Animation for Video Games vs. Movies

What are the main differences between the two genres?

Creating animations for video games and creating animations for movies are two different processes. While a movie is meant to be viewed, video games are all about user interaction. For this reason, animating for video games can be more time-consuming. If you're interested in animation techniques, we compiled a comparison of how animation works in video games vs. movies.

Video games vs movies

Overall Findings

Animating for Games
  • Animations are based on user inputs and AI scripts.

  • Requires a basic understanding of computer programming.

  • Quality depends on the technical limitations of game systems.

Animating for Movies
  • Animators control what viewers see at all times.

  • No programming required.

  • Quality standards and expectations are higher.

Film animators are generally held to a higher standard than video game artists when it comes to the level of detail that is expected in their artwork. Game animators must understand how video game consoles work, and they often invent new ways to circumvent technological limitations. The two jobs are different, but one isn't easier than the other.

Environments: Video Game Worlds Are Bigger

Animating for Video Games
  • Players control what they see on screen.

  • Interactive objects require multiple animations.

  • Environments are interconnected.

Animating for Movies
  • Static images can be used for backgrounds.

  • Animators don't have to worry about what is happening off-screen.

3D environments for movies don't have to be as complete as 3D environments for video games. In movies, animators focus on what's going to be on-screen in the field of vision. Instead of modeling a full three-dimensional room, they only concern themselves about the side that's on-screen.

In 3D video games, however, environments must work on a full 360-degree level. Very rarely will you play a game where your overall view or a character's first-person view doesn't encompass a full range of motion. Film animators also don't have to make many separate environmental objects for players to interact with.

In many cases, video game environments must be interconnected, at least to a certain extent. This is sometimes true in movies (if an open door is part of an environment, something should be visible on the other side of the door). However, there are ways to get around it in a movie environment. For example, a static image can be placed in the environment to create the illusion that there's something beyond the door. That won't work in a video game, however, because of the freedom of motion allowed.

Limitations: Games Are Constrained by Hardware

Animating for Video Games
  • Limited by the hardware capabilities of consoles.

  • Repeated testing is required to ensure that animations work properly.

Animating for Movies
  • Very few technical limitations.

  • Viewers have higher expectations for animation in movies.

Video game animators have a major limitation that moviemakers don't: the power of the rendering engine in the game console. As you move through a game, the rendering engine constantly creates output based on the angle of the camera following you, the character data, and the environmental factors included in the game. It's almost like rendering digital output to video when creating an animation, but with one crucial difference: The digital output has to keep up with the player's input. This is why many games have various levels of model detail.

For example, Final Fantasy VII on the original PlayStation has three levels of model detail:

  • Low detailed, highly pixelated models used on world maps.
  • More intricate but low-quality models used in combat scenes.
  • Highly detailed, smooth models used in the non-interactive movie scenes.

The playable models are less detailed because the PlayStation's rendering engine doesn't have the kind of power that it takes to render full detail on characters and environments on a frame-by-frame basis, with split-second unpredictable changes and adjustments. While gaming technology has progressed since 1997, animators still rely on workarounds due to hardware restrictions.

This limitation isn't as apparent in movies. Fully-detailed movie models may be toned down to avoid logging 200 hours of render time for five minutes of animation. Movie animators work with an open time frame. They can afford to render one frame at a time to produce the final result.

Animating Movement: AI vs. Scripted Motion

Animating for Video Games
  • Movements are reliant on user input.

  • Every character and object must be properly programmed.

  • Graphical glitches are often out of the artist's control.

Animating for Movies
  • Animators are in full control of all motion.

  • Mistakes are easier to catch.

  • No programming knowledge required.

Another difference is the amount of programming that goes into video game animation, interactivity, and rendering. Since a movie is meant to be viewed but not interacted with, the programming inherent is only oriented toward producing visible results without any input from a user. The models don't need to react to stimuli appropriately because they're not reacting to anything.

In video games, every action is controlled by the user. Motion sequences are programmed as a response to button inputs. Objects in the environment are programmed to enact a motion sequence in response to the user-controlled models. For example, programming an enemy model to perform an attack motion sequence when within a certain range of the player.

Various artificial intelligence (AI) engines have been developed to control in-game character behavior. AI-controlled characters are capable of learning and storing past behavior in the game's memory. Movie models, on the other hand, only move and act according to the script.

Final Verdict

If you want to break into animation, you'll spend a lot of time learning different software and techniques. Although game animation is technically more complex, that doesn't mean film animation is easier since the quality standards are often higher. There's some crossover between both industries. If you start in film animation, you'll have an easier time transitioning into game animation and vice versa.