Extra Credits is an excellent YouTube channel run by people who work in the video game industry and like to share their knowledge and opinions with the wider world in concise, well-made videos. One of their series, Extra Frame, delves into the various facets of video game animation. In a recent episode, animator Daniel Floyd explains in great detail what might have gone wrong with Mass Effect: Andromeda's animation that led to such large public outcry against the facial animations, lip sync, and the recently patched eye issues.
The veteran animator made it clear that the issue isn't just "bad animation is bad, make it better." Rather, it is a multifacted issue with a number of possible contributing factors - the failure of any one aspect could bring the rest crumbling down and lead to a visual mess.
Floyd stresses that players must understand that animation can be done very differently in the video game business. Games like the Uncharted series often custom animate everything from the ground up, but they can do those bespoke animations because they only have to animate about 8 hours of total scenes or interactions. A project like Mass Effect can have upwards of 40 hours of animation to be done, and when you are on a schedule tackling that much work on a custom level becomes impossible.
The demands of large-scale RPGs that requires animation that accounts for different player choices results in devs turning toward the use of algorithms. Some people in the gaming community have pointed their fingers as the algorithm approach as the culprit behind Andromeda's visual shortcomings, but that's not quite right, either. Many games use this approach to create baseline interactions that they can then further customize later on in the development cycle. Even The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt made use of an algorithm to generate many of its more mundane interactions.
So if it isn't the system, what exactly caused all the problems in Andromeda? Daniel Floyd speculates that any number of issues might have occurred. It could be bugs affecting the algorithm tags that are supposed to be telling the character models how to act. It could be that compressing the files to fit on a disc or online for release resulted in a garbling the animation data. It also might not have anything to do with the algorithm at all.
Mass Effect: Andromeda makes use of EA's Frostbite engine while the previous Mass Effect series was done completely in modified versions of Unreal Engine 3. Switching engines is always a pretty tricky task for any developer. All the assets and systems used in the old engine no longer apply. To create a new Mass Effect in a new engine required BioWare to start from scratch when it came to their assets and animation. Floyd points out that BioWare already had some experience with Frostbite from Dragon Age: Inquisition, but the new engine might still have presented a significant stumbling block for the development team for a Mass Effect game.
Floyd takes time to mention Johnathan Cooper, an ex-BioWare animator, who gave a brief analysis of Andromeda's animation kerfuffle. Cooper explains that, essentially, the gaming audience has become more discerning. Gamers have access to easy sharing tools and game capture and are able to share goofs and slip-ups more easily than ever before. That combines with what Cooper believes to be an overly ambitious and overly confident development team that thought they could go back and tune all the animations by hand (which definitely proved not to be the case in the finished product). These problems could have been eliminated or alleviated with more development time, more money, or a more reigned-in scope for Andromeda. The tools are likely all there to have shipped Andromeda with some fantastic animation, but the visition and expectations of the development team would have needed to be different.
Floyd closes out the video with a quote we should all keep in mind going forward as a way to reign in our expectations and our anger when something we love doesn't quite turn out to be as great as we'd hoped:
"Game development is just like this sometimes. You set out to do a new thing that you've never tried before or you try to do an old thing in a more ambitious, new way. You plan it as best you can. Sometimes it works out great, but other times things go wrong - you run into problems you could have never predicted. Before you know it your plan has gone awry and you have no way to fix it before the deadline and it just sucks."
I'd be willing to bet there will be some interesting postmortem interviews on Mass Effect: Andromeda's development released in the coming years. For now, let's enjoy what we have and perhaps coming patches and DLC can bring Andromeda more in line with BioWare's grand vision.