Training a New Team

Late in 2006, the Airtight team had just wrapped up their verticslice for The Black Cloud. The art direction was very stylized and relied mainly on low frequency textures for color and baked in ambient occlusion to give the world detail. Unfortunately, the visuals failed to impress the publisher and the confidence in the team to deliver next generation graphics was wavering, both internally and externally.

I was asked to join the team in early 2007 to help bring a level of sophistication to the visuals without compromising the art direction. The art team at Airtight was very junior and most of them had very little knowledge of effective surfacing, color composition and lighting. The team was supposed to be entering production on their first level and an already aggressive schedule did not allow for much experimentation. Using a subset of the first level as a testing bed, I took the team through a two week boot camp to train them in various aspects of next gen content creation. I divided the team into a couple different groups to help keep the effort focused and effective.

I had the first group focused on developing more advanced shaders and surfaces for terrain assets as the team was struggling to create large assets to a high degree of fidelity without blowing their memory budgets. Some of the more interesting surfaces developed at this stage were the sparkling sand shader and the water (the rocks are not finished). I also worked with them on color composition and lighting to help improve our skills in this area as well. The environment had a long way to go at the end of our training effort, but was still showing promise.

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Props: Before & After

I had the second group focus on creating props and other assets we could use to populate a more urban environment.

Although it would not appear as such, the original assets were deceivingly expensive in terms of memory and performance by using multiple draw calls, inefficient shader functions and multiple textures to produce an otherwise underwhelming result.

I demonstrated how we could create low frequency content to a high degree of fidelity by playing with the way light interacts with the surfaces.

I had the team focus on using specular maps, specular power maps and environment maps to help begin to simulate more interesting surfaces. Once they understood how these properties worked, I demonstrated how to bring in normal maps to the surface effectively to enhance the effect without overpowering it.

The end results after the training effort were impressive. We were able to find a balance in stylization and next generation features that delivered a level of sophistication to the content that was appealing without compromising the direction.

Using the content from our training, the team delivered a couple dangerrooms that were used to regain the confidence of our publisher.

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From "The Black Cloud" to the "Dark Void"

When the project was signed over to Capcom, we were required to reinvent the entire game from scratch. The original stylized direction was feared to skew too low for our target audience, so I was asked to help visualize a more mature and mainstream art direction for Dark Void.

There was some concern that the team would not be able to make the transition from a stylized to a more realistic aesthetic. After taking the concept team through a stage of transition to visualize the new direction, I worked with the production team to deliver a couple more dangerooms that we could use to help satisfy concerns with the publisher. These early demos were very well recieved by the team and the publisher.

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The Black Cloud: Props

I was fortunate enough at Airtight to be hands on in many different areas; modeling, texturing, shaders, lighting, scene layout just to name a few.

Some of the more interesting items I was able to create at Airtight some props for the early version of "The Black Cloud" in that it was a stark contrast to the more Photoreal work I was doing on "The Element".

I was eager to challenge my knowledge of accurate surface modeling by pursuing a more stylized direction and felt we had just scratched the surface when “The Black Cloud” was shelved and we began pre-production on “Dark Void”.

These are a few assets I created in the first few weeks at Airtight and I felt it was worth showing them to compare against some of the work from The Element.

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The Element: Props

The Element was my second “Next Generation” game but was my first Unreal Engine 3 game. Even in it its early stages, the Unreal Editor was an amazing tool. We were able to create fairly impressive content without relying on the tech team to supply us with custom shaders.

Although most of our assets were fairly ordinary in origin, we tried to focus our efforts in creating content that looked believable and assisted the suspension of disbelief.

The project was small enough that I was able to stay hands on throughout most of the development cycle and was able to participate in many different areas. These are some assets that I modeled and/or textured.

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The Black Cloud: Shaders

One of the biggest advantages to the Unreal engine is that the artist friendly tools have almost eliminated the dependency on the tech team for all but the most advanced shader development.

For “The Black Cloud”, I created numerous shaders but some of the more interesting were for the characters. Even though the stylistic direction gave us some leeway in how “realistic” we needed to be with our characters, our main character felt fairly lifeless and looked a lot like a Ken doll.

I developed a very inexpensive skin and cloth shader using a light vector to map a gradient that would modulate into the diffuse. I combined that with a colored constant with a Fresnel falloff to simulate peach fuzz on both skin and cloth, both would use the dominate scene light to drive the location of the effect and would consider the pixel normal to control the amount of the effect.

Then, to address some usability issues due to our enemies blending into the background, I added a rim light effect driven by the camera.

To keep things inexpensive, the enemies only used the rim lighting while th main character used the full shader network.

Here are some screen shots of the shaders in application and the skin shader network.

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Dark Void: Shaders

For Dark Void, we resolved visibility issues with the enemies by making them visually lighter on screen and no longer needed a rim light effect. That said, we were suffereing from a different problem with our main characters visuals.

The third person camera along with the dark colors of the main characters clothing combined with the dark environments and the single dominant light source meant you spent most of the time looking at the back of a very flatly lit character. Almost all detail in the shadows areas was completely lost and the character looked awful.

For some rather complicated reasons, the only viable solution was to come up with a custom lighting model for the main character. Since the tech team was unavailable for this effort and we needed a solution in place before our E3 unveiling, I created a more mature and robust version of the skin shader I had developed for The Black Cloud that we could use to simulate different materials, but more importantly, would help bring detail back in to the shadow areas of our character so he did not look so flat.

Here are some before and after screen shots and a video showing the effects of a moving light source. You can see that the shader didn’t have much impact in the lit areas, but there is much better shadow definition and secondary highlights when the character is fully shadowed.

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The Element: Shaders

The Element was mainly an internal hallway shooter, but some missions would take you external as well and since we didn’t want loading screens, we needed to be very cautious about how we created a world that felt real and expansive, but would allow a seamless transition from one environment to the next.

One of the environments we needed to create was Time Square, complete with Jumbotrons and skyscrapers, for a helicopter flythrough and a rooftop landing. The buildings surrounding the characters path needed to be convincing, but cost effective.

One of the shaders and accompanying texture sets I created helped make an otherwise flat looking sky scraper look like it had an internal structure to it as well, allowing you to actually look inside the building as you flew past it.

The shader used a couple small tiling textures, one for the base windows, another to simulate internal lighting of some of the window, an overall shared grime texture to help hide some tiling, an environment map and a bump offset to simulate the interior.

Overall the shader was incredibly effective and gave the illusion that the buildings had an interior to them instead of being a flat and uninteresting surface. Here are some screen shots of one of the buildings and a short video of the shader in the editor showing the parallax effect in application.

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