What can designers of game characters learn from other forms of animation?

I’ve been thinking quite a long time about the relationship between animation and game AI. Most of the people who stay around long enough to let me bore them with it know that its a passion of mine. I thought that I would take the time in this post to start off with a look at where I think traditional animation can give us some pointers towards creating characters that are compelling and achieve the illusion of life.

In their book “The illuision of life” Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson lay out a number of essential elements they think help to achieve the illusion of life and create compelling characters. So I thought it would be a good place to start. Rather than numerically listing them, I thought a discussion format would be more useful. I’m not trying to say my own personal interpretation of the elements laid out in the book is the sole interpretation, I’m certainly willing to be convinced of other viewpoints and I hope you will add comments if you feel I’ve missed something. So lets get on with it!


The core of this notion of appeal, is that you choose characters that fit for a specific role. It doesn’t mean that everyhing is cute, or has specific attributes (although that is often the case), but more that you consider the character in its role. As is the case with traditional animation, you need think about the purpose of the character, how they move, how they think. I think in terms of game characters, we do actually have a pretty good handle on this. Although there are far too many generic space-marine style characters in games, I do think that we have some reasonably strong character designs too, like Mario and many of the other Nintendo characters. There is a lot to choosing characters for games and I urge you to read Katherine Isbister’s book for a better understanding of game character design.

Appeal is perhaps the earliest we get to understand a character, using concept art to draw out the basic outline of the proportions, maybe even thinking through the backstory of the character. Personally, I think that many game companies fail at this stage, often choosing to go with a simple puppet instead of a character. I can understand the thinking, because you will most likely be controlling the character on screen so giving it a personality might not allow you to project yourself into the game AS the character. The bigger question that springs to mind is how important the “character” you are controlling is, do you mentally model the character you are playing with as a seperate entity, or are you actually immersed enough that they are essentially a projection of you? I think we need some study in that area before we truly know that answer. One study we did a few years ago looked at the character design in an RPG (in this case Neverwinter Nights 2) and wether players are attracted to character narratively versus aesthetically amongst other influences. The group that did the study found that even relatively obvious aesthetic changes had quite a big influence on the players interactions with a character. In many ways this is what you would predict, because we often have to try and predict the nature of another person from a distance and we mostly use clothing (for instance uniforms) to give us an indication of how we will be recieved.

So in terms of game creation, I think we can agree that “appeal” is as important to us in the game industry as much as it is with traditional animation.


In traditional animation, staging is the layout of the scene, essentially its artistic composition, such that the viewer understands or “reads” the scene’s intent correctly. Staging because it is very important for storytelling probably feels like it has no place in games. But actually, when you think about it staging is one of the most important aspects we should address. Staging for games involves how and where we present information and characters to the player. If we present important information out of view, then we fail to achieve our design goals. If a player sees none of the brilliant content we developed, it can be a very expensive affair. A lot of games are moving towards a linear narrative in order to address this issue of high production costs and players simply not seeing it. I think that is a mistake but it has proven very popular with so many games using that approach.

Personally, I think staging can be very useful if we think of it dynamically. If you imagine a case where you have to have characters interact, it really doesnt take much to place constraints on them to only interact when they are being viewed by a player. I consider the AI director in left 4 dead a form of staging, because it controls the scene in such a way that the player is aware of the impending threat. There was an interesting presentation by the guys at Insomniac about the combat mechanics in their latest FPS. What is interesting is that they are almost entirely talking about staging. Considering how the player will view an element of the game and how best to guide them towards the right feeling or understanding is the key to staging.

I consider staging to be another key element of traditional animation that we can apply to game development.

Next post, I will cover more of the animation “principles” that perhaps don’t seem as though they apply to games, but with some thought we can potentially see our equivalent principle. Hopefully at some point we can consider some of our own unique principles, it certainly would be nice to think we have our own basis for creating great game character experiences at least.