Threshold: Tech vs Magic Character and Design Approach

Threshold: Tech vs Magic Character and Design Approach

Peter Kojesta discussed the new indie game, Threshold: Tech vs Magic and the idea behind it, talked about the production and the team's approach to creating characters and shared the experience in making hard-surface materials.


I’m Peter Kojesta and my company is Exis games. In the past, we’ve worked on games like Xcom: Enemy Unknown / Xcom 2, Bioshock Infinite, Worlds of Tanks, Fear 3, Civ 4/5, Civ Beyond earth, and many other titles. We’ve also had the pleasure of working for Google and LucasArts back when that existed.  

Our focus now is on our upcoming multiplayer FPS named Threshold: Tech vs Magic. TVM is an action FPS game where radically different enemies vie to control the fate of the world. The game pits modern tech against hardcore magic, and you choose if you want the firepower of an AR-15 or the searing heat of a fireball spell. You can play multiple classes on either side, from a summoner calling forth creatures from the fadesphere, to a spec-ops commando silently eliminating his enemies. Players can also ride into a battle on dragons or fly an Apache attack helicopter when you support your team.

We’re also working on a companion game for TVM called Clan Commander, which gives players a deeper look into the fantasy realm that the magic forces are coming from. Both can be found on our site.

The Idea Behind Threshold: Tech vs Magic

TVM is really about the struggle in all of us, it’s a visual representation of the battle between little devils and angels sitting on your shoulders, and we decided to let the player truly change their reality.

These days it almost feels like you see the same Red vs Blue type of FPS games, where the only real difference in the teams is the weapon names and what language the opponents speak.  With Threshold: TVM, we wanted to give players two completely different factions, and let them find all of the interesting interactions between them.

Visually, the tech side is inspired by the world around us. You don’t need to look far to find our war machines, nor the operators that defend us. The magic side goes for a more saturated, less detailed style. It’s slightly stylized, but the emphasis is more on distinctive silhouettes and identifiable colors.

Where we really go nuts is with the hero characters. Both sides have a series of heroes they can play during the match, and the designs and color palette for those guys is nuts. We had a lot of fun designing those.

The Art Direction

The art direction focuses on two key principles. For the tech side, the principle is “Form follows function”, for the magic side, the principle is “Elegant simplicity”. Visually, the tech side draws direct inspiration from our actual world. We take it for granted because we see it all the time, but our machines, clothes, tools are all wonderfully detailed and complex, but when it comes to war, none of that detail is superfluous. The form is driven by its function; which is the needs of the user or scenario. 

For magic, the interesting visual bits come from thoughts I’ve had since the late ’90s. Helmets with clear obsidian surfaces, no visible eyes, and dramatic flared shapes with simple patterns. Elegant simplicity is about creating something sharp enough to kill with a few brush strokes. And you can’t be afraid of color. We use deep royal purples and vibrant orange colors on our characters, butterfly blue on our dragons, and deep maroons on the basilisk.

The Production

TVM is built in Unreal Engine 4, and, frankly, we can thank the engine tools for the amazing power they provide. Beyond that, we generally stick with staple game production tools like 3ds Max, Photoshop, ZBrush, and Substance Painter. There’s really no substitute for digging down into an asset with this suite of tools. But, these days there’s a ton of smaller tools that help with baking, animation transfer, and mocap.  We have a Rokoko SmartSuit for mocap, and that’s been pretty helpful in helping define the way things move.

Working on the Characters

We employed the same technique for the characters as we did for the vehicles and creatures. The tech side obviously has a lot of references we can draw from, and I want to make this clear, the tech side is really all about modern-world military units, so we’re not making up their looks/equipment for the most part. The magic-side characters are based on a stylized base-mesh, so their proportions are ever so slightly out of sync with normal people. 

Design-wise, we followed the principles outlined above, for the characters above all. TVM is closely connected with our other game, Clan Commander, so for insight into the characters, you can see some of the concept work we did for Clan-Com here

Both characters and creatures basically start as a base mesh in 3ds Max, then we head over to ZBrush for sculpting and detailing. We retopologize in 3Ds Max, UV, and then paint materials in Substance Painter. It’s a very standard workflow, and it’s also very efficient.

I made a micro-tutorial on a process I call “quad shells”, and we used this a lot on the magic- side characters for creating armor/clothes; it’s a great way to create shelled/layered geometry.

After the quad shelled base, we go into ZBrush for the sculpts. Here, we use a set of brushes made by Michael Vincente – orb; It’s called the “orb brush pack”, and it’s wonderful for doing stylized damage as you can see here. 

Approach to the Hard Surface

We worked on World of Tanks a while back, and that was a ton of extremely realistic, detailed, hard-surface work; So, that really gave us a solid basis when working on modern military units. Add to that the sci-fi and semi-organic vehicles we did for Ashes of the Singularity, and our team is really primed for top-notch hard-surface stuff. We generally employ standard Sub-D practices, and we also make use of the Quad chamfer plugin. Though there’s a host of new features in Max 2020 for hard-surface work, and we’ll explore those as well.

The great thing is that there is a lot of reference for the machinery of war, so any search online generally yields reference shots from multiple angles and also variations on the same vehicle/weapon; so from there you just decide how much flair you want to add.

Games Modes

TVM currently has 3 main modes. First, there’s a conquest mode where you try to capture control points. But the crazy thing is that depending on who controls the point, tech or magic, the map will look completely different. If the magic side captures a point, a rift tears open, and the magic realm starts to leak into ours. So, you’ll see lush grass and crazy fantasy foliage/rocks erupt and spread outward from the capture point. The most honest way to explain it is to call it “Fantasy Creep”, similar to the creep in StarCraft. Their reality over-writes ours as it spreads and the tech side can “push back the creep” by taking the capture point back.

Next, we have an Air-war mode where it’s dragons/wyverns against planes/choppers. If you can imagine the final air battle in Avatar, it’s something like that. It’s a giant dogfight with missiles and fireballs flying around while two completely different types of air forces engage one another.  

Lastly, we have a new experimental mode that nobody has seen before. We’re running heavy experiments on this mode because it’s a dramatic shift from what people have seen before, and we want to make sure it’s really awesome before we unveil it. Stay tuned for more info on that.

The Release

We’re aiming to have TVM out in early 2021, but I’d really ask anyone who is interested to wish-list the game on Steam because the more support we get from the community, the easier it is for our indie team to stay engaged and show potential partners that the community really wants this game.

It’s a lot of work as a 3-person team making such a complex project, and we love it when gamers tell us they’re super excited about the concept.

Peter Kojesta, CEO of Exis

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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