Hector Sanz D'Ors and his colleagues from MercurySteam talked about the production of Kuzman Mech, one of the huge bosses in the game Spacelords.
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Hector Sanz D'Ors: Hi, my name is Hector and I am a 3D Character Artist based in Madrid, Spain. I am part of the amazing MercurySteam’s Art Team and I work at the studio making characters, skins, and weapons for the video game Spacelords.
Sculpting characters and creating in-game models is one of my main obsessions, and I expend most of my time trying to learn new techniques and designing creatures. During the last months of lockdown, I have made some research in new ways to generate hair in real-time, and I’ve also had time to finish some characters that you can see on my Artstation profile.
Hector: As I aforementioned, within Spacelords, I’m in charge of creating some characters for the game, weapons, and some of the game’s bosses.
Art production at the studio became a perfectly functional mechanism. For the character and weapons pipeline, the Concept Art department gives us enough material to create very detailedly, outstanding 3D models. We create high poly models using ZBrush and go through all the retopology process for every character as well as UVs and baking.
We also have very qualified and experienced people at the studio dedicated solely to each task. For example, some of my colleagues are more seasoned doing texturing which allows us to arrive at insane results, like what Aitor Fius did for the boss Kuzman Mech.
After all the aforementioned processes are completed, we prepare and upload all the models so the rest of the team can work at the same time on the same boss All departments are involved: rigging, animation, VFX, etc.
The main goal of having this framework is to optimize the production times and to achieve the best results in each area by having the most efficient staff in charge of every task. As a result, we can deliver great and complete characters and bosses such as Kuzman Mech.
In this particular case, the giant mech was a great team effort. Thanks to my co-workers, we could complete this spectacular character. Victor Guerra created all necessary concepts so I could do my job. Luis Fabregas helped me with some retopo work (crab legs and midsection). Aitor Fius did all the textures and Claudio Espinar prepared all the astonishing animations that made the character come alive.
Kuzman Mech: Initial Design
Hector: To create this character, we had to undergo several organized processes. The first phases of development went through numerous meetings in order to determine all the design aspects of the boss: how it moves, the attack set, what type of VFX it would have, etc.
Having all the mentioned set clear as well as the Concept Art done by Victor, I could perform the character’s first testing and blockings geometries. With very basic shapes, I created a model to start doing rig and animation tests. The goal was that the character could move without problems to allow the rigging department could also work in parallel. This blocking would be the shell to build up the final model from in ZBrush.
Once the prototype was created, tested without any moving problems, and finally approved, I went on to create the model in ZBrush with all the inputs and references from the Conceptual Art Department.
Victor Guerra: In terms of design, we were inspired by the 90’s Japanese art. Kow Yokoyama and Ghost in the Shell are probably some of the most important references we’ve had. The faction of this final boss is based on technology with an organic aspect, voluminous, somewhat grotesque, and decadent.
Regarding the shape of the spider/crab, it is a very recognizable animal and also easy to read in movement, because it can be noticed as a familiar figure. In general, all the vehicles and robots of this faction have animal elements in their construction.
Hector: The process was simple but needed a lot of organization. It helped me a lot with my workflow to create the initial prototype for the rest of the process because it allowed me to create a silhouette that looked good from every angle, and also the proportions that eased the character’s reading during gameplay.
I had already studied the model deeply and I was aware of all the character’s pieces. Therefore, we were crystal clear about which of the parts would be movable and which would not.
One of the main problems of this character was the number of subtools that it had in ZBrush. Therefore, the creation process had to be very clean from the beginning. Each piece had different levels of subdivision and a very clean topology, as ZBrush cannot handle that many polys without having subdivisions.
Little by little, we divided the work into different files: the legs were made in different files as well as the head and torso, making our work easier. When I had all the finished and detailed parts, I split the pieces – it is important to know how much detail to include in this phase, and I knew that Aitor Fius would do almost all of the detailing in the texturing process – so I put them together in a single file to work on the whole model. At this point, it was very hard to work with it due to the high amount of polygons on the screen but it was necessary to have a general outlook of the complete model with all its details. That’s why the split process is so important to have a well-executed character.
The next challenge was the retopology process. I created a decimated version with very few polygons in order to be able to work on each piece in 3ds Max and make the retopo. The goal was to have a lot of connection with the animation and rig department and know which pieces could move or not, so we could optimize the character’s geometry as much as possible and reduce the polycount to the essential minimum.
We split the model into different UV sets with the corresponding IDs, to be able to work on the bakes in the most organized way possible using Substance Designer.
In this regard, we would have all the necessary files to send the character to the next department in line. In this particular case, it also allowed Aitor to work on the beast’s texturing.
Claudio Espinar: The challenge here was to make the monster look gigantic. Its movement was mechanical referring to a robot, but it also had nuances that made it look like an animal. We tried to mix the robot parts with other animation styles. As you can appreciate, the tentacles of the midsection move in an organic way (similar to those of an octopus), but the mouth moves in a nervous way with linear features such as a crustacean (in this case, a crab’s mouth).
The character was a challenge at a creative level as well as the technical execution. The model was full of details which implied a lot of constant motion, animation, and a very arduous job. Thanks to the hard work and the involvement of the co-workers who made this character’s rig, we were able to finish this boss and have an amazing end result.
Aitor Fius: This mech was the main enemy in an arena and it was going to be huge in size, so we had a very big memory budget for the textures. Originally, it was made with 4 4k textures, reduced partially in-game. That gave us the opportunity to fill it with details. The main goal in terms of textures was to maintain the overall look of the cyborg enemy class while keeping the model readable. It needed to look old and rusty while keeping the feel of something industrial and very heavy. Referencing industrial machinery, shipyards and metal parts in junkyards was very important in order to learn, and try to reproduce how different metal surfaces age and rust.
The first thing was to define different material parts with basic shading to be tested and approved by Art Direction. Afterward, it was the process of making some texture material tiles, a base used with processed bakes to get the medium and fine surface detail of every material. After that, it was the different rust layers, subtracting the detail of the main metal surfaces. Rusty parts help define different metal pieces of the model so they can be read from a medium distance. After that, it’s just the fun of adding details such as oil leaks, dust, dirt, and aging the surface colors when metal meets rust in different places of the model to improve volumes’ readability.
Victor: The most important thing is to develop an attractive idea but also to be able to portray it in the game. There are many restricting factors such as technology (limitations on-grid uploads, number of bones, FX, etc.), game design, and resources (adjust to metrics with new mechanics that fit into the game).
Normally, something like this implies great work from all the departments, but having all set clear before finishing the conceptual art will ease the job. Clearly, there will be minor adjustments that are contemplated within the schedule.
Aitor: It was a very complex design with many moving parts so the first challenge was to keep the head and the tail always as readable as possible while retaining the rusty look and the main tone of the cyborg enemy class. Even with that big texture budget, we had to plan the model to reuse as many parts as possible so they could share the same texture parts and keep the model resolution as high as it could be. Overall, texturing this model was very fun and challenging, it was a great design and a great 3D model to work with.
Hector: With such big and complex models, the most difficult part is to not get lost in detail and try to maintain the big picture of the character. This means it works completely and all the details are leveled; it has to work from every point of view and all the departments must be able to work with the character without any problem.
In the end, all the hard work and effort is worth it, as the end result is a dazzling boss in the game with an astonishing look in the cinematics; overall, we can have the satisfaction of being able to stand up to this beast and defeat it in the game.
Hector: Thanks to MercurySteam for giving me the chance to create such amazing characters and also, to the rest of my teammates for making it easier to complete such complex and difficult tasks. We are an incredible team and we will continue creating characters so you guys can enjoy Spacelords for a long time.