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Book Review: Animating Real-Time Game Characters

Oliver Wade reviews the book Animating Real-Time Game Characters by Paul Steed and gives the potential buyer some good advice on whether or not to make the purchase.

Things have changed quite a bit since Gertie the Dinosaur lumbered out of Winsor McCays pen in 1914. 3-Dimensional animation is stealing the spotlight from its 2D predecessor at a more furious pace than most would have imagined possible. Most of the highest grossing animated films in the last few years were animated on the computer screen before playing on the big screen. It seems that traditional cel animation is beginning to die out just like Gerties real-life counterparts.

A Rising Tide

Video games, once a haven for simple programmer-created sprites, are becoming increasingly visually sophisticated as each generation of hardware is introduced. It is no longer acceptable to have a simple block hitting another simple block or to have a 2D sprite chase another 2D sprite around a flat landscape. The great majority of todays animated entertainment comes to us in 3 dimensions.

What all this means is that if you look toward the future of animation there is a fully rendered, highly detailed, incredibly animated face looking right back at you. There will always be a place for the more traditional form of animation, but the workload of 3D is only going to increase. If you want to stay relevant in the world of animation you must have, at the very least, a working knowledge of computer generated animation. A good place to start is the book Animating Real-Time Game Characters by Paul Steed.

According to the book, Paul Steed has been working in the video game industry for 11 years and his experience shows. This volume covers all the basics anyone would need to create a real-time game character from scratch. It follows a logical line of progression from designing a character through modeling, rigging (building a skeleton to move your model), weighting (attaching your model to the skeleton) to animating. All of the basics are covered with enough detail that someone who has never animated in 3D before should be able to have a character up and running (or walking, or shooting) by the time they have finished the book. This is no small feat considering all the different disciplines one needs to master in order to accomplish this. Many game companies now hire separate artists to design, model and animate their characters so gaining knowledge in each of these fields could lead to one in which the reader may eventually want to specialize.

Great Strength and Weakness

From the outset it is clear that the author intends his readers to use the software programs 3ds Max and Character Studio. This leads to the book's greatest strengthand biggest weakness. If you are indeed prepared to use these programs, the book does an excellent job of guiding you in a step-by-step approach for each chapter. It is laid out in a "push button X to achieve result Y" sort of way. Each step of the process is described in painstaking detail. As I said, if you are using 3ds Max, this can help you achieve you goal. If you are not using that program then a large portion of the book becomes meaningless. All of the tutorial work does not translate easily to other programs such as Maya and SoftImage. Maya is known for its intuitive animation abilities and is used extensively in game animation today. The exclusion of information on this package is a glaring one and makes the book seem a bit outdated.

Since this book is so exclusive to one program it would have been helpful to have quite a bit of general knowledge given to the reader as well. Starting with the first chapter, Built To Move, which covers everything from character concepts to building your model, there was not enough information on why something was done, just how something was done. This carried throughout the entire volume with point-by-point explanations of how and the occasional stop for why. This is especially evident in the animation chapters. If you do not have a working knowledge of the principles of animation (weight, timing, use of arcs, slow-ins, slow-outs, overlap, follow through) this book wont do much to help you. Those subjects are touched on but not given the gravity they deserve.

The book also comes with an enclosed CD that should run on most PCs. Again, if you are using 3ds Max, this resource is invaluable. It contains the actual files used in the lessons from the book. It allows the reader to examine the entire process for him or herself first hand and to interact with the lessons in a unique way. If you are not using Max, these files are of no use whatsoever.

The CD also contains full color files of all the reference images from the book that are especially helpful when looking at the character reference and texture files. Finally, it contains a demo of the game Betty Bad (on which most of the lessons in the book are based). It is interesting to see how all of these things add up to the final product, even though the game itself also seems a bit outdated.

In summary, this is a well-crafted and deep how-to book on creating an animated video game character from scratch. Those with little or no understanding of the 3D process and with access to 3ds Max will find it an invaluable resource. Those who have some understanding of the 3D process and a working knowledge of animation would do better to look elsewhere.

Animating Real-Time Game Characters by Paul Steed. Hingham, MA: Charles River Media, Inc., 2003. 392 pages with CD-ROM. ISBN: 1-58450-270-3. (US$49.95)

Oliver Wade is the animation director for Insomniac Games whose titles include the Spyro the Dragon series and Ratchet and Clank. He has been in the animation industry for 15 years and has been making video games for the past 10 including stints at Electronic Arts and Disney Interactive.