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Skeletal Animation allows you to bring a 2D drawing or image to life by attaching sprites (images) to a set of bones and animating "skeletons" to make your characters perform any sort of action. This technique is extremely popular in game animation, where character often repeat a set of actions (walking, punching, running...), the combination of which has to be natural and make the gamer feel like they're in full control of the character's body.
20 Aug 2018
Software for this kind of animation is abundant, but we selected our 4 favourite tools, ordered from the most expensive to the cheapest... the last of these is, in fact, free!
Here are our top picks!
Because of its richness of features, great integration with Unity and similar frameworks and simple and versatile UI, Spine is often referred to as the market leader in skeletal 2D animation for games.
Most Spine users agree that its best feature is the compatibility with virtually any engine (GameMaker Studio, Cocos2Dx, LOVE, MonoGame, Unity, XNA, Flash, HTML 5 – just to mention a few).
Its UI is intuitive and user-friendly. Learning to use Spine is not that hard but, with a bit of practice, tasks that can initially take hours to complete become smooth and easy.
Pro features such as meshes, skins, inverse kinematics and weights are what make Spine a complete suite for 2D game animation, where expertise and talent are the only limits to your creativity.
The basic lifetime license for Spine comes at $69, which is good value for money. But if you need all the pro features, upgrading to the Premium version is quite pricey: it comes with a price tag of $299, but it lasts a lifetime and gets you free updates!
Live 2D Cubism ($129/year)
Cubism, from the Japanese developer Live2D, is a relatively little known product in the western world. However, it does have noteworthy animation features at a relatively affordable price.
Designed for anime-like video games animation, Cubism features some one-of-a-kind features.
The main issue with this software is ease of use. Its interface is quite dissimilar to that of industry leaders such as Adobe Animate or Spine, and support documents are almost only available in Japanese, which could pose a serious obstacle to most users.
Live2D Cubism 3 is available at a yearly subscription price of $129.
Spriter Pro ($59)
Spriter basically offers the same features as the basic version of Spine, just with a much more straightforward UI, simpler workflow, and for 10 bucks less.
It would suit particularly well both beginners or animators who want a fast tool to create basic 2D assets for (mostly mobile or web) games.
Its bone-based engine allows fast and easy keyframe animation. It makes it very easy to change character skins (basically using the same skeleton and movements for different designs).
It does lack pro features like curved paths and automatic meshes, but it can be a valuable compromise for the price.
Spriter Pro is available at $59, with a free upgrade to the upcoming version.
Dragon Bones (Free)
Dulcis in fundo, Dragon Bones is known as the free alternative to Spine, including most of its features with an UI that most users find easier to learn and to use and compatibility with most gaming engines.
Some extra tools such as animation weight – which, for example, allows you to quickly switch between a character walking and running by making the bone movements more pronounced – and nesting skeletons, make a lot of task much faster and less tedious.
Some users reported runtime issues, lack of documentation and problems with its Unity integration. However, most reviews are highly positive.
Maybe its best feature: Dragon Bones is free and open source, so it might be a great choice if you are low on budget or want to get some experience of skeletal animation without investing any money upfront.