The Most Popular Unity Asset for Horse Animation has a Fatal Flaw, but it’s Getting an Update
The Unity Asset Store offers everything from code toolsets, over individually animated character models to complete game projects. The purpose of Asset Stores is for solo devs and small teams to easily acquire parts of a game that they cannot easily produce themselves. The quality of these assets varies drastically, with many being created by hobbyists. Even so, many devs generally consider the Asset Store to be a powerful tool for quick prototyping or to save time and money by reusing and combining parts of games in this way.
In the case of one particular Horse Animset Pro however, the assets popularity has lead to several games having the same problem: the walk animation is completely wrong.
Gaits and Beats
A gait is a specific way of moving, a pattern of footfalls and leg motion. A horse’s natural gaits are walk, trot, canter and gallop. These correlate with speed (i.e. a walk is the slowest and a gallop is the fastest), but they are not defined by speed: a horse at an extended trot may well be faster than a horse going at a collected canter.
We classify gaits by how many beats they have: the trot is a two-beat gait because two diagonal pairs of legs move at the same time. The walk is a four-beat gait, because every leg moves individually. The canter is a three-beat gait, with two legs moving simultaneously and the other two moving individually.
There are breeds of horses that have additional gaits: in Europe, the Icelandic horse is the most famous example, with its four-beat tölt and a two-beat pace. In the US, the American Saddlebred and Tennessee Walking Horse are well known for their ambling gaits. For most conversations about horse gaits however, we can safely limit ourselves to the standard gaits.
While this may sound a bit specific and overly technical, the truth is that anyone who has spent a little bit of time observing horses knows what the standard gaits look like and will be able to tell “wait, this looks off” when a digital rendition gets them wrong.
The Walk Cycle
Horse Animset Pro is a complete riding controller with a lot of different animations. I have not bought the asset myself, but it is available on the Unity Asset Store for 60$. The price is low, considering the sheer breadth of features.
Unfortunately, its walk animation is completely wrong, resulting in a stiff and awkward motion plainly noticeable as incorrect to anyone knows what horse gaits are. In the animation, the leg pairs move at the same time instead of individually, which makes for an awkward little pause whenever a pair of leg has come down. Instead of a natural four-beat walk, the gait is two-beat.
While it’s understandable that small dev teams often have to cut corners in terms of realism, this is most likely not a case of saving time or effort, since implementing the correct version of the motion would not have required more work from the beginning.
The sad thing about an asset getting this wrong instead of a single game, is that game developers who use assets are likely to trust a specialized horse asset to get the basic gaits right. Having such a noticeable flaw in a popular asset does not just affect the asset itself, but every game that uses it.
Reviews and comments on the asset are unanimously positive and supportive: People tend to expect that the developer selling horse animations knows how a horse would walk and don’t research further on their own.
I’ve come across several games sold on Steam that may look decent otherwise, only to recognize the obviously wrong walk animation. Most recently, I noticed it in animal-focused Early Access Survival game Animallica. Interestingly, Animallica has recently updated their trailer on Steam, with the walking animation less prominently visible now, but without updating the animation in the game itself as far as I can tell from other videos.
The wrong walk animation is even more noticeable if featured in a game about horses: My Little Riding Champion is a game released on Steam, Nintendo Switch and PS4 in 2018 which uses Malbers’ recognizably wrong animation prominently in its promotional materials.
As an equestrian gamer, seeing such a comparatively basic thing wrong just tells me at a glance that the developer team either does not know the first thing about horses or does not care to get them right. Either does not inspire confidence in the quality of a game where horses are supposedly a core feature.
When I first pointed out the faulty animation to the asset’s developer on Twitter, I did not get any reply or reaction. I was pleasantly surprised however, that when I sent an email explaining the problem a few weeks later, developer Malbers thanked me for the feedback and sent me a preview link to an updated Horse Animset: this time with a correct walk cycle.
The update will be released in the Unity and Unreal Asset Stores in June 2019, Malbers hopes, and features multiple new and improved animations, from basic gaits to jumping, rearing, swimming, falling and more. Most importantly however - at least in my opinion - the walk animation has the correct footfalls and is now a proper four-beat gait.
The updated animations are still not perfect: the most noticeable issue in my opinion is that the front legs are often bent at the same time while the horse is supposed to be standing on them. Realistically, the horse can only properly put weight on a straight leg, and the only situation where both front legs would be bent are when the horse is jumping, rearing, or in the process of lying down or getting up.
When I pointed out these details to Malbers, they told me that they are currently working on the code part of the asset and are not sure if there will be time for another overhaul of the animations. The rig Malbers is using is not ideal, they say, and the front legs must be tweaked by hand for every frame.
The remaining problems result in most of the animations having a slightly wobbly feeling to them, but it’s an overall drastic improvement from the ones in the current version. All in all, Horse Animset Pro may not be perfect, but with many other horse animation assets also getting fundamental movements wrong, Malbers’ package is definitely not your worst choice.
For those looking for alternatives, I intend to take a closer look at other popular horse animation assets on the Unity store and analyse them for authenticity in motion. Stay tuned to learn which are the best unity assets for horse animation!
The Horse Animset Pro animation pack and riding system can be bought in the Unity Asset Store.