Saturday, January 18, 2014

The art of being a 3D artist

Still here in 2014? Good. I had some difficulties finding a topic to write about. Not because nothing happened the last weeks, but I mainly wasted the free hours on modeling maps. Unless I was a very skilled environment modeler, I can't tell you too much about it. Or well, maybe I can.

To start todays story, I’m thinking about contacting a nearby school that provides a games-study (NHTV Breda). With the hopes to find some 2D or 3D students, or maybe other interesting contacts. I’m afraid I can’t offer a place for interns though. At least, you’re welcome to sit down in my house and drink coffee with my girlfriend, but I won’t be home to teach you things until night. Nor can I introduce you to the games-business. Nevertheless, I think beginning artists should grab any chance to learn and practice their skills. If you’re too lazy for that, then forget about your career as a game-developer. You will need to bleed to achieve something sonny boy.

I’m not too worried about finding enthusiast students (at least if the school cooperates a bit). I’m more worried about their skills. With some exceptions, you simply can’t expect too much of young people who just started to explore the wonderful 3D world. Especially not if you’re a cheap asshole like me that can’t pay them. But with some energy and investment, your student will develop & grow. But at the same time, there has to be at least some degree experience and skill before I can let you enter the ship.

The Idea-maker, the Brains, and the Muscle
Last years, I've seen quite some models from various modelers. Obviously, there is a big difference between artists. And not just quality wise in their demo-reels. Like building a house, multiple professions must be combined. There is the idea-maker, the creative architect, whose job is to draw inspiring sketches and dares to think out of the box. We have the brains, who tests if the floating-block ideas won’t collapse due the laws of physics, and who can label dreams with a realistic price-tag. And of course there is the muscle, the construction worker who does the dirty job, carrying bricks through the mud, and masters his toolbox.

In 3D worlds, especially with games, these professions seem to overlap more. Although certainly not every 3D artist masters all the bits, unfortunately. I would consider myself as “the brains”. I know how to make a model that technically matches with the game engine. But I lack toolbox skills to make more advanced models, nor are my architecture skills very strong. I plan and work out most of the environments, meaning I draw floor-plans and decide the “flow” (player starts at A, goes to B, has to activate an elevator at C, shit happens at D). Usually I have a global theme, say the environment has to contain wood and an “moist orange” atmosphere. Which often comes from some random fragments I remember from dreams, a movie, or just from the streets. You see a floating copper ball, or accidentally hit a messed up photograph while Googling around. The grey matter stores it, and later on you decide it’s suitable for building a game-environment around that idea.

Only problem with me is… this happens too randomly, too fragmented. If someone asks me to squeeze out an idea, I can’t think of anything, like a dog can't shit on command. Plus I miss detailed background knowledge to form ideas. Starting artists often forget that having this “idea database” is crucial. Art isn’t only about knowing how to hold your brush. It’s the talent to throw up the right ideas at the right time. Absorbing details from stuff you see, hear and read in daily life, as well as studying things you wouldn’t normally see, is an important part of the job. You can’t be creative if your head is hollow.

Fortunately, the games industry has drawers or concept-artists for that. A 3D artist doesn’t necessarily have to come up with super ultra funky wacky crazy plans. Yet -and this is where you can separate artists quickly- you still need some ideas from yourself to fill up the small gritty details. A concept artist can’t draw each and every corner of your game. As the name sais, he or she makes a concept, brain-food, an idea to build further on. Not an exact “here-this-is-what-you-do” task list. The concept artist draws one or a few (main / vista) locations from a particular environment or area. A game however contains a dozen more rooms, corridors, or open spaces placed around those proposed vista’s.

This is where the 3D artists has to help himself, adding (small) details to keep the environment interesting. And to do so, you still need your idea-database, otherwise you’ll run out of variation soon, or fail to add a little extra touch to your environments. I experienced that 3D modelers often have the technical skills to make X or Y, but not the additional Z; they need steering from drawings or comments. That’s ok, although it works faster and better if you have those ideas locked and loaded yourself of course.

The canvas content only has to look good once. The rest of the corridor around it has to keep looking good for a much longer time, as it fills the game environment.

Unlike static artworks that can be finished with a single powerful picture, games have to repeat themselves a lot to reach X hours of gameplay. Tower22 has old plastered corridors and apartment rooms all over the skyscraper. Doom has sci-fi corridors, hanging cables + pipes and engine rooms all over Mars. Far-cry has palm trees and shacks all over the jungle. GTA has asphalt, houses, flats and factories all over the fictional city. Last of Us (nice game btw, bought it for Christmas) has decayed buildings and apocalyptic alleys all over the devastated world. Whatever your setting is, expect to make the same stuff an annoying amount of times. If you don’t really know how a tropical rainforest looks like, you quickly start failing to keep your Far-cry jungle interesting or "real". If you never paid attention to wallpapers, ornaments, woodcraft, concrete cracks and dusty wooden furniture in Victorian style houses, you won’t be able to make a whole package of Tower22 (or Last of us) corridors.

I’ll try to pay attention, but my problem is that the grey matter does a bad thing storing things. Lots of Access Violations and broken SQL queries when I try to remember something. At the same time, being creative and “out of the box” also means you can make less obvious links. If I say “old house”, you and me think about damaged walls, glass and wood splinters on the floor, dark attics, That 70s Show furniture, and blinded windows. Of course, that’s how we learned to categorize things. But it’s too obvious and simple to surprise another. An artist may think about pink elephants, boobs, Bill Cosby, or Russian submarines when I say “old house”. Something went wrong in their database search, and most ideas probably lead nowhere. But 1 “Eureka!” can be enough to give your otherwise boring environment an unique taste. It’s a (weird) skill some people have, and most don’t.

As for the technical part, this is where 3D modelers won't always pass the test too. Especially not if they don’t have experience with making game-content. Fortunately this skill is relative easy to learn, although it strokes the technical/logical Beta side of the brains, that creative Alpha guys often miss a bit. Making a 3D scene in Max, Maya, or whatever package, provides you a lot of freedom. It doesn’t have to obey polycount limits, or provide playable space, meaning it works with the game-physics or A.I. And in the end, you only have to care about your final screenshot. What happens behind the scenes, behind the camera, or from another perspective in the same scene, isn’t important. People are gonna judge the final picture, nothing else.

Quite a culture shock when moving over to games. Suddenly you’ll be told that the doorknob has way too many polygons. The way how the UV-coordinates are made can’t be imported in the game. All the vertices have to be nicely welded to avoid thin gaps or holes in the scene. The stairs are too steep to climb in the game, and the passage too narrow to let the monsters pass. All the tiny electrical wire models have to be replaced with decals. The floor mesh has to be divided in smaller quads to enable Vertex Painting or other per-vertex shading techniques you never heard of. And prepare yourself to make normalMaps instead of adding polygonal details.

Yeah...old wallpaper...? Don't be fooled, it's quite a technical mixture between poly-friendly modeling techniques to create holes, and Vertex-painting to mix several layers of diffuse/specular and normalMaps to avoid the same wallpaper repeating over and over again in those long boring corridors.

As said, the professions overlap more. A good 3D artist has to be able to come up with ideas (certainly in T22 where we don’t have an army of concept drawers and repeat a lot). The artist has to use his modeling skills, but also approach the task from a technical perspective; how to keep the polycount within limits? Can we repeat assets to reduce the amount of work? Which available techniques can be used to make the scene look good from all possible player perspectives? The 3D artist has to be both the creative one, and the brains.

And in the end also the muscle of course. Making ideas is one thing, executing and finishing them is another. I always get bored of the model after some hours. Probably because I’m not a real modeler, but finishing stuff is just a hard thing to do in general. As a kid, how many things did you started? Lego cities, comic books, tree houses, decks of magical cards, music tracks, rabbit cages, pimped cars? And how many of those projects did you actually finish? Exactly.

Patience and discipline to finish your task is yet another skill a 3D artist needs. All in all, quite some requirements. Making ideas, knowing the technical (engine)rules, being able to draw textures, absorbing ideas and studying work of others, mastering your 3D packages. If you have the right attitude, most of those things can be learned by practice I think, but it will take time and devotion.

To come back at the “acquiring students” topic, I wonder what they could offer. I’ve seen young guys that lack experience, but quickly catch up because of their talent and will. But I’ve also seen guys that, despite years of 3D package experience, just couldn’t come up with good ideas, add a bit extra love in their work, or had the ability to make a technical correct model. As said, I can’t expect too much in my position, but if I’ll have to explain and correct every task someone does, it only slows down the project. Plus it’s frustrating for both in the end. Ah, good artists. I wish you could grow them in your garden, but that’s not how it works. Got to keep my eyes and ears open to find them, and help myself with making models for the time being.