Back in the 1930s, Disney's "nine old men" coined 12 basic principles for animation. One of the most insightful is anticipation -- the preparation for an action. It turns out that when animating, the individual actions themselves are relatively unimportant. The key is selling the audience on the idea that something is about to happen (the anticipation) and then a moment later that it did happen (the reaction).
For example: a boxer pulls his arm back to prepare for a punch (anticipation), strikes his opponent (action), who recoils from the hit (reaction). Every action has three distinct phases: anticipation, action, and reaction.
To ensure their animation can be read by audiences, animators the world over use this three-step approach, which always starts with anticipation.
So, how can this principle be used in game design? It turns out that the anticipation-action-reaction model is a great aid for crafting clear and rewarding player interactions.
For a moment, let's re-frame games as interactive animation. Games are much richer than this of course, but the simplification is useful for breaking down the magic of a single interactive moment.
So, in an interactive animation, the player co-animates the action with the game. The game serves up opportunities for the player to trigger action animations using button presses, and does it so expertly that it feels to players that they, rather than the game, are driving events forward.
Divide gameplay length into thirds until you reach a gameplay bite of around a half hour, and then plan a new experience or reward at these markers to ensure a steady and meaningful progression.
It's an illusion of course. In fact, each and every interaction moment is an illusion which can be analyzed with our anticipation-action-reaction model. Break it down, and it's the game that animates the anticipation, which cues the player to trigger the action animation, which the game swiftly follows up with a suitable reaction animation. What the game is responsible for animating here is critical. It's creating both the anticipation and the reaction, telling the player what to do and letting them know that they did it. Each and every moment in a game is forged between game and player in this manner.
Let's look at some examples using an animator's eye for spotting the anticipation, action, and reaction.
As God of War quicktime events show, anticipation can be created anywhere in the game's user interface. In this case, it's created on the HUD as well as the enemy character. It could just as easily come from the environment, the lighting, visual effects, the sound effects, the music, the controller rumble, or any other channel capable of communicating with the player.
First, let's discuss the so-called quick time events in the God of War series. The player is asked to perform a sequence of moves, one at a time. Breaking down one move using our model, a monstrous enemy is stunned with a large circle icon floating above its head.
The stun animation and the circle icon is the game's form of anticipation. It cues the player to press the circle button quickly, triggering the attack move. This button press is the action. In response to the button press, the game animates Kratos attacking the enemy who recoils from the attack, often with some animated gore as payoff. This is the reaction.
Now, let's look at another God of War moment, this time a block move in combat. An enemy within attack range of Kratos pulls his sword back. This is the anticipation, exaggerated and held in place just long enough for the player to spot it. This "tell" cues the player to hold down the block button. In response to this button press, the game animates Kratos into a block stance, and the incoming enemy attack is greeted by a ricochet reaction which includes a gratifying shower of metal-on-metal sparks. This is the reaction.