Vicious Circle Dev Diary 3: Art and Design


DEV DIARY ISSUE. 3 : Art and Design

TITLE: “A Picture is Worth 10,000 Words Inaccurately Describing What a Photo Could Far More Easily”

Welcome back to another edition of Vicious Circle Dev diaries, Circle Jerks! We’ve been working hard putting some polish on Vicious Circle, and on that note today we’re going to explore some fresh territory with you: our concept art to art implementation process and how it fits into our overall game production.

Production pipelines represent how all the independent game development disciplines fit together, where our art and visuals, often times, offer the most tangible sense of what production looks like and how a project can evolve from early ideation to shipping.

For those newer to game art and art assets, there are several components ranging from the environment, character models, independent game objects, user interface, and other components that comprise the overall game artstyle. The artstyle helps to convey a lot about the game and is responsible for a large portion of world building in nuanced ways. In many traditional entertainment mediums, stories rely heavily on narrative and dialogue to communicate where the story is taking place, provide historical context for the story, showcase the tone of gameplay and the mood or emotional state the game should put you in. In games and newer entertainment mediums, art helps save time and allows the audience to use their own imagination to fill in some of the gaps. A good example of this is how a color palette correlates to the setting- are things vibrant or grim? What type of imagery is used- creepy? Bright? Militaristic or kitschy? And the overall aesthetic- are objects and characters smooth and polished or highly defined and realistic? All of these are deliberate decisions that require a firm understanding of what you want players to think, feel, and experience throughout the game.

In pre-production, concept artists aid in game ideation by offering a series of variances/rough sketches of characters, setting, objects and imagery (often with multiple iterations and options) to help the team create a collective sense of identity for the game. This helps to put all members on the same page and jumpstarts the creative process. It helps breathe life into a game and provides the vital ability to visualize how the game will appear to players. This informs multiple key areas of game design- how realistic will motion be? Are these characters and stories grounded in our reality, or an alternate one? Will this feel like a cartoon, abstract art, or hyper-realistic? What are the rules for this world, and how is it anchored by the images and movement taking place in front of the audience’ eyes?

After a concept is approved and we feel the piece nails both lighting, mood, and composition of the scene and/or characters, we quickly move into creation of environments for the scene. We build environments modular (think legos), so they can be reused and repurposed in other zones and ways. Concept art also encompasses characters where the animators draw inspiration from a face design, clothing, or a pose and determine through our Leads and Creative Director the look and attitude of characters in the game. It may make sense for one character to be portrayed as playful while another needs a stance or pose that communications they are serious and “by the book”. Finally, concept art cascades into design where team members are inspired by a structure to create a gadget, weapon, and even how the character’s gun will operate in ways such as recoil and reload time.

All of this is taking place while our engineering team is supporting team members across multiple departments. Art may need a flag on a shader that would help create parallax (a 3D layered effect) that helps artists further sell the notion of things like ice or depth of transparency of objects in a 3D World. They also help animators create complicated animations that blend together during gameplay and provide design with new mechanics and physics like bombs exploding at the precise moment when characters or events occur and for a specific duration of time. This breaths an extra layer of immersion and life into the project and makes engineering invaluable.

As level designers, programmers and game designers make decisions throughout the development process, the art style may adjust to suit the game direction as it evolves and will, vice versa, inform how other team members make key decisions in game mechanics. This relationship requires flexibility and compromise across the team to ensure all decisions make sense when the game comes together. In example, a hyper-realistic space walk would require motion and movement that involves consideration of gravitational forces different than what you see on planet earth, where an unrealistic reality has more freedom to deviate from the rules of gravity. It may make more sense for a character or world represented in a 2D art style to experience the world as a side-scroller or 2-dimensional world than a 3D model. Art can provide healthy limitations to game development decisions which help define the world and create rules for the audience to understand and accept while exploring the environment. Without rules, audiences may become confused and lose the ability to intellectually relate to the world.

For Vicious Circle, the art style is very bold and broad with intuitive shapes, imagery, and design elements that help the player quickly understand what they are looking at and the context of the objects or setting. This helps in fast-paced multiplayer games where exploration into granular detail isn't necessary or warranted. Identifiable and unique landmarks paired with color choice helps to orient players and familiarize them with the setting to better quickly make decisions based on where they are and where they need to be over the course of a game.

Our team currently uses a combination of Maya, ZBrush, Substance Suite, and Marmoset Toolbag to create characters models, game assets, animations, and more.

Maya Autodesk is the industry gold-standard for creating environments and texturing surfaces and objects. It is our main content creation software tool and is recognized across the game and film industries for its ease to build pipelines around animation, modeling, and rendering. We use this tool to create our models in digital clay, and 9 out of 10 artists are familiar with this tool (which makes it a good barometer for sourcing game industry talent as well.)

Zbrush is the industry standard for digital sculpting that allows artists to create amazing, high resolution models with ease. It offers a wide array of sculpting tools for both organic and hard surface modeling and can be used in both photo realistic or stylized/cartoony art styles. In game development, 3D artists typically build a high resolution model in Zbrush to eventually create texture maps that "bake" down a low poly game mesh. All the high resolution geometry from the Zbrush model is projected onto a more efficient game-ready mesh that's optimized for maximum performance and framerate. The 3D modeling pipeline is typically a back and forth process between Zbrush, Maya, and Substance to create the awesome visuals you see on the screen.

Substance Suite is great for painting meshes and applying textures. It is also the industry standard to painting 3D models in film, games and VFX, and our team is no exception. With tools like this we can apply paint to our models quickly and efficiently while ultimately providing a game that looks and feels cohesive, as if it was made by one artist only. Substance Suite is renown to facilitate this process in large teams with asset-sharing capabilities for materials which are essentially a group of layers, actions, and options that are saved and can be shared/organized across the team. If one artist comes up with a nice version of wood grain or a material with a chrome finish in our stylized world, it can be quickly accessed and recycled for individual asset creation assignments.

Tools like Substance Suite have helped team members speed up asset production by 50% because once we have all this surface treatments saved, standardized and agreed upon, an artist can simply click on a surface in his 3D model and with the click of a button can transform the texture to metal wood, rubber, and a scalable inventory of similar textures. Predetermined stylized treatments result in our art team delivering super fast results that would once upon a time take three days to individually texture.

Marmoset Toolbag helps to bring characters and objects to life with its robust animation capabilities. It is key in helping present pieces to the Creative Director and helping us in our creative process by baking textures needed for 3D painting or simply checking our models for errors.

Whether you’re new to game design or interested in trying your hand in it, there are many free tools you can consider using to help build up your portfolio and experience including Blender for 3D animation, Pixologic for modeling, Quixel Previewer for Marmoset, and New Textures as a substitute for Substance Suite. If you’re still trying to find what kind of game art you’d like to specialize in or want to learn a little bit more about how the members of game art teams work and what they do, we encourage you to explore some of these tools and talk to as many artists as possible about their process in varying team sizes.