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Ex-Director talks about Mass Effect: Andromeda animations

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Jonathan Cooper, ex-director of animation of BioWare, talked about the controversy in which Mass Effect: Andromeda is suffering from the problems of the expressions and movements of the characters.

Previously, Cooper was the director of the animations of Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, and also participated in projects like Assassin’s Creed III and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. This time, he went to Twitter to talk about the case and mentioned that the whole issue of harassment and hatred against the ex-official of Electronic Arts was despicable, because it is absurd to point to a single person when it comes to the failure of an entire team.

He explained that encouraging an RPG title is a daunting task, because the size of these games requires a great effort on the part of the team, and nothing compares with, for example, Uncharted. For this he revealed how the process of creation of animations is carried out.

“Every encounter in Uncharted is unique & highly controlled because we create highly-authored ‘wide’ linear stories with bespoke animations,” he said. “Conversely, RPGs offer a magnitude more volume of content and importantly, player/story choice. It’s simply a quantity vs quality tradeoff.”

He said that the number of hours to develop custom animations has grown in recent years, so designers choose to simplify some tasks to create with an algorithm based on the text of the dialogue.

“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,” he continued. “As such, designers (not animators) sequence pre-created animations together – like DJs with samples and tracks. The lowest quality scenes may not even be touched by hand. To cover this, an algorithm is used to generate a baseline quality sequence.”

As an example, he mentioned that the animations of the first Mass Effect counted on this system based on movements, synchronization of lips and movements of head. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt also used this system, but added random gestures that could get better results.

Once these animations are created, the team usually tweaks and softens them, however, Cooper thinks this did not happen with some basic animations of Mass Effect: Andromeda, in order to deliver the title on time.

“Andromeda seems to have lowered the quality of it’s 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.”

“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,” he said. “The audience has grown more discerning, which makes our job more difficult but furthers animation quality (and animators) as a requirement.”

You can check out all the comments of Cooper on his Twitter account, where he puts some practical examples and talks about the work in animation of The Witcher, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Mass Effect and others.

Mass Effect: Andromeda is now available for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC.