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Dlala on leaping into 2D game animation with Battletoads

Production still from cutscenes in Battletoads (2020).

The Battletoads are back! Working closely with Rare, Dlala Studios developed a sequel to the Battletoads series, which debuted way back in 1991 on the Nintendo Entertainment System. In this toadally new game for Xbox and Windows, players join Rash, Zitz and Pimple as they smash, stomp, drill, turbo bike, leap and shoot through an action-packed multi-genre adventure of choreographed chaos. 

Dlala animated Battletoads using Toon Boom Harmony, with traditional hand-keyed animation for the gameplay and environment, alongside rigged animation in cutscenes. While the techniques and processes are similar, animating for games can differ greatly from non-interactive formats, such as television or film.

We caught up with Aj Grand-Scrutton, Chief Executive Officer at Dlala Studios, and Eric Ciccone, Animation Director at Dlala, to learn about the process behind Battletoads. We learned what Dlala’s team considers when animating for a controller, as players expect characters to respond immediately to button-mashing. Be sure to hop into the interview to read Aj and Eric’s advice for artists interested in game animation!   

Can you tell us a bit about Dlala Studios? 

Aj: Dlala was started in my mum’s garage nine years ago by myself and my co-founder Craig Thomas. We had about three thousand pounds between the two of us and no idea what we were doing. Since then we’ve been on a roller coaster journey. We were incubated by Microsoft after only a few months of forming the studio.

Then, in 2014, we left Microsoft. Once again with no money and no real plan, but this time with 3 team members! Today we are a 25+ person game studio, still independently-owned, and we make games from start to finish. We specialize in creating ‘playable cartoons’ focusing around our hand-drawn art and 2D animation. We typically use Toon Boom Harmony for hand-keyed animation.

Tell me about Battletoads! What’s the game about? 

Aj: Battletoads is a sequel to a much-loved dormant franchise. The original Battletoads was on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and it was one of my favourite childhood games. The last Battletoads game to come out before ours was Battletoads Arcade. That came out 26 years before our title, in 2020.

The game we’ve made is very much our version of Battletoads; a tribute and love letter to the original 1991 game, as opposed to the later arcade title. We approached it by thinking: where would the toads be now, and how would the game and the world have moved on in 26 years? We ended up with this hilarious mishmash of thirteen different game genres, and about 30 minutes of TV-quality animation for cut-scenes. It’s got a bit of everything, from beat ’em up sections and space shooters, to a bit where you’re giving a massage to a strange alien. It’s a weird and wonderful game and we’re so proud of it!

Pencil test and final sprite animation from Pimple’s viking taunt in Battletoads.

Was the game animation hand drawn?

Eric: Yes, it’s all done in traditional 2D animation. The only difference is that to get the animation in-game, all the frames are exported as individual sprites, run through our tool pipeline that sits on top of Unity, and then plugged straight into the game engine. For the non-cutscene side of this project, there was no rigging. Everything was hand keyed, and even sprites that are layered and interact with one another are done in code. 

How would you describe Battletoads animation style?

Eric: It’s unlike any other game out there visually. It’s definitely a throwback to classic 2D principles applied with modern sensibilities. It has a lot of nostalgia, without relying on it. And it’s really funny.

Humour was the main thing we wanted to come across in the game; we didn’t want it to take itself too seriously. So we didn’t take the drawings too seriously, which helped create the look we were going for. If the stuff the animators were sending through made me laugh two-to-three times a day, we were on the right track. If Aj or I were cracking up, we knew it was good. 

Aj: When I played the original Battletoads, they did the big, over-the-top Tex Avery style. I think you could see that the guys who made those games in the 1990s grew up loving that classic Looney Tunes, Tex Avery look. When we came to do Battletoads, we decided to include some of that classic influence, but mixed in with references to more recent animation styles, like what you would have seen on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon when we were growing up. I think that’s what’s great about our Battletoads. You can see the influence of the originals in there, mixed in with our personal influences. 

Final sprite animation featuring Battletoads’ Dark Queen.

What differentiates animating for games versus other formats, like television series?

Eric: Probably the biggest difference is that you are animating to a controller; you’re animating for interaction with a player. This is different from animating for television or film, because in those formats there’s a set framing and a set shot. You’ll have moments that are set like that in a game. For example, when a character is running and it lasts a while. But when you start getting into the interactions, where the player is pushing buttons to control the character, the approach to animation is different. You need the characters to respond incredibly quickly to those commands. A lot of animating for game is making sure there is no lag, because lag immediately frustrates players.

Aj: It’s a totally different medium. Because we don’t have control over what the player will do when, it’s a nonlinear medium. We have to be prepared. They could be doing one thing in one moment, and then suddenly decide to run to the other side of the screen and do something else. We can’t composite every shot and frame it all perfectly, and that means we have to make sure the animation is responsive.

Like Eric said, animating for player-triggered actions means that it doesn’t matter how smooth the animation is. If you press a button and it takes a second for the game to respond, you lose your players.

Can you describe your production process, and how it’s different from animating for series or film?

Eric: Animating for games is very cross-discipline, which I think differentiates it from other types of animation. We interact with game designers, tech, and programmers to talk about everything; from the types of moves characters will make to how the game will feel and how it will be built. This collaboration informs us as animators and artists. From there, we start blocking things in.

If we’re working on an animation that is going to be a second, or 30 frames, we will usually start with 5 or 6 drawings to help get the timings right. We then get those drawings into game right away, and a controller on the team gives it a go to see how it feels. We’ll double check details of the visuals to make sure they are clear, like if we need any more or less antic, or follow through.  

Once we’re at a point where it’s feeling right with those first few drawings, which are usually just rough squiggles, then we take it to the next stage. In short, we pencil test it, work on a nice-looking sketch of what the action is, clean it up, and then it goes to inking and painting. As we’re doing this, we replace the frames in the game engine, so they are constantly getting updated. Finally, it goes to VFX. Throughout the process there is a lot of collaboration and talking. 

Aj:  We want our games to look amazing, and we think the key to that is to make sure everything is done in conjunction. We’ve all worked together to make an internal pipeline that helps keep all departments aligned. This is why we get the first frames into the engine as quickly as possible. By getting the messy stuff in quickly, we can make sure everything works, and then go in and polish. I think this approach really shows in Battletoads. It’s a game that feels great, and also looks like you’re playing a cartoon.  

When it comes to animating bosses that players want to defeat, nothing beats a hearty laugh.

What unique challenges do you find come up in animating gameplay?

Eric: There’s a lot of different ways to approach an animation problem for games. Thinking about that at the start is important, but you can’t get too tied down by what your idea is. Sometimes you think something will work well, but then it doesn’t. It could be because the staging isn’t right. Or we don’t have as many frames as we thought we would have. The main challenge is finding that sweet spot of not being too tied down to how you think it should work. You have to have flexibility, and be able to pivot.

Aj: We sometimes face challenges because we’re working in 2D rather than 3D. Not all partners and publishers are familiar with the differences. If you get all the way down the line with a project and then need to make a change to even a single animation, it can be painful. The classic conversation we always get into with publishers is that they’ll want to make a small change. Like, let’s say, add a hat to a character. Then the challenge is explaining that adding a hat isn’t as simple as putting a hat on the character. That hat then needs to be added to every frame of every animation. It can be tough to explain the limitations of animating in 2D, but we’re lucky that a lot of the time our partners will trust what we are saying. 

What advice do you have for aspiring animators who would like to get into animating games?

Eric: I think that being flexible, and capable of communicating really well with different personalities is really important in game animation because it’s so collaborative. Something that has served me well in game animation is actively trying to think about what other people are visualizing, and seeing the animation through their eyes. Aside from that, I think it’s helpful to be easy going and good to work with. There are things you won’t learn in art school, so going into your workplace with an openness to learn and absorb is great.

Aj: To animate a game you do need to be able to play the game that you’re working on and understand what you’re animating for, not just the visual approach of the animation. I wouldn’t say that you need to be a huge games fan, or a gamer, but being able to play is important. It helps you to understand how to approach the animation.

And I agree with Eric, being open to collaboration and being good at communicating is key in game animation. I think those skills are useful in any job. But especially at a smaller studio like Dlala, you are working very closely with other people, it’s a total team effort. 


Have what it takes to play co-op with the team at Dlala? Be sure to visit the studio’s careers page. Ready to develop your own 2D animated game? Learn how Toon Boom can power your next project here.