Mass Effect: Andromeda's animation problems attributed to Frostbite, understaffed departments, and last-minute changes

Mass Effect: Andromeda had a rough launch. This much is undeniable. And though patches have since addressed everything from multiplayer stability and bug fixes to eye shaders and romance options, it's still known as the sequel that, for many, just didn't measure up. So what happened?

A report over at Kotaku dissects many of the issues the game went through during its five-year development - which was apparently more troubled than many thought - with multiple anonymous sources giving insight into what went wrong. The whole thing is fascinating and well worth a read, but there are a few key takeaways here.

Frostbite isn't made for RPGs

At E3 2013, EA announced its plans to shift to a unified development model, where all of its studios would use the Frostbite engine. On the surface, this seems great; the Battlefield games, which were always trotted out to showcase the power of Frostbite, look amazing. Frostbite delivers incredible visuals and solid processing power, including destructible environments. But the fact remains, it's a suite of tools built for FPS games, not RPGs.

One developer spoke to Kotaku about common industry engines in terms of cars. You can think of Unreal as an SUV, capable of a lot but not really excelling at high speeds. Unity would be a compact car, lacking horsepower but easy to use and adaptable. "Frostbite is a sports car," the developer said. "Not even a sports car, a Formula 1. When it does something well, it does it extremely well. When it doesn’t do something, it really doesn’t do something."

In fact, Frostbite doesn't even have one of the features players would come to mock as Andromeda got closer to release: an animation system. Though BioWare Edmonton had previous experience with the engine thanks to its work on Dragon Age: Inquisition (and shared what tools they could), BioWare Montreal had to build its animation rigs for Andromeda from scratch.

The scope (and team size) changed mid-development

Over the course of Andromeda's development, more than a dozen BioWare employees left the company. The animation team had positions that were allegedly never refilled. Those who spoke with Kotaku said that even without people leaving, the animation department in particular lacked the manpower it needed.

The scope of the game also shifted. Andromeda was conceptualized as an experience with hundreds of planets. But then that was lowered to 30, then from 30 to 7. There was also freeform space flight and other features that got the axe. These mid-development shifts also meant putting certain teams into a holding pattern, as people waited to figure out just what would be part of the final product. After all, you can't (or shouldn't) write story or animate NPCs for a planet that wouldn't exist when all was said and done.

Developers who spoke with Kotaku described it as a frustrating time and said that if one thing should've changed, it's that such cuts needed to be made pre-production.

The animation staff had to start over with new tools

During pre-production of Andromeda, the animation team had to switch software, from 3D Studio Max to Maya. This caused the team to lose months of progress, with one developer telling Kotaku, "All that technology was invalid, simply because we’d used a red pen instead of a blue pen."

On top of that, there were apparently arguments over what facial animation tech to use, which meant that its eventual arrival into the animation team's hands came too late to implement effectively. On top of that, due to the aforementioned shift in scope, BioWare couldn't outsource properly.

Since cutscenes and characters weren't completed in time, what outsourcing was done lacked components like completed storyboards and scripts. It'd be like trying to create your own Sprite at home after being given lemons and limes - yes you know there needs to be more and you know what the end goal is, but as comedian Mitch Hedberg famously said, "There's more to it than that."

I think the same goes for anyone who blames Andromeda's animation problems on laziness or a single person's failures. Based on Kotaku's report, I'd say there was a lot more to it than that. 

Sam Prell

Sam is a former News Editor here at GamesRadar. His expert words have appeared on many of the web's well-known gaming sites, including Joystiq, Penny Arcade, Destructoid, and G4 Media, among others. Sam has a serious soft spot for MOBAs, MMOs, and emo music. Forever a farm boy, forever a '90s kid.