Path of Exile Interviews Its Own Animation Department

By Austin Phoenix, 5 months ago
An integral part of making exciting and immersive gameplay is making sure that you get your animations just right. Path of Exile interviewed their animation team to give some insight into this process!

Hey guys. Thanks for participating in the interview! Could you please introduce yourself and let us know a little bit about your animation history?
Ed: Hey, I've been animating on and off for the past 5 years. I studied animation at Natcoll (now known as Yoobee) in Wellington. I got my first job at a small studio called Polytronik, working on a short film they came up with. The project didn't see completion, but I got a bunch more small contracts from them and another studio sharing the same space. When I wasn't working I would hide away in my room and do animations for this site called the 11 Second Club. It's a monthly animation competition where you get a small clip of dialogue from a movie and make an animation to it.

Sam: Kiaora, I've been animating in the Gaming industry since 2005. My first job was with Midway Games on a variety of projects over a few years: Stranglehold (Chicago), Wheelman (Newcastle), MK vs DC and TNA Wrestling (L.A). Before Midway closed their doors in 2009, I moved over to Team Bondi (Sydney) for 2 years to work on L.A Noire to help out in the cinematics/layout department and a chance to work with the amazing technology of the Depth Analysis had to offer .

After leaving Team Bondi I found myself back in the states for a short stint working for WB and the incredible NetherRealm crew on Injustice, Gods Among Us before moving back to NZ for a more balanced work\life ratio.

Being back in New Zealand in a small market was tough. I freelanced for a year with small gigs ranging from teaching to small post houses before landing a full time gig at Gameloft. I was with Gameloft for 3 years working on a Minion Rush cinematic, Ice Age Adventures, Pastry Paradise and Country Friends before they closed the Auckland Studio early this year and I was very happily picked up by Grinding Gear Games in February of this year.

How did you get your job at Grinding Gear Games?
Ed: Work dried up for me in Wellington, so I decided to try my luck up here in Auckland. About a week after moving, one of the animators here, who I knew through my brother, gave me a heads up that he was going away and I should get ready to apply.

So I spent a good 3 months working on attacks, deaths, and quadrupeds till I had a decent showreel. Then I was given an animation test to do some attacks. I smashed it and got the job, now I do attacks, deaths and quadrupeds every day.

Sam: Erik, the creative director and I had talked a few years back and I completed an animation test for him. When I became available early this year it was a great to be able to jump onboard almost straight away.

What is your favourite thing you've worked on for Path of Exile?
Ed: I'm quite proud of the wolves. Specially the idle of the pet chilling out, I impressed myself with that one. Those long pet and NPC idles can be tricky. It's hard to animate something essentially doing nothing. Every other animation has an intention, like hit something, or die. The relaxed idles are just about chilling for about a 20 second loop. I feel like I nailed those simple little actions a dog does when it's chilling. Like panting, sniffing things, looking around. It reached that magic point when your animation becomes a living thing.
But my absolute favourite stuff I can't talk about. It's secret. But it's awesome.

Sam: I have only been here a few months but so far it's just great to be back animating a more realistic darker\grittier style of animation.

Are there any unexpected challenges you've faced while working on Path of Exile animations?
Ed: As far as unexpected goes, that would be the old rigs. For people who don't know what that is, it's the controls set up around a model, that drives a skeleton that moves the body. The old rigs are as bare-bones as you can get, quite literally in some cases. Which can mean putting in even more work to get the result you're after. We have a rigging tool now which makes this easier but still comes with it's own problems. Another is making big heavy things attack within a second. It can be very hard to convey weight in such a short space of time.

Sam: There are never a shortage of unexpected challenges :) One in particular would be finding that perfect balance of weight and anticipation in attacks that makes the animation feel powerful and rewarding to the player. Sometimes we can’t include all the anticipation we had wanted in the animation as it just takes too long . We have to remind ourselves that some of the anticipation happens outside of the animation. It’s with the player before they click the button, and when they do click the button they expect that explosive power without having to wait for all the wind up. Its a fine line and 1 or 2 frame changes can make huge difference and illustrates perfectly how important your animations “spacing” really is.

Is there anything you need to do to make animations look good from a fixed top-down Perspective?
Ed: The top down view can really mess you up sometimes. It's so natural to animate everything at eye level that sometimes you forget to check it from above and you can end up losing a lot of the action in the camera angle.

A big part of animation is making sure your poses can be recognised in a silhouette, that becomes tricky when the legs can be lost under the torso. The main thing I aim for is getting a good arc with the weapon, that's readable from all angles. If a sword slash lines up with the camera, it loses all readability and power.

Sam: I'm pretty sure at least once a day either Ed or I will have something to say about it :) In general though, making sure to create arcs and choose animations that suit the camera while being careful not to overcrowd things and have the animation appear too busy. Sometimes I will find myself having to really exaggerate or even break some limbs and poses to really make it clear from that angle. We have a Game Camera in Maya or our internal asset viewer tool which allows us to check these silhouettes, poses and arcs while we're creating. A lot of testing is still needed in game to see how clear and readable each animation is in a given environment. This means things like lighting and if the monster appears in large packs or not will have to be considered. We are always trying to find that balance of looks right versus what feels right as you're playing.

Path of Exile has a large amount of versatility regarding equipment choices for your character. What implications does this have for animations?
Ed: As far as armour is concerned, nothing. For weapons, it can mean a lot of slightly different animations. dual wielding is the biggest culprit for this. between sword, dagger, claw and shield there is an animation for each combination of those items.
Sword and dagger can often be the same, but some characters hold their daggers upside down and that changes everything for us. Just in basic attacks alone the number of animations range from 40 - 80 depending on the character.

Sam: Maww animations, maawww variations :) But really this has lots of implications across the board. Since we have a large variation between characters we customize each item to make sure it fits properly with each character and that the skinning and animation set fits too.
Some assets like weapons and shields have certain points of common area where the character holds the weapon while leaving freedom of design for the rest of the asset, leaving us able to share those animations on a per character level.

How does game animation compare to animation for film and television?
Ed: The biggest difference, in my opinion, is the parts of the body they rely on. TV and film are more about the emotions of the characters. What they're feeling and how they're reacting. Some of this is done in body animation but really gets sold in the facial animation. Often with subtle things, like slight smiles, rates of blinking and eye contact. Things you're only just starting to see in really high budget games. But most games are more about the body. It's a lot of running, jumping, hitting, shooting, dying. They have acting bits but they're often held back by joint limitations and poly count.

Sam: I haven't gotten a lot of experience in feature film and television but animations for game can have a lot of limitations. Not only do you have the limitations of the game engine itself with bone, poly counts and rigs e.t.c but you also have the platform you're developing the animation for too. For example, Consoles, PC and Mobile each have their own limits. All of this is before you've even let a game designer enter the equation :) Trying to make modular animation systems feel as seamless as possible in an interactive environment is a bit of a challenge too. In short, I feel games are a bit more technical but I'm sure Broadcast and Film have their isms.

What do you feel you've improved the most for Path of Exile's animations while you've been working on them?
Haha! I don't like to brag, but I think my attack animations are pretty amazing... I noticed when I started that a lot of the early attacks were animated as if they hit something. This too me looked like they where using a squeaky hammer. So I've been giving attacks a full swing, which gives them a lot more power and makes more sense should the attack miss.

What advice do you have for aspiring animators?
Learn how you learn, you're not gonna get anywhere without learning all the time for the rest of your career. Look at reference footage, it's not cheating, no one knows finer details of a movement until they've obsessed over it for a hours. When you get to that point in an animation where you don't know what you're looking at anymore, get someone else to look at it, preferably someone who will be brutally honest. Also walk away for a few minutes, do something unrelated and come back with fresh eyes. Sometimes I'll get stuck on a problem at the end of the day and will get nowhere, then the next morning I'll fix it in 2 seconds. Read and listen to other artist, even non-animators.

Sam: There are only 24 hours in a day. Observe everything and everyone and don't be afraid to share your work with others for feedback and critiques. ALWAYS leave your ego at the door.

What can we look forward to in the future of Path of Exile's animation?
Creepy things. I’m trying to add a bit of creep into every animation I do. Also mean-as attacks.

Sam: Even more beautifully grotesque monsters for all to enjoy :)
A few Path of Exile developers host their own gaming podcast that occasionally features news and interviews with members of the Grinding Gear Games team. If you enjoyed hearing about animation, check out their most recent podcast for a Q&A with Ed.

This interview was not hosted by TSA staff and originates here.
Austin Phoenix
Written by Austin Phoenix
Site moderator and Newshound here on TSA. Walkthrough Supervisor and Site Help Editor over on TA. Space Cowboy in my free time.