Simon Unger has spent the past 11 years animating big game franchises from Electronic Arts and Square Enix. He currently serves as IO Interactive’s Animation Director for Hitman: Absolution, the latest installment in the bestselling action game franchise. With the game about to launch, Unger took some time to explain how technology is pushing the game business even closer to Hollywood in this exclusive interview.
Can you talk about what drives you creatively at your job?
It may sound crazy, but so much of the creativity in games is a direct result of the constraints we’re given. Whether it’s the limitations of the tools, the specific style and art direction of the project, the gameplay elements, or the words in the script, having those lines to color between is what has fueled most of the creative innovation in game development. We’re always trying to push a little more each time to see what’s possible within those confines, but without them I think we would be a little lost.
For me also, it’s really important to look outside of games for inspiration. Too many times dev teams look only at their competition and end up missing opportunities to do something original. I draw from as much as I can; Music, movies, books, artists, random people on the street.
Above all, the biggest thing that drives me is myself. I set unbelievably high expectations that I don’t think I’ll ever live up to, but it’s been fun trying.
What’s a typical day like in your life as a game developer?
That’s the great thing about game development, and animation in general, there is no “typical day”. The only constant for me is the morning ritual of grabbing a coffee, checking emails, and planning the day as best I can. After that, depending on the stage of production, it can include meetings (many, many meetings), design discussions, solving issues, storyboarding, voice over sessions, mocap, animation reviews, and so much more. Every day is different and that’s what makes this role so interesting. I have had so many jobs in the past where you watched the clock and counted down the minutes until you got to take a break or go home. I’ve been animating for almost 12 years and haven’t watched the clock yet, even on the most stressful projects.
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?
On the animation side, the most important thing the tech is solving is iteration time. The fundamental process of computer animation is a repeated layering from rough blocking to final polish. This is how a lot of game content is created as well. Rough assets and code are put together to prototype an idea and see if it’s good enough to continue working on. If the time between creating an animation and seeing it in game is too great, then extra layers of polish just won’t happen. This is a major reason why we’re seeing higher quality movement in games now, we can see our work in seconds and iterate on it a lot more.
The Glacier 2 (G2) engine was developed with a lot of the artists and designers needs in mind. Live editing, lighting tools, a sequence editor were all under constant development to provide the easiest and fastest process possible. It has allowed the Hitman: Absolution team to get an amazing amount of content into the game as well as allowing time to tweak what’s in there to achieve the look and feel we were after. Of course, this is only the first game to be shipped on the new G2 tech and it can only get better from here on out.
How did you work together with your team to overcome challenges during the game development process?
Making games is a team sport and communication and collaboration is so important to making a great product. The most important thing is to foster meaningful communication between the various disciplines. Programmers and animators have a tendency to circle their wagons and only speak when spoken to. Getting them up and away from their desks on a daily basis, mixing up the seating arrangements, and giving people complete ownership over a part of the game creates much more of a group mentality. No studio has this process completely dialed, but we keep trying to hone the ideas every project to find what works best. Putting a bunch of people with different personalities and skill sets together and just expecting them to create awesome stuff rarely works. It takes constant nurturing and sometimes a bit of shoving.
What are you most proud of when it comes to the animation in your new game?
If I had to pick one overall thing I am most proud of it would be the strength of the characters in the game. The animators put so much work into creating unique and immersive experiences where all of the characters feel authentic and believable, even in unbelievable situations. Everyone from a trucker sitting alone at a table to a super complex cinematic sequence with multiple characters interacting with each other, everyone put so much into making the performances as fantastic as possible.
What advice would you give to aspiring animators interested in getting into the videogame business?
DON’T!! It’s a highly competitive, unstable industry where almost none of the content you create on a daily basis can be used on a demo reel to get work in the future, which requires you to animate in whatever spare time you have left. Which won’t be much because, like it or not, there will be overtime. Also, your mom will never truly understand what it is that you do for a living.
If that didn’t scare you off, then you might have what it takes to experience something truly awesome. You will work with some of the best and most passionate people anywhere and create something that potentially millions of people will spend every free minute enjoying over and over. There is nothing more gratifying that shipping a game that gets reviewed well and is loved by the public.
As far as advice on how to get into the business as an animator, your personality and demo reel are everything. There are a lot of other factors like experience, network, resume and cover letter and so on, but it always comes down to two things; Are you good at what you do and can you work well with others. Work on your craft and be a positive person to be around. Get your stuff out in front of as many people as possible and seek out feedback constantly.
Shameless plug: An article I wrote that expands on this in more detail
What are you most proud of that the animation department has achieved with Hitman: Absolution?
I’m so incredibly proud of what the entire animation team has delivered on Hitman: Absolution it would be impossible to single out any one thing. The in-game moments, with the astounding amount of unique character performances that have been created. The cinematic sequences that were done to such a high degree of creativity and quality. The gameplay animations that needed to support so many different variables in design. The AI animations, the sheer amount of them created to support all of the different character types and behavior states. I could go on forever.
If I was going to pick one thing, and I know it sounds cheesy but it’s true, it would be the heart and passion that was put into each animation that gets played on screen. The animation team went above and beyond anything I’ve ever seen to make the experiences work and there’s a piece of each of them in the game. It was humbling to be a part of it.
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.