A Beautiful Bad Game

Hello! I’m Sergio and I’ll talk briefly about a very important subject that, while obvious, I think it should not be overlooked.

As you may know, in any project you should obey one simple rule: the function is more important than the form. Meaning that, what’s important in a game is first and foremost that your idea works nicely and that you achieve the level of fun you desire! (how to do this is another loooong topic). After that, your focus can be on looks and graphics as much as you want.

You may have a beautiful game, but if it’s filled with bugs or -worst of all- boring, no one will touch it. That’s why some older games never lose their appeal, while some newer games sit there collecting dust.

We all know how this ended.

Now, this may sound obvious when you read it like that, but we often forget this simple rule. And that’s natural, we’re human beings and like shiny and beautiful things. We’re attracted to them. When we come up with an idea, we often think first on how it will look or how it will make us feel, but not how to do it or how it fits into the overall project (again, this is a topic for another day that has more to do with game design and psychology).

If you’re part of the art team, it’s very easy to fall into this trap (unless you’re a seasoned sea dog) if not given the proper direction to work with. I’m an animator, and I often find myself in this little dilemma. i can often think on how to make a beautiful animation cycle for a character, or the most detailed and cool looking attack, but that’s because we animators often think we’re making a movie, and that’s not the case (same can happen to illustrators, musicians, designers, etc.). The animation needs to be beautiful, yes, but it also needs to be functional.

In a movie, you’re a passive audience, so the animation is designed for you to look and marvel at it. In a game, you need to control it.

I’ll give you a quick example. In most games, your character can jump. This action is often performed with a single button press. You see Mario, you press a button and he immediately jumps. That’s simple. You need this jump to be quick because you’ll use it to avoid traps and enemies. It’s a simple principle. I chose a jump, but you may think of any other action that you like: punching, using a sword, shooting, or whatever suits your game.

You may also know that this jump needs to be performed by the character as soon as you press that button, with as little lag as possible. It needs to be almost instantaneous, not only because it’s a very quick paced action that you’ll want to use instinctively when you’re in peril, but also because it’ll make you feel like you’re actually controlling the character, it helps with immersion. If it was the other way around (if it had any lag or problems) you would have to consider this with every jump, and the character would be controlling you (and this is not soviet Russia).

Your ability to effectively control Mario’s jump can be the difference between sweet victory or a humiliating game over.

How does this ties in with animation? Well, if you’re an animator or a very observant person you may already see the problem. In order to make a convincing jump (or any other action, really), you need anticipation. This means that, before the character can jump, he needs to crouch or prepare himself a little bit. This can be done as subtle or as obvious as the animator desires, and when you’re making a movie you have all the freedom in the world. When you’re making an interactive experience, the story changes.

Richard William’s anticipation of a Jump.

As you see, this contradicts directly the things I explained above: you need a jump to be instantaneous for it to work, but you also need to anticipate it for it to look good. Is there a magic formula to solve this problem? Well, there is! And I already told you what it is:

The function is more important than the form. In this case, it means that the jump must feel good and work in the first place, and once that’s done, you can proceed to animate and do your best to make it look good.

This is just a quick example, there may be cases where you’ll want your character to jump with a delay or make him clumsy on purpose (a lot of horror games used to play with this concept in order to frustrate you and scare you more). That’s why it’s important to first define what kind of action you want, how it fits into your game and THEN decide how it will look (sport games, platformers, FPS, turn based RPGs, adventure games, fighters, etc. all have very different pacings that need to be addressed differently).

Dark Souls can also be a perfect example of delayed animation used on purpose for creating tension, difficulty and a heavy-feeling character.

In Twin Flames (our very own fast paced action platformer) we deal with this issue a lot with our main characters. Not just with the jumps, but also with sword swings, dash, crouch, throwing animation, even damage animation. Due to the nature of the game, it all needs to be very fast. This allows you to change the tides of a battle quickly if you’re being beaten, or run away if you need to.

This is the main combo of Joachim. Different weapons can alter it, but the main principle remains. Notice the little to no anticipation of his swings.

This often meant a process of trial and error, with the programmers having to cut some animation frames in order to make the animation fit, or the animators having to draw later some extra frames to accommodate for the action being performed by the characters. We learn together and work as a team.

Enemies work a little different (you’ll often want to delay their actions on purpose), but that’s a topic for another day.

This enemy has A LOT of anticipation. And that’s generally a good thing.

To sum this up, while the looks are a very important part of a game, it is not -or should not- be the main focus or the team. A beautiful car with a bad engine is still a bad car, after all. Do not forget this simple principle. Don’t be afraid to work with gray boxes or place holders. Don’t be afraid to change things, don’t use an animation or an asset just because it’s already done, if it doesn’t work, you should change it right away.

And I’m not saying that games can’t have beautiful and detailed animations, they most certainly can! But they need to be very smart about it. So, when you see a game that’s functional AND with really beautiful art, that means that a very talented team worked on that project! If you have examples of this, share them with us!

Again, this may sound a little on the obvious side, but I think it’s worth repeating. If you already knew all of this, I’d love to hear your input on the subject. We all have stories of things gone wrong because we forgot to follow this rule, I’m sure. And if this is the first time you hear about this, I hope it helped!

What other subjects would you like me to address in future posts? Was there something on this post that you would like to see further explained? Leave a comment and ask away! See you next time!

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Author: Sergio Ortiz

Animator and Game Designer at Fat Panda Games. Loves to write, play long RPGs in the beach and eat caramel popcorn.