'Game animation to transform in 5 years' - Fries

'Game animation to transform in 5 years' - Fries

By Rob Crossley and Michael French

September 14th 2010 at 8:00AM

Mixamoâ??s newest board advisor says animation tools will rule, but not at the cost of animators' livelihoods

Today’s common approach to game animation will become a rarity in just five years, a key industry exec has said.

Ed Fries, Mixamo's newest advisory board member and the co-founder of Xbox and Microsoft Game Studios, believes that animation tool use will ultimately be as widespread as engine use today.

“Animation is probably the last field in game development that largely doesn’t use tools,” Fries told Develop.

“It’s almost silly; with have teams perpetually recreating the wheel – working on the same walking animations with every new project. Maybe they don’t need to do that any more.

“It took time for game engines to become an established part of the game development business. And you can’t help but look the animation field of game design and know that, yep, it is inevitable that these tools will be widely adopted.”

Fries has today been announced as one of the two new advisory board members for Mixamo, a leading 3D animation tech provider. He is joins the table along with industry pro Mark DeLoura – another experienced exec who’s worked for some of the industry’s biggest firms.

The two join Mixamo with the aim to leverage business from the development industry’s increasing need to save production time, and costs, while keeping standards high.

Mixamo offers an online catalogue of stock animations, allowing developers to browse through numerous 3D character motions and, using a slider-based control system, can tweak and customise accordingly. When finished, the motion can be downloaded as a package that can integrate into a variety of game engines.
This process has yet to win mass industry adoption, but Fries believes the picture will be different in a few years time.

“I think it’ll be one of those things that, when you see it, it’s obvious, it’s going to happen,” he said.

“It’s going to take time – and they’ll probably be some Mixamo competitors along the way – but in five years time it will be the norm, not the exception. The exception will be studios using animators for every portion of the game.”

Drawn out
But Fries insists that animation tools will not bring an end to the livelihood of game animators – a concern often cited as the key reason why there’s an hesitance to adopt services such as Mixamo’s.

“I’ve actually spent a fair amount of time meeting with animators, and thing is; there’s definitely still a place for animators. Just like there’s still a place for programmers! If you think about 20, or even 30 years ago, games were only made by programmers,” he said.

“Because of game engines, these days programmers have become specialised at creating unique aspects of games, so there’s still about ten in a team of 200. That won’t go away. There needs to be the same policy in other fields of development, I think.

“I’ve heard the [job threat] concerns from animators so many times. I’m seeing the Bungie guys this week, but I remember when working with them on Halo 1, they insisted on building their own physics tools. They were adamant. But as soon as they got to grips with Havok they haven’t turned back.

“That’s what developers are like, they don’t want to lose control. And these tools are not going to replace core animation teams, just like outsourcing hasn’t, and just like engines haven’t killed off programmers.

“I just don’t understand why animators waste so much time doing the same stuff over and over and over again. Why would you do that? Why did you not spend your money on making your game better instead? It’s a just not that interesting. They should be challenged by doing the complex, creative stuff. And you can have ten to twenty animators on a big, big project. That’s a massive saving.”

Sweet spot
Fries added that studios shouldn’t necessarily rely just on tools for all their animation duties. On the contrary; he believes tools can give teams more time to focus on the challenging and rewarding elements of the craft.

“There’s huge libraries of data that we can draw from, but what artists can then do is draw in their own unique designs – I think that’s the middle ground that the industry is heading towards.

“Hopefully, every game that’s being made has unique and special art – that’s the sort of thing animators are going to focus on, not slaving over how to properly make an NPC walk.

“I think eventually we’ll end up in a happy medium, with development teams using stock animations and art for the basics, and at the same time apply their own craft to making the more complex stuff. That’s what we’re trying to do at Mixamo.”

Fries adds that Mixamo’s business goal now is to make a bigger impact on the industry by talking to its biggest studios; to turn their attitudes towards animation tools and watch the industry follow the trend.