Environment artist Trent Sivek discussed the way he approached the production of the amazing graduate project at Ringling College of Art & Design.
My name is Trent Sivek and I am a recent graduate of Ringling College of Art & Design. After four years as a student in the school’s Game Art program, I am looking to enter the games industry as a developer. While I have been branching myself out to be somewhat of a generalist, my primary focus of expertise is in the visual aesthetics of games. My most recent project that I have been pouring into for the past year is also my senior thesis for Ringling; a project I have titled Phonetica.
Phonetica began with a couple of small sketches I made a day before we were to pitch our ideas for preproduction class.
You may note that the girl on the left paved the way to Phonetica’s protagonist, Teah the tuba girl.
After making Teah, my concept for Phonetica developed rather quickly. To me, musical fantasy is an incredibly compelling theme, and was a clear direction to take my project in.
One of the major issues in preproduction was gauging just how large and interactive I should make the project; after all I was to be its sole contributor. My class wasn’t required to make our projects all that playable, as this was an art school first and foremost, but I personally wanted to challenge myself. Games aren’t movies. In a game, aesthetics do more than set the mood, they influence behavior. I wanted to learn more about that aspect of game design, so I was determined to make my project fully playable from the outset.
I knew the project would contain two key environments in and in front of a musical palace; both of which consist of a smaller area and a larger area. I also planned to create 3 characters, a tutorial, a fetch quest, and a boss battle with 3 stages. It was a little daunting for one student to tackle, but I knew where to start. I began with the player character Teah herself. How quick does she move? Can she jump? If so, how high? These things would determine the mechanical boundaries of the playable space. I would then block out the garden and the throne room thinking primarily about the overall pacing of the experience I planned to make. I asked myself how long I wanted the player to spend on each area and sized it according to how long it took me to walk around in the game’s prototype.
The next largest mechanic decision that informed my environments involved the camera. Having been familiar with games like Super Mario 64 and Jet Force Gemini, I knew I could tango with the most janky of camera systems myself, but knowing that camera control is one of the most challenging/frustrating aspects in 3D games, I thought it best to keep the learning curve as simple as possible. This meant wresting camera control away from the player and determining the view based on player location. In part this decision made the scenes less dynamic and it gave me more blueprint scripting work to handle, but it helped to cut down how much I had to pay attention to in building the environment as I didn’t need to focus on areas the camera won’t ever see.
With the movement and camera logic determined, I was able to properly set the scale of my environments and was prepared to begin fleshing out the individual assets.
Nearly all of the assets for Phonetica were built using Maya, with a few assets being brought into Zbrush like the statues and the large tree. To shorten the scope of environment production, I took a heavily modular approach to each environment, and looked for any way possible to reuse assets without being too obvious about it. I’ve likely spent much more time in Unreal’s editor dressing the scenes than I did actually modeling and texturing the individual assets. However, repetition (and symmetry) can become boring if used too liberally so I utilized a few principles to break up the scene and make it more dynamic. Variation in the player’s navigable space, clustering of assets, world space gradients, and lighting were all used to this effect.
When determining on the colors I mostly decided upon strong array of saturated colors; just every primary and secondary color along with white and black. However, I did prefer using primary colors over secondary colors. I used these bright primaries to make Teah fit in with the game world itself as well as to bring an intense amount of child-like energy to the game.
Many of my materials are fairly basic considering what’s possible in Unreal’s physics-based rendering (PBR) system. Part of the reason for that is to decrease scope, but also I didn’t want to interrupt the gradients in the scene with a lot of detail. A lot of the gradients were not built into the material texture but are determined by math in the material itself. For instance I wanted a rainbow gradient for the top color of the hedges that would emanate outward from the front steps of the palace, and then when the color reached red it would continue as red forever onward no longer shifting hue. A lot of the math for gradients was trial and error until I got it right.
Being heavily inspired by the Paper Mario series, I wanted Teah to have a similar feel as Mario in those games. In the end, the animation of Teah is a Frankenstein of elements all working together. The arms are static meshes that are swapped. The body is rigged to be able to bend backwards. The feet and hairtail are rotated based on player movement input. A stretch and squash timeline plays each time upon jumping and landing. A dynamic material is used to change the texture for Teah’s facial expressions. And there are other controls for shouting, twirling, and being knocked over.
When it comes to the boss character, Morgan, I thought it would be fun and playful to give him a much more standard humanoid design which serves to contrast against Teah’s simplification. This time I used the online resource Mixamo to help me out. After the character is auto rigged, I unbound the lower half of Morgan’s body and tweaked some simple animations in Maya’s animation timeline. The opening animation for Morgan however is completely personally animated using Maya.
I did achieve a lot of the grandness of the environments from the use of intense lines, both vertical and converging, but I would say that motion is an equal contributor to the sense of scale. I attempted to incorporate parallax in every corner of the game where I could. Unfortunately for the garden area, this meant there were a lot of tall objects passing in front of the camera, so I had to make a fade-out material function to help with visibility.
Indeed, the most graphically intense aspect of my game is lighting by a large margin, even though most of the lights in my game do not use shadow casting. In the Palace Gardens area, an effect I really wanted to challenge myself to make is a setting sun, meaning that my directional light for the sun is a dynamic actor. This meant that things like bounce light couldn’t be built into the static lighting of the scene, so to compensate I used multiple light actors to artificially simulate bounce lighting in the garden. Of course it wasn’t perfect, but I think it felt appropriate given the more simplified style that I enforced within my material surfaces. But generally the main reason I wanted the setting sun was to give a point of transition between the high-key lighting of the first area, and the low-key lighting of the second area, to provide a sense of rising action as well as overall progression as players attempt to complete the garden quest.
The interior of the palace was not as tricky to light as the garden area was, mainly because I actually used static lighting and there were a lot less mesh actors to worry about. My intention for the throne was to make a space where the player feels like they are inside a giant instrument, so I intentionally added a lot of unmotivated lighting to give an impossible quality to the environment.
One of the most important things things I learned from this project is the importance of planning. As much as iteration is a huge part of game development, it is beneficial to not have to discard many hours of work because of incompatibility with new changes. I’m sure that if I had tried to shoehorn in gameplay functionality after I already built the scenes (as I have seen some fellow classmates attempt) the process would have been longer, more frustrating, and more prone to game breaking bugs.
I would say that I succeeded in creating a cohesive theme for my experience, but the main drawback I had was with the sound design. Phonetica after all is a musical fantasy, so sound should be a vitally important element, but with the amount of time I had to build this project I am afraid I wasn’t able to incorporate much on that front.
I have to thank Ringling College’s Game Art program for their invaluable instruction, as well as the amazing software engineers who build these tools that make art easier and more accessible than it ever has been. There is still so much I would love to create surrounding Phonetica, and while I am happy with what I have done so far in the past year, I hope my future work will push me to make things that are even more engaging or exciting.