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The place of game animation in modern projects

When developers and PR managers talk about their fabulous projects, they usually praise graphics, level design, and thrilling stories but rarely mention game animation. This injustice must be fixed! So let's talk about 2D and 3D animation in detail.

All you need to know about game animation

At the base of any art form that involves movement – from cartoons and films to ads and video games – lies one fundamental component. We are talking about time. Without it, there would be no such thing as animation. You cannot make an image move without involving the aspect of time because without it you cannot show that conditions have changed. In today’s blog entry, we want to talk about what is game animation, what types it has, its complexity, weaknesses, and strengths. Hop on, this is going to be a long ride with expert game developers!

2D vs. 3D animation basics

The majority of video games are made in 2D or 3D. There is also the so-called 2.5D, which is also called “pseudo-3D” because it simulates three-dimensional graphics while being mostly two-dimensional. That is why we will be comparing just 2D and 3D video game animation here today.

The simplest way to explain 2D is to imagine a square drawn on a piece of paper. Although the square has four sides, it is visible in only two dimensions – width and height – lacking any kind of depth. Width and height make this square a 2D object. 2D animation brings some changes to it, but the flat appearance of the object, in general, remains the same. In other words, animated images always preserve their core characteristics.

Creating animation for 2D projects relies on the technique called sequencing. First of all, artists need to think through game design. Animation concept will be the next step followed by drawing a series of unique images that form an action sequence. Then all those drawings are joined sequentially to produce a mere second (!) of animation. By standard, this second consists of 24 frames, which leads to switching to the next drawing every two frames. To create longer animation, artists have to prepare larger packs of images.

24 frames per second is the threshold that makes the human eye see smooth unbroken movement. The more frames per second you add, the smoother any action will look. You have probably seen clips with 50-60 fps at least on YouTube and should know how it feels compared to standard 24 fps.

Now let’s move on to 3D. Adding depth to your 2D art elevates it to the three-dimensional category. In some sources, you can find the term “length” instead of “depth” but there is no practical difference. Using the same analogy with a 2D square, we can say that in 3D we will have a cube. This geometry figure is no longer flat, has volume and depth, so it is clearly visible that it occupies more space than just the surface it stands on. 3D animation in games lets artists create realistic visuals (smoke, lightning, etc.), miniature details, advanced textures, and so on. If in 2D you see models moving in general, then in 3D you can watch every step they make.

Creating animation for games that use 3D is not easy. Unfortunately, artists did not invent a universal method for it yet. However, it all comes down to two main approaches: hand-drawn and software-drawn. 3D animation can be created by drawing multiple action frames and compiling them into a sequence like with 2D. This method is extremely tiresome, so artists rarely use it. In most cases, developers let computer programs do a hard job with animating. The algorithm includes three key steps:
1. Modeling. At this stage, artists create all 3D objects that will be used in a scene.
2. Layout preparation and animating. Animation takes place in a certain environment, so designers need to create a background and setting. After that, animators add movement/action mechanics.
3. Rendering. All prepared objects, models, layout, and mechanics are thrown all together into the rendering queue to complete the animation.

Sure, there are many other in-between steps like creating VFX, sound effects, and tinkering with compositions but the core of every 3D animation sequence always consists of those steps we mentioned above.

Comparison: advantages of 2D and 3D animation

In the gaming and movie industry alone, thousands of high-quality 2D/3D models and animations are created daily. We don’t have exact numbers on popularity or even the ratio in the competition between two-dimensional and three-dimensional animation, but still, we can compare the advantages of each.

Price. In gamedev, budgets often mean a lot, so the costs of producing top-notch animation can be mind-blowing. Most people tend to think that 2D animation must be less expensive since it does not involve depth and volume, which eliminates the need for expensive rendering software and hardware. Plus, the creation process should be shorter. However, it is not always the case, and animating two-dimensional sequences can cost more than three-dimensional. In 3D projects, designers often reuse old models and parts of animation, thus reducing costs and efforts.

Demand. This point is more abstract and cannot be evaluated precisely. However, we can always look at current industry trends for insights. If we are to look at cinematography, video games, VR, and marketing presentations, then we will notice a big demand for 3D animation. On the other hand, 2D animation is more popular for mobile games and apps, advertisements, and website building. It also sees some usage in TV shows. Therefore, it is safe to say that both types are well represented, but in gamedev, the scales are tipped in the favor of 3D.

Quality. Yet another very subjective parameter that is hard to assess. How do you determine which style provides better quality in terms of animation? In most cases, it depends on the specialists who do it. Graphics-wise, there is a huge gap between 2D and 3D, so if your project aims to be realistic, then 3D is the way to go. But if you would like to draw more creative and unrestricted visuals, you may want to experiment with 2D. In the end, wins the title that manages to surprise and amaze players. We have seen tons of fantastic animation in games (2D and 3D), so pick your poison.

CGI animation vs. in-game animation

In terms of game design, animation also can be divided into two categories: CGI (computer-generated imagery) and in-game animation (made using the game engine). The first one feels more like a movie, while the second one is less refined due to the restrictions of the chosen engine. However, with the latest advancement in game engines, this may no longer be the case in the future.

The main difference between CGI animation and the in-game is simple: the first is pre-made, which means that all compositional work is planned out beforehand. Both types of animation are based on the same principles but utilize them in their own way. CGI allows you to control what the player sees, so it is in your hands to make whatever is shown realistic and memorable.

With in-game animation, people are free to move the camera and control the field of view, therefore your models must have near-flawless animation. Each animation must start immediately after the player hits a certain action button. There must be no input lag or delay between starting the action and seeing how it is performed on the screen. Responsiveness is the key to a pleasant gaming experience, especially in action games and competitive fightings.

Another important aspect of in-game animation is that it requires a lot more unique animations for various actions. Those are coded into the game engine by programmers. For instance, a simple jump has four “stages” programmed to be played in a looped sequence one after another. When the jump button is hit this is what actually happens:
  • The character switches from idle to a push-off position;
  • Then the jump animation kicks in;
  • The character lands with an appropriate animation;
  • Switching back to idle animation is activated.
Now, with basic information about the types and methods of animation, let’s discuss how difficult it may be to integrate certain animation techniques into games.

Complexity for various genres

We are 100% sure that you are familiar with all popular video game genres. Some have more mechanics and features, others much less. The more complex your project is, the harder it will be to create animation for it. Let’s start moving up from simplest projects to hardest.

The easiest genre to start is the puzzle. In games like Tetris, there is no need to go beyond very basic animation. Elementary rules, simple graphics with a few visual effects, clear win-lose conditions, plain scoring system. There is literally nothing to animate except for moving objects on the screen. For that extra “wow” effect you can add some flashes and fancy destruction VFX, and that’s it!

The next “animationless” genre on our list is going to be point-and-click adventures. Most of them are in 2D, which makes it less tiresome for animators. They have to worry only about special picking/inspecting animations since there are not many characters in such games.

Now we are getting serious – the games that require at least movement animation of some sort. That would be jump-n-run titles and physics puzzlers. The prime example for the category is Super Mario Bros. Animations in it are simple but their number has increased dramatically in comparison with the previous mentions on the list. Running, sliding, swimming, jumping, and all other things Mario does must be animated. The same goes for every other game in this genre.

After mastering runners, time to test your might on platformers. It is basically a more advanced version of jump-n-run games. So prepare to create more animations for special actions like attacking, shooting, and swinging. It can be done on the same level as in Mario but the sheer number of movement/fighting actions will be higher.

All previous genres mostly work in 2D but the majority of modern games are 3D. The difficulty of animation grows as more models/characters appear on the screen or participate in the action. However, turn-based and real-time strategies are exceptions to the rule: all units of one kind within one race (orc grunts in Warcraft or Troglodytes in Heroes of Might and Magic) always use the same animation no matter what.

Other games that don’t need a lot of animation are racing games and detailed simulators. The animator’s hell (regarding the amount of work) breaks loose in 3D action adventures and shooters. Just imagine how many weapons have unique firing, reloading, and handling animations! All of them must be created individually.

Peculiarities of animation in 2D and 3D

Depending on the chosen art style, 2D games might require a different approach to creating movement animation. The more minimalistic design the game has, the more meaningful each animation is. Pixel graphic easily proves this statement. When your eye does not have much to cling to, it will pay extra attention to the slightest details on the screen including animations. Your best bet in such situations would be to go with the standard animation principles. Please, do not overdo with fanciness!

Also, did you know even 2D games use three-dimensional space for scene-building purposes? It is needed for the programs to understand which sprites are closer and which are further. So it is like in good ol’ Doom and Wolfenstein games. Another cool technique to work with sprites is based on procedural generation. For example, in Rain World character movement is animated via a script that changes the position of the sprite’s key points and bones. It also simulates character interaction with all physical objects in the game world. This way animators don’t really need to redraw each unique animation.

With the transition to 3D, games are getting harder to animate because developers also need to work on specific animations outside the standard pool (running, crouching, jumping, etc.). In big projects, there must be animations for a variety of conditions and encounters – walking on a normal surface, walking in deep water, running through tall grass, or passing through a crowd. Remember how Ezio and Altair models behave while traversing different obstacles in early Assassin’s Creed games? All those animations we’re not drawn manually but with the help of software that creates realistic skeletons with physics attached to it. This allows developers to make the protagonist’s movements look fluid and natural. It is always nice noticing tiny details in animation like changing the swaying motion of a weapon while strafing.

Having one tuned and adjusted skeleton for a model makes the animator’s job so much easier. All those jumping, moving, and attacking animations can be copy-pasted and applied to other similar models in the game. This technique saves hours of time and reduces development costs. It is not a panacea, however, because in many games, especially in fantasy and sci-fi settings, the variety of unique races and models demands individual animations.

In such cases, the motion capture technique comes to the rescue. It had been in use in the movie industry for a long time and later was adapted for game development. The tech did not completely replace classic animation but made the process much simpler. Alas, even today it is still a rather expensive solution, and not every studio can afford it. Furthermore, even big game producers sometimes prefer traditional animation over motion capture. We don’t know the exact reasoning behind the decision but in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019) the animators from Infinity Ward deliberately dumped motion capture and made reloading/firing animations manually.

Top tools for game animation

If you would like to make animation yourself or form an in-house team of animators, you are going to need special software. Over the years the animation niche has advanced and expanded, so currently both 2D and 3D animation are being successfully used. Let us give you a quick heads up about the most used tools of the trade.


If you are looking for 3D animation software, there are only a few free comprehensive programs that can satisfy all your needs. One of them is called Blender. It has been brought to the light in 1994, and still stays true to its open-source nature and costs nothing. Blender is the choice of professionals who know what they are doing – it comes with a gigantic arsenal of tools and can be overwhelming for beginners. Although it has an extensive collection of manuals that make the learning curve less extreme.

This software allows to create both 2D and 3D graphics, works on Windows and Linux, and knows how to do simple curve modeling and quick renders. For advanced visual effects, Blender has integrated packages with smoke and fluid simulations, tools for modeling soft bodies, and weight calculations.

Adobe Animate

Animate by Adobe is the picklock that opens all doors in the world of animation. However, a picklock without skills and knowledge won’t help you much, so prepare for extensive training. A rookie designer will require dozens of hours to master all the features packed in AA. But an experienced animator that knows Adobe products will create his first animated clip in a matter of hours.

The feature list of Adobe Animate is pretty long. The software lets you set framerate, render in any resolution up to 8K and synchronize your workplace with other Adobe products. The program is available on Windows and macOS. The main problem with this amazing software is its price. To use Adobe Animate you need to pay $20.99 per month.

Autodesk Maya

It is a powerful tool for 3D animators working in the video game and movie industries. Maya is highly praised for the abysmal collection of features for creating animation, texturing, and working with VFX. This is professional-grade software, so we would not recommend it to novices. Specialists, on the other hand, will appreciate functionality such as model visualization backed up by four (!) integrated visualization tools that can be further enhanced with various plug-ins.

Maya comes with a majority of features that make your work with 3D graphics a breeze: UV-mapping, NURBS modeling, multiple techniques for layering textures, tools for sculpting, polygonal modeling, and working on high-quality animation. Maya even allows artists to animate every patch of fur or hair on a model! So even demanding modelers will be able to adjust the software for their working algorithms and flow. However, such a beast of a program costs accordingly – $225 per month (or $149 with an annual subscription).

Daz Studio

This program impresses with its convenient user-friendly interface and variety of features to create/manipulate 3D content. Digital artists praise the extensive functionality of the program which is great for creating characters, animals, props, and vehicles. And you will be surprised to hear that it is free to use.

Here are the features we love the most in DS: photorealistic rendering, drag-n-drop editor, powerful modeling tools along with VFX, ability to set certain actions on repeat. You don’t have to be a seasoned modeler or animator to start working with Daz Studio. Changing the shape of any object, character, or scene can be done easily after some training. As you grow more proficient with the program, you will be able to add multiple objects and characters to scenes, manipulate their appearance, alter the background, tinker with lightning, and set up multiple cameras.

Toon Boom Harmony

Toon Boom Harmony is one of the top picks for every animator that works in the 2D field. The software comes with all the tools you need to create animated clips in almost any art style. Would like to go paper drawing or maybe paperless style? Here you are. Need puppet animation or traditional skeleton rigging? Not a problem!

The program is universal and can be efficient in the hand of professionals and rookies alike. For example, the creators of the well-known animated series “Rick and Morty” use Toon Boom Harmony for their production. If you need something a little bit easier for animation tasks, then we recommend you check Toon Boom Studio.

How to find a good partner to develop animations?

If you are planning to make a gaming project and you lack experience in the industry, the first logical step to take is to fill the gap with knowledge. By that, we don’t mean that you should learn how it all works and how animations are done, no. Instead, we suggest you start with a consultation with expert game developers such as Argentics studio. We will analyze the whole project you have in mind, and advise where to start, and what technologies to use. Whether you need assistance with quick outsourced jobs or require A to Z development, our managers will find the right solution.

We have experience working with independent developers, gamedev studios, and big publishers, so we know how to conjure mesmerizing worlds, memorable characters, and smooth animation for them. When budgets are limited, it is a common practice to outsource game design, animation, and art production. With us, you can simply select what services you need, and we will take care of the rest.

Years of experience in game development, dozens of talented specialists that love what they do, and an extensive portfolio of works prove that we are capable of doing literally anything for projects of any complexity. Feel free to reach out and consult with our managers any time!
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