Why designers should learn animation

This article was originally published on Gamasutra, loosely based on a microtalk I gave at Now Play This 2016 in London.

As a rule, any skill related to game development is useful for designers to know because it helps them understand the limitations and possibilities of games and helps them work together more effectively with devs in other disciplines. A working knowledge of coding is usually cited as the main secondary skill for designers to have, but there is another discipline which can be particularly fertile ground for design: the art of character animation.

So why is that?


In games, the player needs to understand what is going on in the game world and how it’s reacting to their actions. If there are non-player characters, the player needs to understand what those characters are doing and why.

perceivable thought

This is typically solved with so-called “barks”, NPCs declaring their status verbally (eg “Find the intruder!” “I lost him,” and “It was probably rats”), or with abstract HUD indicators, numbers and icons existing outside the fiction of the game.

… but there is another way.

Animation is the art of communicating thought & emotion through moving drawings.

Playful Pluto expressions

Expression change = thought-process

In the 1930s the animators at Disney figured out that you could show a character thinking by changing their facial expression.

When the character has a new thought or has a realization about something during the scene, he will change from one key expression to another, with the timing of the change reflecting what he is thinking. If the thought process is a sudden realization, then it will be a quick change. If it involves a scheming action, the movement will be slower. (The Illusion of Life, 1984)

How a character moves and the expressions they make can tell you what that character is thinking and feeling at any given moment. It turns out people are really good at reading expressions.

disapproval face

Say what you will about memes, but they know how to quickly communicate an idea. Why not use such an effective tool for communication in our games?

I came across a quote recently by (noted IF developer) Emily Short that said:

It’s pointless to simulate anything in AI that you don’t also have a plan for communicating to the player – otherwise they don’t see how clever you’re being or (worse) what is actually sophisticated behaviour winds up looking like a bug.

If the player can’t read the AI’s behaviour, it just seems random.

Now, you can solve some of that with dialogue (aforementioned “barks”), but why not animation?

This is, after all, a visual medium.

Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, circling a griffin

Reading their next move…

By showing a character visibly reacting to player actions and to their environment you signal their thought process, both their awareness of the situation AND what they plan to do next.

People (and creatures) look at things before they interact with them.

Alien Isolation, discovered

Oh, hi!

When you see a character looking at something and pausing to observe it means they’ve *noticed* that thing and odds are they are going to interact with it in some way

By showing the AI’s thought process, anticipating their action, you create an opportunity for the player to respond. This creates a more interesting back and forth than if the player is just having to react to seemingly random actions from inscrutable NPCs.

Animation can be used to communicate anything from awareness, to health, to contextual interactions… and also, it should be noted, things that are not stealth and combat!

While all these tools can certainly be used for your traditional videogame scenarios, animation is especially suited to creating other types of interaction.

… like talking to people.

Monkey Island, talking to the swordmaster


If you want to explore social interaction outside of text, you’re going to need facial expression and body languageand not just in your cinematics! There is no excuse in this day and age for not having characters believably and *interactively* emote in-game.

Now, that’s all very nice, but maybe your game doesn’t have characters. You probably don’t care about poses and facial expressions if you’re making Tetris.


… but even without characters, there is a lot of overlap between what makes good animation and what makes for satisfying “juicy” gameplay. How things move is key to “game feel”.

venn diagram of juicy gameplay vs good animation

Things like squash & stretch, timing & anticipation, arcs & overlap, or appeal & staging

Animation remains seriously underused in games as a tool for creating dynamic interactive characters and believable reactive worlds. We could be doing more with this.


If you’re going to read one book on animation, read Richard Williams’ The Animator’s Survival Kit.

… if two, also definitely read The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.

For more animation resources, I suggest these links:


Happy animating!

[images from Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, knowyourmeme, Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, Alien Isolation, Monkey Island 1 and Tetris]

Guppy at Now Play This

Last Friday Guppy was shown at the Now Play This festival in London, as part of the Cardboard Arcade.

Guppy at Now Play This

It was great to see people enjoying the game in person! People have written nice things or made LP videos of the game before, but this was the first time it’s been selected for an event. Guppy even got a mention in The Guardian‘s 13 fascinating games from the Now Play This Festival article! I also did a quick microtalk about “Why designers should learn animation” (slides here).

In other news, Guppy since semi-recently is also available for Mac and iOS.

This is the first post here in a good long while… As mentioned previously I’ve mostly been writing about my projects elsewhere and writing everything twice seemed fairly superfluous, but I think I might start simply cross-posting some of my writings from devlogs and other places.

Guppy released


In my last post I mentioned I was going to add sound to Guppy. Now there is both sound and music, the latter by Kejero. The music changes with context too, so different tracks are layered in when you’re swimming with a school of fish for example or being chased by a predator…

I’ve also been working on a mobile version for Android, so now you can play it on Windows, in a browser on Gamejolt, or on the phone or tablet.

And it’s done! A bunch of people have said nice things.


It seems the hacking really took the momentum out of this blog. I’ve been meaning to write something but haven’t found much time between projects.

Work continues on the Greek vase game mentioned below, but I’m already posting updates for that on TIGSource, Indie DB, Greenlight, YouTube and Twitter so posting them here seems a bit redundant. I have been working on a few other things as well though so I’ll try and do a post or two about that.

Greek Vases

So right now the main project I’m working on in my spare time is Hellas:

Hellas - a game about Greek mythology

It’s a 2D action/platform game about Greek mythology that takes place on the surface of a black-figure vase. It’s a fairly ambitious project in terms of (potential) scope, but I’m building it up slowly, one part at a time, and picking my battles carefully. So far I’ve got platform movement, the beginnings of combat mechanics and an art-style…

I’m keeping a devlog on the TIGS forums and you can also follow the development on YouTube or Indie DB. I’ll post more thoughts and updates as the game takes shape…

work-in-progress v10


So last month my website was hacked and I had to take down the blog.

I’ve decided to rebuild it, outside of the main site this time. I will get back to posting about projects I’m working on, maybe some sketching, and general ponderings about animation and games.

Stay tuned.