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Animation Interview

By Carolyn Koh on March 12, 2010 | Interviews | Comments

Animation Interview

In the second of this series of interviews with SOE developers, about the differences in designing for adults and children, we speak with Floyd Bishop, a Senior Artist working on Free Realms and its lead animator.  Floyd has over ten years of experience as an animator, having worked in film, television, commercials, and games, and I was curious to know what he had worked on and how different it was.

“I was a character animator for the first Ice Age movie and also for many commercials,” said Floyd.  “With BottleRocket Entertainment, I was animating for a mature title where the ‘Wow factor’ was how visceral we could make the disemboweling but with Free Realms, our ‘Wow factor’ is all about the funniest pet tricks.”

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For the adult market, the goal is to make animations as realistic as possible, I was told, and studios often would make use of motion capture.  In children’s games however, whimsy was the name of the game and Floyd enjoyed the creativity that allowed.

“How do we make a Triceratops balance on one foot, for example,” said Floyd. “That’s not exactly based on real life. So although the ambulation needs to look natural for a four footed mammal, we can be creative with tricks.”

That is not to say that they don’t use life references, especially for the movements of avatars and mounts.  The movements of the Pixie were based on swimming movements and the body stance as they fly, is that of human “swimming” through air.  Animators use visual references of horses running and of dogs and cats running to make sure that the movements of those animals are natural.

“They are motions that people are familiar with so for them to look and feel natural, we need to have close enough parallels before we move into the realms of whimsy.” Said Floyd, “Dogs and cats were our first pets and they moved more realistically when the game launched, but with the newer pets, that is less so, especially with their signature tricks.”

These are animations such as the Owl’s thinking trick, the aforementioned Triceratops standing on one foot, and the Groundhog, tunneling downward and opening up a hole in the ground which spews flames and flapping bats.

Mounts have their own issues altogether.  Avatars have specific animation on each type of mount as their movements are now dependent on the animation of the particular mount.  Depressing the forward key now makes the mount move, instead of the avatar.  Again, when designing for children, the animators could indulge in creative whimsy, especially in Free Realms with the size difference between the Pixie and some mounts.  When riding the T-Rex, for example, the Pixie is hanging on for dear life, his body and legs trailing in the air as they move.

Other differences that animators exploit in game design, I was told was what the different groups react to.

“Adults react to over the top kill animations, violence like explosions and gore, which is why we have so many action movies and games with car chases, explosions and dramatic deaths.” Floyd elaborated, “Whereas children react to humor. The things children find funny are not the things adults find funny, but that is why we have the exaggerated super hero animations in Sunday cartoons and the cute animations such as a cartoony spider cleaning itself meticulously.”

Much of those cute animations are also seen in the creatures that inhabit Free Realms.  Rabbits and crabs in the world do things that delight children as much as the tricks their pets do. 

“Even the big scary monsters do cute and funny things,” said Floyd, “Our goal isn’t to frighten children but to delight them but it’s a fine line to walk between funny and so sugary sweet that kids hate them.”

When knocked out, the helmets of some Rob Goblins fly off and stick to their bottoms. One of the major bosses, Stoneheart gets attacked by birds and he waves his arms and tries to “shoosh” them away.

What’s the main difference between animating for film and games, I asked Floyd, and was told that animating for games was more exacting.  How so?

“In a movie, you’re watching it for 90 minutes, you’re not watching the same animation over and over and you have set camera angles.” He explained, “In a game you’re playing it for hours, days and weeks.  The run cycle for example, isn’t a throw away.  It’s not something you do, loop and you’re done.  You are going to watch avatars or mounts run for a long, long time, and you are going to see them from every angle possible.”

The animation team continuously adjusts animations based of the feedback they receive.  They also have what is known as a CBB list – a “Could be better” list that they hit up when they have the time.

Finally I asked what the most challenging projects were in Free Realms.

“Just getting mounts to work right.” Was Floyd’s prompt response. “There’s a lot of tech involved as I mentioned before.  We have two systems.  The avatar and the mount.  Now we need to get them to work together.”

What about the most fun?

“The Groundhog pet.” Said Floyd, “I’m from Pennsylvania originally and I had a lot of fun working on the groundhog. We make a few nods to Pop Culture in its animations. It remains underground so you see this dirt trail behind you as you run along, much like in the Bugs Bunny cartoons when Bugs is tunneling along, and if you’ve ever seen the gopher in Caddyshack, it will remind you of it.  Finally, its trick is ‘whack-a-mole.’ It pops its head up in a random pattern and a hammer appears above its head trying to whack it.”

Carolyn Koh / Carolyn has been writing for MMORPG.com since 2004 and about the MMO genre since 1999. These days she plays mobile RTS games more, but MMOs will always remain near and dear to her heart.