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Guide to Break Into The Game Industry as an Animator in 2024

How to Become a Video Game Animator
Hytham Morsy

Hytham Morsy

Since 2004, Hytham has worked on some of the most successful games ever released, managing teams of 60+ people on Grand Theft Auto 5 and Red Dead Redemption 2. In addition, he helped open the animation department in Ubisoft Chengdu China, and set up the 3D animation curriculum at Dawson college. He also has a wealth of experience in the VFX industry he was the animation supervisor on Disney’s Chip n’ Dale Rescue Rangers and Top Gun Maverick among others. Now he is back in games, his first love, as Animation Director at Brass Lion Entertainment. You can follow Hytham on Twitter and LinkedIn for more insights.

It has been a tough 2 years with over 30,000 layoffs since the beginning of 2022.

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This means it’s even harder on the recent aspiring gamer trying to break into the industry.

I’m grateful to have a thriving 20-year game animation career. I want to contribute and pay it forward by sharing my perspective to help the up-and-coming game animators who are trying to start their careers in this turbulent time.

Everything I share in this guide is based on my first-hand experience going through the hiring process as a junior in my early career. Later, training and hiring game animators of different levels as a lead, before building an entire animation team from the ground up for Ubisoft’s Chengdu studio.

Since then, I have guided teams of over 60 animators at Rockstar and later became an animation supervisor on blockbuster films working at MPC. My current role is Animation Director at Brass Lion Entertainment.

Hope this can help you and someone you know.

And feel free to share any alternative perspectives in the comments below.

Let’s jump in.

So what does a video game animator do exactly?

In game development, a video game animator works with other game artists, game designers, and game developers to improve game feel by creating player animations, ambient character animations, facial animations, and cutscene animations.

Depending on the size of a studio, the type of game you’re working on, and whether it’s 2D or 3D—your role could be ultra-specific or more general.

One of the most important things to remember is that, unlike film/TV animators, game animators are responsible for more than just creating animations—they are responsible for the FEEL of the character in the game.

What are the requirements for entry-level animation roles?

The requirements for entry-level animation positions are straightforward:

  1. Be proficient with one of the many animation software suites such as Motionbuilder, 3DS MAX, Blender, Maya, etc. However, knowing how to use animation software alone is not enough.
  2. Understand how to practically apply the twelve principles of animation in 3D software. Your demo reel should focus on showcasing this ability. Here is an excellent playlist of some of the 12 principles of animation direct uses in games:
    New Frame Plus has a Patreon! (youtube.com)
  3. Understand how game engines work and how to set them up. Typically, animation schools don’t teach this. Luckily, the Internet is packed with free tutorials on Unity and Unreal.

The game engine you use in your first job varies greatly depending on the company.

For example, I worked at Ubisoft for nine years and Rockstar for six. At both companies, I always used in-house game engines.

In this junior gameplay animator job post I just found, Santa Monica Studios prefers candidates to have experience with proprietary engines:

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However, some studios require non-proprietary engines such as Unreal or Unity.

I knew I had to learn Unreal when I started working at Netease. With this in mind, I looked up YouTube tutorials on using blueprints and state machines and followed along.

Here is a great example of the kind of tutorial I would use:

Common misconceptions about what game animators do

Here are the four most common misconceptions about game animation many budding animators have:

1. You must learn every 3D software and engine available. The truth is that the skills you learn in one software program transfer to others.

If you know how to animate in one 3D software, you can quickly adapt to the interface of another.

Employers don’t expect you to know everything about every tool in the industry. As a base, you should be able to animate in any software.

You can speed up your process by learning each software’s unique tools as you get more comfortable.

2. Game engines and animation software are the same. No, they’re not. They are two distinct types of software, and you need to be familiar with both.

Engines are a bit more complicated for animation than 3D software, but if you have a basic understanding of state machines, you have what you need to get started.

3. Game animators only focus on aesthetics. This statement is partially true for non-interactive content like cutscenes.

Due to the nature of video games, game animators do more than just animate something that looks pretty. They need to ensure that the characters respond to input commands, determining a game’s feel.

When done right, animation contributes to slick gameplay. When done wrong, animation can make a game feel clunky (even while making it look pretty).

4. Game animators do 3D modeling and rigging. In smaller studios, this can be partially true. However, in a larger production setting, game animators, tech animators, and 3D modelers work together closely but aren’t the same things.

Modelers create static assets, which tech animators rig with skeletons. The animation team then animates these skeletons.

Career paths in video game animation

Different companies offer different career paths, and individuals often progress based on their unique talents. Still, animators typically start at a junior level, progressing to mid-level, then senior.

The career path typically looks like this:

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Depending on their aspirations, a senior animator can become a high-level artistic contributor or progress to managing a team. As animation team lead, your expertise guides the efforts of a group of animators.

Those who choose the artistic contributor path may progress to roles like principal animator or animation director. In these positions, you’re responsible for setting the project’s quality bar and animation style.

To clarify, the principal animator and lead animator are about the same seniority level, but the principal role focuses on the craft, while the lead role focuses on guiding the team.

Career paths vary enormously (even within one person’s career), depending on need, time, and place.

For example, I started my career as a junior animator. It took me two years to reach mid-level, and then two years after that, I was directing a small new team in Ubisoft Chengdu.

The nature of the studio I was building accelerated my progression. However, when I returned to North America, I came back as a senior animator. A few years later, I became a principal animator at Rockstar. A few years after that, I became a Supervisor and director again.

Again, all of this depends on

  1. Your talents
  2. How your company is structured
  3. The current need in the company

What’s a game animator’s role during each development stage?image4

Making games is a long, arduous process that varies greatly depending on the game’s scale, the studio’s size, and that studio’s culture.

Still, most large companies follow the same general development stages, and an animator’s role in these stages is broadly similar.

Ideation and conception stage:

Animation directors work closely with the creative, art, and game directors during conception. Their role is to use their knowledge of animation and game-making to offer ideas about the project’s look and feel.

Animation directors offer their ideas while considering the amount of work required and the limitations of their team and budget. Their role is part creative and part practical.

For example, fighting games like Guilty Gear use a strong anime look to achieve their unique aesthetic, while others, like Red Dead Redemption, try to be as realistic as possible using motion capture. These design principles were nailed down during the ideation phase.

Here’s a look at how the Guilty Gear developers arrived at their style:

 

Here’ s another explaining the Playdead team’s conception processes for animating the monster in INSIDE:

Conception is also the right time to consider how animation can drive the game’s direction. Will you have contextual animations like the dodges in The Last of Us 2? Or will you opt for an Elden Ring-style game where all the animations are not linked but robust in and of themselves?

Whether it induces fear through a monster’s movement in a horror title or makes the player fall in love with a super cute creature—animation plays a vital role in establishing a game’s feel.

Whatever the game’s direction, consider how animation can drive it forward. Creating inspirational animations at this stage can help the team develop a cohesive project vision.

Prototyping:

During the prototyping stage, animators work quickly to produce preliminary animations for testing.

Prototyping is an iterative process. You’ll adapt and alter your animations according to feedback from the design team in the search for ‘fun’.

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(A typical game development iteration cycle)

You’ll often create animation state machines and/or blueprints in a basic form for testing purposes.

It’s also possible that you’ll use existing systems purchased from the marketplace, using their blueprints while adding your own animations. It all depends on what you’re trying to create.

In this GDC talk, Epic Games’ former lead game animator Jay Hosfelt shares the tools and techniques he uses during the prototyping stage:

It’s important to remember that design takes center stage at this point in production. An animator’s role during the prototyping phase is to support the design team’s efforts to create a fun experience.

Pre-production:

So, you’ve found the ‘fun’, and your team has settled on the type of game you’re making. It’s time for pre-production, the most technical phase of the animation process.

During pre-production, the animation director/lead/principal works with multiple departments to set up the pipeline for everything animation-related.

During this phase, animators collaborate with

  1. Tech animators to build rigs of everything to be animated in-game.
  1. Designers on entire movesets, documenting how many animations each one will take.
  1. Engineers to set up state machines and locomotion blueprints while testing the overall feel of the animations.
  1. Technical animators and engineers to build export pipelines for body, face, and cinematic animations.

A vertical slice of the game should be ready by the end of pre-production. A vertical slice refers to a small section of the game that’s theoretically shippable and perfectly represents what the finished game will look like.

For a first-person shooter, a vertical slice might be a single level with three distinct enemy types and three different guns. These elements should be finished and working properly, showing what the game will look, feel, and play like.

A good example of a vertical slice I worked on is the E3 demo of Watch Dogs. In it, there was a playable area of a level where Aiden walks around the city, goes to a mission giver, has a cutscene, and then goes out to finish the mission.

This vertical slice gives a good idea of what a small section of the game will look like as a finished product.

Here it is:

The animation director is also responsible for creating and updating a living animation bible. This document outlines the game’s style, workflow, and other information about the animation process.

As a new team member, you can refer to the animation bible to quickly get up to speed on the project.

Production:

Once a game hits production, plans have been drawn up and tested (for the most part). The entire animation team is working diligently to create the required assets.

During production:

  • Animation directors overlook everything, ensuring their vision is followed
  • Lead animators support their teams
  • Principal animators set the animation benchmarks for the team
  • Animators are well… animating.

Animators work closely with designers in the production phase. Together, they ensure all the animations are consistent with the game’s overall design and any new moves are readable and work as intended.

Post-production:

Congratulations on shipping your game! It’s been a massive success, and the fans want more…

At this point, post-production (possibly) begins with a smaller team working on whatever DLC is required.

By now, your team should be a well-oiled machine with established practices, workflows, and outcomes. At this stage, any level of animator should be able to create animations that easily plug into existing platforms.

The animation director occasionally hops in during post-production to ensure everything is working as intended.

How to become a video game animator realistically

As of this article’s writing, the industry is in a downturn. These layoffs aren’t because the gaming industry isn’t profitable. Instead, unrealistic shareholder expectations force companies to squeeze profit wherever possible.

The good news is that the gaming industry will recover. Gaming will always need animators to make great games.

Still, gaming is a competitive market where your demonstrable talents define your success.

Animation skills (and art more generally) are quantifiable with actual work. Your demo reel is the first thing a recruiter looks at. If they don’t like your reel, your resume and background typically don’t matter.

Here is a great video on crafting animation reels by Agora:

When reviewing resumes, I personally never look at which school a candidate attended. I start with your demo reel. If I like your work, I’ll look at your resume and where you’ve worked before.

If you’re brand new, I might look at your school out of curiosity. In truth, I’ve already decided whether or not I want to meet you at this point—your school’s name or reputation won’t change that.

The main takeaway is that your demo reel is critical to getting an interview. It’s what helps you stand out from the pack and shows recruiters that you have the necessary skills.

Tips to get the edge over other candidates

Education, experience, and soft skills are great, but the main thing that makes you stand out is your demo reel. Recruiters often view hundreds of demo reels searching for a single candidate.

Follow these demo reel tips to have the best chance of standing out:

1. Keep it short: Your reel should never run longer than one minute.

I review hundreds of applicant reels every year. In roughly 70% of cases, I don’t watch past the first ten seconds—just enough to determine your level. If you don’t have my attention by then, you certainly won’t have it after a minute.

2. Quality over quantity: Only include your best work.

I have actually refused an initially promising candidate’s reel because halfway through, they included an animation that wasn’t up to the level of their other work.

It was probably older material. Still, it made me question the candidate’s judgment, dropping their stock in my eyes.

3. Cater to the position: Your reel should demonstrate that you can do the job advertised.

Is the ad for a gameplay animator role?

If so, don’t fill your reel with ten-second acting clips. I’m not hiring a cinematic animator.

I want to see body mechanics and third-person game animations you created and hooked up in-engine.

4. Describe your contribution: Accurately describe what you did in your shots.

Have you included a big movie shot where you only worked on the crowd in the back?

Say that.

Did you hook up your animations if it’s a game reel?

Say so!

Never take credit for other’s work or try to pass off having done more than is truthful.

5. Start strong—finish stronger: Start strong and finish with your strongest work (while still catering to the role you’re applying for).

If you have other great material not pertinent to the advertised role, create a second reel and name it accordingly.

If your main reel piques my interest, I can check out your second one for brownie points.

Here is my latest reel, showcasing (mostly) my principal and director work:

Video game animator salary

Salaries for animators vary GREATLY. The average animator makes just over 80k a year in the US, but I always found these numbers skewed depending on where you live and your position.

The point here is regular animators make more than the average worker, and if you reach the director position, you will make much more.

How much do video game animators make from freelancing?

Freelance animators generally make more money per hour. However, freelancer pay varies greatly and is often highly inconsistent. It ranges from $20 to $150 an hour.

However, the freelance lifestyle is not for everyone. Its most significant drawbacks are the lack of stability and company-funded health care (if you live in the US). Another issue is that freelance animators are always the first heads to roll when the industry is down.

The advantages of the freelance route include the ability to work from home (usually), the ability to change projects regularly, and the chance to work on many different projects.

If you can build a name for yourself as a freelancer, the work will come to you.

How to learn more about video game animation?

Veteran animators all wish we had resources like YouTube and social media when we were starting out. GDC and Devcom talks are also excellent places to find detailed information about the industry and broad talks covering all aspects of game-making.

Follow me and other popular game makers on Twitter/X (@MorsyHytham) and LinkedIn for the latest trends and developments.

FAQs

Are game animators in high demand?

Game animators will always be in demand as long as humans make video games. The industry (and the technology it uses) will continue to evolve, so it’s important to stay ahead of the curve and be aware of the latest trends.

The tools you use to animate may change, but the principles of animation are timeless.

Be ready to use whatever tools exist to make animation look as great as it deserves to. Do this, and you’ll always have a place in this industry.

What are the different animation jobs in the video game industry?

Generally, there are only two primary animation positions: animator and tech animator. The animator role has many aspects: body, face, cinematic, gameplay, or ambient.

However, they are all animators, and an animator will often do all these tasks, depending on what the project needs at that time.

Tech animators are engineers. Their skillset makes them extremely rare and sought after. They are equal parts artistic and technical.

Tech animators understand on a fundamental level what animators need to be successful. They build that tech at the point of need, be it rigs, export tools, general pipeline work, in-engine IK systems, or procedural secondary animation.

How much creative freedom do game animators have for studio projects?

Creative freedom varies significantly depending on your company’s size and your current position there. Generally, animators have a HUGE say on what the animation will look like.

In fact, the more senior you become in the company, the more you are expected to have a say in how the animation should look.

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Each Friday, get a shot of 2-min TL:DR update in your inbox on the latest

All tactics. No fluff . Pro advice only. Unsubscribe any time

EXPERIENCE & BACKGROUND:

[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

  • Classic:
    • Designed Cosmos UI
    • Designed part of Raid Team for Naxxramas
  • Burning Crusade:
    • Designed the raid bosses Karazhan, Black Temple, Zul’Aman
    • Designed the Outlands content
    • Designed The Underbog including bosses:
      • Hungarfen, Ghaz’an, Swamplord Musel’ik, and The Black Stalker
    • Designed the Hellfire Ramparts final bosses Nazan & Vazruden
    • Designed the Return to Karazhan bosses: Attumen the Huntsman, Big Bad Wolf, Shades of Aran, Netherspite, Nightbane
  • Wrath of the Lich King:
    • Designed quest content, events and PvP areas of Wintergrasp
    • Designed Vehicle system
    • Designed the Death Knight talent trees
    • Designed the Lord Marrowgar raid
  • Cataclysm:
    • Designed quest content
    • Designed Deathwing Overworld encounters
    • Designed Morchok and Rhyolith raid fights
  • Mists of Pandaria: 
    • Overhauled the entire Warlock class – Best player rated version through all expansion packs
    • Designed pet battle combat engine and scripted client scene

[GAME] StarCraft 2: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Diablo 3: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Overwatch: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Hearthstone: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[STUDIO] Riot Games: Systems designer, in-studio game design instructor

(Former Global Communications Lead for League of Legends)
(Former Technical Game Designer at Riot Games)

[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

  • Redesigned Xerath Champion by interfacing with community
  • Reworked the support income system for season 4
  • Redesigned the Ward system
  • Assisted in development of new trinket system
  • Heavily expanded internal tools and features for design team
  • Improved UI indicators to improve clarity of allied behaviour

[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

Game Design Instructor: Coached and mentored associate designers on gameplay and mechanics

[STUDIO] Moon Studios: Senior game designer

(Former Lead Game Designer at Moon Studios)

[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

  • Designed the weapon and Shard systems
  • Worked on combat balance
  • Designed most of the User Interface

[GAME] Unreleased RPG project

  • Designed core combat
  • High-level design content planning
  • Game systems design
  • Game design documentation
  • Gameplay systems engineering
  • Tools design
  • Photon Quantum implementation of gameplay

[VC FUNDED STARTUP] SnackPass: Social food ordering platform with 500k active users $400m+ valuation

[PROJECT] Tochi: Creative director (hybrid of game design, production and leading the product team)

  • Lead artists, engineers, and animators on the release the gamification system to incentivize long-term customers with social bonds and a shared experience through the app

[CONSULTING] Atomech: Founder / Game Design Consultant

[STUDIOS] Studio Pixanoh + 13 other indie game studios (under NDA):

  • Helped build, train and establish the design teams
  • Established unique combat niche and overall design philosophy
  • Tracked quality, consistency and feedback methods
  • Established company meeting structure and culture

Game Design Keynotes:

(Former Global Head of HR for Wargaming and Riot Games)
  • Tencent Studio
  • Wargaming
  • USC (University of Southern California)
  • RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)
  • US AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association)
  • UFIEA (University of Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy)
  • West Gaming Foundation
  • Kyoto Computer Gakuin – Kyoto, Japan