Much has been made of Mass Effect: Andromeda’s facial animations, and for good reason: they’re often awkward or just plain bad. Despite BioWare pledging back in December 2016 to improve them before release, that didn’t happen.
Now, one former BioWare dev who worked on the first two Mass Effect games has weighed in on why Andromeda’s characters sometimes look like a circus freakshow act during conversations. Apparently creating all of the animations required of a giant RPG and making them look good is just a difficult thing to do.
Jonathan Cooper, now an animator at Naughty Dog working on the Uncharted series, tweeted that “an RPG is a really, really big undertaking — completely different from a game like Uncharted so comparisons are unfair.” Continuing, Cooper stated that unlike in branching RPGs like Andromeda, games such as Uncharted have animations that are all “unique & highly controlled because we create highly-authored ‘wide’ linear stories with bespoke animations.” Additionally, games like Horizon: Zero Dawn use facial motion capture to improve the quality of in-game animations.
Cooper revealed that the first Mass Effect game had eight hours of facial animations, but that number has continued to climb in games in order to meet ever-growing player expectations. “RPGs offer a magnitude more volume of content and importantly, player/story choice. It’s simply a quantity vs quality tradeoff.”
Because every studio has limited resources and time before a game must ship, Cooper explained that they’ve had to implement processes where designers form sequences of pre-built animations. He described this process as being akin to “DJs with samples and tracks.”
Because of optional quests and branching paths resulting from various player decisions, not every scene in an RPG is equally likely to be triggered by every player. Developers then spend more time polishing the scenes which players are most likely to see. “The lowest quality scenes may not even be touched by hand,” said Cooper. “To cover this, an algorithm is used to generate a baseline quality sequence.”
Cooper believes that for Andromeda, BioWare lowered the quality of this algorithm. Why would it do that? His theory — remember, he’s no longer with BioWare — is that the studio attempted to perform every animation by hand only to realize that this was too monumental of a task. As evidence for his theory, Cooper referenced Andromeda’s protracted five-year development cycle.
Because of heightened gamer expecations, Cooper believes it’s no longer possible to get by purely with an algorithmically controlled system. Instead, his recommendation is to create “a workflow based on fast and accessible face & body capture.”