You want animation? OK.

Dana Massey at asks why animation in MMOs hasn't evolved to the extent he has been hoping. Massively-multiplayer games have improved graphically, he admits, but the animation remains as generic as ever. Why? I mean, the inherent laziness and lack of imagination of developers is obviously a large part of the problem, but are there any secondary causes?

Sure. Sure there are.

Let's think about things. In an MMO, anything can happen, anywhere. Well, not *anything*: with a boss-in-a-box encounter, the boss might be able to do something that is designed to only work in the box, so you can do something special, but generally, anything a player avatar does, they can do anywhere. And it's avatars we're concerned about, really.

So, as Dana remarks, when an avatar gets hit, he clutches his chest and falls over. When a vat of acid falls on him, he clutches his chest and falls over. A piano falls on his head, he clutches his chest and falls over. Why? Well, for starters, avatars die gruesomely in a myriad of ways. They fall, they get hit with hammers, stabbed with swords, poisoned, burnt, electrocuted, crushed. So there's ten ways to die right there.

But wait, there's actually more. You can be hit by the hammer from the front, or stabbed in the back. You can be hit with an uppercut, or bonk! bonk! onna head! You can be hit on the head and speared in the side at the same time. While you're fighting with a sword and board, or with a two-handed sword, or a staff, or waving a wand. You can be bit on the ankles by tiny pixies, or swatted by a thirty-foot-tall squidopotomous.

But I'm being picky: we're improving on what we already have, but we can't do everything. Let's say there's a death for slashing attacks and for blunt attacks, from four different directions (I'd say eight, but I want to give this idea the benefit of the doubt and be conservative), per weapon type wielded by the victim. If your game has 15 different weapons requiring unique animation stances, we're at 120 different death animations per avatar.

But that's only one avatar. Let's call him Human Male. What about the Human Females, the Dwarves, the Minotaurs, the Xenothipps, the Homonculoids? Yeah, you have ten races in your game, with two genders apiece, all of whom have their own custom animation rigs (the skeletons that power the animations). Twenty rigs, now we're at 2400 animations. Just for deaths. Just from melee combat.

There's ranged combat: thrown rocks and axes and spears, arrows, spells. And all the other misadventure that befalls a player's character, that I alluded to earlier. I'm not surprised if we hit 5000 animations to cover everybody having a way to die. OK, 5000 animations, no problem...

Except that's just death. Sometimes they merely get hit, but the parameters would be the same: add 5000 animations, using the same criteria as before, to get 10,000 animations covering "bad things that happen to a character".

Your basic avatar will have between 80 and 120 animations just to move around on their feet. They also have a suite of combat animations, to cause all of these death responses in other monsters and players, multiplied of course by all those weapon types we mentioned earlier. And emotes, to do things like sit, point, smoke a pipe, eat some food, search the ground for clues, whatever. Twenty different sets of these animations, for all those avatars, remember?

And did I mention that you need close to all of these animations loaded in memory for your avatar at once? Yeah, you can be attacked at any time. You can switch your weapon out at any time. Some animations can be fetched from the disc, but to be properly responsive, you need fast access to the animations that can be required at any second. And you need to be able to load all the animations for all the other avatars in memory at once, too: you're on a raid with 31 other players, and it's not hard to get one of every avatar type.

And all of the monster animations. While avatars are busy inspiring eulogies befitting a Danish prince, your basic orc can't just always clutch his chest and fall over. So your monsters need a bunch of these animations, too. Not as many, because they can't do everything a player can do, but they can do a bunch, because everything that can happen to a player can happen to an orc.

We're into hundreds of thousands, potentially millions of animations. These things don't just happen: there's no procedural process that results in clean, usable animations that have character and flair. Sure, you can often animate one character, and use their animations for another similar character, but now we're limiting animations again, in precisely that way in which Dana Massey declares that we shouldn't have to anymore. And even though exporting an animation from one character to another helps with authoring, it may not help with the memory and performance considerations.

So, looking out on this vista of endless animations, which can't be reasonably authored, can't be maintained moving forward as you add more different creatures to the game, and can't be fit into memory on a client computer anyway, the prudent developer starts scoping things down. You don't need directional death animations, players can run the same animation no matter where they were hit from, so you're down 75% right there. Slashing versus bashing damage... yeah, they should look different, but why don't we just do something generalized that works for both? We halve the number of remaining death and hit animations again. You can't do anything about what weapon type the character is wielding, so you're still on the hook for doing a death animation per weapon type being wielded.

And, before you know it, you're making the game possible, by having your avatars clutch at their chest and fall over, when necessary.



IEEE Spectrum’s gaming blog was retired in 2010, but it is preserved here for archival reference.