Hi Elliott, This is a great breakdown and very generous in sharing your process and insights, you came a long way from the vending machine days!
Are you planning on releasing the UE4 project to the public? Or only builds? I'd love to play around with it in the editor if possible!
We were fortunate enough to discuss the production process behind DICE‘s Battlefield 1 with 3D artist David Olofsson. David was responsible for many aspects: the art assets of the behemoths, weathering shaders, destruction models and other details that make Battlefield 1 one of the most technically advanced and beautiful games released.
I am David Olofsson and I work as a 3D Artist at DICE in Stockholm. I have been interested in 3D art since my brother, Peter Hermanrud, showed me the basics of 3D when I was younger. While spending some time playing around with 3D models for games, I asked around on how I could get into the industry. I got the recommendation to study at The Game Assembly in Malmö, where they have dedicated game art programs, to learn the tools of the trade.
After 2 years of studying there, I was offered a six-month internship at DICE, which I was more than happy to accept. After the internship, I was hired and I have been working there ever since. I have had the opportunity to contribute on Battlefield 4, Battlefield 4 Naval Strike, Battlefield Hardline, and now Battlefield 1. These have all been a joy to work on, and I have been surrounded by really great people during them.
For me, Battlefield 1 is defined by being about the dawn of all-out war. It is a way to experience the origins of modern warfare, through the use of strange and exciting weapons, tanks, planes and ships, some of which you have probably never seen before. That is what makes it unique, together with the sheer scale and detail of things.
We tried to bring a fresh look to it, to meld it with the core pillars of the Battlefield franchise, while at the same time being authentic about the map locations, armies and the weapons that existed in the era.
Personally, my favorite aspect of the game is the incredible variety the game has to offer. You can fly with fighter planes, drive torpedo boats, fire field-cannons and drive mighty tanks. It is this variety that makes me wanting to keep coming back to the game.
I have spent time on various aspects of art in the game, but my main responsibilities were the art assets of the behemoths. This involved being part of how the assets were going to look, work and be implemented technically. They were very demanding tasks because of their huge size and complexity, and their functionality required the involvement of many different disciplines.
Me and other talented artists spent considerable time making sure these beasts looked as good as possible while still running smoothly, working closely together with our fantastic vehicle designers and programmers.
I think the most fun I had working with these epic vehicles was when we were constructing the bombastic death sequences for them, as a sort of fireworks show as a reward to players for taking them down. Our brilliant VFX team really brought out the unique flavour in each of the behemoths. And seeing the dreadnought ship sink while having its turrets fly off, as its shrapnel is hitting airplanes passing by, really made my day.
Photogrammetry can be very useful, but in the end it is just another tool for reference gathering, as a way of optimizing some steps in the process of building assets. We have used it for gathering references for many pieces of the environment to get the most authenticity and believability possible when we actually start building in-game art.
However, when it came to recreating warships, armored trains and other similar things, this was not possible since they were too old, and dismantled and scrapped many, many years ago. So that is when we had to lean much more on old photographs and films, and piece these old machines together from a variety of sources. Also, when it comes to trying to use photogrammetry on complex mechanical machines, such as machine guns with dozens of interconnected parts, we did not find it very practical. Getting our hands on all of the 100 year old weaponry, let alone dismantling them to try to use photogrammetry on them, was not an option.
Photogrammetry definitely has its place in the industry though, to help artists reach the ever increasing demands of graphical fidelity on some types of assets.
Hard Surface Work
I approach it in the usual way; get loads and loads of references, white-box the asset to get other disciplines on-board, and then proceed to model all the details and bake it down to a low poly. Then as we playtest we continually make changes until we are happy with the result and the art meshes with the gameplay. Maya and Photoshop carried most of the workload, together with Frostbite.
When starting out working on Battlefield 1 we knew that destruction was going to play a major part in the game’s identity. We looked at previous games and tried to take it even further by making it even more dynamic and satisfying to look at.
However, creating destruction is very time-consuming. You have to look at real world references, compare it to players expectations, work together with gameplay designers and ultimately create something that still runs smoothly together with all other moving parts. It is a very daunting task, and is often marred with technical difficulties. An asset that has destruction often takes twice the amount of time to create than an asset without. But once you get it working, there are few other games that manage to produce the same amount of epic destruction.
Creating mechanical things, which I spent most of my time on the project on, can get quite complex, and can sometimes be very unforgiving. It is sort of like laying a puzzle, except you create the puzzle pieces yourself. And if the pieces do not fit together, there is not much you can do more than to go back to your references and try to figure out why.
Fortunately we have so many people interested in mechanized warfare that we usually managed to figure out the most crucial bits – and where the reference was lacking, the inner engineer/artist had to step forward and try to figure out “How would I have built this in 1917?”. I have learnt many things over the course of the project, and it has really been an extremely engaging subject.
The behemoth was a very challenging vehicle to build, but also a lot of fun. I took a similar approach to this just like all the other, with the exception that is was just a lot bigger! We started out with a white-box and then tried out different ways we could visually represent damage.
We realized soon that modeling each different hole would run the polycount up very quickly, so I tried a different approach. I masked out dozens of areas of the balloon in a sort of honeycomb pattern, and when they take damage, they visually deteriorate using shader parameters. This way we could save on polygons, while also avoiding ‘popping’ when we switch from an undamaged state to a damaged one.
Then I moved on to the gondolas, where instead of simply blowing them up, I wanted them to have a bit more depth to their destruction. So I made them not just explode, but then swing around before dropping down to the ground, crashing into unsuspecting players hiding in houses. It was immensely satisfying seeing such a simple idea work out so well!
The most difficult part of it was the whole flying behemoth development was the crashing death sequence. When we started looking into it years ago, many were very sceptical about even trying to do it the way it is implemented today – and for good reason! Having a two hundred meter long metal framed beast smash into the map, leveling villages and players alike, without grinding the game to a halt is no easy matter.
We even thought about automatically letting it fly out of the player space before dropping down to avoid this issue altogether. However in the end, the sheer spectacle of having it drop right in the middle of the player space made the effort completely worth it, and hearing the reactions from the first playtests after our talented scripters and programmers had implemented this, we knew we had something special happening here. A giant fireball falling down, covering your screen sure has a quite visceral reaction!
This time around we had a lot bigger focus on weather, and since I was sitting with both vehicles and weapons at the time I took the opportunity to learn a bit more about the shaders that they use. So I took a dive into the Frostbite shader editor and with help from our talented technical artists I was able to work on a range of shader driven effects such as rain and mud, dust and dents and so on. These are a collection of different shader chunks used depending on size and direction, and then we added them all together, masking them to where it is appropriate, so we can have all the interesting variation blended together at the same time. I think this really tied the vehicles and weapons together with the environment in a quite convincing way, and was also one of the most fun details to work on.