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The developers of Eastshade Studios discussed the way they create the amazing visual look of their cosy video game, which turns game art into a game mechanic.
On the development team, we are four. I’m the lead developer and do coding, environment art, design, among many many other roles that would take too long to list. Jaclyn does writing, illustration, mapping, and design. Phoenix does music. Daniel Merticariu does our character models. We are spread out, Jaclyn and I in Seattle, Phoenix in Portland, and Daniel in Romania. I have a background in triple-A, and environment art has been my main trade until I became an indie. The last thing I worked on before going indie was Infamous: Second Son at Sucker Punch.
Eastshade started when I decided to quit my job to go indie! I, like so many folks in games, have always wanted to make my own thing. So I saved and saved until I had enough to give it a try full time. My favorite game series is Elder Scrolls. I love how those games give the player space to chase butterflies and go where they want. I wanted to try making a game full of only sidequests and without combat.
We were trying to think of a way to reward the kind of thing we wanted the player to do in Eastshade, which is basically to go slow and smell the roses. Jaclyn had the idea to allow the player to “take” paintings, and create quests around the player capturing certain objects, places, colors, or times of day, or a combination of those. This works in perfect harmony with wandering and smelling the roses, because the slower the player goes, and the more they let the sense of place wash over them, the better they will do at these quests. It’s more of a screenshot that records data about what was in the frame. This isn’t Photoshop the game, and we don’t expect people to learn landscape painting to play. Eastshade is first and foremost a world, and the painting mechanic is a way of letting the world shine as the main character.
Environment art is my life’s work, so I don’t know if I can do justice to a lifetime of learning in one paragraph, but basically, I look at a lot of photo reference, try to distill the important details, and attempt to create them convincingly. That could be the silhouette of a tree, the form of a mountain, or the scatter pattern of undergrowth. Regarding the grand design, there are a lot of things to consider, like layout, composition, sight lines, landmarks, and design considerations like player impasses. We try to design beautiful vistas for the player.
Basically, I have folders and folders of architecture I like and try to unpack what I like about them. There are also rules I follow, like not mixing rounded and pointed arches in the same building (also known as Romanesque and gothic arches respectively). There are a lot of little tips like that that make a building work visually. Another tip dear to me is not to put a protruding window frame on a stone/brick building. The stone itself should be the window frame. The stones around the window should be arranged in a load bearing way. Like this. Since building textures are always tiling, this requires careful UV unwrapping, but it’s how you make buildings look believable. It helps to know how buildings are built. For instance, if a building is structurally stone, you know the frames can’t be wood. Wood usually can’t bear the weight of the stone. One day I’d like to make an article exclusively dedicated to these kinds of tips. As far as blending the building with the landscape, all we need to do is look to real life! Actual architects and game architects face most of the same problems (though real ones have a few more to worry about). Foundations, trims, planters, and foliage can help ground a building to its surroundings.
Hearing people want to live there is my favorite thing to hear! Well, it helps to not have blood and dead corpses everywhere, which is something many high fidelity 3d games don’t bother to try. Again, coziness is something real interior designers try to obtain, and there is a whole world of interior design to look to on Pinterest for reference. I look at cozy images and try to unpack what makes them feel cozy. Many times it’s the light coming through the windows, so I try to build windows like a real architect, with the sun in mind. We also have a lot of books, rugs, and pillows everywhere which goes a long way! Additionally, almost every intersection needs a trim. Baseboards, crown moldings, interior door, and window frame trims are details many 3d artists miss.
The most difficult technical challenge for me has been NPC behavior. Transitioning between states, scheduling them, triggering them to do the things they need to do for quests, pathfinding, making sure they don’t clip through stuff, etc. It’s still the source of most of our bugs, and likely will be even after shipping. Fully voiced and fully mobile NPCs are not something most indies attempt, I suspect because implementing them is like a money bonfire. The problems never end! And players are the most critical of them since a humans’ favorite subject is other humans.
We will be shipping on PC first, and consoles soon to follow. We’re trying to ship in late 2018. We’ll see if we can wrangle these unruly NPCs by then.