By John Gaudiosi
Focal Press correspondent, John Gaudiosi recently sat down with EA Sports Developer Jason Danahy to discuss the famed Madden and NCAA Football franchises and video game animation. Jason Danahy has worked his way up the game development chain to become the animation director for EA Sports’ perennial bestselling Madden and NCAA Football franchises. He started at EA Tiburon as an associate character animator on NFL Street before transitioning to the Madden franchise as a staff character animator, lead staff character animator and lead senior character animator.
Since 2010, Danahy has been overseeing the huge undertaking of improving every aspect of the animation in the Madden and NCAA Football franchises. With record sales for Madden NFL 13 and NCAA Football 13, Danahy took some time to talk about his job and offer some tips to aspiring game developers in this exclusive interview.
John Gaudiosi (JG): What are the challenges of constantly needing to release a new Madden game each year?
Jason Danahy (JD): Every year we have more ideas than we could possibly implement in one game, so trying to focus in on what we think are the most important things is critical. We have so many passionate people on the team, and everyone has ideas/features that they fall in love with, so it can be hard to let some of them go or wait to do them in the future. Outside of that it is really about balancing what we are working on, trying to straddle the line of making a simulation and keeping it fun to play, while making sure that what we are adding works well with everything we already have in the game.
JG: Can you talk about what drives you creatively at your job?
JD: Watching football and playing games. It helps being a big football fan (Go Bills!) and having a never-ending supply of new things to try and replicate from real NFL games each season. Also, even though we are making a football simulation we are always looking to games in other genres for inspiration.
JG: What’s a typical day like in your life as a game developer?
JD: It mostly consists of iterating on animations in-game. Getting something in the game and playing it, having others play it, gathering feedback, making changes, and so on. I work closely with designers and engineers on a daily basis to make sure that we are coming up with the best solutions for every new feature.
JG: How did you work together with your team to overcome challenges during the game development process?
JD: Long gone are the days where designers would ask for an animation, animators would make it and toss it over a wall, and then the engineers put it in the game. We can prototype features so fast now that it gives everyone on the team something to rally around. It allows all of us to provide input every step of the way to help shape a feature. There are far less times now where only one group can solve a problem, Everyone has the tools and ability to come up with a solution, and then we work together to figure out what mix is the most appropriate for that specific case.
JG: Can you talk about how advances in technology and the tools you use have influenced what you’ve been able to accomplish with this new game?
JD: Most of the tools we use are custom and created inside EA, MotionBuilder is really the only off-the-shelf tool that we use. ANT (short for Animation Toolkit) is our animation engine that we do all of our non-MotionBuilder work in. This year we completely overhauled our catching system in the game and added a ton of debugging features in ANT. The coolest part is being able to save any play and load it up inside of ANT, and then to be able to make changes to our animation assets and re-run the same play in ANT to see how the outcome changes. It allows us to quickly change or tweak animations in order to create the best possible outcome.
JG: What are you most proud of when it comes to the animation in your new game?
JD: We did a ton of work around catching and added hundreds of new animations. It really is great to see so many new animations playing and giving you a much more appropriate catch for the context of that play. There are some spectacular-looking diving catches. Also, watching the Infinity engine running in Madden is really great. It changes animations, adding new and more organic “wow” moments. My favorites are the gang tackles. Seeing a defender tackling the ball carrier and having another defender come in and level him is just fantastic.
JG: What advice would you give to aspiring animators interested in getting into the videogame business?
JD: Aside from the obvious of learning the basic principles (anticipation, squash and stretch, timing, etc.), get comfortable with the idea of owning your animation beyond Maya, MotionBuilder, 3DMax, or whatever software you use to animate. A great-looking animation in Maya doesn’t mean anything if the game engine isn’t using it the way it should. Besides, who is going to take better care of your animation than you? Our animators are responsible for every aspect of the animation all the way into the game; compression, blending, controller inputs, layering, tagging, etc. So much goes into making animation look good that happens after you leave your animation software, but first you need solid fundamentals. Play games, and play lots of different kinds of games! Animation in games is more than just aesthetics, it needs to play well too. Play and explore to find what looks good, but doesn’t feel good and try to figure out why; what doesn’t look good but feels great and why, and what balances both well and how did they do it.
JD: What are your thoughts on where the game industry is today with so many new avenues of game development open now with social, casual, mobile and free-to-play games?
JG: I think it allows for a bit more freedom in the ideas people are willing to try. With the smaller budgets/teams’/development time, it doesn’t cost as much if a game/feature doesn’t work out, so people are more open to try something a little crazy. It also gives more people a chance to break into the industry and get some experience that they can use on bigger titles, if they choose to move in that direction.
John Gaudiosi has spent the past 20 years covering the $75 billion videogame industry for top international print, online and television outlets like The Washington Post, Wired, Playboy, AOL, Yahoo!, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today Weekend, The Hollywood Reporter, Reuters, Forbes, NBC, CBS and Geek Magazine. He specializes in the converge of games and Hollywood. He currently resides in Raleigh, North Carolina with his wife and dogs and can be reached at JGaudiosi@aol.com.