Giving Purpose to 1st Person Animation
Ryan Duffin, Senior Animator, EA/Danger Close
Ryan has animated games since 2001, including first-person weapon animation for Battlefield 3, Killzone 2, and Medal of Honor: Warfighter.
He began by demonstrating how first-person animations look in third-person, showing footage from games like Mirror’s Edge and Dead Island. They look bizarre, with very little center-of-mass movement, and cartoony, spider-like arm movements. However, that is perfectly acceptable, because it looks great in first person, and that’s what the player sees! Animations that look good in third-person typically do not work in first-person. They are heavily distorted by perspective, low detail, and poorly staged. We almost always need very different animations for first person and for third person.
The first-person view is all about giving the player feedback -- communicating which weapon is equipped, which weapons are more or less powerful, what you are doing with them, whether they are ready to fire. Like the rest of the HUD, the first-person animations are the window through which the player views the world. They must be communicative as well as visually pleasing. You can think of the different first-person elements as actors on a stage, and figure out how to block them to be most visible and communicative to the player, while occluding as little of the game world as possible.
When experimenting with gun placement for Medal of Honor: Warfighter, and surveying gun placement in other games, he found that the most pleasing weapon location corresponded to the spiral formed by the Golden Ratio as applied to the screen. By lining up all the game’s weapons according to this rule, he achieved a consistent and intentional look, instead of just placing them arbitrarily on the screen.
The first person view can be used to convey feelings as well, such as pain, strain, exertion and weight. For example, the scene in Bioshock where the player character first encounters plasmids is conveyed mostly through the first-person hand animations. Similarly, the pain animations in Far Cry 2 and 3 really emphasize the damage that the player is receiving, and discourage the player from getting injured. The faces in Wolfenstein and Doom are early examples of this idea.
Modern shooters often tweak the timing details of first-person animations to convey subtle differences between the weight and handling of different weapons. They have different “aim down sights” timing, reload timing, weapon switch timing, and movement speed multipliers. Different weapon quality can also affect timing, so an old rusty gun might be more difficult to reload than a new, well-maintained one. A skilled marine might also reload in one fluid motion, while an untrained civilian might fumble and take longer.
Reference is key for believability and accuracy -- you should never make something unrealistic by accident! Know the rules so that you break them with intention. How does a gun work? Keep track of when a bullet is already in the gun’s chamber, whether your character is using good trigger discipline, where your magazines are coming from. In Battlefield 3 they tried to increase the realism of reloading by adding vest foley sound effects when the player retrieves new magazines.
Sometimes you really do have to break the rules though. The highest priority is to show the player what is happening, so everything has to be in front of the camera. Nobody would really reload right in front of their face like that, and the first-person camera FOV would not be able to see a weapon that is fired from the hip, but we have to compromise on realism to keep all the important action on screen.
There are special technical challenges when creating a rig for first-person animation, because objects are switching ‘spaces’ so often. They are frequently attached and detached from hands, guns, and the player’s body. The rig must be set up so this can happen smoothly and freely, so a pin can start out attached to a grenade, then be pulled out by the left hand, and finally discarded into world space as a physics object. Similarly, world-space objects must have the ability to interact with the first-person view, like if a dog jumps out and latches onto your arm for a QTE, or an enemy player stabs you in the face with an assassination animation.
It is also possible to animate the camera itself as part of first-person animations. You must be careful with these effects so you don’t induce motion sickness, but it can be really useful as punctuation for forceful animations. You can jar the screen to the slide slightly as you ram a magazine home, or shake and roll it around to simulate the massive recoil of a .50 cal rifle shot. Camera movement interferes with aiming, so it’s best to save disruptive effects for when the player can’t aim anyway, such as when reloading, striking with a melee weapon, or sprinting.
What about first-person body awareness, so you can look down and see your legs? There are several approaches to this, but usually you will need a special system that works similarly to the third-person character animation, but has special animations adapted to first-person. It’s possible to avoid this issue by only showing the legs when needed, such as the kick in Duke Nukem 3D, or the Strogg transformation in Quake 4. There are also special details to watch out for, such as shadows. You don’t want to use the actual first-person animations for shadows, because they look weird in third-person, but you also need the shadows to line up nicely with the first-person legs.
I hoped you liked this summary! The last one is all about the big picture, how to create context that allows for meaningful animations.