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We were fortunate enough to talk to Matt McDaid about the main pillars of modern stylized art. The artist, who contributed to Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls and World of Warcraft expansions, gave us some tips and tricks on readability of art and other essential aspects.
Initially, I studied a Multimedia & Animation course in Wales, UK. This was my gateway drug into 3D modeling and I never really looked back after that. Prior to joining the games industry I worked as a 3D modeller in the Military and Aviation sector. Unfortunately due to the content of my work falling under the British Official Secrets Act, I’m unable to disclose the nature of my work. While that may not make for interesting reading I can honestly say that it was a fascinating experience working on some really interesting projects.
After a few years of work in that sector there came a point where I felt that I wasn’t being challenged and my creativity was being stifled. From there I looked to the video games industry. I had always played games from the days of the Spectrum ZX 48K and the Commodore 64 so for me it felt like a natural, progressive move.
Luckily, my desire to move came at a fortunate time. Around that time announcements of the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 along with new technical features, such as normal maps consequently required Dev Studios to look for artists with high-poly skills. This was great seeing how most of my portfolio back then mostly consisted of hi res assets. With that I was fortunate to join up with the makers of TimeSplitters, Free Radical Design. It was a perfect place to cut my teeth in game development, helped along by a fantastically talented team. My first project was Star Wars: Battlefront lll. After close to nearly 3 years in development, Lucas Arts decided to pull the plug on our endeavour. Re-structuring within saw Lucas Arts re-prioritise their game portfolio, and our game along with a few others at studios elsewhere succumbed to this move.
From there I went to Splash Damage in London. I had always heard positive things about the studio and upon my interview I was impressed with their leadership and their ambitions as a studio. I was also extremely honoured to be working next to artists who had worked on some of my favourite games. A 3 and a half year tenure saw me contribute as a Senior Environment Artist on Brink and later free to play FPS, Dirty Bomb.
In between the releases of Brink and Dirty Bomb was when I made the trans-Atlantic move to Blizzard Entertainment as a Senior Artist where I since have contributed to Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls and World of Warcraft expansions, ‘Warlords of Draenor’ and most recently, ‘Legion.’
The Art of Blizzard
There’s such a diverse array of art styles across our portfolio of games at Blizzard that it would be difficult to get into specifics here. If I had to chose a single element it would be ‘Readability.’ However in order to secure good readability in your models you would need to pay close attention to the following sub-elements. Which include:
- Scale & proportions
Remember that when you compose your asset in the environment it should sing in full harmony with its surroundings. Achieve this then you have done your job.
My workflow is very similar to both characters and architectural assets. Typically I begin with gathering reference. This key step is one that younger artists tend to skip and consequently becomes evident in their work. As artists today we have the internet, we sit in front of the largest photo library in existence yet artists/students still try and execute from memory. Having good reference to base your work off is a necessity in a production workflow.
Once I have my reference, I’ll lay down several designs in the form of loose sketches, and pick the one that resonates most with my criteria. The next phase is to create a new, more detailed sketch where I pay close attention to the readability aspect. I look to consolidate high frequency details into low frequency details where possible so the asset doesn’t appear too busy.
From there I’ll jump into the modeling phase and realize my design in 3D. I’ll jump into 3DS Max, Maya or ZBrush depending on the nature of the model. I’m constantly referring back to the aforementioned ‘Readability’ elements ensuring my model adheres to them as much as possible.
I’d say it’s similar to the modeling phase in a sense that I look to consolidate the smaller details into larger, more readable ones. If you’re texturing a 10 x 2 piece of wood from a reference photo and it has 4 small nails hammered through the end, maybe just paint 2 larger, chunkier ones instead? The same can be said for the wood grain running through it. The reference photo may indicate that it has several knots in the grain so just consolidate it down to 3 larger, more readable ones? It’s these small decisions that when made consistently throughout your work will give you a coherent look.
Another vital element to successful texture painting is the understanding and application of your value structure. Depending on the specific art style of the game you may want to adjust your value range accordingly. A dark stylized horror will require you to venture into the darkest values. Conversely if the game has a happy, bright, whimsical vision then your textures will mostly consist of brighter values. Understanding the value structure when painting anything, not just textures, is integral to a successful outcome.
Adding character to the texture also provides a level of charm and richness. Don’t be confined to just what your brain is telling you when you’re observing something, otherwise you will just paint the icons of your subject. Pay attention to the lines, shadows, colors, shapes and contours and feel free to exaggerate them depending on how stylized you want to go.
If you’re looking to hone your hand-painted skills then I would recommend that you begin by perfecting the bread and butter of a texture artist’s job and that is to successfully render the following texture examples:
Once you are comfortable in the knowledge that you have perfected these, then move on to others.
In terms of tools, I’ve seen some incredible textures created with just Photoshop’s standard ‘round brush.’ Personally I use several, but really it’s down to the artist. I would just advise against having too many brushes and overcomplicating it.
Approach to Building Characters
My methods really just depend on if I’m speed-sculpting, concepting an idea or looking to execute a fully fledged design. For my speed-sculpting which is I think what you’re alluding to I just approach it as I would normal clay and just push/pull forms until I’m happy with the design. As you can see in my portfolio too, I like to convey the looseness of my speed-sculpts by giving them a realistic clay-like feel. This is achieved by using similar tools to those used when physically sculpting clay. I sculpt a lot at home with Chavant NSP and so I like to replicate that in my digital work too. It’s so easy to become bogged down with the huge myriad of brush presets in Zbrush, but in actual fact I only use around 4 or 5 when sculpting like this..
In order to achieve this look I mostly use the ClayBuildUp brush both on Zadd & Zsub along with the TrimDynamic, which in physical sculpting terms would do the job of my fingers. Both brushes have a very tight fall-off enabling me to achieve similar results as though if I was using my fingers to push, pull or smooth the clay. I use the rake tool to help define the surface directions and planes. Once done, I smooth over them with the TrimDynamic leaving traces for sake of realism. A few small, randomly placed deep cuts with the DamStandard and then covering the entire surface of the model with ‘thumb-print’ alpha details. One final pass with the TrimDynamic brush over the surface details making sure to leave remnants behind as this all helps substantiate the idea of real clay. These inaccuracies are there to supplement the notion of speed and looseness.
The Future of Stylized Art
Well fortunately stylized art isn’t going anywhere. There will always be a demand for it. The methods in which we achieve it might change. Take for instance now, development software like Substance Designer is changing the landscape of texture creation but I don’t expect it to fully eradicate the need for the hand-painted touch. It’s just an evolutionary step in the production pipeline. For me at least, a large part of the attractiveness behind stylized art is knowing that a great deal of care and attention (and iteration!) went into creating it. Another big contributing factor behind the success of stylized games is how timeless they are. My favourite game of all time, Zelda: Ocarina of Time transcended me to a World quite unlike any other. I recall many hours were spent exploring Hyrule and the surrounding zones. I found the whole experience hugely immersive and captivating. The fantastic art and World design has kept me yearning for more nearly 20 years on. This kind of plays in to my final point and that’s that Stylized games offer a form of escapism from the real World. Like my experience with Zelda, they can transcend you to a whole new World unlike the ultra-realistic counterparts that are hellbent on anchoring us to the only World we know. The limits with stylized creations are only bound to our imaginations.
My first point is a broad one and that’s to emphasize the importance of having strong traditional art skills to allow you to navigate your way through this career. It’s so easy to focus on the latest and greatest software in the hope that it will do 90% of the work, but beneath that in order to succeed you must have solid traditional art skills.
Look at and deconstruct work by your favourite artists. What is it about their work that resonates with you? Look at how they tackle certain aspects of their work and their decision making processes along the way. Doing this will enable you to think similarly and over time, become a better artist also.
Don’t be afraid to ask online whether it be for feedback or advice. Use the forums and galleries to approach artists just remember to be respectful and polite. I get many emails from students, and up and coming artists who are seeking help with their work and so it’s important for me to be that guy who helped me all them years ago. I’m just paying it forward!
Lastly, with our imaginations being our only limit with stylized art, I would encourage you to be bold with your creations. As valuable as deconstructing other artist’s work is you’re going to want to stand out from the pack so don’t be afraid to be original with your ideas. Keep doing this and one day the penny will drop and you’ll find a rhythm and consequently your style. Good luck!