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3D Character Artist Andrea Orioli talked about the production process behind his Dota 2 characters. Making money with your favorite game might be really easy.
Hi, my name is Andrea, I’m an Italian 3D artist, huge nerd, avid gamer, and still in love with ’90s punk-rock music.
It’s hard to define a precise moment in time when I decided “I wanna be a 3D artist for video games!”. I’ve been in love with video games since I had my first Sega Master System at the age of 6, and not much later I developed a love for drawing, so eventually these two passions converged into who I am today and what I do for a living. I still remember how impressed I was by Blizzard cinematics back when I had my first PC in mid-90s and that was sure something that pushed me to try 3D art for the first time with 3D Studio Max. Unfortunately back then in Italy there weren’t really schools that could give me an instruction on this subject, and having an internet connection was something that few could afford, so my only option was to grab a few books and start experimenting.
Eventually after few years of trial and error I improved enough to score a job at Milestone which is probably the biggest Italian video game studio, and from there my professional career started. My main focus initially has been hard-surface modeling though, it took several more years for me to start learning character art, and when I finally found out about the Dota 2 Workshop I had the perfect chance to focus on characters full-time.
Dota 2 Content
I first heard of the Dota 2 Workshop at the end of 2012 from a colleague of mine that was very much into the game. I already knew that Valve had created a workshop for Team Fortress 2 where game artists could earn some money from their creations, and I’ve always been curious to try it out, so the newborn Dota 2 Workshop seemed a great opportunity.
At the beginning I was quite rusty though. I never did video game modding before, and never even worked on a title with a fantasy art style, so I decided to start slow, creating a few simple weapons. I never though I could make a living by selling digital items though, such an idea was too far fetched in my opinion. I started realizing the potential of the Dota 2 Workshop only few months later when one of my items has been accepted. I took me another 6 months from that moment to have the guts and the economic stability to leave my full-time job and dive completely into creating items and sets for Dota.
Because of the nature of its gameplay, with a top down camera, Dota 2 items have quite heavy restrictions in both polycount and texture resolution.
The biggest challenge of creating assets for a game like this is to push detail and design as far as I can, while keeping it within the polygon and texture restrictions at the same time. It may sound kinda obvious, but it’s actually quite hard to keep the necessary balance between “awesome” and few thousand polygons with a handful of 256 textures.
For example, in my early creations, I would start sculpting a model and adding all sort of interesting visual elements to it without worrying too much of what was to come after. I then found myself in the situation where I had to go back and simplify the silhouette or make certain items symmetrical instead of unique, because I didn’t have enough poly budget or texture resolution. Having a rough plan of the whole pipeline and what you can or can’t afford to try is hard but it can be learned with experience and eventually it will save a lot of potential rework time.
Low Poly Modeling
Usually I start my pipeline of production in Zbrush, with or without a defined concept. It’s always nice to work with a drawn concept made by some great concept artist, but in the case I start a solo project, Zbrush is perfect for prototyping and try different ideas quickly. I usually will spend several days deciding what looks good and what needs changes, until I reach a somewhat final stage of design, with all the elements in place. From there I start detailing things and adding minors touch-ups until I have a nice looking final sculpt.
If I’ve done my planning job right, the subsequent retopo pass in 3ds max is usually pretty smooth and fast. During retopo I always try to make an efficient use of my triangles budget, dedicating more geometry to silhouettes, and leaving surface details and shapes to the normal map.
For my texturing process I rely a lot on the detail of my Zbrush sculpt and my baked textures.
Before starting to paint colors I go through the process of creating a base texture that allow me to balance information of curvature, directional light and ambient occlusion. Then on the top of this base map I start painting color, usually in Mudbox or 3D-Coat. This is probably my favorite phase of the whole creation process, because I finally begin to see the final result come to life and I can play with lots of color combinations and gradients.
The Dota 2 Workshop works as a sort of marketplace, where every artist can upload his creations.
All these models can be voted by whoever has a Steam account, and eventually Valve will pick the best creations to be accepted into the game. Valve grants a percentage on the returns of every unit sold to the authors of an accepted asset. This percentage was 25% at the beginning, but it has been adjusted several times through the years. Now I kinda lost track of what it is precisely to be honest.
For me working for Dota 2 has certainly been an amazing experience so far, both artistically and financially, it allowed me to become financially quite indipendent even without having to rely on a full-time job.
I don’t think it’s ever unreasonable to try to work for the Dota 2 Workshop. The doors are always open for whoever wants to try, although the times have changed from the early days when the Workshop started. The environment has become increasingly competitive year after year, filled with crazy talented artists, so trying to be noticed and eventually get a model accepted is getting harder and harder even for seasoned creators.
By nature trying a career in the Workshop is quite risky, cause you can’t be certain if and when one of your creation will be accepted in the game, so it’s wise to transition into it slowly while keeping your daily job as a safety net.
I think that it’s not unreasonable to consider the chance of making a living with UGC economies. Besides Dota 2, other games have embraced this philosophy, and I hope many more will in the future. Unity and Unreal Engine also offer quite interesting platforms for artists who want to create content for video games and sell them to other developers, so the options of choice are quite many.
I have some projects for Dota that I want to finish in the future months, and in the meanwhile I’m starting to look around in search of what could be my next adventure.