Saturday, September 17, 2011

Heron Prior on Animating the Asura

My name is Heron Prior, and I’m the animation team lead for Guild Wars 2. Today, I’m going to talk a bit about the asura and explain some of the thinking and processes that went into bringing this character to life. Although they posed some unique challenges, the asura ended up being one of the animation team’s favorite races to work on, and we’re excited for players to get a closer look.

The Asuran Challenge

Guild Wars has always had a very distinctive art style. The world Art Director Daniel Dociu and his team have created is fantastic and idealized, yet at its core there has always been a strong foundation in realism. As animators, part of our job is making sure the motion of the characters fits within that larger vision. It’s not always easy: game characters are required to do ludicrous, often impossible things as a matter of course, but wherever we can, we still try to retain some semblance of plausibility. With this in mind, we realized the asura were going to present some difficulties.
For the asura, these challenges broke down into two basic categories: game mechanics and presentation. Fortunately, the answers to one question tended to drive the other, and it all came together more or less organically.

Tiny Acrobats: Game Mechanics

Given their size, it would have been easy to limit asura to magic and ranged classes, and that’s probably what most other games would have done. But in GW2, race has no bearing on your choice of profession. That means the asura not only need to be able to fight, but to hold their own against even the largest melee fighters.
There were other considerations we had to take into account for gameplay reasons. All playable races have to have absolute parity—meaning they must run at the same speed, jump the same height, and strike enemies from the same range. From this, we knew that the asuran running movement would need to be mostly airborne, with their feet touching the ground for only a frame or two with each step. Likewise, asuran jumping and dodging would need to look very exaggerated. These requirements led us toward a more acrobatic, gravity-defying style, and influenced many of our decisions when it came to giving the race its personality.

Big Personality: Presentation

We had shown asura previously, in Eye of the North, but in very limited form. All of that would need to be redone, and nothing was set in stone. So the next question we needed to answer was: who were the asura, and what sort of personality did we want to build into their movements?
At the most basic level, asura fill the “little guy” archetype of fantasy gaming, but that’s pretty boring from an animation perspective. Fortunately, our writers have been very busy and very creative when it comes to the asura. From previous titles, background lore, and even novels, we know the asura are highly intellectual and often arrogant —a race of engineers, scientists, and mad geniuses, utterly convinced of their own superiority. These qualities gave the animators much more to work with, but still left several different possibilities. Luckily, all these considerations took a back seat to the asura’s one, true defining characteristic:
they look completely ridiculous.
If we hadn’t already known from the gameplay considerations, just looking at a lineup of the playable races would have told us there was no way the asura could be presented in any kind of realistic fashion. Given that this was already a break from the rest of theGuild Wars characters, my advice to the animators was just to go for it. Anyone who was going to choose an asura as his character was probably onboard already.
With the more cartoony nature of the asura in mind, one of the animators added some basic squash-and-stretch controllers. “Squash and stretch” is one of the foundational animation principles every animator learns in school, yet one we’re seldom able to use in games. In the case of the asura, it adds a looseness and fluidity to the actual shape of their bodies, which helps to accent things like jumping and landing.
Another key to the asura’s presentation happened early on, when several animators starting giving them an awkward, clumsy feel. This is a bit of sticking point with some players, but it achieves a couple of things we wanted to do. The asura aren’t just short–they have the proportions of two-year-olds. Their awkwardness emphasizes that connection, allowing us to make them endearing rather than just arrogant. Just because the asura take themselvesseriously doesn’t mean everyone else does.
In the end, the combination of gameplay requirements and presentation choices led us to a sort of acrobatic-yet-clumsy character. This seems like a contradiction at first, but I think it worked. When I look at an asura—particularly one with the larger weapons—I see a character setting events in motion that are larger than himself, or unleashing forces almost beyond his control. If he were less arrogant, maybe he’d hesitate or hold back, but that just doesn’t seem like the asuran way.
Take a look at this short video clip for some examples of how the asura move in Guild Wars 2.

Take One for a Spin

Characters like the asura are fun to animate, and I think that shows through in the work everyone did. Being able to play around with the more cartoony elements was a nice change for the animators, and allowed them to push things in ways they usually aren’t able.
Some players will undoubtedly scowl and grumble that the asura have been reduced to comic relief and the race has been ruined. Instead, we feel we’ve brought to the forefront something that was always at the core of their collective personality. These are the smack-talking creators of the “Genius-Operated Living Enchanted Manifestations” after all. So, set aside your preconceptions and take an asura for a spin. We think you’ll come to love the little guys as much as we do.

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