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Kim Aava discussed the way the developers of the new VR-game figured out the way to work with the realistic stylized visuals.
This article is written to explain and showcase the art style in Apex Construct, the so-called Stylization in Realism we developed to fit a story driven action-adventure VR game.
As we wanted to cover as much as possible of our techniques and methods, the article is split into two parts, where the first will cover the visualization, design, and style for creating stylized art with roots in realism. Part 2 will focus on the technical details and how to achieve this stylization in VFX, animation, and lighting to fit the technical details for VR development.
During the development of Apex Construct the key has been to find an art style that would immerse the players in a unique VR experience but also be appealing to the eye. The visuals are the primary channel to your mind when playing a game, even more so when playing a virtual reality game where you are surrounded by the in-game world. We found it important to arouse the curiosity of the player by having a world that is grounded in real-world rules, yet make the surrounding feel surreal.
The idea of a stylized art direction arose not only for appeal but also for overall production speed for a small sized team as well as hardware limitations. Finding a design that would work has been an ongoing progress throughout the whole development time with many iterations in order to find the right style in all areas of art and create a world the player like to explore and escape to again and again.
Fast Travel Games (FTG) develop simultaneously for PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift; HTC Vive and Microsoft Mixed Reality headsets, all platforms with their own setups, strength, and limitations; for us, it was important to find the right balance and a beautiful end product.
Setting and Visualization
Early concept art of the world in Apex Construct, a post-apocalyptic Stockholm
Apex Construct is set in Stockholm, Sweden many years after 2040, a future that is not too far away from our own in a year but not necessarily what we would imagine that time area to be. When designing the world, we had the industrial angles and shapes of the 70s/80s in mind. This was an era when technology was advancing at a fast pace, and we were introduced to home computers, mobile phones, cassette players etc. Looking back, the design of this time period were not very sleek, but rather chunky and robust, which is the look we imagined the technology in the world of Apex Construct to have, even though the time in the game is much further ahead than our current time period. We didn’t just want to create a copy of the real world but to play with shape, time and design to create the stylized look that would fit a VR action-adventure experience, and also go well with the overall story.
Stockholm has a beautiful archipelago surrounding the city and the heart of the capital. The architecture is colorful and bright, mixed with old and new buildings from different centuries. All of these elements are similar to other games but not commonly depicted, especially not in a stylized manner. The idea of having the game set in Stockholm was partly inspired by the location of our studio and the colorful architecture and potential to mix nature and city elements, without creating too much of a post-apocalyptic world with overgrowth elements, as Sweden is well known for its expansive forests. Even better, it provided us with a great deal of nearby reference material. We basically just had to take a walk outside to get the inspiration we needed.
The settings in Apex Construct can seem chaotic, creating a disorganized look in the environments. Nature and facilities are a mixture of office spaces, research areas, forests and factory floors, all jumbled and shifted into a chaotic maze-like environment where architectural planning makes little sense anymore. An event that occurred called the Shift, split the world and reassembled it and its surrounding universe in a haphazard fashion.
Late concept art production, establishing the style and color schemes
The Early Stage of Production
Like with many games, prototyping and making blockouts are an important part of the iteration process, even more so for us developing in VR. Testing the scale and feel of objects and environments that surround you in a virtual space. Our brains have been trained for many years at perceiving information from our surroundings, and are used to recognize certain patterns, shapes and the scales of objects in the real world. The most important part for Apex Construct has been to play with scale and shapes in realistic proportions, in which details have been removed or enhanced to a more stylized look, but still keeping a believable world that doesn’t break immersion and interaction. Players are literally present in the game world, everything they see or perceive is part of the virtual experience that we as artists have created. It’s important that the surrounding elements feel right or the player will feel disengaged with the world or even motion sick.
Making blockouts was an important part of testing scales, proportions and shapes in the world as well as for finding the stylization within the different levels of details. Testing rough ideas in VR first before designing the details gave us a better idea of what doable or not in the virtual world.
We also noticed that thin geometry cause aliasing issues regardless of distance. It would create an unwanted jittering effect. It also made objects feel fragile instead of robust. Even objects made to match real-world scale 1:1 would feel delicate. One of many reasons why there was a great deal of back and forth testing between the engine and modeling programs.
During the development there were two main prototype levels, that were also part of the vertical slice. These two levels; Hello World and Fathr Figure represent most of the game gameplay and various kind of art present in the game. Below are some screen captures from the rough blockout to the final in-game graphics.
A very rough version of the fathr figure, a level in Apex Construct to try out the style, level of details, level design and what works and not in VR.
Fathr Figure, finished art and layout for Apex Construct
Block out and speed models from Hello World
Final in game art for Hello world
Finding Apex Construct visual characteristics and style was an experimental journey full of challenges. It was the very first game we built together, with a modest art team of just a few individuals, a limited time of pre-production, while doing virtual reality exploration with AAA quality as a target, and we chose to develop for multiple VR platforms simultaneously. Those were just a few of the many obstacles we had to overcome.
As there was a limited time of pre-production to define the core visual language, we used a lot of the production time to investigate, find and improve on the visuals with numerous of iterations in each discipline. During the block out phase, we tried to figure out the core elements of the design of in-game objects’ shapes and functions and interactives such as machines and tools. After experimenting with different styles and designs, it was decided to go for a look of 70s/80s but with futuristic functions in the assets. While the game would have an old industrial retro look, as if it took place many years ago, the technology in the world would be far more advanced than what we can find in real modern time, utilizing things such as teleportation and holographic elements.
Designs for Cygnia and Sumitus, two rivaling cooperation, shape and color scheme language.
Without spoiling the story of Apex Construct too much, it features two large-scale corporations, Cygnia and Summitus, both focusing on scientific industrial design, competing against one another. Not only the core beliefs of the companies are different but also the design and their branding. It was therefore decided to push the differences in shapes and silhouettes between the rivals to a point where it would be clear what belongs to whom. Cygnia received the look of old, robust, industrial design with emphasis on chunky and angular corners. While Summits has a more sleek, round and modern design with a focus on smooth surfaces and soft slanted corners. Summits did unfortunately not debut in this game as seen content, only written and told off.
To achieve results fast, without time to make concept art for a lot of the assets, we made a small style guide. It states basic principles on how to treat reference pictures, and what to be on lookout for when using real life as inspiration. Having a small team has its drawbacks but also benefits, only a few artists needed to understand how to achieve the same result in order for the world and characters to look coherent.
A quick paintover of a house in Stockholm to illustrate the number of details that should be present when translating a photo reference to an in-game model.
The importance of assets and environments in Apex Construct are to follow real-life object’s silhouette, shape, and color that distinguish the characteristics of the objects. Since it’s an action and exploration VR game, were you as a player move around in a physical space rather than viewing it on a screen, keeping lifelike scale and measurements were important to make sure that the player feel like they enter a new world that could potentially exist, just more vibrant, colorful and simplified in details than real life. The scale was also important to not break immersion by creating uneasiness by not using recognizable proportions. By testing, we found that scale was an important factor in evoking feelings of uneasiness or make something fragile etc. especially for intractable as you don’t want the player to feel off when holding something in the virtual space. It needs to feel right in the player’s hand, which is also a reason why we played with realistic proportions and details rather than the overly exaggerated scale of the whole object, since it may cause discomfort or break immersion. Everything that looks interactable need to be set up for interaction, like opening cabinets, toilet lids etc. If it’s not possible to interact with, it should be removed from the game or made intractable. Also, one of many reasons to remove details or enhance was due to interaction purposes.
Mailboxes from Stockholm used as references for modeling
Mailboxes based on a real Swedish ones, but made to fit the style of Apex Construct, in-engine screenshot.
Basically, Apex Construct is based on realism with limited exaggeration in details and lack of cluster and noisy details. Small details to keep and exaggerate are those that are important for telling the story of the game’s assets, such details are rust, moss, damage and wood grain. Other examples of details that have been exaggerated rather than removed are bolts and tear, in which has been emphasized for medium details and silhouette changes. Details that are not essential for telling the story of an object, or results in stronger jittering and artifact at distances, have been removed. Examples of such are plastic surface noise, fabric material, and dust.
Katarina Hissen (Katarina Elevator) landmark in Stockholm, photo. Serves as a reference for in-game models.
Apex Construct variant of Katarina Hissen (Katarina Elevator) landmark in a stylized manner.
Material definition – Painterly look
As shapes and silhouettes are very important for stylization, so is the material definition as well. Not only for exaggerating and removing details, but also to keep colors vibrant for an attractive look. There is a fine balance between where it looks plain and where textures may get too over-saturated. At FTG, we have been experimenting a lot with how to achieve a balanced stylization without going too cartoony or realistic, which gave the idea of blending a painterly look into the textures. By adding a more painterly feeling, the assets got shapes of color splashes in the textures, adding to an unclean and disordered surface without specifically adding dirt to it. With this additional texture detail, we could avoid noisy surfaces and obtain a more stylized post-apocalyptic design, without adding gritty and dark colors. The painterly feeling also allowed us to focus on larger areas of details, rather than spend time on small details and losing the stylized direction. The key to stylized art, in general, is to work with large shapes and details. The painterly look connected the stylization and the realistic proportion to create a coherent style, a stylized realism.
Example of painterly look in the albedo map.The painterly look has been done by hand in Photoshop in most scenarios, though to speed up production, custom filters has been made with Quixel Ddo to use as a base to paint upon.
Faint highlights and shadows are added in the albedo and specular maps to make the stylization pop
2D Concept Art
For the general setting and mood, thumbnails, sketches, and 2d drawings were used as inspiration in addition to the gathering of photo references from the surroundings of Stockholm. Most sketches are line art, rough shapes, and colors without details. The purpose is to give general directions and ideas at the start of production, which later became less important as assets got finished and could be used as benchmarks for the rest of the game art. Below are some early concepts, thumbnails, and sketches from the world of Apex Construct.
Early mood pictures of inside the factory settings of Cygnia. In the end this was too dark and gritty with a overflow of details that didn’t feel like Apex Construct.
Early small thumbnail of the robotic dog design. Playing with shapes to figure out an overall silhouette design for robots in Apex Construct.
This concept is an early idea of the shift that has happened in the world of Apex Construct.
One of the last concepts made was for the vista in the Hello World level.
3D Concept Art
Since we had a moderate art team with different specialties, we utilized a mixture of 2d and 3d concepts, to try out various designs for special assets such as complex machines or player objects. The 3d concepts were mostly speeding models with rough and blocky shapes to illustrate basic silhouettes and functions. It was also beneficial for VR content creation, since it allowed us to try out designs immediately in the engine, and made it possible to make quick changes and tweaks. More complex objects that require interaction from the player utilized this concept method, as it allowed us to try out a scale, rigging and animation possibilities and not just see it in a flat angle in a drawing.
Example of quick 3d shape concept iteration for the main props in the game; the bow.
3d concepts of the bear boss head to try quickly try out shape and silhouettes that can later be iterated on for the final model
Another useful method was to do paintovers on the 3d concepts. It also allows for rapid ideas for the color scheme and enhancing the scenery itself for mood and lighting, without having to finalize any in-game content. As the blockouts’ purposes were to try out the scale and feeling for room and space and iterated on gameplay, the paintovers brought forth some new ideas while the 3d artist could work on other sections of the environment.
The result from a paintover of an early Homebase level.
Screenshot from early blockout of the lobby entrance in Fathr Figure.
A paintover of the lobby entrance in Fathr Figure based on above screenshot.
Early quick blockout elevator shaft in Hello world
Paintover on the elevator shaft in Hello world to illustrate colors and mood, based on above screenshot.
It’s been a long year of finding an appealing art style that is both fun and challenging to work with, but also work well within the virtual world. Our goal was to engage the player and give everyone an enchanting experience that you like to escape too many times. Hopefully, we successfully made the world of Apex Construct feel inviting and a place you like to visit again and again.
Thanks to our artist working on Apex Construct, James Hunt (Animation), Joacim Lunde (Art), Karin Bruér (Art), Kim Aava (Art), Kristoffer Björnör (Animation), Andreas Glad (Freelance VFX), Mikael Eriksson (Concept Art Intern), Joakim Hellstedt (Freelance Concept Art), Max Huusko (Freelance Concept Art), Michael Manalac (Freelance Concept Artist) and Rickard Westman (Freelance Concept Art).
Stay tuned for Apex Construct Behind the scenes Part 2: Stylization in Technical Details, covering the methods and know-how of achieving stylization in VFX, animation, and lighting for VR development.