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David Lesperance shared the details of his huge Indie project Crimson Moon that combines the artist’s love of heavy metal, horrors and video games and is solely managed by him.
Hey all, my name is David Lesperance. I’m a Lead Environment Artist at NVIDIA. At the moment I am working on a number of things, however in terms of personal projects right now my indie game Crimson Moon is taking most of the free time.
I’ve never done a 2D side-scroller before and set a number of goals with this project:
- build a game
- publish it
- figure out a pipeline where I can leverage both 3D and 2D (planning the next version of the game that looks totally different)
- work on a bunch of stuff I’m horrible at (characters, coding, animation, and design)
- build a multi-platform game
I wanted to do something different but still work on my 3D skills as well. I also wanted to do something that looked different from a lot of the stuff I did. I was originally going to do straight sci-fi fps but there’s a lot of that stuff out there like this. So, I asked myself what I liked. Heavy Metal, Horror, video games and working out. I also spent some time figuring out what got me into this field in the first place. I am always so busy and working all the time that I lost sight of that.
Castlevania was a huge thing for me and my older brother Derek when growing up, so I figured that it would be a great source of inspiration to start with.
The Beginning of the Project
I’m a huge fan of studying new workflows and learning other people’s painful points in a production. I think we are at an inflection point in Game Art at the moment. The tools are powerful, they are getting more powerful and easier to use, and there is so much high-quality art everywhere. I mean, seriously people are so talented, it’s amazing. But I feel that the future of the development will require more T-shaped skills.
I don’t really consider myself an artist, to be honest. I use art to help develop products. In regard to workflows, I’m always trying to find ways to make the job faster, easier and more responsive to change, and also how to integrate what I do with others. One of the best ways to do that is to do some of their jobs.
The project started off as a full 3D game. Once I got into it though I started focusing just on the art. It was totally fine but since I also had a number of other goals, – publishing, learning blueprints and a bit of C++, design work, characters, and developing my poor animating skills – I finished with the look the game has now.
All the assets are actually 3D, I uploaded a few models on ArtStation. They all go through the same high to low process. I just render them onto cards in V-Ray and do some post work in Photoshop to give them that retro-style look by limiting bit and color space.
I started the project several months ago, like 6-9, it’s the longest personal project I’ve ever done, and it totally has given me some grey hair.
The process is totally organic. I’ve never built aside scroller before so I have literally no idea what I am doing. I do sketches in Photoshop, do a rough layout in Unreal using sprites, then change a bunch of stuff then rinse and repeat. I have to split my time between tasks so one day it’s environment art, the next – characters, then animation, then programming, then design.
I work full-time, and sometimes working on the project when my wife is sleeping, so I don’t really have time to plan the whole process. I actually think this is helping me a lot because I have to focus on things that I need for the project. I’m really shooting for a multi-platform game so I’m trying to create something that will run on PC, mobile, and console. This is a challenge and my hat’s off to people who do this and make it work well.
Like I mentioned earlier the assets go through the same process as standard game assets do: high to low, retopo and UVs. I’m using Unfold 3D which saved me with UVs this project. I then get the assets into 3ds Max and render them out through V-Ray with a lighting rig I made for the sprites. When I first started I didn’t know how I was going to do lighting. I wanted to have it so I could either use vertex colors for lights or have the option to do a full PBR thing. As of right now, I’m somewhere in the middle.
The environment sprites get packed manually onto 2k textures. I think for the game right now there are 4 2k textures for the environment. The characters and animations are a bit more complicated and are packed using a program called Texture Packer. Their UE preset is amazing and honestly, I didn’t discover it till about 2 months ago (that is why you should always read direction). It’s very good at handling and optimizing sprite animations.
I hate animation and I hate rigging. But again I needed to know other people’s pain so I jumped into that. Most of the bipeds are rigged using Max’s biped system, with some super basic MoCap on it and then some hand clean up. The projectiles are using some things in Blueprint like timelines and rotations. I use a lot of volumes to trigger AI turning on and off. Still not perfect but it’s heading towards the right area. A lot of the timing of the projectiles and attacks come down to play-testing. I’m sure I will change this as I roll more and more people on to test it. Plus I am hugely influenced by the games likes Castlevania and Ikaruga as I love them.
The lighting is a combination of both Vertex Coloring and using non-shadow casting static lights with distances to turn them on and off to avoid paying for the additional overhead of stationary. Considering how the game runs off textures for animations and the world (too much texture memory), I wanted to avoid additional memory of the lightmaps. Given the view from the player’s perspective I have really great culling and with the ability to disable and enable Stationary Lights (thank you, Epic) I can get stuff that runs really well and gives me a lot of control. I’m using exponential height fog as well which is really nice because the level gets foggier as you move down lower through the castle.
One of the most important things I would recommend to the artists who want to become developers is to learn more about the technical side of the engine you are working in. It’s SUPER important. A cool prop doesn’t mean anything if that process can’t scale and more importantly run and – even more importantly – respond to change. You should make the pipeline and the art assets more flexible to avoid a ton of pain, which means that artists should be flexible too, willing to learn new things.
I’m going to digress a little, but the next part is super important as well:
Do not sweat the small stuff. You can always come back and fix something. That slightly messed up smoothing group that is causing an issue on a prop which is never going to be seen like you see it in Substance or Maya, or Max will kill you, your time and the project’s budget. I can’t tell you how many people and products I have seen where Art Directors and artists wasted themselves over the most unimportant things and it always causes them to miss the mark on something else. My biggest goal when doing this stuff is to try to get to the users as fast you can and as stable as you can. That way you can respond to their feedback. User feedback is frankly the most important thing because they keep the lights on. “Pixel f*/5ing” is not a skill. It’s actually a total lack of skill in my opinion. I look at it like this: if I have 100% of focus when I start something, I have to split into several parts for about 20 different things. It means that not everything neither can nor should get 100% of my focus. Otherwise, the product is going to be a mess. Generation of the games has shown us very clearly that crazy high-end art that has been groomed and focused on to the highest level does not lead to the user satisfaction or a great game. We are making ourselves happy, not our customers.
Well, were quite many challenges. Time is a huge issue. I wish I could work on this thing full-time, but I don’t have the funds, so the only option left is late nights and no weekends (it’s frankly is horrible for a marriage).
Programming has always been an issue for me because of my Dyslexia. But Unreal 4 has done some great things to help artists learn logic and move forward. Blueprints are great for getting things going. When I started the project, Unreal helped me do a lot of stuff on my own. I’m also better at working with programmers and designers now because of this. Also, it’s hard to work on stuff your not good at. Everyone wants the likes and followers. And everyone wants to specialize in something, I get it to a certain level because for now studios want that due to the current approach: artist A turns this, artist B gets artist A’s stuff into the game, then artist C gets everything to run. It’s kind of crazy, at least for my own needs and wants. My advice is to go deep into an area, and then go wide. I started with the environments and getting complicated stuff done fast and efficiently, but I also learned how to do some game logic, lighting, characters, rigging (at least to some extent), optimization.
I’d say the biggest and hardest problem is not just with the game but trying to avoid trends. I love ArtStation, but there are so many robots and sci-fi everywhere. It all looks the same. Not to knock anyone who likes doing it – do it if you love it whatever I or anyone else says. However even though as a human I want appreciation, as a developer I need to look at what I am creating.
The next big push it to get Crimson Moon to Alpha which means I need to wrap up two more zones of the map and add probably another 6-10 enemies and two more bosses. Then push out the project for play-testers. The play-testing will probably start next month or so. There’s also an additional mode that I’m working on to help with replayability. Work is busy so I have to contend with that. I’m going to need to bring a programmer or someone to help handle the ports to the consoles. I’d love to bring people on to help but I need funds to do that. Until that happens it will be just me, a stressed-out David. I’m targeting PS4, Xbox One, Switch, IOS, and Steam. The Steam version will probably come out first.
Thanks a lot for your attention!
David Lesperance, Lead Environment Artist at NVIDIA
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev