complicated, and I'm over thinking it. For something like a pet trick, three or four keys should be just about enough to sell the idea I'm trying to get across. Sometimes, the idea comes in so clear that I just jump right into the computer and start setting keys, skipping the thumbnails all together.
A work in progress animation can take several days to get just right. We share our work each morning at Dailies with the rest of the animation team. Each animator shows what they were working on the day before. This allows for team input on animations, making for higher quality movements and actions. For example, maybe one animator has done a lot of run cycles on cats and has some workflow tips for someone working on a similar character. Maybe an animator is stuck for trick ideas. The rest of the animation team can look at the character with fresh eyes and offer trick suggestions. It gets pretty silly sometimes. Dailies allow us to continue to raise the bar and push ourselves to make the most entertaining game possible.
Once we have a good animation blocked out, and everyone seems to like what they see, we go ahead and finish up the animation, making sure we have a few key things in place.
-Do we have clear poses?
-Does the character squash and stretch?
-Is there a good sense of weight and balance?
-How are the arcs on the extremities?
-Is there any overlapping action?
-Is there any overshoot and settle back into position?
-How is the timing? Too fast, too slow, or just right?
When we finish the animation in Maya, we're still not done. We have to export the animation to work in the game engine, and add the animation to the character's file, putting it in the right location. For example, for a character to jump in our game, it actually uses three different animation files. A jump anim is used for the character lifting off the ground. A fall anim is the character freefalling through the air. A land animation is the character touching down on the ground again. Each animation has to start and stop in a very specific pose, so that they place seamlessly. Any differences in poses will show up as a mistake to the player, with characters popping all over the place.
The Free Realms crew works hard every day to make our game as fun and entertaining as possible. Hopefully you all enjoy the game as much as we enjoy making it!
Senior Artist (Animator)
Free Realms, Sony Online Entertainment