Professional animators talk about what went wrong with Mass Effect: Andromeda

Mass Effect: Andromeda

Mass Effect: Andromeda is now out worldwide, having launched in the EU overnight. However, developers Bioware are surely disappointed that the most prevalent idea to have formed around their sci-fi RPG, which was five years in the making, is that its animations are rubbish. 

How do the animations factor into our judgement of the game? Check out our Mass Effect: Andromeda review.

This idea has dominated the conversation around Andromeda so much that a few professional videogame animators have shared their thoughts on why it might’ve happened.

First is this Twitter thread by Jonathan Cooper, an animator who worked on Mass Effects 1 and 2 and is currently at Naughty Dog, where he worked on Uncharted 4. That game had great animations, but Cooper makes the point that it’s easier in a linear adventure game than in an RPG like Mass Effect, wherein the player can decide how the conversation goes. This means far more animations have to be made, many of which won’t be seen in an average playthrough – “it’s simply a quantity vs quality tradeoff,” he says.

Consequently, many RPGs use software to sequence pre-created animations together, and separate dialogues into tiers based on importance/likelihood of occurrence. The top tiers getting more attention from animators, whereas the bottom ones “may not even be touched by hand”. Cooper theorises that the sheer quantity of Andromeda’s dialogue and character scenes forced Bioware to lower “the quality of its base algorithm”.

Many of these points are also made in a great round-table discussion over on Gamasutra, hosted by animation-curious YouTuber Dan Floyd. Gwen Frey, who worked on Bioshock Infinite, says the animators are unlikely to have touched most of the smaller cut scenes, and instead “create a system for designers to use and trust the designers to script everything properly… all the glitches I’ve seen online look like technical bugs and/or implementation bugs.”

When asked to speculate on the cause of the problems, Simon Unger – who has taught animation at film schools and worked at EA and Square Enix – emphasises the scale of a production like Andromeda makes by-hand animation impossible and necessitates “procedural solutions” such as FaceFX, which he says Bioware have used in the past. It analyses audio tracks and creates animations based on waveforms, projection and so on, which “can read as a very robotic performance and I suspect that is what we’re seeing in some of the footage”.

Gwen concurs with this, and discusses a few possible causes for the infamous ‘crab walk’ and eye flickering glitches. Dan and First Strike Games’ Tim Borrelli wrap things up by saluting the Andromeda team and emphasising what a huge challenge they had.

Cooper’s thread is a quick but insightful read, while the Gamasutra round-table is a much more thorough look at the subject. Both are well worth your time. Cooper is also working on a book on videogame animation, so keep an eye out for that if you’re interested in the subject.