Jonathan Cooper is no stranger to speaking out on the process of creating character animations in video games. Just a few years ago, Polygon interviewed the former animation director for Assassin’s Creed 3 about Assassin’s Creed Unity, which was making headlines at the time for not including a female assassin in its multiplayer because it would have been too much work.
But Cooper doesn’t just have Assassin’s Creed under his belt. He has since worked on Uncharted 4, and was lead animator on Mass Effect and a cinematic animator on Mass Effect 2. And he took to Twitter today to comment on the controversy that has surrounded Mass Effect: Andromeda from the moment it released in-game footage, and reached an apex in the last week before its release. Namely, that its character and facial animations are often glitchy and off-putting.
Cooper began his thread with a reference to the surfacing of a harassment campaign against a female, former Electronic Arts employee who was incorrectly scapegoated as the source of the game’s animation problems, calling it “despicable” to target a single person for what was clearly a team failure.
But he went on to stress the enormity of animating an RPG with significant story choices in it, compared to a more linear title.
Conversely, RPGs offer a magnitude more volume of content and importantly, player/story choice. It's simply a quantity vs quality tradeoff.— Jonathan Cooper (@GameAnim) March 23, 2017
The number of hours of facial animation alone that developer teams are expected to craft for current generation RPGs has risen significantly over time. This has lead to developers taking on simplified facial animation tasks and to the creation of algorithmically generated animations based on dialogue text.
As such, designers (not animators) sequence pre-created animations together - like DJs with samples and tracks.— Jonathan Cooper (@GameAnim) March 23, 2017
The lowest quality scenes may not even be touched by hand. To cover this, an algorithm is used to generate a baseline quality sequence.— Jonathan Cooper (@GameAnim) March 23, 2017
Both methods are often touched up and smoothed by the animation team afterward, but Cooper thinks this may not have happened with low-priority interactions in Mass Effect: Andromeda due to time constraints.
This, presumably, was because they planned to hit every line by hand. But a 5-year dev cycle shows they underestimated this task.— Jonathan Cooper (@GameAnim) March 23, 2017
“In the era of share buttons and YouTube,” Cooper said, it’s easy for the worst examples of that time-crunched process to get to a large audience. Still, he ended on a high note.
The audience has grown more discerning, which makes our job more difficult but furthers animation quality (and animators) as a requirement.— Jonathan Cooper (@GameAnim) March 23, 2017
Check out the rest of Cooper’s Twitter thread, in which he discusses approaches to algorithmically-aided and facial-motion-captured RPG animation methods in The Witcher 3, Horizon: Zero Dawn and Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Cooper was lead animator on Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. He was credited as a cinematic animator on Mass Effect 2.