David Helsby, senior animator at Bungie, shared for the first time publicly some of the secrets behind the first-person animations in Destiny. His talk at this year's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco provides new details on how that game's graceful characters and elegant weapons feel so good to inhabit from the first-person perspective.
The secret, Helsby says, is all in how the camera — essentially the cone of vision that player sees — moves in relation to the rest of the avatar's body.
If the camera remains still as a avatar moves through the world, the game can feel light and floaty. But if you are too agressive with the movement of that camera, people will get motion sick.
"It's one of the reasons you really have to be careful with camera animation," Helsby said, "because even if your camera motion is going to make just 10 percent of the population sick, if you're selling a million copies of the game then you just lost 100,000 people."
Simply modeling how the world shifts and bounces from the first person perspective isn't as simple as strapping a GoPro camera to a runner on a jogging track. Helsby knows, because he tried it. It didn't work.
Instead, Helsby turned to the world of boxing, studying in detail how boxer's heads moved when they threw a punch.
"With most violent actions that a boxer makes," Helsby said, "they have intent. The head leads the action. ... When the boxer is setting up [his punch] he's also setting up with this anticipation to strike. ... Then, as he starts to throw the punch, his head actually starts to lead that action or that hit, leading the arm. And then as the boxer is about to make contact with his target and his arm is about to cross the centerline of his body, the head actually starts to go in the opposite direction. And this is because his body is trying to keep on balance ... and the head returns over the center of the body."
That detail can best be seen in the melee knife strike of the Hunter class. When slowed down frame-by-frame, Helsby showed how he modeled the movement of a the Hunter avatar's head — toward the target, and then back — to mimic the movement of a boxer's head.
That same kind of intentionality, of leading actions with the head, is a big part of all the animations in the game, be it strafing from side to side, throwing a grenade, or simply taking a step forward.
Helsby went on to talk about how his team worked smarter, and not harder. Take the case of throwing a grenade. Early on in the design process Helsby said his team had nearly 25 items on their task list having to do with grenade throws. They originally had planned to animate a different motion depending on if the player was holding a heavy weapon, or a carbine, or a pistol.
"Give artists time to polish their work"
But in the final game, if you look carefully you'll notice that every time your avatar makes the throwing motion the first thing they do is lower their primary weapon. That simple fix meant that instead of 25 animations, his team only had to make one.
Helsby also covered a few secrets of how Bungie set Destiny's field of view. When you are designing an FPS game, Helsby said, the impulse is to place the aim point in the exact center of the screen. By lowering that center point, Bungie was able to open up the the field of view at the top and sides of the screen. This, in effect, simulates peripheral vision and helps to make Destiny's world feel more expansive.
Finally, did you ever wonder why Destiny's weapons loom so large in front of the player? It turns out that the first-person animation team settled on a field of view of 77 degrees early in the design process. Meanwhile, other members of the design team hemmed and hawed about the field of view for the rest of the game, also known as the area in front of the gun. Only late in the design process did they finally settle on 72 degrees.
Helsby said that wider field of view in the foreground provides room for the avatar's arms and weapons to flash through the player's field of vision, and directly contributes to the immersive quality of the Destiny's animations.
That wider field of view also gave animators a larger canvas to work with, allowing them subtle flourishes intended to direct the players eye towards the action, as shown in the photo at the top of this article.
But the freedom he and his team were given by Bungie, Helsby said, would have been useless has they not also been given the time to experiment.
"That’s how to effectively use an artist," Helsby said. "Give them time to polish their work, and make it as good as possible."