Since the embargo lifted Mass Effect: Andromeda has been on the receiving end of much negativity – almost all of which is directed at its character animations. Having invested about twenty hours of play-time so far, I feel it’s time to put this to rest.
When the reviews came out, and Reddit became flooded with links to the same couple of gifs people began getting worried about the quality of Mass Effect: Andromeda. It spread like wildfire, all over the internet – it went viral. Memes were born, and some dickheads even sent death threats to a Bioware employee.
But here’s the thing – they’re cherry-picked. The animations we’ve been seeing flooding forums across the net are the same cherry-picked scenes over, and over, and over again.
So, what about the good animations you haven’t seen? Well, good animations don’t cause controversy and trolls needed some feeding. So they clung on to a few animations like a fat guy walking down the street, holding a voucher for a free 3-course meal on a windy day.
So let’s start checking out some of the other animations we have not seen flooding the internet.
Now, admittedly they’re also cherry-picked because I don’t have all day to be recording character interactions and uploading them.
There is no denying, however, the animations can look a little bit goofy at times. Some of the characters’ facial expressions can be a little lifeless – but by no means all of them. The goofy animations we’ve seen are only representative of a few seconds of game play, and Mass Effect: Andromeda more than makes up for the lack of time invested in animations by giving us a gripping story with awesome character development, beautiful scenery, tough but fun fights, and more.
While browsing Reddit this morning while I continued my morning routine of drinking coffee and reading news, I came across a post in which a former Mass Effect developer who now works for Naughty Dog gave his two-cents on the situation via his Twitter account
Folks have been asking so here are my thoughts on Mass Effect Andromeda’s animation. Hopefully people will better understand the process.
Animating an RPG is a really, really big undertaking – completely different from a game like Uncharted so comparisons are unfair. Every encounter in Uncharted is unique & highly controlled because we create highly-authored ‘wide’ linear stories with bespoke animations.
Conversely, RPGs offer a magnitude more volume of content and importantly, player/story choice. It’s simply a quantity vs quality tradeoff. In Mass Effect 1 we had over 8 hrs of facial performance. In Horizon Zero Dawn they had around 15. Player expectations have only grown.
As such, designers (not animators) sequence pre-created animations together – like DJs with samples and tracks. Here is the Frostbite cinematic conversation tool circa Dragon Age Inquisition; here’s the cinematic conversation tool for the Witcher 3. Both tools make it fast to assemble from a pool of animations.
Because time denotes not every scene is equally possible, dialogues are separated into tiered quality levels based on importance/likelihood. The lowest quality scenes may not even be touched by hand. To cover this, an algorithm is used to generate a baseline quality sequence.
Mass Effect 1-3 populated default body ‘talking’ movement, lip-sync and head movement based on the dialogue text. The Witcher 3 added to this with randomly selected body gestures that could be regenerated to get better results.
Andromeda seems to have lowered the quality of its base algorithm, resulting in the ‘My face is tired’ meme featuring nothing but lip-sync. This, presumably, was because they planned to hit every line by hand. But a 5-year dev cycle shows they underestimated this task (all this is exacerbated by us living in an era of share buttons and youtube, getting the lowest quality out to the widest audience.)
Were I to design a conversation system now, I’d push for a workflow based on fast and accessible face & body capture rather than algorithms. While it hasn’t 100% proved this method, Horizon Zero Dawn’s better scenes succeed due to a use of facial mocap.
The one positive to come out of all this is that AAA story-heavy games can’t skimp on the animation quality with a systemic approach alone. The audience has grown more discerning, which makes our job more difficult but furthers animation quality (and animators) as a requirement.
Mass Effect:Andromeda is, in our opinion, a fantastic entry in the franchise and captures the magic of the original Mass Effect. I’m going to finish up with a couple of more sentences. DO NOT let a couple of cherry-picked animations dissuade you from playing this game – especially if you’re a fan of the franchise.
Bioware have given us a deep game with a lot to do, interesting characters, and is a solid entry in to the series. Dare I say, it is better than Mass Effect 3? If you’re on Xbox One, you can play the game for 10 hours thanks to EA Access. If you have any questions or concerns about Mass Effect: Andromeda, feel free to ask us and hopefully we can help you to make your decision on whether or not to buy the game.
Good look out there, Pathfinders.
I should go.