In 1997, on Christmas day, I unwrapped two of the greatest presents of my childhood. The first was more than good enough, a PlayStation 1, which in itself was a groundbreaking development in video gaming technology, but it was the next present, which went in the PlayStation that really blew my mind – ‘Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back’. The rendering and 3D animation were like nothing I’d seen before, and years later I’d come to learn that its co-creator, Andy Gavin, had built an entire new gaming engine to develop the game on.
Of course, not everyone can just sit down and simply create a new engine, and then create one of the most iconic video games in history to play on it. It takes time and patience to hone the skills necessary for developing 3D animations, and there are a lot of different technicalities to grasp! From figuring out the nuances of in-game movement mechanics, to the very virtual domains those creations exist in.
Going forward, we’ll get a brief understanding of what encompasses 3D video game animation, take a look at some of the engines that companies like Anything World use to bring gaming to life, and go on to explore some of the deeper parts of 3D animation.
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It took some time for games to develop out of the 2D realms of ‘Pong’, despite being state of the art for its day, video game animation has developed tremendously thanks to creation of ever-improving software tools.
With the technological leaps and bounds, game animation quality has surged to an almost eerie level of life-likeness. The possibilities for developers to create authentic visuals and intricate character models in the modern day are becoming boundless, however, regardless of how much the graphics improve, the principles of 3D animation have remained.
3D animation in video games still encompasses modelling, rigging, animation, and rendering stages. While modelling creates the base objects, rigging introduces flexibility, animation brings movement, and rendering results in the finalised imagery or footage. Things just look a bit better these days!
While the process of developing 3D animations can seem daunting, the advancements in tech have gone a long way in helping beginners and even experts with their creations, it’s exciting to know now that there are almost no limits to bringing your imagination to life, far transcending any prior animation limitations.
While there is a range of tools and software now available to creators at all levels of skill, Anything World offers aspiring developers who use their service access to two software development kits. Each offers unique capabilities that grant users a great scope of resources to create amazing 3D animations.
Unreal Engine is arguably the most well known game development software out there. Its incredible graphics and high-quality rendering make it the first choice for AAA titles looking for top-tier visual aesthetics. Unreal’s ‘Blueprint Interface’ offers a visual scripting avenue, meaning animators who are just starting out on their development journey can create impressive works without needing to be versed in coding.
Unreal has a comprehensive animation suite, as well as its Blueprint tools, the software also uses Sequencer and Persona, allowing everything from procedural animation generation to film-standard cutscenes and detailed rigging to be made!
Unity is another incredible development tool that tends to be used most by indie developers due to its user-centric design, and the sheer amount of pre-made assets and resources available to be readily integrated straight into a digital world. It makes use of both 2D and 3D design assets to bring animations to life.
Unity’s ‘Mecanim’ and ‘Animation Rigging’ systems are adept at character animation blending, retargeting, and establishing interactions, and while it might not delve as deep as Unreal’s tools, it holds its ground for offering an incredible amount of game development scenarios that can bring a 3D animation to life.
Thanks to the advancements in 3D animation, not only game realism, but more importantly, player engagement, has been massively enhanced. To succeed in creating a beautiful and engaging animation requires time and practice, however there are still some core principles that need to be stuck with.
To create a realistic feeling animation, the same ideas will always apply – timing, spacing, and flow. These dynamics, when mastered, will produce a streamlined animation and increase player engagement in tandem, regardless of whether the product is rooted in realism or fantasy.
These important, core details, are what your animation’s rigging is built upon. If the skeleton of your work is moving smoothly, everything you build on top of it is going to be much more playable as you add more intricate details to your creation.
Rigging a ‘rig’, essentially means building a functional skeleton for your animation, enabling its movement within your world. The best rigs are versatile, allowing for complete character motion, be it something as minor as facial cues or body language shifts, to its entire ability to walk and move.
Animation then goes on to infuse a character with dynamism, and requires the developer to master the art of ‘Keyframing’. Keyframing makes up the timeline of your animation’s actions, from simple walking loops to a full blown action scene of dancing or fighting. Rigging and animation are directly connected to timing, spacing and flow. The smoother everything works together, the more impressive the design is going to be!
Once rigging and animation are completed, much more acute details can be added, such as lip-syncing with audio cues to truly bring the entire process to life. With a well designed character ready to interact with their surroundings, it is then time to breathe life into your animated world.
In game animation, strategic lighting and environment design greatly help shape the game’s aesthetic and ambience. It is through well done lighting and environmental design that players are offered an immersive, visually rich gaming experience.
Lighting is incredibly important for modulating a scene’s ambiance, whether it’s through instilling suspense into a horror house scene, or evoking a feeling of tranquillity in a fantasy forest. Your lighting choices should synergize with the intended player experience to help create an emotional journey.
Similarly, the game environment should be consistent with the animation’s gameplay mechanics, as well as offering a breathtaking canvas for the player to explore. Designers should consider and study ‘environment archetypes’ to add to the themes of their games and bring a feeling of familiarity for their players. A desert map might incorporate elements of ancient Egypt for example to immediately immerse an audience with the design concept.
Once the animation has a working rig and beautiful environment for it to function in, further intricate details can be added to polish the work off!
Since their inception all the way back in the days of ‘Pong’, game animations have evolved in leaps and bounds. Those rudimentary pixels of Space Invaders are a far cry from what we see today, with designers having the capability to create incredibly rich 3D landscapes, filled with lifelike models and breathtaking skylines.
What separates amateurs from masters in the world of animation however is the finish of the work. Texturing bestows models with a unique identity, from material simulations like metal or wood, to finer details like blemishes or scars on the skin of a would-be hero. Shading also augments realism by simulating light-surface interplays, while rendering visualises your 3D models in their full glory.
The very final touches of any animation come with special effects to truly amplify all in-game interactions. Whether it be explosions from a gun or lasers from a superheroes eyes, the final flash factors can bring a good piece of work up to an unparalleled experience for gamers, and should not be skipped on.
Looking back, it’s remarkable to see how the evolution of game animation has developed, from the rudimentary pixels of ‘Pong’, to today’s hyper-realistic gaming experiences. That Christmas in 1997, when I unwrapped ‘Crash Bandicoot 2,’ I was introduced to a new era of gaming, but little did I know it was just the beginning.
Today, tools like Unreal and Unity are more than just development platforms – They’re literal canvases for digital artists to create stories, evoke emotions, and bring their imaginations to life. As technology and creativity continue to merge, and even greater engines are built, it’s hugely exciting to wonder what the next step will be in the world of 3D animation.