Mercenaries Designer Diary #1

Austin Baker – Lead Animator, Mercenaries

My name is Austin Baker and I’m the lead animator on Mercenaries. My job as the lead animator is to oversee the creation of the animations used in Mercenaries, from the simplest one frame pose to the much more complicated in-game cinematics. I start my day by getting caught up on emails and getting the latest build. As the other animators filter in, I speak with them and get caught up with what they did the previous day and what they are hitting this day. These meetings can be as little as asking how things are progressing to giving my feedback and suggestions on whatever particular animation they are working at the time.

As the lead, I am the voice for all the animators. I make sure we are on the same page with the designers, programmers and producers. By keeping up to speed on various aspects outside animation, I’m able to head off potential problems that would affect the animators.

After all these activities, I sit down to begin my work. This consists of scheduling animation tasks, fixing bugs, keeping tabs on any outstanding issues that affect animation and, of course, animating.

As an animator, my main responsibility is the custom player animations. These range from walk and run cycles to takedowns. Each player character has distinct and unique movements. Some of the less important animations, such as weapon fire, are shared, while takedowns are completely custom for each character. The American takes down his opponents by manhandling and pummeling them with heavy, deadly blows. On the other hand, the Swede uses a fast, go-for-the-throat approach.

Another example would be action hijacking. Action hijacking is one of the cooler features of Mercenaries and some of the most fun animations to create. As a feature, action hijacks serve two purposes: to take over a vehicle as quickly as possible and to do it with clear hard-hitting action. It is one of many moments in Mercenaries’ gameplay where the player experiences pulling off an awesome feat.

To do an action-hijack animation, I will load up whatever vehicle is needed. An assessment must be made as to the best approach for getting the player character onto the vehicle. In the case of a tank, it is the barrel. Now for the cool part, the player character sprints down the barrel to the driver hatch where he pops it open and drops in a hand grenade, blowing up the driver. He then slides into the driver seat of the tank and takes it over. The player now has control of the tank, free to reign treaded terror on anyone or anything.

One of my most important responsibilities is to the other animators, to make sure they have the tools and assets required to do their job well and to have fun doing it. Therefore, great animation tools are very important. A good tool can reduce creation time and speed up workflow. The Mercenaries team uses Softimage XSI to create all our assets and animations. Being the person that built the character rigs used in Mercenaries, I was able to leverage some of the components of XSI and my knowledge of the rigs to create a tool that greatly enhanced the workflow of our animators by allowing faster selection and manipulation of the characters’ skeleton.

The tedious tasks that fill my day, such as bug fixes or scheduling, require a lot of my attention. And with a project as large as Mercenaries, there are many little things that pop up during a day that can chew up a lot of time. Because of the great group of animators we have, I’m able to hand off some of my animation tasks freeing up time for me to address the new issues. I cannot stress enough how fortunate I am to be surrounded by talented animators. In the end, they make my job much easier and, as a group, bring a level of polish to the animations that otherwise wouldn’t be there.