The Creative Director of Treehouse Ninjas Mauro Frau shared some information about their work on Cyberpunk 2077, making locations for the game, and building a solid relationship with CD PROJEKT RED.
Treehouse Ninjas is a hybrid boutique working on both games and movies. It’s an independent family of CG Generalists, coming from mixed backgrounds, some came from the game industry, some came from the movie industry.
We started in 2017 and, since then, we’ve been lucky enough to create environments for the two latest Wolfenstein titles, side by side with our first companions MachineGames/Bethesda. We also partnered closely with Unity on developing and building the world of The Heretic, and then we’ve been proudly deep into bringing many locations of Night City to life for Cyberpunk 2077, obviously with our good friends CD PROJEKT RED.
So far we’ve mainly focused on full-circle environment art and lighting, intermittently doing some concept art and FX work too.
The current ongoing projects are yet to be announced, but one thing we can say is that Treehouse Ninjas is now laying down its plans for becoming a full-service studio and developing its own independent products. It’s no rush for us though, we really enjoy creating environments and lighting, because we manage to take a lot of ownership in our work.
Working with CDPR
The way we work with our partners is quite unique. We’re never really perceived as a detached entity but, instead, we fully merge with the creative process, directly sharing tools, resources, and real-time communication channels, while still having our own self-contained broad tasks.
For this to happen on Cyberpunk 2077, our artists were in constant sync with the CDPR artists. Also, Treehouse Ninjas’ creative direction and management were in constant sync with CDPR art directors and producers. Essentially working side by side. Also, we’re both in the same time zone, which contributed to making things easier.
We started our conversation with CDPR around fall 2018 and, since then, on Cyberpunk 2077 we developed approximately 130 different locations, across pretty much every district of Night City, some of them very huge and complex. Principally side quests, also known as Street Stories.
These are independent stories in the game, with a beginning and an end on their own, each one mainly taking place in a specific location of Night City, or multiple contiguous locations. In some cases though, the same story could start in one location and end in a totally different one: imagine when the starting act and the ending act of the story are separated by a car chase in the middle, for example.
The way we work at Treehouse Ninjas is by giving as much self-contained ownership to each artist. In the case of Cyberpunk 2077, working closely with CDPR producers Pawel Blasiak, Aleksander Lebiedowicz, and Anna Wojciechowska we crafted the ideal scenario: each Treehouse Ninja's artist was in charge of an entire set of stories. Each story involved was handled by a single artist from the environment blockout, into the draft lighting, then through the final polished environment and dressing, all the way to the final lighting.
We had close conversations with the level designers because, well, level design and environment/lighting art are closely connected but, apart from some occasional small ideas and suggestions, we didn’t author any gameplay nor level design. Just art.
The process would, all in all, see us at Treehouse Ninjas together with CDPR’s art directors, lead artists, producers, and game/level designers, going through the following general phases, not strictly in this order, and sometimes slightly overlapping:
- Initial story briefing, to establish the main story points, context, and backstory of the location, candidate starting conditions of V, main characters involved, key story spots/props/encounters, and potential endings/outcomes of the story.
- Initial art briefing, to establish mood boards, concept art, style, and main color progression. These were strongly influenced by the specific district of Night City where the story was taking place, as every district had its visual grammar. And also by the social context of the story, perhaps involving specific city gangs, rather than nomads, scavengers, or maybe cops, militechs, or general working class, rather than politicians, Corpo executives, and so on: different social contexts and districts would mean different vibes, different styles, different surroundings, and some stories would take V from one social context to a completely different one, so it was important to nail that through environmental storytelling and lighting design, while hitting the right mood progression, in sync with the main narrative points.
- Level design briefing, to establish the general game-flow and design concept for the quest, putting special care on the potential different opportunities that the location could give to the game’s various playstyles. Based on the different specific skills that V might have had when approaching the location, several different paths might have been unfolded to the player, and we used both environment art and lighting to help the player’s immersion, trying to stick with a “show, don’t tell” (or even better “do, don’t show”) storytelling approach. Quite challenging, given the number of layered variables.
- First environment pass. At this point we had a grey boxed layout of the location, discussed and tested with the level designers. This was also organized with a specific color coding grammar that I won’t get into the details of here. We would often proceed by gathering references of real-world locations for extra inspiration, to complement the above-mentioned style, mood, and color plans. This is the stage where we built the locations with a ‘broad strokes’ approach (‘broad’ but very accurate), aiming at having all the architectural elements in place, plus some of the most central and indicative dressing. Both interiors and exteriors.
- Draft lighting and final environment. We tried to start the lighting conversation as early as possible, to exploit the power of environment design and photography working together. The first lighting pass, together with the feedback from the level designers’ playtesting would make the beginning of this stage the ideal moment to apply any required tweak on the environment from an architectural standpoint. After which, the artists were free to unleash their artistic love on their locations, in order to hit the high bar set for the art quality in this game. Set dressing, decals pass, fine polishing, detailing, etc.
- Lighting. Environment polishing carried on through the lighting phase, to finely catch the best forms, shadows, reflections, silhouettes, layering, directional force, and whatever visual composition element, to successfully drive the location readability and mood. The mixed professional backgrounds of our team here (movie people and game people under the same roof) came together very nicely. Through close interaction with CDPR’s lighting team, we got everybody on the same page about Cyberpunk aesthetics and chromatic language. This is the stage where everything started coming together, as we were able to carefully balance the composition and visual storytelling ingredients, and Night City started really breathing.
The formula was based on close and frequent conversations with art directors and lead artists at CDPR. Moodboards were extremely well organized for each location, and since the earliest styling talks with environment art director Lucjan Wiecek, the vision of shapes, forms, and contrasts in Night City was set in stone.
We’ve maintained a solid relationship with the team in Poland all through the project, and regular meetings with the environment leads Michal Janiszewski and Kacper Niepokolczycki, then lighting and FX art director Jakub Knapik and the CDPR lighting squad throughout the lighting stage.
After nailing the core principles, we were left with a very good degree of independence, which helped the team here at Treehouse Ninjas to develop proper ownership and push to their best performance. As mentioned before, the artists here were in constant sync and conversation with their CDPR counterparts, so we managed to evolve internally to a setup where each artist would handle interactions with anything connected to their locations, being it level design-related considerations, QA feedback, coordinating with other artists working on neighboring locations or sharing bounding borders, horizontally and vertically, or general cross-department conversations.
Four visual styles were defined for the project: Entropy for the lowest poorest social group, Kitsch for the higher middle class, Neomilitarism for the corporates, and Neokitsch for Night City’s "aristocracy". Each style was brilliantly identified by specific canons, shape/form ratios, profiles, materials, visual weighting rules, and detail density balances. These, together with a clear conversation over the narrative vision, made the whole process very effective.
In terms of both environments and lighting, we also relied heavily on our visual composition method based on "POV’s hierarchies". In other words, from any given player position, we try to compose the visuals according to 'candidate camera angles' that we call primary, secondary and tertiary POVs, which relate to where the story would most naturally lead the player to (primary POV), which alternative side-exploration options the location offers (secondary POVs), and everywhere else (tertiary POVs). It was very useful to break down and organize our approach when accommodating the different playing styles and paths the player might have potentially taken.
Past Challenges and Future Plans
Cyberpunk 2077 was a huge step for us, because of its complexity and because of the cross-department responsibility of delivering full locations with top-notch environment art quality and top-notch lighting quality at the same time. Sometimes, the complexity resulting from the number of factors to keep in mind in parallel was enough to almost blow one’s head, even for the most experienced industry veterans involved.
Night City was an ecosystem of layered challenges, all affecting each other, incrementing up their complexity exponentially at each new variable that would join the overall equation. On top of this, all of our stories were approachable by the player anytime through the day/night cycle, so the lighting setups had to deliver solid photography not only from every potential path/angle but also at any time of the day: noon, sunrise, morning, afternoon, sunset, night, any time. And with any weather condition.
But, together with our friends at CDPR, we made it, and the Ninja Team here grew quite stronger, it became very solid by the end of the project. We even developed an internal "peer review" system with the artists playtesting each other’s locations in rotating pairs and giving each other notes and feedback, very openly. I rarely saw such fresh enthusiasm and commitment still enduring unstoppably, even at the very final stages of such a demanding and long-lasting project. Which, as the creative director, made me very proud.
As of now, Treehouse Ninjas is busy with some new exciting but unannounced AAA action. And we plan to start our first own independent project later this year, so please stay tuned.