If you haven’t heard already, Mass Effect Andromeda‘s Facial animations are basically a disaster, from being extremely glitch to sometimes not working at all. Even though there was a huge gap between the release of the latest Mass Effect game, the facial animations still seem to be better on the previous games, according to gamers.
Naughty Dog’s Animator Jonathan Coope tried to explain what went wrong with Mass Effect Andromeda’s Facial animations in a long, explanatory tweet.
Folks have been asking so here are my thoughts on Mass Effect Andromeda’s animation. Hopefully people will better understand the process.
Animating an RPG is a really, really big undertaking – completely different from a game like Uncharted so comparisons are unfair. Every encounter in Uncharted is unique & highly controlled because we create highly-authored ‘wide’ linear stories with bespoke animations.
Conversely, RPGs offer a magnitude more volume of content and importantly, player/story choice. It’s simply a quantity vs quality tradeoff. In Mass Effect 1 we had over 8 hrs of facial performance. In Horizon Zero Dawn they had around 15. Player expectations have only grown.
As such, designers (not animators) sequence pre-created animations together – like DJs with samples and tracks. Here is the Frostbite cinematic conversation tool circa Dragon Age Inquisition; here’s the cinematic conversation tool for the Witcher 3. Both tools make it fast to assemble from a pool of animations.
Because time denotes not every scene is equally possible, dialogues are separated into tiered quality levels based on importance/likelihood. The lowest quality scenes may not even be touched by hand. To cover this, an algorithm is used to generate a baseline quality sequence.
Mass Effect 1-3 populated default body ‘talking’ movement, lip-sync and head movement based on the dialogue text. The Witcher 3 added to this with randomly selected body gestures that could be regenerated to get better results.
Andromeda seems to have lowered the quality of its base algorithm, resulting in the ‘My face is tired’ meme featuring nothing but lip-sync. This, presumably, was because they planned to hit every line by hand. But a 5-year dev cycle shows they underestimated this task (all this is exacerbated by us living in an era of share buttons and youtube, getting the lowest quality out to the widest audience.)
Were I to design a conversation system now, I’d push for a workflow based on fast and accessible face & body capture rather than algorithms. While it hasn’t 100% proved this method, Horizon Zero Dawn’s better scenes succeed due to a use of facial mocap.
The one positive to come out of all this is that AAA story-heavy games can’t skimp on the animation quality with a systemic approach alone. The audience has grown more discerning, which makes our job more difficult but furthers animation quality (and animators) as a requirement.
if you’ve played Mass Effect Andromeda already, the Facial Animations are actually quite buggy, but the developers claim that they will iron the issues out within a few months. Mass Effect Andromeda is available for PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4.