Emma Smith: Building Stylized Assets For Games
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Emma Smith: Building Stylized Assets For Games
14 November, 2016
Interview
We’ve talked with 3d artist Emma Smith about her approach to the creation of low poly assets for games and the importance of details in these objects.

Introduction

My name is Emma Smith and I’m 24, currently living in Leamington Spa in England. I grew up in a small town in Sunderland and currently live with my boyfriend and cat, Mog.

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I have always been in art; but more of the traditional kind. I studied art before I came to university on a traditional level, then went to the University of Central Lancashire to study for a BA in Games Design. I was convinced I wanted to be a concept artist, however after introduction to Maya and the world of 3d in my second year of university, I loved it and decided this is what I should do for work.

I’ve worked on a lot of different projects, including freelance and in house work. While at university I was a UI artist on the game ‘Plinky Plonk’ which helps children learn the piano.

I was then asked to do some additional art as a 3d artist for the game ‘Gone Home’ and also worked at the stand at the games expo ‘Rezzed’, demo’ing Gone Home. I made a variety of different props and assets for the game. 

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I then moved to Malta in the Mediterranean and worked at a company called ‘TRC Family Entertainment’. I worked on a huge, cancelled MMO named ‘Wishingtooth’. Everyone in the company was made redundant, and the game remains unreleased.

At this time I also did freelance work on the still to be released kickstarted game ‘The Girl and the Robot’. I did environment work, in a low poly hand painted style, for a multitude of the games levels.

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After this I started working at Radiant Worlds, where I am still currently working on Sky Saga. I am an environment artist for the game, making furniture, weapons and props for the game. Sky Saga is still in alpha but is already gaining a lot of loyal followers and I’m proud to be part of the project.

Building Assets

I think the most important elements are keeping to the style of the game you are working on; it is so easy to fall back into your own style and your work may not fit with other artists on the team. I would also say a good technical knowledge of what can work for the game you are making, as sometimes there are very tight technical specifications to work to.

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When approaching 3d work for games it’s important to remember the level of quality your working to; all art going into the game will affect the overall look and polish of the game, so it’s good to try and remember to keep every piece as the best it possibly can be for in game, which can be hard when you are making a lot of assets every day.

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Challenges of Working with Stylized Art

I think the biggest challenge is sometimes we are given a piece of concept that is of a highly stylized, ‘not existing in the real world’ object…and the concept art may look fantastic, but doesn’t necessarily make sense in 3d space. Therefore, it is hard with regards to making something work from all angles, without utilizing real life reference and still keeping it within the style of the game. Also, with a game like Sky Saga, spherical objects are not really used, therefore it can be very difficult to make organic objects look good and still fit with the aesthetic of the game world.

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Details Matter

Details are important, especially in a game like Sky Saga, because it is curious how much little details are appreciated by players. Numerous times, we say things like ‘Oh the players won’t notice’ but is actually surprising how many times our builds go to testers and VIP players and they come back with appreciation how they’ve noticed the small things or suggestions for small details in which things could be improved. It really is amazing, and worthwhile in the end.

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How do you make a detailed asset, that still has low-poly count but looks like it’s super detailed?

This depends upon what time of game you are working on, but a lot of the time clever using of taking information from the high poly and displaying it on the low poly through the normal map is the way we do things. This likes cracks, imprints and carved detail are usually made using alphas and brushes in Zbrush and making sure there’s enough geometry for this to be displayed clearly in the normal map and enough definition within the texture itself to support this.

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We are also super strict in omitting detail in areas that are not clear to the player, and focusing detail on areas that will be inspected at close range, such as the handle of a sword or the hands
of a character.

General Workflow

A quick overview of my workflow would be:   

  • model in Maya
  • Sculpt in Zbrush
  • UV and pack using I pack that
  • Bake Normal map in Maya
  • Bake other maps in xNormal
  • Compile texture in Photoshop
  • Export!
  • Check in game
  • Push to Sourcetree

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Modeling in Maya is usually the simplest part; in Zbrush we use a variety of brushes made my us and others to achieve the trademark style of the game. Afterward we layout the UV’s and use ‘Ipackthat’ (Available on Steam) to pack our UV’s. This saves us a lot of time. We bake a normal map from the high poly in Maya; this process usually takes the longest as it is important to get this right. We then bake an Ambient Occlusion map, cavity, PRT and Curvature map, and overlays these in a PSD along with vertex colours to get our final diffuse. A gloss map is made using specific values, and then we export all these into our in house engine. This is then checked when we run the game, under different lighting conditions, then pushed to others using the source control program Sourcetree.

Advice

Overall, I would say that a strong portfolio only showing work for the job you have chosen is the most important thing.

Also, compare your work to that of others in the industry, because in the end this is who you will be competing against for jobs, not just your class mates.

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In terms of approaching the task of building assets for games: Do not get discouraged if your work is not great at first. I still dislike a lot of my work now even though I have been in the industry for a fair
few years and my art is used in games.

Also, just keep creating ART. You can never improve if you aren’t working, and they said there are a fair few bad pieces of work in an artist until the truly great stuff comes along. Stick at it, they
never said it was easy but it’s definitely worth it.

Consult job adverts – Steer your portfolio in the direction they seem to want

Always show wireframes and textures for important pieces.

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Think about who you’re applying to and what they would like to see.

I would say be comfortable with the baking normal maps process, as this was still a weak point for me when I entered the industry and I found it hard learning while working.

Also be prepared for anything! Being a 3d artist means being kept on your toes; you could have to make anything!

Emma Smith, 3d artist – Radiant Worlds

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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