There’s more to this than meets the eye.
Mass Effect Andromeda is ultimately a good game, but it has been under a lot of scrutiny, much of which has been focused on the game’s facial animations- which are a complete and total disaster, if the internet is to be believed. A lot of people have noted that the original trilogy seems to have better animations than Andromeda– at the best of times, something like that doesn’t make sense. For a story heavy series like Mass Effect, that’s an issue.
Naughty Dog developer Jonathan Cooper (who formerly worked at Bioware, as a matter of fact) decided to take to his Twitter account to try and explain, in laymen terms, what may have happened with these animations. After condemning the people harassing and targeting the developers with abuse, he laid down his explanation. “Folks have been asking so here are my thoughts on Mass Effect Andromeda’s animation. Hopefully people will better understand the process,” he said.
“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.”
So it sounds like Bioware may have bitten off more than it could chew with Andromeda‘s development- they got too ambitious. It’s a shame the animations turned out as bad as they did, but in the end, I suppose the final product is still something that fans will enjoy- and something that developers can keep in mind to avoid these same pitfalls and mistakes going forward.