From Pixels to Perfection: The Evolution of 3D Animation in Video Games

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Some of my fondest video game memories from childhood don’t involve me playing, but rather watching, as my dad tried to figure out the game mechanics of the Commodore 64’s 2D animated ‘Chuck Rock’ in the early 90’s. It’s mind boggling to consider how far video gaming and 3D animation has progressed in the last 30 years alone, never mind since the inception of the early 70’s arcade classics.

Sometimes I look back on the history of video game development and get a nostalgia for past decades that I didn’t even experience, pre-90’s that is. The thought of stepping into a time machine and getting to experience the evolution of 3D animation as the years passed must have been a great experience for video game developers and playing enthusiasts alike.

Join me going forward to take a stroll down ‘video game animation memory lane’, as we get an idea of what 3D animation has become, and then jog our memories of some nostalgic moments in history that saw great leaps and bounds in the animation industry, as well as speculate on what we might see for the future of 3D animation development.

Introduction to 3D Animation

Animation has come a long way since those early 2D side scrolling days of ‘Chuck Rock’, and while 3D graphics started appearing from as early as the 80’s – starting with the likes of ‘Battlezone’, it would be some years of experimentation and innovation before the familiar rigging and polygons that make up the highly recognisable characters of video gaming history would appear.

Developers have always been limited by the technology they have to work with. The natural progression of every type of AAA game, regardless of whether the aesthetic they aim for has been cartoon or realism, has moved from blocky figures and crude rendering, to super smooth animations and beautifully built worlds.

The vision of characters like Mario or Lara Croft have not changed since their creation, however. Mario is no longer a square jumping around on a 2D surface – nor is lara croft a collection of bizarrely shaped polygons. With every advance of technology, animators are able to bring their imaginations and rigs into new grounds of realism.

It might be easy to assume that the current day is a ‘golden age’ of 3D animation, but surprising new innovations in computing are made every year. Most recently, companies like Anything World have integrated the use of state of the art engines such as Unity, and software development kits like Unreal, to make it easier than ever for animators of all skill levels to start building their own gaming worlds.

Early Years: 8-Bit and 16-Bit Graphics

Interestingly, despite all of the advancements in the 3D animation industry, many gamers will consider the early days of arcade gaming and the social hubs that culture created as the true ‘golden era’ of video gaming. While the earliest efforts of 8-bit game animation still saw the creation of the commercially popular ‘Pong’, it wouldn’t take long for developers to start cleverly using what pixels they had to bring characters and worlds to life.

If you look back now at N64 or PS1 graphics you would likely recoil in horror at the state of the graphics. At one point however, and many may be able to remember back to those days, these now crude visuals were once the pinnacle of innovation, and caused jaws to drop at how amazing they appeared.

Developers, faced with limited colours, resolution, and processing capabilities, were forced to transform these challenges into artistic prospects. The legendary creator of Mario, Shigeru Miyamoto, once stated regarding his now household character and the restrictions of early animation – “If I gave Mario a lot of hair you have to animate it or it doesn’t look right. By giving him a hat we didn’t have to worry about that.” His moustache was also born out of design restraints, as it covered the fact that he did not have a face which would also have required animation!

In the very early days, RPG adventures like ‘Gauntlet’, and ‘The Legend of Zelda’ pushed similar boundaries. These games introduced players to the illusion of expansive open worlds, and gave individuals a sense of fantasy adventure with stunning colours and action. Despite how basic and crude these experiences actually were, it was these early trailblazing days that would go on to be the giant’s shoulders on which later 3D animators would stand on.

The Third Dimension: 32-Bit and Beyond

The 32-bit era of animation and game development would arrive to present an upgrade in software to would-be developers, completely transforming the visual and interactive depths of video games forever. Character rigging and interactive 3D world building would offer players a sense of depth, scale, and immersion previously unobtainable.

With the newfound capability to render polygons, developers would no longer be restricted to the side-scrolling adventures of the past, or the early 3D static motions of ‘Battlezone’. Animators could now craft expansive, multi-faceted landscapes with verticality and volumetric nuances, allowing players to traverse and explore intricate game worlds.

Continuing with our focus on the development of Mario, ‘Super Mario 64’ is renowned for its revolutionary gameplay, and is still a shining example of the leaps and bounds made between the advance from 8 and 16-Bit, to 32-Bit. This game saw Miyamoto use 3D animation rigging for the first time in his projects – “We created a ‘skeleton’ for Mario that was the basis of his movement.” – and it brought the gaming world into a new era.

It wasn’t just about presenting a smooth-moving Mario in a 3D environment, however, it was also about redefining how players interacted with the game world. The iconic castle grounds, with its soaring towers, hidden underwater caverns, and distant floating islands, invited players to jump, dive, and fly through it, experiencing Mario’s universe like never before.

This intricate blend of classic character charm and groundbreaking industry advancements not only set a new gold standard for 3D animators, but it also showcased the immense potential and future of the gaming industry.

Modern Graphics: High Definition Arrives

As technology advances, and competition catches up due to the likes of Unreal engine offering so many pre-developed products for developers to play with, it has become increasingly difficult to find truly standout products. Everything has such enormous base standards that we have become acclimated to unparalleled realism and immersion. From the smallest intricacies of a character’s facial expression, to a ray of sun dynamically breaching through the clouds depending on your camera angle, modern ultra-detailed 3D animations present worlds that blur the line between reality and digital fantasy.

One of the most recent showcases of just how far 3D animation and game development has come, is with the imminent release of ‘Starfield’ by Bethesda Game Studios. This sci-fi RPG brings together every advancement in software and video gaming creation, to a true moment of Bethesda standing on the shoulders of those early 8-Bit giants. From the living skyline and subtle rumbles of distant thunder on the horizon, to smooth character animations and facial transitions, to insane action sequences and the ability to travel between dynamic worlds.

To put this game in front of a gamer from the early 70’s who had just finished an intense game of 2D side scrolling ‘Space Invaders’, it would likely make them start frothing at the mouth! Thanks to the collective advancements between technology, and the endless work of animators and developers across the decades, video games have become profound storytelling mediums, capable of immersing players in fantastical, emotional stories, presented in worlds that resemble the realism of life in increasingly eerie ways.

The Future of 3D Animation and Final Thoughts

There are many speculations about what the future of 3D animation and video gaming holds. The natural progression is likely towards ever more immersive experiences, and will likely see innovations like virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) being pushed as the next big platforms to truly master, and possibly the final frontier of gaming. It is as scary a thought as it is one for the prospect of hobbying – to be wired up in some machine like ‘Total Recall’, and for experience to be nothing but a trick of the mind.

For the time being, with technologies like Unity and Unreal engine, it is safe to say that even the most ‘basic’ of games being built today will always remain a far cry from the early days of Mario, and needing to pixel in a moustache to hide the lack of a face. The gaming experience will continue to metamorphose, and with it, 3D animation will have no choice but to reach levels of realism that will literally leave people in a VR world, unable to tell the difference between reality and fantasy. Would you step into the machine? I think I’d rather be back in the 70’s playing ‘Pong’!

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