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The third part of our series of interviews about Deus Ex: Mankind Divided will take you to the amazing Prague City Hub. Developers from Eidos Montreal managed to mix old and new architecture, making sure that the game’s city feels authentic, but at the same time brings unique Deus Ex feeling. We discussed the production of dense Prague with Principal Level Artist Thomas Rodrigue and Senior Level Artist Maxime Chassé.
Thomas Rodrigue – Eidos Montreal – Principal Level artist:
I am a self-taught 3D artist and I began my career at Microids on Still Life back in 2003. After that I went to Ubisoft and worked as a level artist on Splinter Cell 4 and FarCry 2. I’ve been working at Eidos Montreal for 8 years now and worked on both Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Manking Divided. I was the Level Artist responsible for the City Hub of Prague, mainly for the exterior, the shops and the small apartments. I was fortunate enough to be teamed up with Maxime, a very talented and fast learning artist that was on his first game development project.
Maxime Chassé – Eidos Montreal – Senior Level artist
I have a bachelor degree in urban planning and worked in that field for about 3 years, before deciding to go back to school to study video games art. My main goal was to build cities in video games, and luckily I achieved it working on the Prague City Hub. I had my first position in 3D as a generalist artist in advertising and post-production, working for Motor VFX, a small company based in old Montreal. Two years later, Eidos Montreal gave me my first opportunity in video games, with a level artist role on Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. I’ve been really lucky to be assigned to work with Thomas, an incredibly talented artist, and my mentor for almost 3 years.
Could you give us a little overview of your work for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided? What were the elements you worked on? What would you say defines this game and makes it so unique?
We worked mainly on the exterior of Prague city hub although we also separately worked and supported different areas of the game. For the City
Hub, almost all the architectural modules and props were modeled and textured by us. In addition, we were responsible for all the small explorable areas, such as apartments, bars, restaurants, shops…
On this production, the role of the level artist was really wide. Having no modelers and texture artists meant that we had to do it all by ourselves, including the layout blocking and the final set dressing. Of course, this means longer production times, but also more freedom for the artists. We have to say we didn’t have any support from outsourcing to help for the project (Prague).
Deus Ex is all about exploration and choices, and the environment is not different from this idea. What makes it so unique is that doing level art for this game requires a lot of creativity and flexibility, because the level design almost always requires multiple paths to an objective. Additionally, as the gameplay evolves during the production, it really challenged us to support and retrofit multiple new gameplay elements.
The world of Deus Ex is a mix of old and new. How hard was it find the perfect balance, making sure the new part looks organic and doesn’t spoil your scenes?
The architectural diversity of Prague was really interesting to develop. Prague is one of the only cities of Europe that hasn’t been destroyed during the 18th and 19th centuries, and especially during the two world wars. Its architectural style mainly resides around Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque. Having such a strong architectural history really helped us develop the foundation for the look of the Hub. Of course, being in the Deus Ex world meant that we had to add a layer of futuristic architecture on top of the existing buildings.
The foundation of the artistic direction really comes from Martin Dubeau, the artistic director, and all the very talented team of concept artists who worked with us on the game. Without the help of those guys we wouldn’t have achieved the final look that we can find in Deus Ex Mankind Divided.
The city hub is divided into 3 areas. The poor district, located south of the train tracks that separate the city, is really focused on traditional Prague architecture elements that are left mostly abandoned and not maintained. There is a really small to non-existent percentage of its architecture that is modern. In addition, the buildings are really aged and worn and tear was added.
In the old district, home of the red light, we can find the traditional Prague architecture with a little bit more of the modern architecture. That is especially true at night, where a lot of the facades display ads and feel transformed. The red light district really comes to life at night, and has a bigger concentration of modern elements.
The modern district has the biggest percentage of modern architecture. This is where we really went for the Deus Ex feeling in some areas, and we had complete buildings replaced by more futuristic architecture.
So we had those guidelines to help us develop the final look of the city to help the player know in what area of the city he is at all times. Additionally the mix of old and new could also be found in explorable areas, such as apartments and shops.
Let’s talk about your production process. How hard was it to model the dense world of Deus Ex?
The map of Prague is a huge beast with lots of exploration and it was not an easy task to build it and support all the side quests, the 3 visits and the continuous requests of all the Level Designers who worked on the map at the same time. I think that everyone on the production worked on the map at some point and it became really hard to keep track of things that were added by others. So there was a lot of optimization done at the end and we think that we managed to keep the majority of it.
So, the city is mostly built with modules and all of them have exposed properties (color, offset tiling, etc.) and are assembled in a variety of ways so they don’t look all the same.
For the hub we knew that memory would become an issue quite rapidly, so we tried to make intelligent choices. Since there’s no loading when we go into shops, apartment complexes or sewers, it means that there is a lot of stuff loaded at the same time.
For texturing we were mainly using Adobe Photoshop. Often we were using the Deus Ex way to texture with the 2 UV sets, well explained by Hubert Corriveau, our environment director, on a past article, and this technique has really proven its benefits, especially for the smaller memory space it requires for the texture. The memory was really important in the construction of the Hub because of its scale, so everything we could reuse often and on multiple objects really became strong contenders to be part of the final game. These textures could be generic tileable masks that proved to work well on different surfaces types, assortments of cutlines or normal details.
The editor’s material editor really helped us to produce quick iteration on our work and all sorts of variation. Being able to expose some properties of the materials directly on an instance of a certain object really helped us to have a lot of variations in the textures at a minimal memory cost for the textures. For example, on the walls and windows we were using to build the buildings in Prague, we exposed all sorts of properties, like the color of the 2 Albedo layers (blending those two with a mask to produce the final color) or the offset value of that mask, the textures overrides for the different interiors in the windows. That feature really improved the overall visual quality of the hub by allowing us a quick way to add some variation with a minimal impact on the memory, allowing to have custom textures for objects that really needed it.
We also created all the animated textures and materials for the city, allowing us to add some life and movement to a city. This is especially important for an urban environment, and it really brings life to an environment. For the assets, different techniques were used, such as UV scrolling or scaling.
Deus Ex is well-known for its amazing density – so many details and locations with no stitches. Was it a challenge to work on that kind of world?
It was really challenging especially on the memory side. Early on, we had to segment the city to allow certain sections to be denser and avoid streaming issues, especially with all the NPC’s loaded. To optimize such a dense and detailed environment is not an easy task. A city hub like this one hasn’t really been seen before in videogames, and we hope the players love it.
Additionally, it is easy for an artist to get lost in such a colossal task, so we had to be very structured in our work. Having to manage many sections in work at the same time was a problem, so we had to force ourselves to close certain areas, and leave others for later.
What was the most challenging part for you?
Like we said earlier, the City Hub of Prague in itself was very challenging to make. The original idea when creating this hub was to aim for density and to keep it to a human scale. We knew that like in the other games in the Deus Ex series, the player wouldn’t have access to a car, so it already give us a good indication of the kind of scaling we were going for.
That being said, creating the modular kit to fit our need was probably the most challenging thing. We had to create some modules that were going to help us recreate the look of the city of Prague and at the same time to have the flexibility to add some modern architecture modules to it. Also, the development of a game like Deus Ex is very long, so having a modular kit that allowed us to be flexible to fit the evolving story as the production went forward was the key to react quickly to different types of situations.
Of course, certain things were not modular, but modeled according to the buildings’ layout, such as streets, sidewalks and roofs. Some key buildings were also custom made, and not modular. The curvy layout of a European city like Prague, in contrast with a more grid based layout city like Chicago, for example, needed a very organic building placement. This particular element helped us at the same time controlling the line of sight of the player, by having a lot of curves in our streets that helped us to avoid popping when streaming the different elements composing the city. We had to make a choice, and this technique was the most effective for our needs, allowing us to have that organic feeling and quickly iterate on our work.