Welcome + My Guiding Art Principles

Making Of / 29 August 2015
Welcome to my game art blog, 'Creating Triangle Soup'! (Bonus points to whoever catches that name reference.)  Ever since I overhauled my portfolio website a couple of years ago, I've always been meaning to eventually add a blog component to it. I've only ever had a couple of articles/posts in mind, but recently, there was a sudden influx of post ideas which prompted me to *finally* start this up. Here we are.

Expect to see posts about a range of topics, from posts about game art, the industry, to posts with WIPs of studies or future art projects that I've been kicking around in my head. I'll try to keep this as active and updated as possible, if not, scream at me on Twitter @jobyek.

Without further ado...onto my first post!


My Guiding Art Principles

I recently got asked by a friend how is it I approached creating props and environments when I was talking about what I do for a living. I actually really enjoyed thinking about my approach and breaking it down for said friend, and thought it would be worth sharing. I'd love to hear about how different or how similar people's approaches are in the comments!

Throughout the post I'll focus on these two images that you can find on my portfolio:

From Modeler to Level Artist

I started out at Ubisoft Toronto as a Modeler nearly 4 ½ years ago and worked my way up to my current position of Senior/Technical Level Artist. Boy am I glad I started out as Modeler and not as a Level Artist. After finally breaking into the industry and seeing just how much a Level Artist is responsible for, there was no way in hell I could have done that straight out of school like I thought.

As a Modeler at Ubisoft, you're typically responsible for modeling and texturing all your own environmental props under the guidance of a Level Artist (if it's a more linear Singleplayer game) or a Lead Artist managing a pool of artists (if it's more of an Open World game). To start out in the industry, that's great. It let's you really focus on the details, the nitty gritty art/tech details and start to have you worry about gameplay constraints (cover, vaulting, etc.) and really start developing your eye for all of that. And from there, if you so choose, you can grow into doing level art given the chance. It's something I slightly miss, but what I realized transitioning from Modeler to Level Artist, is that a lot of the same principles apply, just on a different scale.

Some of the core principles that I subscribed to whenever I start a prop, in no particular order:

  • Context - From a core question like: Where is this prop being used? You can extrapolate many other questions: How is a person using it (where are the hand and feet going)? What weather or natural elements are affecting it? Etc. All of those inform my decisions in both modeling and texturing and not to mention reference gathering. I never add any detail just for the sake of detail. Everything should have a purpose or a reason it's there, however small the reasoning is. 
  • Imperfection - This is a tenant I've carried with me ever since our very first high-level Art Direction meeting with Scott Lee. One of the art pillars of Splinter Cell: Blacklist was Imperfection. That's something that applies whether you're making something for a war-torn map, an abandoned warehouse or a perfectly pristine government facility or private estate. Nothing in life is ever really perfect. There's always some sort of imperfection whether it be in its placement, its shape, its material quality (this is where you get a lot of your imperfections for 'clean' environments), etc.
  • Gameplay - Does this prop need to be gameplay friendly? Does the player need to take cover behind it? Can the player vault over it? Is it purely visual dressing and other props will stack near it to form cover instead? A lot of those questions can drastically change the design and approach of whatever you're making, so it's good to answer those questions early.

How I applied this practically on the scooter model I made for our Benghazi map in Splinter Cell:

The Big Picture

As much as I miss doing that hyper-detailed work of a Modeler, where I get the most joy out of my work is building up full environments as a Level Artist. At the end of the day, players won't notice your little super detailed prop in the corner (exception: Weapon and Vehicle Artists!), what they'll notice is the Big Picture, the whole environment. That's what gives chills and creates emotions for players when exploring a game's world. Not sure about everyone else, but whenever I come across a beautifully realized expansive vista in a game level (even better when you get to play in it!),  I usually, without fail, get those 'good' spine-tingling chills. Halo 4 comes to mind with their beautifully-paced vistas and reveals in their Singleplayer levels (looking forward to Halo 5's!).

A (playable!) vista reveal that I was particularly proud of in my Shangri-La map in Far Cry 4.

As I mentioned earlier, a lot of those principles I applied to my props, they can be applied to full environments and locations, just on a much more bigger scale.

For the principles, they stay the same, but the questions you ask yourself change, as all other departments' work converges in the level:

  • Context - What is the narrative of the world/location your level is set in? What is the gameplay or story beat that needs to be hit in this area? How is VFX & Lighting coming into play? How are all those factors affecting your environment? Etc. The more questions you ask yourself, the more you can ground your environment by directly answering those with your art's layout.
  • Imperfection - Again, same principle I've been carrying with me ever since Splinter Cell. Although, instead of applying it on the macro level on a prop, you're blowing that up to the scale of a whole level. Imperfection can apply to the placement from anything small in the level (rocks, trash, etc.) all the way to the large (architecture, entire sections of level, etc.). Things are rarely ever perfectly straight or perfectly on-grid (which can cause a lot of back and forth with Level Design depending on how rigid your gameplay features are).
  • Gameplay - Design and gameplay naturally plays an ever bigger role as you're working on a full level. You have to be in total sync with your Level Designer to make sure you preserve (and even add to!) their gameplay intentions all while making everything look pretty. At the end of the day, we're game artists, not just Artists. You could have the most beautiful level, but if the gameplay is s***, it's a bad level and it won't be memorable. Some things you naturally always have to think about: How is the player flowing through these spaces? How does it feel to flow through---Natural? Kind of awkward? Can we get a nice reveal here through layout?Where are his natural cover points? Where can he vault? What can he climb? All things you need to constantly worry about and feel out by constantly playing your level. Something I make a point to do almost everyday first thing in the morning if I'm working on a map.

How I applied this practically in this shot from the Shangri-La level in Far Cry 4 (which happened to be the intro shot of our hands-on Gamescom 2014 demo):

And on that note, that pretty much concludes my very first blog post. Hopefully the first of many. Sorry for the overly 'wordiness' of it all (there's some pictures!), I tend to write too much. Will need to learn how to be more succinct in my writing!

I'd love to hear from other artists in the comments, on Twitter @jobyek, whatever! How similar or different is your approach to making a prop or an environment? Always good to get different perspectives. If you have any questions too, feel free.