Being a Lead Artist in an Indie Game Company

by Cornelia Booysen

Breaking In

It's been nearly four years since I started my journey as a video game artist.  The path has been a bumpy one, full of ups and downs.  I started off working for free, eventually getting a paid contract job, which then led into a full-time studio role as a concept artist.  That was a big high for me, and I enjoyed it for six months before my visa expiration sent me packing.

Work continued on a contract basis, but I was no longer surrounded by artists I could turn to for an instant critique.  When the studio closed its doors I was back on the job hunt, but being from South Africa the options are limited.

I found WRKS through an Artstation ad, and immediately applied for the concept art position they had posted.  It was a paid gig, and the project sounded interesting.  However, after the interview phase I learned that it was not to be.  They'd gone with a different artist, but wanted to hire me to draw a comic that would serve as a prequel for the first game set in the Jordenheim universe.

When the first issue of the comic neared completion I was informed that some reshuffling was occurring, and that they wanted me to take on a game art role as well.  As an indie game artist I knew my duties would probably cover a larger scope than they did while I worked at a studio among 10+ other artists.  My instincts proved to be right.

Many Hats

I've always had a preference for the two dimensional side of art production.  Simply put, drawing and painting.  However, I appreciated the value of understanding 3D art early on.  After high school I taught myself Maya's 3D modeling tools.  This exploration formed the foundation of my knowledge of the 3D pipeline, and years later would come in very handy.

I started work on the Jordenheim project as a 2D artist.  Even when I transitioned over to game art, my role was still largely based in 2D.  I painted a title screen for the game, and I began texturing 3D assets modeled by a different artist.

When that artist left us, establishing our 3D style and workflow became my responsibility.  And while I felt a little bit out of my depth, considering my focus had been largely based in 2D, I was confident that the foundational knowledge I had would be a sufficient start to support the research I would need to do.

For the project I had taken on the roles of illustrator, concept artist, 3D modeler, texture artist, and somewhat unexpectedly, blogger.

From 2D to 3D

I had an instructor once who told us that sculptors should paint, and painters should sculpt.  On the surface it may seem illogical to practice something that's not your main focus, but there are lessons to be learned from other disciplines.  Sculpting gives you a greater sense of how different forms relate to one another in 3D space, and this knowledge can then be translated to a drawing or painting in a two dimensional form.  Understanding one gives you an understanding of the other, and together they form a foundation that enables the artist to produce better quality work.

To some art is intuitive.  They produce outstanding work without being able to tell you why they created it the way they did.  For others art is an analytical process in which they make a conscious effort to measure distances, light direction, shadow length and falloff, to achieve the same result.  Ultimately, an artist is a perpetual student.  There is always something new to observe, something new to draw.

In the digital age this also means there are new software to learn.  However it is important to remember that software is only a tool.  To create good art you need to be solid in the foundations of art.  It begins with understanding, followed by practice.  As your understanding and ability to observe improves, so does the art that you create.

In the case of game development, we begin with a 2D concept.  It's a process of iteration until we arrive at the final design.  From there the challenge is creating a 3D version of a 2D drawing.  This itself can be a process of iteration, as we look at and adjust size relationships between different parts of the model.  There is a lot to compare and think about until the final result is achieved.

Pursuing A Style

After testing the process on a small scale, it was time to follow through with the first character.  Since the beginning the aim was to pursue a hand-painted style.  To achieve this the process entails several different steps;

1. The High Poly Sculpt

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Having worked primarily as a concept artist and illustrator I did not feel particularly confident when I began tackling the model.  I had taught myself 3D modeling in the past, and had learned zBrush while at university, but never devoted an extraordinary amount of time to it.  I was confident in my theoretical knowledge, but putting it into practice is a different beast altogether.  Yet at the end of the day I was able to produce a satisfactory high poly sculpt.

Zbrush is a great tool for detail.  As long as your mesh contains enough polygons, it is like sculpting with clay.  While understanding the subtools and how to save them might be somewhat confusing in the beginning, the act of sculpting is fairly straightforward.  The functions I made use of most during the  sculpting process was zRemesher to add polygons, and Dynamesh to better distribute those polygons.  I have by no means mastered this particular piece of software, but this sculpt was a great learning experience that I can carry forward in the project.

2. The Low Poly Model

Even before I started doing research 3D-Coat was at the forefront of my mind when it comes to doing the retopology of a high poly mesh.  I had played around with it before and quite enjoyed the workflow–from building the low poly mesh, to unwrapping the UVs–as well as the seamless integration with Photoshop.  The three big reasons why I chose 3D-Coat is it's ease of use, it's affordability, and it's ability to paint directly onto the model.

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Upon importing the high poly model into 3D coat, the first thing I needed to do was recreate the mesh with fewer polygons.  I did this by essentially drawing the polygons on top of the high poly mesh, paying special attention to edge loops that would be to the benefit of deformation at animation time.  For similar reasons I created the shoulder armor as a separate piece.  Once the low poly mesh was complete, I marked the seams for the UV unwrap operation. 

3. Generating The Maps

This was something I had no experience with prior to tackling this character model.  I had enough understanding to know what a normal map is, what an ambient occlusion map is, but had never generated them myself.  After a bit of research I decided on using xNormal to generate the maps I would need for texturing.  Through trial and error I was able to generate maps that gave me the effects I wanted to project onto the diffuse map, primarily ambient occlusion.

An ambient occlusion map is a gray-scale image that conveys soft light and shadow information based on how exposed each point on the model is to ambient light. This provides a great basis for a hand-painted texture, as a lot of the form information is already present, and only needs to be polished.  I did not, however, use the map in an unaltered state.  Gray overlays do not make for the most vibrant colours, so before I used it in such a capacity I applied a colour change to the layer.

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4. Tying It All Together

The desired end result was a diffuse map that contained enough detail, but still retained that hand painted aesthetic.  Through the use of blend modes in Photoshop I was able to incorporate the ambient occlusion and other details into the diffuse texture.  The final step was to spend time painting and polishing the diffuse.  I made use of both 3D-Coat's tools, painting directly on top of the model, as well as Photoshop's more advanced colour functions to achieve the desired result.

There really is no shortcut for this step.  It relies on the artist's skill and judgement, developed through countless hours of careful observation and practice.  For this model I found that generating the maps was only a starting point, and I ended up investing a significant portion of time into painting.  For the most part I stuck with 3D-Coat's tools, but would occasionally jump across to Photoshop to do a quick colour balance tweak.

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Onwards

Looking back I can say that taking an entire character through this process was a valuable learning experience.  3D work may never be my focus, but I've come to appreciate that understanding it is important for anyone who wishes to work in game development.  This certainly won't be the last character I create in 3D.  Once the project planning reaches its conclusion, and once we've reached a final decision on the style we want to pursue, there will be many more assets to generate for WRKS'