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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!
Senior Mech Artist at Epic Games Pete Hayes talked about his career and shared some of tips on the production of high-quality 3d robots, guns and other awesome stuff. Pete has been in the industry for quite some time and it’s a great honor for us to welcome him on 80.lv.
How did you get into the industry?
I was lucky enough to be raised around technology at a very early age. We had the very first pong console, an Apple II, Ohio Scientific, Commodore 64, and many different PCs over the years. I was obsessed with computers and technology from the start. I played games all the time both at home and scraping up quarters to hang out at the local arcade. Once home gaming consoles were introduced I got hooked for good and spent countless hours on the Atari 2600, Nintendo, and Super Nintendo.
I started my professional computer career in 1991 after having a family at a very young age. I needed to provide and was already proficient with computers so my step dad Randy and his sister Linda gave me my first break at their automated software testing company. I’ll be forever grateful to them for giving me my first break. I started at the bottom with data entry, formatting, and editing software reference manuals on an IBM PC in WinWord 2.0. My PC had 1mb of memory and a 200mb hard drive which sounds absolutely ridiculous considering current PC specs.
Even though it was a bit grueling at times I fell in love with working on a computer and slowly moved to more creative tasks. I taught myself graphic and print design, and later multimedia and web design. The job and everybody I worked with was amazing yet I yearned for even more creative subject matter, but didn’t know how to get into digital art for games or movies.
This was around 1996 and there wasn’t a lot of resources to learn online like there are today. My corporate job was right down the street from the Art Institute of Dallas so I decided to attend and try to expand my skill set. My first degree was in multimedia and web design and while taking those courses I was exposed to my first 3d modeling software. I knew instantly that’s what I wanted to do and enrolled in their 3d program immediately after finishing my multimedia degree.
I started with 3D Studio MAX R2 under the head 3d instructor Michael Eudy. He was a tough teacher but if you worked hard he pushed you and inspired you to be better. 3d modeling, especially back then, was very labor intensive work. I worked extremely hard and graduated with honors for both degrees. Obviously in today’s world there are a million ways to learn and break into the industry but for me at the time the Art Institute and Eudy as my instructor was an essential part of me making the transition from corporate design into entertainment.
Fairly soon after graduation I landed a 3 month temp to hire position at Ritual Entertainment. Most of the studio had just finished Heavy Metal FAKK 2 so I was put on a small junior team to work on the budget title Blair Witch Elly Kedward Tale. It was an insanely fun and crazy time and I loved everybody I worked with but unfortunately when it came time for a full time offer I couldn’t take the salary cut from what I was making in corporate since I had a family to support.
I got pulled back into the corporate world briefly, then returned to the Art Institute to teach and refresh my portfolio and skills. While back at the school I met a few extremely talented 3d artists one of them being Kevin Lanning. After he graduated he got top row on CG Talk and got discovered and hired by Epic. Shortly after I was lucky enough to have a top row model on CG Talk and Kevin got Epic to check out my work.
Epic didn’t need another hi poly modeler – this was still in the days of low poly models and hand painted textures for games, around 2002. Luckily they had a sister company called Scion that did and they finally hired me after I didn’t sleep for a few weeks working on the art test. A year later Epic hired all of the Scion team and I started my journey at Epic proper from there. I took a long and winding road to get into the industry but it proves that it’s never too late to chase your dreams. If you want something bad enough and are willing to work for it you can achieve anything.
Working at Epic
The first game I worked on at Epic was Unreal Championship 2. While we were wrapping up UC2 there was a small team working on what became Gears of War. Chris Perna and Kevin Lanning were already starting to develop the look of Gears starting with the Locust. While UC2 was an Unreal Engine 2.x project, the Gears project (called Warfare at the time) was using the new Unreal tech with normal mapping. Chris and Kevin were making insanely detailed hi poly models and I was completely blown away that you could make it look like your hi poly model was in a low poly game. I was hooked and was begging to work on the project as soon as I finished my tasks on UC2.
As soon as UC2 shipped I started on Gears with my very first model for the game being the chainsaw Lancer. At the time I had absolutely no clue that it would become what it did. I was lucky enough to find my passion for mechanical 3d modeling early in my career so weapons, vehicles and robots were always my main focus.
Because Epic was so small back then I became known as the “mech guy” and modeled almost all of the weapons and vehicles for the Gears trilogy as well as a few creatures, gibs, and other misc tasks. The original Gears team was extremely small so everybody on the team had a key role. I was so happy to have finally “made it” that I was possessed to get as much as possible into all the games so I could keep the dream alive.
As much as I felt that my early corporate career delayed my creative progress the skills I learned helped me greatly in the game development world. Being a professional, having good communication and teamwork skills, and most importantly getting things done on time are all crucial skills to have in addition to being a productive and friendly artist.
With Gears 1 obviously we didn’t know if it would be huge or not. We were under extreme deadlines so it was all a blur and I don’t think any of us knew how it would turn out. I think we did know we had something special and unique as it was one of the first games to use the new Unreal engine with normal mapping technology and we were very excited about the amount of perceived detail we could put into the game.
I felt an insane amount of pressure but not in a negative way and not from external forces. It was more pressure of just finishing the game as we had a locked deadline and putting as much cool stuff as we could before time ran out. Also the pressure to make my coworkers proud. We’ve always had an insanely talented art team so I’ve always felt pressure to keep up. Everybody who works at Epic has an incredible amount of passion and dedication. Gears 1 is still my favorite game I’ve ever worked on even though it was the hardest I’d ever worked in my life.
After the first Gears did well I felt a bit more pressure internally and externally, because people liked what we did and of course expectations are always higher on sequels. Our deadlines were always pretty aggressive so that kept us focused and at the end of the day you just do the best you can and hope you make the majority of people happy.
As far as creative freedom I had less on design but more on implementation. On the original Gears Chris Perna and Kevin Lanning had already done a huge amount of pre-production art especially on what became the Locust. Soon after Jerry O’Flaherty joined as Art Director and he worked closely with our concept artist Jay Hawkins to come up with the COG identity. After Gears 1 Chris Perna took over as Art Director and produced some amazing art himself in addition to continuing to direct Jay in his concepting.
For almost all of Jay’s concepts he would do rough poly base meshes then photoshop details and polish on top so I always had very defined and awesome concepts. For the entire Gears trilogy I got these amazing concepts so my job was to stay as faithful as possible to the concept but make it functional for gameplay, animation, fx, etc. That’s where I learned all of my mech skills and to collaborate and be a courteous developer.
There were other areas where I got to be more creative like modeling all of the character and creature gibs for the trilogy and collaborating closely on the implementation with code, fx, and animation. We had almost free reign and it’s the reason the games were as gory as they were.
I’ve always been a fan of horror, zombie, and monster movies and that had a huge influence on how I modeled the gore. I wanted to have goofy and fun gibs that were stylized and over the top. It’s almost always referenced when people talk about why they like Gears and that makes me very proud.
It depends on the project and what style of concept art I have. As I said for the Gears games I had very defined concepts with rough poly reference meshes so my proto meshes went very fast. With a game like Robo Recall the concepts were a little more loose and based on illustration and photo bashing so getting the proto meshes roughed in took a little bit longer. The majority of the time I’m working on an asset that is heavily tied to gameplay, animation, and fx so I focus on the articulation and engineering of it first.
Regardless of concept type I rough in a prototype mesh as quickly as possible and start to figure out how it will work. I create my own proto anims and try to test as much as possible before moving forward with detailing. I have a hard time modeling articulated parts without animating as I model so doing the basic animations along they way is critical to my process. This also helps give rigging and animation a blueprint to start from and speeds up the process.
Once I’ve worked out the basic functionality I start collaborating with the gameplay, animation, fx, and other departments to ensure I’m including everything I should to satisfy the needs of the game. Because I’m spending so much time figuring out the model and articulation I also come up with game and functionality ideas and suggest them to the team. Sometimes after I’ve worked through the proto mesh I might get additional concept paintovers to help dial the look back in after we have the functionality worked out.
Even if you do your homework and communicate with all collaborating team members you still need to produce the final low poly model in a way that you can accommodate tweaks and changes and be flexible in your implementation. My favorite part of video game development is the collaborative process and making something cooler than you could ever make alone.
For me being primarily a hard surface modeler it’s been more of an evolution of my existing tool set. I’ve been a 3ds Max user my entire career but of course it’s heavily scripted, customized UI, hotkeys, etc. I’m always having to work out animations and articulation through my entire modeling process so I never migrated completely to Zbrush or another program. I use Zbrush more when I need organics, flowing hard surface shapes, or heavy damage/weathering and Marvelous Designer for cloth.
With that said I’m always looking at tutorials and speed modeling videos regardless of what modeling package is being used. If I see a cool feature that I don’t have in Max I’ll look for scripts that will get me close to the same functionality without having to completely change packages.
There are definitely things that can’t be accomplished with scripts or customization such as CAD style modeling so the next new tool I want to add to my workflow is Fusion 360 as I see a lot of people doing incredible mechanical forms with it. Also people are doing amazing things with the new Live Boolean in Zbrush 4R8 and I’m using that more for select pieces on each model. Because I’m always under tight production deadlines it’s challenging to fold new scripts, tools, and techniques into my workflow but I try to do a refresh every 6 months or so.
I definitely have a passion for make believe sci-fi weapons as well as robots, vehicles, gadgets, etc. Basically anything sci-fi mech with a bunch of moving parts. With any articulated hard surface model I’m always thinking about it being as realistic as possible in the engineering and articulation as that will make it feel more believable and immersive in the game.
As I prototype and animate I’m always thinking about potential gameplay, animation, fx, sound fx, and material/texture work. The more ideas and potential I can put into my model then the more of a springboard my fellow developers have when they apply their expertise to the process and the cooler it ends up being in game.
At times we still have to use what I call “video game magic” where there is slight of hand or unrealistic engineering and as long as it feels cool in game that will always be more important than realism. We make sci-fi games so as long as the suspension of disbelief is there and it’s fun that’s all that matters.
Is there a difference between building guns for VR experiences, compared to third person game or an FPS?
Creating assets for third person games is always a bit less pressure as they take up less real estate on the screen and I just have to match the style and detail level of the characters and surrounding art of the game. You are contributing a smaller component to a larger image so there is a lot of visual information for you to feed off of and integrate with. It feels a lot more collaborative and easy to me.
Modeling first person weapons is more challenging because it’s always on the screen and always prominent. There is nowhere to hide, your art is being judged front and center. Knowing the exact FOV of the weapon, scale, angle, animations, fx, etc. is helpful because you know what have to work with and can focus on making that view look the best that it can. First person weapons are fun to model but they can be very difficult to get right as every single little detail affects how the weapon feels.
Most FPS games are extremely fast paced as well so articulation and animations have to look good with very minimal animation frames, and most importantly feel good looping thousands of times. You can have the best looking model on the planet but if the animation, fx, materials, and sound fx don’t harmonize with the model it will not feel satisfying to use. You have to ensure your model is a good “canvas” for other departments to work their magic.
With VR obviously the player is controlling all of those things. Most of the time people are aiming directly where they want to shoot so down the barrel view is more common. Modeling for VR is intense as players interact with things as if they were real objects so they can hold them up to their face, look at them from any angle and inspect them.
Depending on the game mechanics they may have to reload them a certain way so articulation has to be much more grounded and believable. With Robo Recall you have unlimited ammo and you reload by throwing your weapons and grabbing new ones from your holsters so you see the weapons from every angle imaginable. So with VR make sure the design is solid overall but has a great down the barrel view.
Robo Recall was a very small team and we had a very tight deadline to complete the game. I knew from the beginning I was only going to get one hard surface modeler (for a game about space guns and robots) so right away I knew we would have to use extensive use of kitbash meshes and every other time saving trick we could. We couldn’t recruit any modelers from an internal team at Epic but were givin the greelight to hire one so I started to look for an extremely talented hard surface modeler as well as great kitbash model sets.
Ironically enough we found both in the same place with Mark Van Haitsma who had made amazing weapons for Doom at ID and Destiny at Bungee. I was a huge fan of his Artstation as he has a very strong and bold style and all of his models are very clean with just the right amount of detail. Luckily he wanted to work in VR and was talking with our Seattle studio at the same time I was asking if he was available.
He joined the team and Mark and I split the weapons and bots roughly down the middle and we used his kitbash detail meshes on all of the models. That saved us a ton of time and also made all of the mech and weapons in the game more cohesive in details even though we have different modeling styles and the large forms are extremely diverse in both silhouettes and scale. You can buy the same kitbash assets we used on his Gumroad page for a bargain!
Our Art Director on the project Jerome Platteaux did an amazing job coming up with the look and style of the game working with concept artist Daniel Hahn and the rest of the team. He would go back and forth with Daniel on multiple concept revisions then I would rough in a prototype mesh and get it in VR. Jerome would sometimes take my proto mesh and make tweaks on proportions or flow of forms, then I would continue with prototype work and test again in VR. If needed Daniel would do paintovers on our evolved proto meshes to further refine the look. It was a very fun and quick collaborative process so we locked into our style fairly quickly.
Most importantly we tested everything with design and code in the prototype phase and always ensured the proto mesh satisfied the gameplay requirement first, then felt good in VR, and lastly looked as good as it could while fulfilling all needs. VR is especially sensitive to what feels right, for example I really wanted to have a huge two handed weapon but when we tested it in VR it felt odd like you had a big floaty balloon gun in your hand so we stayed with smaller sized one handed weapons.
With your work mostly connected with modeling, do you ever feel like your job might be jeopardized by new tools like photogrammetry?
I think in general modeling tools will continue to get easier and faster to use which I gladly welcome. There’s still a lot of manual labor involved in modeling and even with the best tools, scripts, shortcuts, etc. it’s a time consuming process. I’ll be happy when things can be produced faster so I can focus more on creativity and improving my design skills and getting more assets in the games. Obviously pipelines will have to speed up and get easier in all disciplines, you can knock out 50 models in a day but they still need texturing, rigging, animation, coding, gameplay, etc.
The biggest thing that keeps pushing me is the amount of amazingly talented artists in the world. Regardless of where you are on the talent, experience, and work ethic scale there is always somebody out there that is better than you. You can’t compare yourself to others as it will always end in artistic heartbreak – but you can use it to stay humble and inspired and to continually push yourself to learn and progress your craft.
Sites like 80 level, Artstation, Zbrush Central, and Polycount (to name a few) are incredible for getting your daily dose of humility. Art is such a huge part of my life and video games, movies, music, comics, illustration, etc. have given me so much happiness. I feel incredibly lucky that I get to make art for a living and hopefully pass on the enjoyment and inspiration I have received to others.
There are so many incredible tools, resources, tutorials, etc. available to aspiring artists currently so if you have the passion don’t worry about anything else. With UE4 being free and so many youtube videos, forums, tutorials, etc. available there’s no reason to not start exploring the world of game development. Grab some software and start making things. If you truly love it you will continue to do it and someday you will make it your career.