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Characters in MMORPGs might look "next-gen," but beauty is only pixel deep. Character movement and animation is one area where MMOGs consistently receive low marks. Is it the multitude of races, each with different strides and gaits? The fact that players spend hours upon hours in that third-person, "monkey in a tree" perspective, noting all the oddities? Or is it also an uncanny valley thing, something buried deep within our psyche? We'll examine the issue in today's Loading... Pinocchio's Revenge.

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Pinocchio's story has interesting paralells to how graphics have evolved in computer and video games. In Carlo Lorenzini's original tale, Pinocchio started life as a block of firewood that cried out when a carpenter tried to shape it into a table leg. Geppetto won the block in a fistfight (no joke), wanting to fashion a marionette, and we all know the rest of the story of the luckless, inescapably honest puppet who wanted to become a boy.

In the early days, we were impressed with how chunky monochrome and 8-bit pixels could convince us that they had signs of life. We personified a pellet-munching PacMan, our pulse escalated as we swung in Pitfall, we somehow identified with a bloblike chef perilously slicing up sandwich ingredients in BurgerTime, and then the NES brought an Italian plumber to the mainstream. Geppetto plied his craft - pixel depth increased, video resolutions increased, and soon enough we were having discussions about the uncanny valley - that lonesome graphical vale where the virtually real seemed increasingly unreal.

In the process of ever increasing graphical quality, our imagination has become far less active than in the 8-bit days, where the game inside your head was much more fun than the game on the screen. Pinocchio, like the stories of the Golem of Prague or Frankenstein, has at its core the idea that we can create something as real and lifelike as we are. That we look for life where there is none and is convincing to the point that an imaginative escape starts to assume reality (and loses a lot of the original fun in the process) is how I think the Pinocchio story has subtly taken its revenge on our gaming perspective, making for a lot of jaded gamers upset that their games don't give them more.

Fortunately, the imagination-driven fun of MMORPGs has a built-in safety mechanism. The player community around you constantly reminds you that these are social games, not ultimately meaningless single-player (to recall a Woody Allen gem) orgasmatrons. But more than one person has told me that they can pick MMORPG winners and losers not so much from how characters look, but how they move. Pinocchio might have looked real enough; anyone that's been to a Madame Toussauds knows that waxform characters can be made to look stunningly realistic, but it's movement, or animation, that largely indicates life. The Latin root of words like animation and even animal, "anima," literally means life, the vital principle.

And animation is one category in which MMORPGs consistently receive low marks. "Wooden" animation (the term makes me wonder if I'm the first that has made the Pinocchio analogy) has been the bane of more than one game, perhaps the most notorious of which was the stumpy character motions in Auto Assault. Pirates of the Burning Sea, which relied much more on character animation than AA, had similar problems until a new art director smoothed things out a few months after launch. Even World of Warcraft isn't immune - people still feel Tauren and Gnomes move at different speeds (Tauren take fewer, longer strides while Gnomes' legs move faster to cover the same distance).

Most recently, The Lord of the Rings Online players were confused when animations were tuned to cue directly from actions rather than waiting for the previous animation to complete. So much so, in fact, that Turbine introduced settings to tweak combat animations to their previously lulling pace, even though the "Siege of Mirkwood" animation change made for snappier, more reactive combat.

Convincing animation a serious problem for not only MMORPGs, but any game that spends significant time in third-person perspective, where players spend a lot of time observing how their characters move. We're instinctively tuned to look for movement problems - a wounded animal is easier to track and hunt, a limping enemy can be knocked off balance more easily. "Next gen" console games have dodged this bullet by keeping their heroes humanoid, something that also weighs in favor of games like Aion and Champions Online, but fantasy MMORPGs typically don't have that luxury.

So what's the solution? Some problems, like the Tauren / Gnome disjunct mentioned above, can't be solved, they're just a matter of familiarizing the playerbase with how different sized characters would move in a mythical world. As for smoothing and perfecting character movement, I would hope that developers put just as much care into how characters look as how they move. After the character creation screen, you'll spend little time studying your cheekbone height and nose bridge width, but a lot of time observing how your character moves.

Has Pinocchio taken his revenge on your gaming perspective? What MMOs do the best job with character movement? Which are still the worst? Share your thoughts in the Loading... forum and have a great weekend!

Shayalyn's Epic Thread of
the Day

From our PC & Console Games (Non-MMO) forum

Disappointment sets in!

Khalus, our volunteer Final Fantasy XIV guru, is also following the
single-player console game, Final Fantasy XIII. Yesterday, he posted
his disappointment in finding that there would be no death penalty in
the game. "When you're defeated you can choose to continue, but instead
of being returned to your last save point and losing all progress since
then, you're re-spawned next to the enemy or boss that you lost to!" he

Is a game without a death penalty too dumbed down? Do you
feel differently about death penalties in console titles as opposed to
MMOGs? Chat about it!


Awesome Quotes from the
Epic Thread

"I like that you get respawned next to the boss, that way you can easily get killed again seconds later. lol"

- kitsunegirl


Have you spotted an Epic Thread on our forums? Tell

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Last Updated: Mar 13, 2016

About The Author

Jeff joined the Ten Ton Hammer team in 2004 covering EverQuest II, and he's had his hands on just about every PC online and multiplayer game he could since.