Monday, December 27, 2010

Adding Weight to Your Game Design Part 1: Squash & Stretch


Weight is a physical and emotional sensation that people feel everyday. And conveying that in a visual way can be incredibly challenging. But it is something animators do all the time, and the principles they use can be applied to game design. In fact, it needs to be, as many of these principles are sacrificed by the animator for the good of playability. Thankfully, since both animators and designers have to juggle multiple disciplines to bring their creations to life, they speak much of the same language. They just use a slightly different alphabet.

This will lay out the 12 principles of animation, and how they are not only used in animation but how they directly relate to game design. Both animators and designers will realize quickly that many of these are unspoken truths, but the benefit comes in knowing that they can now speak to each other on a deeper level. A level that takes animation and design past being purely functional, but now fully functioning towards creating an honest experience. It is how both can add an extra sense of weight and purpose to the game and the characters within it. Many of these fundamentals are inter-connected, and it is through a combination of all of these working together that you will have characters that move with weight and emote with weight. And that is what will stick with players.

“It is important for the animator to be able to study sensation and to feel the force behind sensation, in order to project that sensation.” – Walt Disney

Squash and Stretch

Applied to Animation
This is the most visible expression of weight and the first thing animators learn and love. The easiest way to show this is with a ball bounce. Instead of just having a static circle bounce up and down, to show weight it will stretch as it falls, squash when it lands, and then stretch again as it travels back up. That movement of mass throughout the object visually defines how the body handles its weight.

The classic ball bounce. Notice as it hits, it stretches, then squashes, to give the most contrast.

The classic ball bounce. Notice as it hits, it stretches, then squashes, to give the most contrast.

When applying this to a character, think of a jump. Before they can lift off, they must first compress down, to store all that energy like a spring. Then when they take off, they stretch wide, no different than a ball bounce.

Edward Muybridge illustrates perfectly the squash and stretch in everyday actions

Edward Muybridge illustrates perfectly the squash and stretch in everyday actions

But this is also done in facial animation. If you want to make a scream feel powerful, have the face scrunch up, with the characters eyes closed and brows furled. And even for small moments, you want to feel it, even if you don’t see it as much. Because again, this is how people will perceive how the body handles and distributes its mass. The biggest pitfall of squash and stretch, when used sloppy, is that the object or character will change or lose volume. And that is the most important thing to remember, the overall weight/mass of the object must stay the same when at rest, stretched and squashed. Changing mass means an instant loss in weight.

Applied to Game Design
In game design terms, squash and stretch is essentially contrast. Let the game store up, coil, for what is about to come and after you have done so, let it loose on the player. Make sure when leading in and out of each action, they feel the stretch. Stretch their abilities, stretch their resources, stretch their economic investment. Then let the impact of the squash take over so the player can see just how much weight and mass they have been carrying around. Because without lows, you can't have highs. And vice versa. This contrast is the core of what will not only make the player see the weight, but more importantly, FEEL it. If you can build contrast into every action, no matter how minor, you will be creating a sense of weight in everything the player does. Just remember, that volume can not change. This will give it solidity, no matter how far you push it. This will give whatever you are creating truth. Easiest place to think of this is with guns. If it is a low powered, rapid fire, then the stretch and squash will be minimal. Now think of a gun that allows you to charge the blast. The longer you charge it, the more powerful the blast. You are squashing the power to its limits, so the blast can stretch out into a beautiful ballet of destruction. In both instances, you will instantly feel how much general squash and stretch is needed. But fine tuning them to feel right, beyond just look right is the key. A common tip animators give is that it is easier and faster to push it too far and pull back, then to not go far enough and keep incrementally pushing it up. I’m not saying shoot for the furthest star in the sky, and pull back to the star closest to you. Go into it knowing which star cluster is the one that is probably the best fit, and aim for the furthest star in that cluster. Because as time goes on, things naturally tighten up and get pulled back as you polish your creation.

Now with player controlled characters, this principle is something that is quickly sacrificed, as taking the time to squash means taking the control away from the player for a moment, while they are stuck in place, storing the energy that is about to released. But there is a tactile squash that the player feels when they press the button on their controller or click their mouse. That can be a great step towards making the player feels the squash, even if they can’t see it as much as the animator might like.

Squash and Stretch are the easiest way to quickly add weight to anything you are working on. And because of that, it can also be a favorite trick for people to use and overdo. But as long as you keep the core of the creation truthful, and care first and foremost about the feel of each over the visual, it will always be a solid method towards conveying weight.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

New Years Resolution Update- Play More Games

My New Years Resolution was to play more games, with the purpose of learning something from them. Be it successes, or failures, I wanted to put on my critical analysis cap for each. I have tried to complete all of them, though there are a couple that I have gotten about 75% through and stopped, for one reason or another.

Here are those games played since January 1st as well as some thoughts and lessons learned from each. Don't expect new, ground breaking thoughts for any of these, as its been months in some cases since I've played them. I just want a chance to jot down some lasting impressions.

Prince of Persia
The art style and animation are what drew me into this game and ultimately kept me playing. I viewed it like a rollercoaster, just strap in and enjoy the ride. My biggest disappointment was the ending. I loved what I thought they were trying to do, but just thought the execution fell short. Until I played the DLC, and realized what I thought the ending was all about was not it at all. So for me, the DLC ruined the intent as well, as I saw it. But the way the two characters move around each other in the world is reason enough for me to come back to this game.

Mirror's Edge
I wish the movement around the world in this was as forgiving as Prince of Persia's. Sure, I could "go anywhere" but often times the jump would be just off a little and I would plummet to my death. BUT, once I figured out the run, man, was it fun. When it was firing on all cylinders, it was a blast. And again, the art style and world kept me playing even through the low points.

This is one I didn't finish all the way. The best way I heard this described is that it is a Tony Hawk style game but with murder. You have an environment to run around as you wish, trying to get the best trick/chain of death. It is B-Movie all the way and doesn't take itself seriously at all. While leading up to the release I thought for sure the art style would give me a headache, it played out quite well indeed. The devs took some artistic and content chances, and for that, I am always on board.

Street Fighter IV
Try as I might, I love playing as Ryu and Sagat. Yes, I know, that makes me a noob, but whatever. The art style is again gorgeous (notice a trend in the games I've been playing?) and of all the games on this list, this is the one I still go back to when I get a free moment.

Little Big Planet
This game inspires me so much creatively. Seriously, it is just the most random, quaint experience I'd had in a good long while. You can't help but smile when you play it. And with each new costume pack or map pack, I get pulled back in. For me, this is the game I will still be playing in 10 years. I want to make a game as wonderfully silly as this some day.

Valkyria Chronicles
I love this game

X-Men Origins: Wolverine
After seeing it being worked on day in and day out, my views are anything but objective. I think the nerd passion everyone had for the character is apparent, and the violence is bloody fun. It definitely started to drag for me in parts though (golem style enemies, alaklye lake, and gambit level). The Marvel games that Raven has made were a big factor on why I wanted to work there and this just shows why. It is a big giant murderous love letter to Wolverine fans and I can't think of any better way to wash the terrible taste of the movie out of your mouth.

Metal Gear Solid 4
I am not a fan of the MGS series. I tried 1, and couldn't get into it. I tried 2, and again, just didn't care for it. Splinter Cell seemed to be what I was looking for as far as stealth games. BUT, I gave it one last go as 4 would either cement my dislike for the series, or make a new fan out of me. I booted it up, and for the next 4 days, I was hooked. And then I put it down for a day and haven't felt the urge to go back and finish it. So I'm obviously not a giant fanboy of the series now, but I don't hate it either. Their cinemas are amazing though. They move so fluidly and their interaction with the world and objects is flawless. Seriously, I don't know how they got that many cinemas done. Just, a technical marvel. And Raiden rocks my face so hard. His action scenes have inspired me to try and animate epic every time possible.

Ratchet and Clank: Tools of Destruction
This is probably my biggest disappointment. Well, this or the next game. Both of these games had been built up so much for me as the pinnacle of gaming animation that I couldn't help but be let down. Yes, the animation is cartoony in this, and the designs are pretty sweet. But every action is just soooo snappy, that it just stopped being anything interesting to me. And Ratchet's eye shapes really bothered me. It was a solid game, and it was fun enough I guess, but I got done and was thinking, "That's it?!" I'm hoping the next one takes what was built here and really polishes it, and balances out the quick snappy actions with some slower, more subtle ones.

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune
Really, this goes with the above. It felt like a tech demo with a really fun story. From everything I can tell, what I was expecting out of their layered in game animations and facial animation will be realized with the sequel. And hopefully the combat is balanced more, as that was easily my least favorite part of the game. Manveer just recently posted on this, and I agree with a lot of it. I think our experiences are the same because our play styles were the same throughout. Run into room, hit trigger, run back to door and pick people off. Every time we tried to stay in the room or charge enemies we got killed. So when we got to the monsters, the play style was completely different. I kinda liked the franticness and anxiety it gave me, but I can agree with his points. But I know others that played most of the game charging at people and using a lot of melee, in which case the change of play styles wouldn't be so jarring. I am really looking forward to the sequel though.

Turtles in Time: Reshelled
I geeked out when I was first playing this. Hard. And then it just seemed to deviate from the SNES version, which is what I had played so much in my youth. Yes, I know it is based on the arcade version, but not throwing foot soldiers at the screen to beat shredder just made me weep a little. Of course, I hated the silhouette of the characters as they flew at the screen, so its probably for the best I wasn't forced to look at it.

I didn't finish this. And I can say now I probably won't. Let me get a few caveats out of the way. First, I am not a fan of open world games. They don't feel alive to me, and they often feel repetitive. BUT, I did love Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, which is what this really is, just with their own character. Maybe because of that my expectations were too high. Well that, and the fact they had an extra year to polish than originally intended. The result? I just couldn't get into this game. The character is not one I sympathized with, the city is just another NYC recreation, and the motivation to do anything lost on me. It just felt like a murder simulator, not a game of revenge or redemption. There was no reason not to kill civilians or to just kill infected. Yes, you are a powerful mofo, but I already had that feeling when playing Hulk. There just wasn't anything new here. BUT, the one thing they did nail was moving around the city. If it is a game where I can go anywhere, I want to have fun getting there. And in this game, it is fun to just fly and dash around. This was my biggest beef when playing the inFamous demo. Just wasn't fun to move around. But ultimately, I think this will be my last open world super powered game. I think for now, they have done everything they set out to do with Spider-man 2 and Hulk:Ultimate Destruction.

Fat Princess
This is the current addiction for everyone at work. And for good reason. It is fun, funny, adorable, layered, and damn addictive. Seriously, this might be my favorite PSN/XBLA/WiiWare game of the year. Online or offline I just have so much fun playing it.

And here is where I shut up, and let you tell me what you think of it. I spent most of the last year working on this and am excited as hell for everyone to play it. I have my thoughts on it for sure, and at some point might do a post mortem on here, but for the time being, I want to hear everyone else's thoughts.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Modeler Requested Character Design

This is a design I worked up for a modeler I know. He has been wanting to practice on modeling a character that is more stylized, and this was the idea he came up with. It sounded like a fun challenge, since I don't draw much in the way of sci-fi mech. And the juxtaposition of a 20 something, mundane office worker with chunky mech made my inner child smile.

Good thing I made his job easy by the wonderful inconsitancies between the glove on the character and the ones on the side. Seriously, animating in 3d has spoiled me from having to draw everything on model.

Anyways, my hope is that he kicks out a killer model, and then I can find a killer rigger so I can kill it on some animation. So with any luck, a whole lot of killing will be in the future.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

What I learned most from... Valkyria Chronicles

I'm going to try something that I hope to make a permanent fixture of my blog. When something consumes me as much as I consume it, I am going to try and type down what I learned most from the experience. This won't be a review, or even an exhaustive critique on the game/movie/comic/what have you. Just something that has stuck with me after having finished it.

With Valkyria Chronicles it is incredibly easy to type passionately about ad nauseum, but hard to boil it down to one thing I learned most. I mean, this game was able to breach through my dislike of the anime art style and their canned acting tendencies of blushing cheeks, angry clouds and the sort. Within an hour of playing, none of that stuff bothered me at all anymore. I was on board with the characters, and the rendering of the models as watercolor with pencil hatching is just gorgeous. But breaking through my prejudice of anime art wasn't what I learned most. Neither was the solid, touching story or gorgeous orchestral score, because that would be what I learned most from Final Fantasy 6. And it wasn't the blending of tactical based positioning of your squad members that gives way to 3rd person action controls when you select them. Yes, blending of control types and genres is a form of responsible innovation which is something I champion, but it isn't what has stuck with me the most. What I learned most from Valkyria Chronicles is...

Don't be afraid to let the player lose.

This game isn't overly hard. And short of the last battle, I never once felt like the computer was trying to cheat me. If at anytime I died or lost a battle, I truly felt like I had just failed on faults of my own, not that of the game screwing me over. And in the instances where a spawn point might have been different from where I thought it was or someone appeared out of nowhere, I realized I just wasn't observant enough of the visual language of the map, and I had just learned something from my defeat. And because of all of this, I felt much more aware of each step I took and each decision I made. On top of that, your squad members could be lost forever which made you feel even more responsible for their well being. And since every character in the game has a biography being written for them as the game unfolds, even the C-level characters carry emotional weight. It was that always conscious moral responsibility to keep them alive with the hope they can all return to their normal lives when the war is over that made me not want to lose any of them. And when most games make you choose between one characters death or the other, to write that loss into the story, that someone you control MUST be taken away, it makes me feel like I am being punished for something I didn't do. It takes me out of the interactivity of controlling these characters outcomes. If a playable character dies in a game, it resonates a lot more to me if it was because I let them die in my control. At which point the weight of their death is squarely on my shoulders, entirely due to my own decisions.

And that is what is great with Valkyria. The game isn't forgiving of those wrong decisions. If you make a mistake, you will pay for it. But it never does it in a way that feels like it is punishing you. It feels more like it is trying to teach you how to be a better player, and when it does make you pay for your mistakes by taking someone potentially precious to your game, you make sure you don't make the same mistake again.

In a time when we playtest the games we make to fit the least capable person, it is refreshing to have experienced a game that respects your ability enough to figure it out and complete the task at hand without lowering its standards. Or yours.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

New Gawds

Look at that, actually adding art to my art blog. Who'd have thought it?

Mr Dapper Dan called me out, forcing me not to slack on my art chores. So he drew this up, sent me the lines, and dared me to color it.

Not being a giant New Gods aficionado, I wasn't super pumped to work on it. And then I started to ink it in the same way I always do, and got even less excited about the piece. So I said, screw it, I'm gonna experiment a little bit. Get a little rougher than normal.

So I took just his lines, played around with some more textured brushes, and went to town.

Then we kicked it back and forth a couple of times, and this is what we came up with.

Whatcha think?!

Singularity and Wolfenstein at E3

Ah, E3. It is good to have you back. Yes, you are loud, excessive and inescapable, but you fill the entertainment void that has been lacking since you left. Now, maybe GDC can stop being such a press event, and keep the focus on developers learning and critiquing the process.

Here are the E3 trailers to the games I have most recently worked on, Wolfenstein and Singularity. A classic property and a brand new one. Truly, the spice of life.

As for my thoughts on E3, and what has shown so far, Lionhead's Milo project really has me excited about the possibilities of AI/player recognition. Having a character in game that can recognize your voice and emotion could add so much depth to your experience. Pretty scary and exciting stuff.

Friday, May 29, 2009


I was a guest on the Geek Bombast Podcast and talked about Invincible, I Kill Giants, Attack of the Monstrology, game animation and podcasting. Pretty much all of my geek obsessions.

So give it a listen!