Ever got into a heated discussion with another dev in your discipline about which software package or toolset was better than another? This is certainly so among animators, but I know I’ve heard the same discussion from other disciplines. I myself have many times been locked in battle as to which is better, Maya or Max. Or why Motionbuilder is so terrible/awesome. And while caught up in the moment, it seemed like the most important, possibly life and studio changing argument of all time. Nay, it could change the entire INDUSTRY if I could only sway the person I am talking to into believing my software package and tools were the best. The world would become a utopia if only I could convert them to my process.
But to everyone else listening, all they hear is, “My cat is better than your dog.”
I’m not saying these discussions are pointless. Far from it. They point out the flaws and shortcomings in different workflows which ultimately make you fix them or re-examine how you work. And that is amazing. But the chances of getting someone to switch sides is about as likely as convincing a dog person to give up their hound for a cat. It won’t happen. There is a personal attachment to workflows and a level of investment that is almost impossible to breach. It starts by learning how to do what it is you love in that program and then builds through years of learning how to deal with its quirks and shortcuts it becomes a part of your family. You grow comfortable, knowing what it consistently can and can’t do, to the point that if it craps on your foot you can just bear it and grin. And if anyone dares to point out that something else might be better, it’s only natural to get defensive. Or point out the flaws in THEIR method of choice to make yours look better. Maybe animators get worked up over this more than others. It could be that software packages are one of the few things animators have control over in game development and as such take it so seriously. But when you step back and see that all programs do the same thing, but with just different pros and cons, you begin to realize that what you both really want is the same. The ability to create something you love.
And that got me thinking. When was the last time I got as heated up with another animator or developer about something in the game we were making? I know I have done it but was I as critical and honest as when I was ranting about a random piece of licensed software? Many a times I’ve gone on about how not having a graph editor is akin to making me animate with one hand tied behind my back. I know I have certainly used that critical and brutally honest eye when playing OTHER people’s games, getting angry about why a camera randomly switches from 1st person to 3rd person between cinematics and how that breaks the player’s narrative. But I can’t honestly say I have always gone to the same lengths on a feature in my own games as often. I will point something out or go on small diatribes, sometimes to someone that can fix it, often times just to another animator, and then just assume the person working on it will take care of it. Because SURELY they must see its shortcomings and it isn’t a finished product yet, so there is time to fix it. I’m always of the mindset that everyone I work with is more qualified at their job than I am, because I can’t do what they do. And that means it MUST be harder than what I do, so they must be smarter. And there are still months left to fix it, so it’s going to be fine. Software packages and other games are finished products after all so it’s easier to say, “WHOOPS! That is just WRONG?!” Beyond all that, as an animator in games, my voice is silenced very quickly by programmers or designers saying something can’t be done for a variety of reasons, be it technical or gameplay related. Animation is a service industry in games, and the chance to be a DIVA as you might be afforded in films is not going to happen. Nor should it. Film is about story and animated performances are what drive it. That means you get the spotlight. Games are about gameplay, which means animation is there to serve it, not direct it.
And that is the point I have to slap myself. All of those are just excuses that allow me to pull my punches at work, because I know the people around me personally and have to interact with them on a daily basis. And while I should be MORE honest with them, I end up giving them a lot of leeway because of all those factors I listed above. But worst of all, I’m giving myself leeway to cop out. And as far as I am concerned, that is a cardinal sin of game development.
So how do I fix this? Well, first step is to always attach that critical eye I love using on other people’s products onto my own teams. Whenever I see something that looks wrong, I’ll make a note of it. Whenever I work on anything, I will make sure I understand the core of what is needed. Any task I am given I will talk one on one to the person who requested it and make sure we are working together to make the most unique and compelling animation possible. Any character I am animating I will make sure I know their unique voice or find it if none already exists. And for everything, not just assume that someone else sees a problem. But the biggest help is instead of just complaining to another animator that the story doesn’t make sense at this point, that the characters personalities are interchangeable, or that the moment to moment gameplay in this certain area is boring, I will tell it to someone who can fix it.
And you know what, when you start doing it, and it works, it feels great. When you can point to moments in your game that are now successful when before they were weak, well that is just about one of the greatest feelings you can have. It is something you can take real pride in.
Yes, these were all things we already do to varying degrees and should come rather naturally to anyone in this industry. But it changes from project to project and studio to studio. Some team cultures have this naturally built into their workflow, and others require you to push a little harder to be heard. But just make sure it exists in some form, because if it doesn’t, then you probably need to get out.
Ultimately the one thing I will ALWAYS do from now on, is when I feel myself getting locked into a debate about whether my cat is better than another animators dog, is redirect that focus and conversation towards something that can actually be seen and felt by the player. Because all that matters to them is what we are making, not what we are making it with. So I’m just going to do what we can ALL benefit from; making something as memorable and cherished as my cat. Or your dog.