Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Side Scroller Project-Post mortem

“Game Art is a fast moving industry and it is necessary to be able to work quickly, effectively and as part of a team. This project should give you the opportunity to understand what your chosen specialism would be like. Together we will be working towards a large goal (Game), this will have separate elements (Levels) and these levels should have individual content that you can put towards your portfolio.
This project has elements that will allow concept artists, character artists, environment artists and engine artists to develop their skills, and hopefully allow you as a year group to create something larger and more impressive. “

The job role I was assigned was Environment artist, and I was part of the Cold team. We were tasked with creating a “cold” level, which would sync with the other levels throughout this project. The style and feel would need to feel consistent within every level, so we needed to make sure that we worked in collaboration with all of the other teams.

We started by first making mood boards and working out what’s cold, but not too cliché. While we sorted the first stages of concepting, we also tried to organise a time scale and looked into making an asset list based off our most probable ideas. We looked at what objects we would need and them what others may be good to add as a stretch goal. We each looked an individual idea each and produced concepts based on that. I began to concept some icy caves and underground tunnels; we had a layout and because of this we started to work out areas of the level to fit the “shape” of our level and to show a progression through the terrain. We eventually went along a quite classic idea of cold, with ice and snow. We decided the best route to go, was to make out level similar to a Nepalese mountain range with traverses past or through a religious artefact and deep into some icy caves towards the scary level.

Cave Concepts and Style Progression

During our concepting stage, we all as a group found it difficult to pinpoint a specific style for our project. I decided to produce some style progression boards to help us pinpoint the exact style we were looking for. Eventually as a group we decided we wanted a style very similar to that of the Trine games; this meant that the shapes of our models were stylised, but the materials were realistic.
Once we were settled on an idea as a group, we mapped out a potential route around the level and how we could traverse it and use all the space possible. We then assigned different world assets to each of us in the group to produce. I was given the task of producing the statue hero asset, bell tower and other smaller bits; as well as tweaking.

Early Level Layout

We made the whitebox of the level to start with, and updated the models over time. I sculpted the statue and some of the stone damage on the bell tower using Zbrush. I found it quite tricky sculpting parts of the statue due to the lack of skill using Zbrush and modelling organic objects. However, I managed to reproduce our concept quite accurately in my opinion. I had some trouble baking some of the normal down from my high poly sculpt, but I soon resolved these and managed to get a decent Normal map which really pushed the detail with the materials. The materials were quite simple to produce, with PBR, it is quicker to texture and gives a much better result, so I was quite pleased with the outcome of my assets.

Final Statue Concept
Being a cold level involving ice and snow, we obviously had to work out a way to coat our assets with snow. Dom found a way of simulating snow falling in a scene in 3dsmax, this produced a layer of snow as a separate mesh. This was used to give a sense of thick snow. However the rest of the snow was added using vertex painting within Unreal Engine 4. Once Dom had applied it, I worked on improving the mask used in the material to make it look a little more convincing as real snow and not fake spray-on snow.

I think the Cold team produced a convincingly cold level. We produced some nice concepts and assets and managed to get it functioning as a level how we wanted it to within the six week restriction. However, we did come across problems which hindered and slowed our progress. As a group of 4, one concept artist and 3 environment artists, it’s not surprising that some of our ideas conflicted and that compromises had to be made. But the problem I found was that at times, someone would start to work on something they hadn’t informed the rest of us about. This meant that there were occasions where things were almost produced twice, or something had already been completed and forgotten about. If I could change this, I would have liked more communication between the lot of us, so that the pipeline process was more fluent.

Overall the project was a good test for the year group as a whole to work as a production sized group and to produce a decent looking, four level side scroller. There were highs and lows, but I think many of us produced portfolio worthy pieces and learnt a lot about the software we use, themselves and each other. Hopefully this will help us work in collaboration during our Final Major Projects.

Friday, 7 November 2014

World Machine - Making Mountains!

We’re a couple of weeks into our big 6 week, year group project and everyone’s plans are coming together. In my teams, cold level, we noticed we’d need quite a broad and dynamic mountain range to fill in the vast background. This gave me the idea to create some mountains using world machine.

Having never used this software before, it was all very new to me and I had to learn the basics to get the hang of it. I didn’t realise, however, just how easiy this program is to use. Luckily we have the full licence on the computers in the university labs and so I had access to all the features.

Mountain Range Layout
I first started by searching for tutorials on making icy mountains on YouTube. There weren’t many around, but from the ones I found, they were very similar in terms of work flow. I build up my flow graph in the program as I followed the tutorial. From this, I then experimented with all the values of each node.  I got a few good results with some nice sharp edges on the mountain faces.

I tried a few different times and created about 5 of these different alp-like mountains. Each one was unique and it was interesting to see the same basic node structure make so many different peaks. When it came to texturing it, there was a macro node which was recommended in the tutorials which provided colour information. However, I had trouble using these macros at first as
they didn’t work on the uni computers. Because of this, I had to download the free version of world machine at home and input the macros through that method. I then saved out the flow graph and rendered the model and diffuse files at uni using the full licence.

Colourmap Output

The final results came out really well and a bonus with the software is that it can render a static mesh, diffuse map and height map as outputs all at the same time. This meant that I could render a mesh of a high poly mountain. I then made a low poly version simply by creating a plane with segments of about 26x26 which I then overlayed above the high poly mesh. I then used the 3dsmax retopology tools “conform” tool to, almost, wrap over the high poly. It was then just a case of unwrapping and baking the diffuse and normal information.

Left: High Poly Mesh - Right: Low Poly Mesh

This method of producing mountains was actually pretty successful, as they were in the background and not really a focal point of the level, they were cheap to make and texture. I also made a volcano for the Hot level to use as it was just a slightly modified workflow to this one. Also, I had the experience with the software which none of the team from that level had. 

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Another Year Another Project! - King of the Dead.

For this project, we were tasked with making a scene consisting of a throne, character and backdrop as a group; in my case, there were 5 in my team.. The title of "King of the Dead" was given to us and we had to produce a single image of the scene to show our whole vision as if we were a small outsourcing and concepting studio proving to a large company that we could work for them.

Once we knew the brief and specifications, we looked at exactly what it is we had to achieve. We looked at ways in which we could produce an original idea that didn’t focus too much on the classic ideals of a “dead king” or “king of the dead” that is portrayed so often in media today or in the past.

We began to brainstorm and research ideas and visual reference. Once we began to get some ideas we started to concept. We spent about 3 days mainly concepting a scene which fitted our vision, with our main focus on iteration. Therefore, every time we felt we were getting somewhere, we idolised what could be changed and iterated it further. This meant that our idea was constantly changing and helped us to discover ideas we hadn’t even thought of yet. During this time, I also produced a very rough whitebox of our layout.

We had a few ideas which we began to mix and so started to model what we had in our final concepts. We decided to split into different roles, which meant that I was modelling the pod, which was the main focal point of our throne. I worked alongside Rebecca who was working on the model for the rest of the throne. We talked about the stylisation of it to some extent. We had already decided that the scene would be realistic and give the sense that it was built by an ancient civilisation; with reference from the ancient Aztecs and the Egyptians.

I unwrapped the pod once I had finished modelling and textured the main body of it before creating a separate ice/glass shader for the pod’s screen material. I also created a lightmap during this process. We used google drive to pool all of our resources and to put finished models and textures, ready to import into Unreal Engine 4. I went back to our original whitebox and began to update the models. Once I’d placed some of the main assets, I then built the shaders using the textures I had been given and added extra nodes and branches in the shaders where necessary.

We then looked at all of our potential lighting conditions which I had previously experimented with and tweaked this to nail the mood we wanted for our final scene. After we had added post processing effects in engine and sorted our composition and camera angles, we had our final image.

I was actually very pleased with our final outcome and was pleasantly surprised at the way our concept continuously changed and flipped our entire mind-set almost everytime we discussed new concepts as a group. Although we did sometimes have a disagreement about which way we wanted to take the concepts, we worked well in finding quick solutions.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Personal Review of Second Year

So here it is. The end of my second year at university! What happened? Where has the time gone? All I know is that I’ve matured as an artist and as a person. My skills have thrived within the family I have within my course year.

Throughout this year I have really pushed my skills, putting all that I learned in my first year here to the test, and forcing myself to develop my creative imagination. This has been a very important year for me, in that I feel like I have developed much further than in my first year. I have also begun to really understand the structure of my three years here much more clearly; with the first year being to learn basic understanding and skills with the tools we are required to use, this, the second year being to learn more complex and advanced techniques with these tools as well as becoming “fluent” in the various computer programs. With the third and final year being to show my knowledge and understanding of artistic license and ability with what I’ve learnt.

Throughout this second year, we have been subtly pushed towards focusing our skills into what we would like to do, or what we naturally have a talent for within the games industry. Having entered this course wanting to be a character or creature artist, not really sure of my direction; I found that by the end of my first year, I wasn’t going in that direction. Throughout second year, my calling has really been directed towards vehicle and weapon design and modelling. Having avoided angular, man-made objects through my artistic past at school, it was something that I found I actually really enjoyed doing once I put my mind to it. Actually having to do this as a requirement in projects and work, this made me realise that these sorts of designs were a joy to produce.

Having found what I feel is my correct route for a career, I’ve done more personal work and learning this year, forcing myself to work in labs almost every available day to avoid distractions and get more work done. Practicing high poly modelling and researching weapon mechanics has helped me produce more extravagant designs, thinking outside of the box, as well as becoming very quick with 3D production elements compared to first year.

With this new understanding and speed in painting, drawing and modelling, and a more advanced understanding of the software I use, I feel I want to drive these skills further and produce work over the summer break. Hopefully this will help me to get up to a decent speed for my final year as well as giving me some portfolio work which could potentially help me get employed.  I also want to learn some new things, such as visual effects and animation in order to broaden my employability and help me to understand some personal interests.

Finishing my second year here has really made me wonder where the time here goes, yet makes me realise the extent myself and my course mates work in order to achieve our goal of a career in the demanding industry. Working with my course mates has again helped me to improve much more quickly than if I were to work on my own. I think the working relationships we all have as a year has really encouraged our own personal growth and gain, this is one things I think being at university has really touched me with. Without all the support, I would not be anywhere near where I am as an artist today.

Going into my third and final year now, I look forward to really showing what I’ve learnt in my time here. To be able to do what I want in a showcase for my final major project is something that I have many ideas for and really look forward to. As I polish off my last bits of work, I will leave it here until next year. Until then, stay tuned… 

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Life Changing or Career Building?

Since I started this course, and now coming close to the end of second year I am very happy with my progress and how much I have improved not just as an artist, but as a working machine. Being in such a competitive market has made me and many others on the course really push to do the best we can in our line of [hopeful] work. But is it really enough to have some university teaching and a portfolio at the end of three years learning it all?

Over the recent years, games courses have become increasingly popular as they have become easier to gain access to. Young students want to learn what it takes to make your own game and thrive in that industry. However it has become increasingly obvious that there really just isn’t enough jobs in that industry for graduates. Many industry professionals even admit that they don’t tend to look at an applicant’s CV if their work isn’t what they’re looking for. Oli Christie, founder of Neon Play Studios explains that “a candidate who can demonstrate their ability, be it the form of a completed game, a physics demo or impressive artwork is help in far higher regard by studios than a qualification.” This is understandable as with such a visual aspect, why would you look at how good at maths someone is if they can’t produce the work you’re really looking for?

I think that the danger with a games course is that modules and projects can be heavily directed and gives no artistic freedom to the graduate. Senior Producer at Firefly Studios, Paul Harris says “Work created at university is ok, but it’s often quite dry or lacking in imagination.” So this suggests they get a lot of art traffic which they say no to. This doesn’t make me sweat however, as I feel that on my course we are directed with some projects and others give us almost complete freedom which requires you to scope down to your own capable skill. I also feel that we create some very unique and creative artworks, influenced by traditional masters.

Paul Harris also goes on to talk about how work created in spare time and outside of a course usually has more flair. As a student myself I know that myself and my course mates share knowledge and tutorials to learn from. As well as this we have the fortune of having constant communication other year groups on the course. With all of these credible sources a great deal can be learnt which may not be found in an online tutorial or during a seminar or lecture.

Many among the gaming community tend to discredit most artists and designers because of the majority who lack some key skills or don’t have that spark which is sought after. This mainly appears to do with the idea that graduates that have learnt to be a game designer or game artist won’t have the necessary skills to do any other job. However, being on a course that focusses heavily on both 2D and 3D gives us the opportunity to have a wide range of skills which cover multiple tasks as well as the potential to go into any other visually creative industry, such as film or advertising.

Although I agree that studying a game art course or not have their own pros and cons, I do feel that studying how the industry works and what employers look for in their employees is very important. I am lucky enough to be on a course which has many very passionate industry professionals that have worked in the field since I was a boy. Because of this there is a range of skills; old and new which I hope will give everyone on my course that edge when it comes to showing what we can do.


Monday, 21 April 2014

Creativity, the Talent and Myth of Craft

As young as I can remember, I’ve always liked to be “creative” I’d always get in trouble for being messy, playing with my food, or drawing instead of doing work. It is something that I've always felt everyone can do, but that only some people choose to really chase it and make random, unordered things. I used to think creativity is our ability to express our imagination. A way that we can show the world how we think.

But what really is creativity? It is one of those questions which will probably never be answered, essentially an ultimate question. There are many different ideas about what creativity is. Robert W. Weisberg wrote that he believed “creative” has many factors; referring to it as being the creator of the work as well as being a “novel products of value”, as in giving an object or work appreciative value.

This raises the question as to whether we just simply label things as creative, that it’s just a word to express skills that have been learnt or talent that seems innate. Is creativity a talent in itself or is it an influence which reinforces a talent? Ken Robinson talks about how everyone is creative as a child and how our upbringing or understanding of how to nurture it affects the future of a potentially “creative” individual. He uses the example of # who had what would now be known as ADHD at a young age. He explains how she flourished as a stage artist and has become an iconic figure in the dancing industry, but mentions the danger that she could’ve been “treated” and never understood or trained what would become her profession. This could come down to the state of technology and how our understanding of how to create with what we have wherever we are may just be a human trait which comes about when we truly require it.

Some believe that creativity comes from culture with the difference in society and environment. This could be seen when comparing Chinese music with Russian music for example, or looking at the difference between art styles in these cultures. In this way, it could be down to the attitude of a government for example which nurtures a skill or not or whether they try to stop this freedom.

But many theories suggest that creativity is something given to us by a more spiritual being. The idea that all creation is combined as one…  “There is one mind common to all individual men” This idea known as transcendentalism was explored by Ralph Waldo Emerson during the 19th century who referred to a “sovereign being” as the Over-soul. This idea of all being one is re-explored by Ervin Laszlo who writes “We raise the possibility that the minds of exceptionally creative people would be in spontaneous, direct, though not necessarily conscious, interaction with other minds within the creative process itself.”

This again evaluates the idea that we learn from one another and the creative process is almost a collaboration of many unique minds. A creative person is someone who understands the beauty of their surroundings and learns from them, be it through other creative works or works of their own. Elizabeth Gilbert talks about her research into pre-modern creativity in the video below. She explains how in ancient history, creative minds thought for themselves and did not look up to another as an almost God like creative being. This is an ideal which has come about in the more recent centuries and is something which she believes is potentially dangerous to creative minds across the world.

Throughout my journey on this course my views about creativity, my talent and the skills I've learnt have drastically changed and made me really think about how I use them. I understand that I have a talent to produce artwork and make some really cool things. But I also think about where I could be now if I had better or worse teaching in school or whether I would have always had an innate talent and creative process regardless. It is one question which really cause you to pause and think about how creativity is one of the life forces behind modern life.


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

From Generalist to Specialist?

Over the years, the game industry has expanded in to a goliath with in the entertainment scene, pushing its way almost to the top of the mainstream. It has turned a hobby into a job, and what some imagined never taking off into a multi-million dollar powerhouse of the entertainment world.

The game industry is now one of the largest in the world; hiring thousands in the UK alone. Not all are full time roles or careers, but many are. As a whole the industry looks for extremely skilled people with special talents in specific areas. However, freelance artists are also sought after as well as the lower cost of outsourcing studios. A company will look for the best job at the cheapest rate. Outsource companies are usually contractors working outside the EU or US which will work at a significantly lower cost. This is very effective when trying to save money as a large company, especially when they take on a large project.

Although, this could be a cost effective way to make a game, it can also lead to confusion within a studio, and in the long run may cause problems for the development of a game. One reason for this may be that the managers have to wait for certain assets or that the layout of a level cannot be fully understood. Also contact may be more difficult due to language barriers and time differences, etc. Without personal one-to-one interaction with other artists and mangers/directors, etc  it may also be hard to express the right critique and may cause a wild goose chase of files and assets being sent back and forth between developer and outsourcers with little progress. But sometime outsourcing is done between more than one developer.

An example of a game that fell victim to outsourcing was Sega’s Alien: Colonial Marines. The teasers they showed in early development were stunning and many fans had hopes that this game would recreated the horror franchise and it truly showed the beauty of dynamic lighting. Gearbox Software had been working on this game for 4 years when they released the very successful Borderlands in 2009. They immediately began work on Borderlands 2 and so the Aliens project was outsourced to TimeGate. The project struggled because of the lack of planning between companies and the conflict in ideas.

Developers like to find talent which specialises in certain areas, but also knows how to work in many other areas of their field as well. With a general overview of how to do most things and then to also be a specialist in one of these departments can help in getting recognised and receiving work. It also helps lower costs for a company. With an employee who can do most things as an artist, they can use this person to work in different areas of a game as well as them focusing on their key skills. Being this kind of worker could also help the learning of skills in their “general” areas as well.

In Valve’s ‘Handbook for New Employees’ they talk about what they call “T-shaped” people. This is their example of a generalist and specialist. They look for people who are both generalists, being the arms outstretched and a specialist, the “vertical leg of the body”. They also ask questions such as: “Would I want this person to be my boss? And “Would I learn a significant amount from him or her?” when hiring. As a developer they understand that everyone learns throughout their career and that people within work learn life-long skills from working with one another. That is why they want generalists working together and learning one another’s specialist area as a general one.

Looking at Valve’s vision, it is interesting to see that they want people “higher up” in their business to learn from those who may appear insignificant. They, as many companies look for generalists who specialise, because they want to save money at the same time as having many of the skills in one place with the specialism in required areas. This view is understandable as it can avoid confusion between companies working with outsourcers as well as freelance artists who specialise in one specific field.