Gabriel Aguiar Prod. on Indie Game Dev and VFX for Beginners

Gabriel Aguiar, the author of the VFX-focused YouTube channel and the Founder of the indie game studio Golden Bug, shared his experience in game development, talked about Golden Bug Studios' current project Rabbit's Tale, and gave some useful tips and resources for new VFX Artists.

Introduction

Hi there, I'm Gabriel Aguiar, Founder of Gabriel Aguiar Prod., the biggest Game VFX channel, and most recently Founder of the indie game studio Golden Bug Studios working on Rabbit's Tale.

Back in 2015, while still studying game design, I immediately got a job in my second year as a 3D Generalist and Game Designer, where I worked on Raccoon Escape, a mobile arcade game, and HoverShock, a mashup of drones, Quidditch, and Rocket League.

However, I quit that job at the beginning of 2017 and freelanced as a VFX artist for around 2 years. I learned it by myself and got my first freelance job in that same year. As a freelancer, I worked on lots of smaller-medium projects, but the two worth mentioning are Atlas Empires, an AR Clash of Clans type of game, and Runewards, a card-based game inspired by Gwent and Hearthstone.

I quit freelancing pretty quickly to prioritize building my channel and brand I founded in 2016. Around 2019, I realized passive income could be the key and focused all my time on building game assets and educational material. More specifically visual effects for game assets, tutorials, and courses. Things went well, I had some savings and it eventually started paying off. Back then, however, it was very uncertain if the plan would work. It was scary for a while.

Since then, I have received numerous opportunities to work for AAA companies such as Riot, Ubisoft, Rovio, Blizzard, IGG, and more. I still receive such opportunities from time to time, but turn them down. Not out of pride or anxiety, I simply know my objective very well to lose focus: create one of the greatest game companies in Portugal and, hopefully, Europe: Golden Bug Studios.

From Architecture to Game Development

I went to study game development back in 2012 at the first University that taught it in Portugal – IPB (Polytechnic Institute of Bragança) of Campus Mirandela. That’s when I got my hands on Unity and Unreal Engine. I felt drawn to game development once I was building Counter-Strike 1.6 maps back in 2010 in my dorm with a couple of friends, while enrolled in Design of Interiors and Exteriors, which I finished top of the class. We were introduced to 3D modeling in 2009 with 3ds Max for architecture visualization and were building blueprints with AutoCAD. Crazy to think back at those times. That’s the moment everything clicked, the moment I knew I wanted a bigger challenge than architecture. That was the moment I knew I wanted game development.

Learning game development seemed something mystical, almost unintelligible back then. Seeing a university teaching it was definitely a big push to get into this industry. There were also a few game dev channels that began showing up, like Brackeys and Quill18Creates. Stack Overflow and Unity Forums were a big help too.

Still, it’s mostly all around trial and error. I always found that experimenting with stuff is the best way to learn. It wires your brain differently and you tend to better memorize the solutions.

Rabbit's Tale

Creating a game from scratch is scary, but scary is good. If you throw it in the back and use it to propel you forward, you can do anything.

The idea for Rabbit's Tale emerged at the end of 2019 after my girlfriend Marisa was out of work. She knew how to illustrate pretty well, and I had seen my fair share of projects while freelancing as a VFX artist and also had been for a while programming mini-games for fun. We decided to join forces and began planning and prototyping Rabbit's Tale.

The game was full of on-and-off moments. I was building the channel, creating assets courses, and giving customer support, and Rabbit's Tale was being put to the side. Meanwhile, Marisa kept learning Unity and improving her skills as a Digital Illustrator and Environment Artist.

Eventually, in 2021 we knew we were ready to take Rabbit's Tale seriously and move on from the prototype phase. We founded Golden Bug Studios and began hiring local talent to help develop the dream. It has been full of challenges, but that’s what gamedev is all about – challenges and overcoming them.

Two years later, at the end of 2023, we made our first public testing at Lisboa Games Week, and we had great feedback! We worked with it and kept polishing the game. Currently, we are between polishing and building the world-level design, game economy, storytelling, environment design, cutscenes, and a million other things.

Rabbit’s Tale is an open-world adventure, hand-drawn Metroidvania, where you play as Rabbit who is seeking his kidnapped family, but, along the way, there’s a secret game-genre infusion that kicks in, and something mysterious happens.

Unity for Indie Developers

Even though Unity took a hit back in September of 2023, it's still one of the most empowering engines. It's accessible and stable, and there's an ocean of documentation to learn from. An ocean filled with people ready to help newcomers and ready to lend a hand, and help anyone cross the multiple islands that game development is. 

Indie developers made what Unity is today. If Unity gives back to the indies the same amount of effort indies have put into the engine over the last decade, then it surely is the best fit for small teams. 

With all the information available and with people ready to lend a hand, Unity becomes the easiest choice when it comes to prototyping and porting to a multi-platform universe.

Time Management & Teaching

It's extremely difficult to find time for all my projects, I have to prioritize a lot. 

This means sometimes some things have to be left behind, so there's room for what's important: family, physical and mental health, developing and managing Rabbit's Tale, growing my channel, developing and publishing new assets, planning new courses, and giving customer support.

All is possible with a good amount of planning, patience, and keeping a cool head.

Besides the 10-15-year plan for Golden Bug, there's also the 2-year plan for Rabbit's Tale. I always find peace of mind after writing down: objectives for the month, milestones for the week, and what tomorrow is going to look like in all departments – X is doing this, Y needs that, and I work on this.

That's how I manage time, I try to plan the day. It's simple and reassuring.

However, plans can be tricky too. One has to be flexible and ready for the curve balls that inevitably appear out of nowhere, we have to go around obstacles and still find north.

Teaching is a challenge, teaching game development is another challenge, and teaching VFX for games is somehow an even bigger challenge. Still, challenges are good, it means you are onto something.

What works for me is breaking complex ideas into smaller tasks, and most importantly, finding the right words and explanations, so it’s less grey and more black and white.

Creating the tutorials is also the process of being good at planning, editing, and explaining complex things in a clean way. Consistency, thumbnail planning, and social media marketing are also very much part of the process and not to be taken lightly.

Building Presence

Building presence is hard. Some people have it in them and quickly grow an audience. For the rest of us, we have to stick to wishing, believing, planning, persistence, and patience. I believe that's the key. Or keys in this case.

Still, I always see new faces popping up every now and then and get recognition after so much effort and persistence. I also see lots of faces that don't persist and unfortunately stop.

Find something you are comfortable doing, find the way you are going to do it, and stick to it. Even if it's niche.

Leverage social media like a human being and try to create connections with your community, which honestly, is something I still struggle with, but I'm getting there.

VFX and Unity for Beginners

You can learn VFX for games in pretty much any game engine, as long as there is a particle system you should be fine.

I recommend Unity, it's my main engine, and it's the tool I've been using for the last 12 years, so yeah, I'm a bit biased. Even though the other engines are great and can produce fantastic results, I still find Unity the easiest one to learn and teach visual effects.

With that said, creating visual effects for games (also known as real-time VFX) is the process of enhancing a game mechanic visually and giving the player certain feedback with the use of techniques like timings, motions, shapes, colors, contrasts, and more.

For this, we use particle systems that can emit any type of particle. Particles can take any shape, a texture (image, sprite, flipbooks), or a mesh (quads, cones, rings, stripes, etc.). Both can receive a shader for panning and scaling a texture, erosion, dissolve, intersection and so much more.

For textures, you can either hand draw them with a graphic tablet in software like Photoshop or Krita or procedurally generate them with After Effects, Substance 3D Designer, Material Maker, and even Photoshop.

For meshes, you can use Maya, Blender, Houdini, and any 3D software that can produce 3D objects with UVs.

For shaders or materials, it depends on the engine, but nowadays most of the time, there's the option to use node-based tools like Shader Graph in Unity or Material Editor in Unreal Engine to come up with shaders. You can code them with HLSL as well.

Personally, I use a lot of Blender for meshes and Krita for textures. But I also really enjoy using After Effects for flipbooks and Material Maker to procedurally come up with crazy textures like a crack or a burnt mark on the ground, for example. It's node-based and makes your life easier.

Besides, I tend to sketch the effect on paper, do plenty of research, see what's out there, and then build the primary motion, shape, and proportion of the effect in the engine, so I can easily tweak timings.

Once I'm pleased with that, I improve it visually, either by testing different textures, meshes, shaders, or colors.

For those who are getting started with Unity, I would suggest Brackeys, even if he stopped publishing tutorials a while ago, his videos are still valid and full of knowledge.

There's also great content coming out of Code Monkey and Thomas Brush. They have great communities and give solid tutorials and advice.

If you are looking for game theory-related stuff, there’s Game Maker's Toolkit and GDC.

For gamedev challenges, I'd recommend Blackthornprod, and for great devlogs, there are ThinMatrix, DevDuck, and Jonas Tyroller. Cool and crazy experiments – Sebastian Lague

There’s more, but these will definitely help anyone interested in Unity and game design in general.

Conclusion

You can find me on the YouTube channel Gabriel Aguiar Prod. and learn more about the studio I founded, Golden Bug Studios, and the game we are developing, Rabbit's TaleWe are always active and sharing the process of building a game on social media.

The plans for Gabriel Aguiar Prod. in 2024 are to bring even more educational material, not only for Unity developers but for all game developers. That includes Unreal Engine, Godot, and other game engines. There are also a few devlogs planned regarding Rabbit's Tale and other non-tutorial types of videos.

When it comes to Golden Bug Studios and Rabbit's Tale, we are deeply committed to finishing a good game above all else. Visually rich, with a great story and game feel. It's Golden Bug's debut game, and we are aiming for a good first impression, so we plan to keep on building the world of Rabbit's Tale and polishing it.

There's a strong possibility this year there will be a public demo, and the game might participate in the Steam Next Fest, so let's hope things go smoothly.

Appreciate the interview, Arti and 80 Level!

Gabriel Aguiar, VFX Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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