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How about character design… what kinds of decisions are you making about the shape language, silhouettes, and race differentiation?
We always try to make sure our characters and creatures have strong silhouettes. It is important for us that the player can recognize these from afar. Subtle differences don’t pop as much, so we push things as far as we can.
Usually if we are designing a group of enemies, we’ll break it down into shapes and sizes. Obviously certain body types are going to communicate specific things to a player. Bigger guys will usually have more hit points and be melee while smaller guys might have a higher DPS. Even though we like to mix it up sometimes, we usually stick to archetypes so the player can make strategic decisions going into a fight.
We have shape and style guides for each of our races (both player controlled and NPCs). We use these to both establish a strong visual theme and to help differentiate our groups from one another. Since we have so many creatures and races in WildStar, we can’t really use shapes to define a level of aggression. Eventually you’ll most likely fight everything in one situation or another. So our shapes say more about the cultures of our characters. We use shape guides heavily in zones as well.
As far as race differentiation goes, our primary goal was to give something for everyone. So first we defined our player types. Once we had those nailed, we brainstormed ideas we thought were original, visually interesting, and just plain cool. Like the Mechari. I think someone yelled out “Robots!” in one of our meetings and everyone knew it would be a hit.
Because we are a new IP, the sky was the limit; but the most important part was that each was unique from one another. Another important aspect was that someone in the office had to love it. If no one wanted to pick it as the first race they would play, we went back to the drawing board. A lot of those rejected ideas became NPC races in the game.
Can you talk a little about the texturing process? Sculpting, normal mapping, specular mapping, material definition…
We have a lot of different processes for texturing. It all depends on the type of asset we are making. Some assets are unique and small enough to only require 1 or 2 texture sheets. In those cases, we usually do a rough low poly sculpt to get size and proportions correct, then we do a high poly and bake out the normal. After that we’ll hand-paint a diffuse, and then use that as a base for our spec.
We also have our own custom material shaders. Each one is hand tailored to fit with the stylization of the game. Our techniques change with larger assets that require tiling textures, but our general processes are pretty standard to the industry.
What is unique about our texturing is the style guidelines we use. We only use normals for overall shape and large details. Medium details and patterning are put into the diffuse. While spec is primarily micro detail and surface material. If we put too much detail into the Normal we lose the stylized look pretty quickly.
It’s all about making sure everything is working in harmony and each map has its own purpose. If you keep highlights in your spec that are also getting caught by the normal your asset can get blown out.
What kind of lighting system is there? Does the game have day/night cycles? How do you balance painted-in lighting vs. dynamic lights?
Every scene has a sky file that is generating the primary lighting of a given area. We define one light to cast shadows and a ton of bounce, fills, ambient, etc., to get the look and feel we want to achieve. We balance that with fog levels so everything is working in harmony.
Most of this lighting is baked into the world, but we have real-time shadows within a certain distance of the camera. Although we have a day night cycle, we only have one angle for the sun. Most people don’t notice that much and it was a sacrifice we had to make early on.
On top of that lighting environment, we add what we call “point lights” to the scene. These are real-time dynamic lights and will also affect the player’s shadow. These lights can be animated and also have day/night sequences that add a unique look to our time of day. So, lights and plants actually light up at night, or we can artificially brighten an area to draw the player’s eye at certain times of day.
We try not to paint too much lighting info into the assets, we definitely use color and value differences to make them look more interesting but this tends to be more ambient occlusion than direct lighting.
It’s important that our scene lighting sets the mood and our assets don’t compete with it. Though because we do have shadows, our assets can flatten out a little in extreme cases, so the lighting in the textures can help it from looking too flat.
The colors in the game are very vibrant and clean. What are some of your key color decisions, how are you creating environment palettes?
Well, first off, we want a game world that is beautiful and colorful because we want Nexus to be a place that people want to explore, live and in general spend a good deal of their precious spare time in.
Again, variety is the key, so when mapping and brainstorming the environments in the game, we ran through the color wheel: blues, purples, oranges, greens, etc. Then we broke those into environment types.
Once we have our base zone color, we expand the palette into complementary and accent colors, subzone themes, and time of day palettes. We want to make sure each area is as unique as possible and offers the player a new experience while hitting on the major themes and story points of the game.
So usually when we add a new zone, we’ll look either at what we are missing, or where the player is coming from. If the players just spent a few hours in a cool, blue area, we will try to use a warmer palette to give them something new.
Sometimes the palette is dictated by the story. If we need to pull off a certain mood, we will alter our color palette to suit our needs. We try not to get too bogged down with what is logical or natural in the real world. We use a lot of techniques found in film and animation to manipulate the player’s experience.
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