It’s been a decade since the first 3D MMOs rolled into the mass market. Since EverQuest debuted, poly-counts have multiplied, particles effects have appeared every time a character waves his arm, and graphics cards can now probably solve the global energy crisis. Unfortunately, even the shiniest of characters still moves like an automaton. Animation in MMOs has not progressed in a decade and in this week’s column, I ask why not animate MMOs properly?
Now, I understand there are some obstacles. Fact is, MMOs are unpredictable, and there is some validity to the argument that if they push the graphical boundaries as far as top tier console games, the whole thing could explode in a fiery cloud of TeamSpeak cursing.
It’s about where they spend those resources. I don’t care how many invisible triangles it took or how bouncy the Lineage II females are (OK, I might care a little), but I do care if the game is pleasant to look at. Developers of MMOs need to realize that their game has to not only look good in screenshots, but also move with some element of believability.
Truth is, in most games, I see very little difference between the animation standards of EverQuest and any “next generation” game on the market.
Stabbed in chest? Your toon clutches his chest and falls over.
Eaten by dragon? You got it. He grabs that chest and falls over.
Shot in face by a gun totting penguin man? Grab chest and fall over.
Fall off a cliff to your fiery death in a pit of lava? Land feet first, hesitate a moment, then grab the chest and fall over.
It’s not something I was actively aware of until last weekend during Baltimore Games Day. Mythic went all out to put in arcade style content into Land of the Dead and, as I said in the preview, the content is quite fun. The problem was that with arcade content came arcade expectations. When my Witch Hunter got hit by a swinging pendulum axe, I expected to have to peel his face off the far wall.
Unfortunately, he just grabbed his chest and fell over.
MMO animation has always been largely symbolic of that spew no one reads in their “Combat” tab. No one really expects anyone to parry attacks in real-time and have full out movie-quality sword fights. But just because it cannot be perfect, doesn’t mean it cannot be better.
I mean, seriously. Imagine if the outcry if graphical standards hadn’t been raised!
And don’t give me all these lines about performance. The MMO server only needs to know where you are and what state you’re in. It doesn’t give a crap if you’re flying around with snot and brains seeping out your ears. That’s all on the client. So any game that can handle a knock back and a prone state can handle biffing my brave warrior’s face off the nearest wall.
Now, this is not to say I don’t understand why things have gone this way. Animation is hard. No way around it.
Let’s run through an MMO pipeline for a single monster.
Some crazy idiot says, “It’d be cool if we had dog men… WITH PHASERS!” and runs downstairs. There, a poor concept artist spends a few hours sketching dog men with phasers. Once the crazy idiot is happy, the artist then does some perspective front and sides (think mugshots) for the thing and hands it to a 3D modeler.
The modeler spends a couple days crafting the thing out of virtual putty in Maya and suddenly there is this grey blob that looks a lot like that dog man with a phaser. Once he’s set, a texture artist applies a fresh coat of paint and a rigger spends a few hours telling the poor dog man where his elbow bends.
Then it gets handed off to the poor animator. Depending on the complexity of the game, this process usually takes longer than all the other steps combined. A really efficient team can get that phaser wielding dog man to the animator inside a few days. A really good animator, though, is going to need well over a week to produce all the possible permutations of chest clutching.
So, I get it. I know how long it takes and I know how much animators get paid. There’s a good reason why that corner gets cut. But if MMOs want to truly ascend into the mainstream, “it’s hard” is no longer a valid excuse.
So next time someone is deciding where to spend my processing power on the next great MMO, please consider giving me rag doll death instead of 40,000 extra polygons in my left buttcheek.
When I jump off a cliff, I want to go face first and actually feel like I died. With symbolic movement, you get symbolic reactions. Make the world move in a way that connects with people and their emotional investment in that game goes way up. It’ll take some work, but one day, I hope there will be MMOs where my character’s death scares me as much as the death penalty.