Animation for Video Games vs. Movies

What are the main differences between the two genres?

Animators at work at desks in an office

 Yuri_Arcurs / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Creating animations for video games and creating animations for movies are two very different processes. While a movie is just meant to be viewed, video games are all about user interaction. For this reason, animating for video games can be much more time-consuming. If you're interested in animation techniques, we've compiled a comparison of how animation works in 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 is dependent 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. That said, game animators must understand how video game consoles work, and they must often invent new ways to circumvent technological limitations. The two jobs are very different, but one isn't necessarily 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 must be 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 nearly as complete as 3D environments for video games. In movies, animators only have to worry about what's going to be on-screen in the field of vision, so instead of modeling a full three-dimensional "room," they only have to worry about the side that's going to be 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 worry about making many separate environmental objects for players to interact with.

In many cases, video game environments must be interconnected, at least to a certain extent. While this is sometimes true in movies as well (if an open door is part of an environment, there should be something visible on the other side of the door), 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 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 movie makers don't: the power of the rendering engine in the game console. As you move through a game, the rendering engine is constantly creating 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 still 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 just 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 immensely since 1997, animators still have to rely on workarounds due to hardware restrictions.

This limitation isn't as apparent in movies. While fully-detailed movie models are sometimes "toned down" to avoid logging 200 hours of render time for five minutes of animation, on average movie animators are working with a more open time frame and can afford to render one painstaking 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 to keep in mind is the amount of programming that goes into a video game's animation, interactivity, and rendering. Since a movie is meant to be viewed but not interacted with, the programming inherent is only oriented towards producing visible results without any input from a user. The models don't need to be able to react to stimuli appropriately because they're not reacting to anything at all.

In video games, every action is controlled by the user. Motion sequences must be programmed as a response to button inputs, and objects in the environment must be programmed to enact their own programmed motion sequences in response to the user-controlled models. For example, an enemy's model must be programmed to perform an "attack" motion sequence when they are within a certain range the player.

Various artificial intelligence (AI) engines have been developed to help control in-game character behavior. AI-controlled characters are even 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 have to 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. Fortunately, there is a lot of crossover between both industries, so if you start off in film animation, you'll have an easier time transitioning into game animation and vice versa.