Lead Character Artist at Dambuster Studios Richard Smith told us about the team's character creation pipeline, explained how Dead Island 2's zombies, humans, and gore were made, and shared some advice for aspiring Character Artists.
Joining the Dead Island Crew
I've been working as a Character Artist for games for almost 20 years, and I've been Lead Character Artist on Dead Island 2 for the duration of its development at Dambuster Studios. On Dead Island 2, I've been incredibly lucky to work with a team of hugely talented Character Artists collaborating to bring the dead to life!
The pulp horror gore-fest of Dead Island 2 relies on the setup and the art quality of the characters, so it was important to assemble a team of artists who could create beautifully disgusting zombies while also helping to push forward the gore tech that has made the game so successful.
Approach to Character Design & Gore
The tone of the game is key. Dead Island 2 is a vibrant depiction of sun-drenched L.A. contrasted with pulp horror. It is "Paradise Gone To Hell". To make the characters stand out, we knew we needed them to be realistic and believable but also very "L.A.": colorful, diverse, full of attitude, and larger than life.
The character team worked closely with the narrative team to bring out the essence of our archetypical L.A. personalities through visual design. We have movie stars, washed-up rockers, Gen Z influencers, tech entrepreneurs – all trying to survive the zombocalypse – some more successfully than others! The cinematic realism of our art style called for heavy use of photogrammetry for clothing and faces to ensure our L.A. population is as lifelike as possible.
Above all else, we knew the zombie violence was going to be a huge pillar of the game. Key developers from across the studio met daily throughout the project to collaborate on all things zombie – from dismemberments to dripping blood, dangling eyeballs, charred flesh, and rupturing organs. A meeting of minds from the disciplines of art, engineering, animation, audio, and design was needed to make the zombie gore (literally) pop.
Team Organization and Pipeline
Every member of the Dambuster character art team works on all aspects of the character art pipeline. "Hero" assets are not reserved for Senior Artists, and whenever possible, individuals take ownership of full characters. We achieve final quality through iteration, collaborative feedback and support, and mentorship. This approach is important to us so that we don't rely on any one person to do any part of the process, but more crucially because leveling up our art skills across the art workflow is key for personal development.
To create an efficient pipeline, many aspects of zombie and human setup are shared. For example, we use a modular body part system to assemble both zombie and human characters. Many human characters in the game meet a gory demise, which relies on the same systems as the zombies. Consistency of art style between zombies and humans is also dependent on the art workflow following similar steps. We found it was preferable to unify the production of zombies and humans wherever possible rather than draw a clear distinction between the two types of characters.
Crafting the Dead
Every zombie in the game needs to be set up to enable their gory destruction. This means a full set of individually damageable internal organs, a skeleton that can create broken bones on any limb, and flesh that allows for deformation and dismemberment almost anywhere on the body. All of this needs to happen while still maintaining a high level of realism and art fidelity to catapult the player into a believable zombie slaying experience.
Needless to say, there were constraints on the art pipeline that we needed to work within to make this happen. Clothing meshes need to be single-sided so that back faces would not be visible when they receive damage. All geometry needs unique UVs so that the damage decals can be applied correctly. Character meshes need to be topologized very evenly so that the surface can be deformed by impacts without resulting in spiky artifacts. And, of course, because each body comprises many component parts, it is important to keep within strict texture and geometry budgets.
The "Mutator", which transforms from a standard-sized zombie into a huge monster, is a very proud moment for us. We wanted to showcase the Autophage causing a zombie to erupt into a larger state with a completely different silhouette – something that might usually be reserved for a cutscene, but we wanted it to happen during gameplay. We explored various approaches, such as using an Alembic cache to store the mesh transformation, but ultimately settled on a custom workflow pioneered by our awesome Core Tech team. The vertex transformation is baked into a texture and applied to a mesh skinned to a scaling animating skeleton.
Setting Up the Living
Every human character's face in the game is based on a scan we captured of a real person using our photogrammetry rig. As a rule, we would not hand-author faces except for applying damage or makeup treatment, or other contextualization. This helps ensure consistency of realism in the human population. Our scanning pipeline consists of Agisoft Photoscan, Wrap, and then ZBrush, Maya, and Substance 3D Painter.
We applied the same process to creating zombie clothing – starting with a scan of a garment on a mannequin, which we distress by hand to capture realistic damage and grime. We stuck to a style guide for each zombie class to make sure we were consistently reflecting the appropriate level of decay in the clothing to match the zombie narrative. For example, a Runner is quite recently turned, so their clothing looks a bit disheveled but otherwise normal, whereas a Walker has been a zombie for some time, so their clothing is more torn, ragged, and dirty.
Working on Hairstyles
Our hair workflow, in a nutshell, is XGen strands baked to cards, and then create the style by arranging cards attached to curves. As the shading of the hair is critical to the art process, the character art team worked closely with the tech art team to refine the hair material and to ensure we were generating textures that made the most of the shading features available to us in Unreal Engine: root to tip, ID, depth, transparency, and flow.
We are very lucky at Dambuster Studios to have a tech art team and core tech rendering team that make sure the materials, lighting, rendering, and associated art pipeline working practices are all taken care of so that the art teams are fully enabled to create art assets that "just work". With these important things in place, it becomes much easier for the artists to get to that high level of quality because they can see their work in the game as the player will see it – with accurate lighting, shading, and grading.
We used Substance 3D Painter for all of the character texturing on Dead Island 2. Sharing Smart Materials between assets was incredibly useful for ensuring consistency of the zombie skin effects – for example, the Autophage veins, dripping blood, and matching texture seams of modular body parts
"The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing". In other words: Dead Island 2 is, first and foremost, a game about bashing zombie heads in. We knew the zombie combat had the potential to be the best in class, so we poured our effort into features to keep pushing the quality up and up. I am very proud of the cross-discipline collaboration that brought this into being.
From a team lead's perspective, investing in the team and looking after the people creating the art has proven to be very important. Even the most dedicated and disciplined individuals need a healthy culture to work within and the encouragement to keep focused on the end goal when the going gets tough. A long production can account for a significant chunk of a person's career, so it is important that artists see some personal progression and recognition during that process over and above the release of the game.
My advice for Character Artists looking to work on a project like Dead Island 2 is that it is great to have strong skills in the usual character art remit, but the more overlapping skills into other disciplines you can pick up, the better when it comes to making cool stuff happen for the game. For example, if a character artist can gain some understanding of rigging, animation, and Unreal Blueprint setup, that person is much more enabled to begin prototyping interesting new ways to eviscerate a zombie. Our development approach often relies on this kind of innovation.