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

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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.”

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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.

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Facarwi avatarClutchy avatar
Facarwi Avatar
4 Months ago

I think most players put two and two together and... overestimated the quality of cut-scenes, dialog and voice acting as a whole. Look at what CD Projekt pulled of with Witcher 3. Developed at an astoundingly low cost, an almost insane amount of game time to finish, the level of quality side quests had was mind boggling, they could of easily been mistaken for main quests. Not to mention the realistic animations & voice acting. From start to finish only a few quests really "missed" at all.

Most RPG fans look at Bioware as the kings of the genre. Now in the hands of a massive company such as EA, I think most fans thought they would surely be going for the crown and making a statement with this game.

Don't get me wrong I am loving the game immensely, I wouldn't even say I am disappointed or anything like that. I'm just a little surprised with where they used the funds. Personally I think they would of been far better off dropping MP all together focusing on story especially being the first game.

Clutchy Avatar
4 Months ago

CD Projekt Red realized early on that they weren't going to be able to animate all of the dialogue well enough, they wrote software that created most of the facial animations. Then animators would smooth over the rough spots. It worked brilliantly.

It is so much easier to create bonds with characters when their faces animate realistically.

Facarwi Avatar
4 Months ago

Yeah exactly. I'm no game designer but right of the gate knowing that a trilogy is coming you'd think that nailing the core mechanics/gameplay would be top priority. Get animations algorithms polished etc. Keep the core narrative classic Bioware style and use expansive sidequests to explore new directions i.e. how choices effect the player, the style of quests. I would of most definitely left multiplayer out until a later game.

Right now they have so much to address before looking at two, if they got the core nailed down they could of done a year of DLC, releasing MEA 2 years from now. Players would be hungry... Now, I think I would feel nervous if they announced the next title so quickly.

2 Avatar
3 Months ago

As much as I like The Witcher the characters often feel very dull. There are exceptions obviously and I believe the way the characters are in The Witcher 3 is intentional for the most part but God give me strength, Geralt is one of the worst protagonists personality wise i've ever seen. I know Witchers are supposed to lack emotions but he evidently doesn't lack emotion at all, so even if he plays up to the rumour it's still bad storytelling in that respect. He's just so so boring. So boring.