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Yekaterina Bourykina is an Associate Character Artist at Blizzard Entertainment who specializes in high and low poly modeling, unwrapping/packing, baking, and texturing. In this interview we learn a bit about her background, favorite tools, and tips for creating beautiful characters.
I currently live in California but I was born in Russia and grew up in Texas. I’m currently a character, creature, and weapons artist for World of Warcraft at Blizzard Entertainment. Before that I worked at PicturePlane Imaging which is a 2d and 3d illustration studio based out in Los Angeles, California, and Arlington, Texas. I was in the Arlington studio where we worked on a variety of projects stemming from games to toys to film. We worked with clients such as Hasbro, EA, Activision, Disney, LucasArts, THQ, and many more.
Approach to Character Design
My approach to character design is probably a bit chaotic, it’s always going to be case-to-case in a way. Is this a brand new character or an established one that I need to figure out the final idea for? Is it fanart of an existing character or a redesign of one? Is it male or female? Is this going to be a hand painted project, current gen, or PBR? If for hand painted am I going to fully sculpt out a high poly for an AO bake or partial sculpt or even a sculpt at all? What do I have time for? What do I feel like doing? Is this going to be realistic or stylized? Super high end details, in between, or simple?
At this point I know if I want to work on a male or a female, I usually go with female characters because their design is more interesting to work on for me. I can work on male designs at work anyways. For a piece that I am going to put real time into I usually go with my natural style, which is manhwa-ish, (Korean style) I’ve been admiring Korean artists for over 15 years. Now for the actual character, what do I have in mind? Is this a warrior of sort? Is it a knight, an archer, a musketeer? Or is it a space pirate? Scifi or fantasy? Maybe play with both? Intergalactic space cowboy knight? Is she a strong character? Is she the cold silent ruthless type? Maybe the charismatic flirt that would assassinate you in the a blink of an eye? Whatever the ideas are I pull up references on my Pinterest and make a secret board based on those, so lots of armour, costumes, art, fabrics, weapons, color palettes, and whatever else that inspires me to draw.
I’m a bit more of a functional designer rather than over the top, though I would totally make a character run around in unicorn kigurumi pajamas throwing acid filled cupcakes at people as an attack just depends on what I am going to be in the mood to make. So back to references, found awesome shoulder armour, great *makes own version and draws a few key pieces and then the rest supports the design.* Now found an awesome jacket but it doesn’t work with the shoulder armour *draws another version without shoulder armour.*
In real life, if I am looking to wear an outfit I’m not going to wear a bright colorful shirt, bright colorful pants, bright colorful jacket, that would clash and your eye wouldn’t know where to look first or where to rest. So I would want something with with a key piece, a nice bright colored shirt with a striking design and then the rest of the outfit would support it, same thing with the accessories, maybe a nice necklace to lead the eye to the shirt, but then no crazy big earrings. So when designing a character I try and remember I need something to catch the eyes or have an overall idea, and then have detailed areas and areas of rest. Usually the top half of the character is detail heavy because that’s where people would pay attention to most, so the legs have a bit more breathing room. I’ll also have little details that go throughout the design to tie things together, buttons on the chest? Awesome, adding them to the boots, and the gloves and belt.
While designing I actually sit around thinking about how I am going to model the design, does it have puffy big sleeves? Not a fan of weird edge loops in the shoulder area, design better be worth it if it does. Do I want her halves to be symmetrical or mostly symmetrical? What type of limitations do I want for her? Maybe symmetrical except in the face, hair, chest, and a few other areas that will make her feel asymmetrical without having to be fully, which will allow me to have more texture room and still be creative. Sometimes I like the first or the second idea I draw, but I know if I do a few more sketches I’ll like something more and I’ll be better. So I tend to do 6-10 ideas and then pick one or pick two and redraw the two into one.
Process of Creating Game Characters
When starting to make the character in 3d I generally have already decided if I want it to be hand painted, current gen, or PBR. If I am making a hand painted character I can be relaxed while sculpting because anything that isn’t perfect, I can fix in the diffuse only texture, if it’s a current gen or PBR I need to make sure my sculpt is pretty polished so my maps turn out super clean.
I usually start off with a base that I already have created previously in 3ds Max and sculpted in Zbrush. It has decent loops in the lowest subdivision, so when making a low poly later, I can reuse pieces of it, particularly the face. I sculpt out the body, the face usually resembles features that I find aesthetically pleasing, though subjected to change since I’ve decided it’s going to be a hand painted diffuse only character and I feel out characters much more when I’m on their texture phase. In Zbrush I usually just mask out areas and extract subtools, or I dynamesh a sphere into the shape and sculpt from there. I always work with Zbrush when it comes to organic characters, if I were making a mech character or anything mechanical, I’d build it in a primary 3d program like 3ds Max, and create controlled edge loops to hold shape when the pieces have a turbosmooth on.
I feel like the most useful tools for a character artist are programs like 3ds Max or Maya, then sculpting programs like Zbrush, for unwrapping I personally prefer Headus UVLayout, for baking maps I like Topogun, and xNormal, and for texturing I prefer 3d Coat and Photoshop, and then my personal real-time renderer of choice at home is Marmoset 2.
My favorite texturing tool is 3d coat, I am a primarily a hand painted texture style artist so 3d coat is my best friend. It’s amazing because you can paint directly in the program and create your own brushes for painting, or you can bring in a projection of the model and paint on top of them in Photoshop as if it was an illustration and then project the details directly back on the model in 3d.
At some point I would love to try out Substance Painter, I hear really great things about it.
Creating Character Textures
Creating textures for a character is probably the most important step, a good texture can make a model, a bad one can break one. When unwrapping a model I always make sure to utilize as much space as I can, the textures will be shrunk down in-game so I can’t waste space. When starting actual texturing I always bake out Skylight and an Ambient Occlusion maps in Topogun using my sculpt for baking the detail off of, and then I also do a quick AO bake just from the in-game model in 3d Coat. That gives me a good base to start off with and then I just paint it until I am happy with it (personal art) or until it matches the game (work).
In-game Models VS. Sculpted Models
So in-game models are low poly models, though many now are getting more mid-poly with all the new tech. A sculpt/high poly model is a super heavy model with millions of polies and it is used to bake the data off for the creation of maps to apply to an in-game model so it looks like it’s a the detailed high poly. To create an in-game character you use primary programs like 3ds Max to build geometry with proper edge loops so that animators can later control those loops for animation.
Challenges of a Character Artist
Some of the biggest challenges with character models are making sure they work as they were intended. There might be issues with the rig, the animations, harsh clipping of pieces into other pieces, fx, shaders, maybe there are issues with the engine and the model is just exploding or the texture map isn’t pushing through so there is a grey model walking around or wearing a texture from another model. Anything and everything can go wrong. Best way to get things fixed is being prepared to problem solve and work with teammates for a solution. Always try and stay a few steps ahead anticipating problems if there could be one. Communication between teammates is key.
Relation Between Game Environments and Game Characters
When creating characters for already established environments, we need to make sure the character fits into the style of the game and the style of the world. We wouldn’t see Master Chief in a Zelda game, why? He’s from a scifi world and he doesn’t match the style of the game. So when developing characters for a game everything needs to be harmonized and there needs to be a set style. Realistic environment? Then realistic characters. Stylized environment? Stylized characters. Of course people can push and pull styles, but as long as everything works together and looks like it belongs.
User Generated Creations
I feel like user generated creations are perfectly fine, it lets someone express who they are online and in the game’s world. It might be through the character customization like in Black Desert or something like wearing a particular armour set in an MMO. People want to show off what they have earned in a game or who they are as a person and that’s perfectly fine, the game was made for the players.
Favorite Video Game Characters
I think some of my most beloved characters are Yoshi, Link, Charmander/Charizard, and Ivy Valentine. I grew up on Mario and Zelda, so Yoshi became one of my favorites quickly, especially when Yoshi got it’s own games. I used to play Zelda with my dad ever since I was 5 or 6 and Link has always held a dear place in my heart and I still love Zelda games when it comes to gameboy or 3ds, I like him more pixely! I love pokemon, I loved the show and still love the games and Ash’s Charmander, now Charizard, is still one of my old time favorites and when I can have a Charizard as a main in a pokemon game, I always do. I also grew up playing fighting games, I loved Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat, but I think Soul Calibur is really a series that pulled me in. At my old best friend’s house we had *our* main characters and I ended up getting Ivy because most of the other girls I liked were taken, but I ended up loving her and her *second* costume (blue captain’s outfit) because her moves were amazing and you had to know how to use her when playing her.
I think automatic character creation is alright when it comes to crowds somewhere in the far back where you can’t really tell anything about the character other than it’s some generic shirt and pants wearing silhouette. I feel like for a full control over a game all characters need to be created with care. They might be modular characters but as long as someone puts them together by hand and matches their parts to work together, then it’s fine. I just don’t want to see some grandpa character walking around with short shorts and pigtails, as funny as that could be, it would be out of place depending on the game and players wouldn’t get the experience they expected just because a program thought male_body_7 can be put together with shorts_15 and hairstyle_12.
I personally love the character creation options for Black Desert and Skyforge, I would spend hours making just one perfect character and I feel like that is very important for a player. I don’t know how much work goes into creating technology like that but I do wish more studios would use it. I don’t think it’s something that will take away from the creation of characters on a studio’s end, all those assets still need to be made and worked out for a player to customize a character with as many options as there are.