Introduction & Career
Hi, my name is Darren Tucker, I’m from Bristol, UK, where I grew up with the ambition of becoming a digital artist. I took part in an art and design course in college where I studied a broad range of traditional and digital art practices. Soon after that, I became a student on the BA (Hons) Computer Games (Art) course at Southampton Solent University. There, I built up a solid foundation of game art production skills, along with many hours of self-learning outside of classes.
Upon graduating, I started a job as a trainee 3D artist at Micro Nav LTD, an airport simulator company based in Bournemouth. There, I worked on creating real-time 3D visualizations of various Airports from around the world. Since it was my first professional job as a 3D Artist, I learned a lot about team communication, production of accurate representations of real-world environments, and the importance of balancing asset quality with the time allocated to the production of said assets.
My ambition, however, drove me to move on and pursue opportunities within a game studio. I did a short stint as a freelance artist while applying to many game studios. I eventually got in contact with a studio which at the time was named Edge Case Games, an indie games development studio based in Guildford. From then on, I worked on their project Fractured Space, a 5 vs 5 space combat game where you play as capital spaceships with the aim to dominate the maps and the oppositions base station.
Edge Case Games had an on-going dialogue with Wargaming over the years and was later purchased by them. As a result, I am now a vehicle artist working on a fantastic new project at Wargaming UK ltd. I have the pleasure of working with a growing team of highly talented individuals who utilize their experience and skills to endeavor toward producing an incredible game. My contribution to all of this involves building a wide range of vehicles, starting with making conceptual speed models while exploring both functionality and aesthetic vehicle design. I then move onto vehicle production pipelines, low and high detail modeling and texturing techniques being only part of this. I also work closely with the vehicle design team to get these vehicles up and running effectively and efficiently in-game.
Growing as an Artist
Working on Fractured Space became a passion of mine, and since the team was relatively low in number, I had the pleasure of working on all types of art for the game. Throughout my time there, I built a range of 3D assets, optimized and created LODs, produced in-game cinematic sequences and game trailers, as well as composited marketing renders and promotional videos.
My personal highlight of working on Fractured Space was rebuilding many of the 3rd manufacturer lines of capital ships and working on many episodic environments, alongside a talented group of developers. This helped me to develop my hard surface modeling skills and game art production pipelines. The artists on the project had a wealth of knowledge in their specializations and shared their findings amongst the team. This made for an incredible experience as it was great to see the team raise each other up and deliver high-quality artwork.
I’ve found that it is always a great idea to go back and work on art fundamentals, be it the composition, color theory, shape language, or anything else. It is the combination of these elements that really make a piece. When you understand the basics, you can really push your artwork to go beyond what you thought you could do. Once you have a strong grasp of the fundamentals, continuously make and finish pieces of art. After the completion of every piece, something will be learned. Do this to also refine and streamline your workflows. The quicker you block out a piece the easier it is to experiment and create a piece that works on many aesthetic levels.
Custom Assault Rifle: Modeling in 3ds Max
For the Custom Assault Rifle, I started out by drawing out shapes using splines in 3ds Max. This allowed me to get a feel for what it was I set out to make. Leaning toward real-world proportions with a sense of a futuristic style, I wanted to make a heavy-duty firearm design that has a range of uses and potential for part adaptations. I separated the model into sections and aimed to have the shapes look as though they have been manufactured separately and then pieced together, as you would expect of anything mechanical. At this stage, things are very loose so that I can be flexible with my design. Using “broad strokes” is my main approach to this stage in asset production.
Once I am happy with the way the direction of the spline sketch, I’ll add shell modifiers to the splines to create my blockout. Here, I’ll dive into each component and adjust parts to get a sense of flow and balance between positive and negative space. The aim here was to get something that not only looked like it could make sense functionally speaking, but also have a look that says that it has another level of tech beyond the firearms of today. I then start to work more intently on each segment keeping these things in mind.
I eventually get to the stage where the blockout becomes a base mesh where the forms are in place, proportions are near to finalized and parts are connected in a way that holds everything together. Throughout this modeling stage, I will continually look at the reference of real-world firearms, grenade launchers, and other relevant objects. I do this to be sure that the piece remains grounded, meaning that the weapon’s design doesn’t deviate too much towards a more fantastical construct.
Now the real fun begins: high poly modeling is where I finalize the forms, add and subtract from the asset to polish its broader design and make a high poly mesh that will be baked. I avoid applying many small details that do not break the silhouette, as this is a pass that can be done well when texturing. My focus near the end of this stage is to round off the edges and create clean meshes, with topology made up of quads for subdivision. I use a combination of subdivision modeling and face weighted normals while utilizing the modifier stack in 3ds Max to create the high poly models. This makes for a non-destructive workflow, allowing me to continue to edit low-density meshes.
Using parts from the high poly and base meshes, I piece together and optimize the topology, merging anything that physically joins. I make sure to apply a suitable number of edge loops to rounded objects to avoid noticeable faceting; the number of edge loops needed is dependent on how much of the screen space the asset will take up in-game. Good practice for low poly hard-surface modeling is to use quads and triangles and ideally triangulating the mesh on export. This will mean that the object correctly shades within any game engine and renderer. Smoothing groups are then applied and separated by hard edges; this also has a huge impact on how the asset is then UV unwrapped as well as affecting how the high poly details bake down to the low poly mesh.
Managing Multiple Pieces
The main challenge with building a piece like this is the number of parts that are being worked with at any time. While building towards the base mesh, I had to consider the functionality of each component. I would separate out parts that may need to be animated individually, as well as components that are likely to be swapped out for alternative attachments. This will give the piece additional mileage if, for example, I decided to build different sights, magazine types, or other elements that could be applied to the weapon.
This workflow is very similar to the one we used when building the ships for Fractured Space, except that the ships were made up of many more components. When dealing with an asset with so many parts, I create instances of meshes that are reused amongst the piece to simplify the editing of those parts. When edited, an instanced object will apply those changes to all other instanced meshes. This is an efficient workflow that will save a lot of time.
When working on large projects, it's also vital to keep practical naming conventions for the organization of files and layers within the software used. Since games are built up of a lot of moving parts it’s essential that not only you but other developers can navigate your files efficiently.
When it comes to UV unwrapping, I group meshes that will share texture maps. This usually depends on defined texture budgets, texel density, resolution, and whether components will be swapped out for alternate parts or used individually. Like in many FPS games, I opted to separate elements like the grip, strap, sight, and magazine for flexible amendments to parts if necessary. I also make use of symmetrical mesh UVs to save on texture space. Wherever this is the case, I’ll offset the overlapping UVs. I do this to be able to easily select and edit all UV islands. On top of this, it is good practice to straighten all UV island edges where possible while keeping an even texel distribution. This will improve high to low poly baked texture quality.
For texturing, I jump into Substance Painter - it’s a powerful texturing and rendering tool, with a vast library of brushes, standard materials, and masks, as well as smart materials and masks. My approach is to gradually layer surface types and details. I start out by applying standard fill layers and assigning the color, metalness, and roughness values to sections by using material ID maps as masks. By doing this, I get quick results, making it clear if certain aspects of the piece need altering in any way.
After nailing down the base material values, I add more fill layers above to create surface noise, wear, grunge, dust, and other details. The added layers are assigned values that give the model suitable surface shading to reflect this. In order to then achieve a naturally distributed look of these details, I make use of the library and self-made mask textures to start off and then paint on the mask layers to avoid things looking too procedural.
Thinking of the surface of any asset as a canvas is an interesting way to approach texturing. I aim to distribute details in a way that is balanced and leads the viewer's eye over the surfaces toward key areas. The next step in my texturing process is to paint in additional details that add value to the narrative of the firearm. Details such as bolts, negative space cut-out of the forms, grooves, damage and more, - all of them help to give the piece a sense of realness.
When I feel like I’m reaching the end of the project, I like to take a render of the piece and do a review, highlighting things that could take the piece that extra bit further.
I used Substance Painter’s physically based IRay Renderer to produce the stills for this piece and shade it to look as close to “photorealistic” as possible. When thinking about the composition of my renders, I like to offset the piece to one side and tilt the camera slightly up to create what can be described as a hero shot. Using the basic rule of thirds helps to balance the composition. I then create a few turnarounds and close-up renders to show the key features of the piece.