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Ethan Hiley discussed the way you should approach building guns for modern AAA games. Huge thank you goes to Treyarch for allowing us to publish this.
My name is Ethan Hiley and I’m currently working as a weapons artist at Treyarch. Prior to joining the studio – and working alongside a very talented, veteran weapons team – I worked at Raven Software, as a weapon/hard surface artist, working on a variety of different Call of Duty projects. While I’ve worked in a few different roles as an artist; over the years, I found weapons to be the most rewarding. Prior to my time in the industry I studied game art at Champlain College in Vermont, but I have been exploring 3D modeling as far back as the early 2000’s. If you’d like you can check out my latest work and the projects I’ve contributed to over on my ArtStation page.
I’ve had the opportunity to do a bit of environment art, general props, and some vehicle art; however, I’ve found weapons to be the most engaging for me. Each gun I work on presents new technical challenges to overcome, and the next one always feels like a unique project compared to the last. One of my favorite parts is texturing because in my opinion that’s where the models start to get their personality and feel grounded. There’s a lot of storytelling you can do on a model in just the texture. Things like the level of wear, and surface damage help convey how used or old the gun may be, and where certain parts may have come into contact with other surfaces or a player’s hands. Weapons are made of such a variety of materials and metal finishes it’s always a fun challenge to work with a variety of material types. Plus in first person shooters, guns tend to be the star of the show so that’s always exciting.
Requirements and Restrictions
With the move into this current generation of consoles, we’ve been able to afford more verts on weapons than previously which allows us to get more interesting model detail when necessary. That’s not to say you can be reckless, wasting thousands of verts and not paying attention to your limits, but it’s not as much of a restriction as it used to be. Unlike verts however, texture memory still presents a big limitation. While we can afford larger texture resolutions now we have to be careful with how many we use. In a game like Call of Duty, authenticity and great visuals are key, so we obviously want to make sure the guns get enough texture res to look crisp and highly-detailed, which is a balancing act with memory budgets. There’s a lot of thought put into how many unique materials each gun is allowed and how big each of those materials can be. Due to texture resolution constraints how you layout your UVs is very important because it can help you maximize your texel density where it matters to get the most out of your limitations. Additionally, every gun will have both the first person model and what’s called a world model. Because the guns in first person tend to have very dense geometry and a lot of model detail they need to be reduced when put into the character’s hands in the world as the model is not seen as closely or interacted with in the same capacity as it is in first person. It is also costly to performance to have all the gun models in the world being drawn with so much geometry detail. Therefore, it’s important to alleviate this problem with the use of LODs so the gun reduces in detail as it gets further from the player.
The first step is always gather reference. Get as much reference material as you can to make it easier to work in 3D. In a game like Black Ops 3, this begins with a concept artist providing sketches and a variety of drawings for the weapon to make it easier for the artist to translate the drawing into a 3D model. Scaling to the game world is very important, so – before just rushing into a finalized game asset – it’s best to start with a block-out mesh. A block-out mesh is the model of the gun built out of simple shapes and details but includes all the necessary silhouette information and moving parts. This allows us to quickly get it in game and see how it feels in the player’s hands, and how the parts read in first person. Additionally, it gives the animators a general idea of where all the parts will be and allows them to get started on roughing out the animations. When dealing with fictional guns the block-out stage is probably the most important. You want the weapon to feel constructed and believable in first-person while still being visually identifiable as a weapon and fitting within the overall art direction for the game. The block out stage is where you can easily adjust and redesign parts to satisfy these goals without setting yourself back with aggressive rework of finished parts. Once you’ve settled on a block out shape that you’re happy with the next step is usually taking it to high poly and really fleshing out all the details you hinted at in the block out then eventually moving on to the textured low poly asset.
Realistically, most modern, newly manufactured guns tend to be one tone of metallic finish with some plastic furniture in matching color value. This can look a bit boring and the uniform metal treatment will cause a lot of small details to disappear into the surrounding surfaces. You also have to consider players will almost always see the gun when it’s at an angle in first-person, and very rarely straight from the side. The angle makes it even harder for certain details to be visible especially with a monochromatic material. What I like to do is break up parts with different metal treatments or levels of wear to separate surfaces and edges. This could mean giving parts a lighter or darker value than the surface they sit against or maybe a part had to be replaced so it’s a completely different metal treatment. This can bring in a new color to the palette and start to make your asset feel more unique and varied than just your standard dark metal gun. Dirt, grunge, and wear can further help make materials more interesting and vary them from surrounding surfaces. The common one is edge wear, but too much edge wear can be distracting and make your gun look more damaged than is intended. When used sparingly edge wear is a great detail but be mindful of the pitfalls. Subtlety is key with edge wear. Edges of surfaces also are prone to change in gloss and color values. So the edges of a surface might not be chipped away to raw metal but instead be less glossy and have a different value than the center of the surface. It’s a subtle change but can make otherwise large simple surfaces have a lot more interesting details in the texture.
Animation is just as important for the weapon as the modeling is. When production begins for a weapon, animation informs a lot of the decisions we make on how to approach building or designing the weapon. We need to consider how the gun is going to operate when being fired, reloaded, picked up, or any number of other interactions with it. It’s very important to make sure certain geometry won’t clip into itself when moving and the player hands won’t be obscured or interfered with. When parts move, we have to consider if there will be visible geometry behind them and account for it in the model and texture. Animation is also another big factor in what gives a first person gun personality. Often, we will design a model based specifically around a unique reload animation to make the weapon stand out in gameplay and have a lot of visual flare in first person. Both animators and weapon artists work closely together during most stages of weapon art production.
How many people does it take to make a decent game model?
The amount of people dedicated to a single weapon model and texture can change depending on the needs of the team and scope of the task, but typically one person will handle the weapon from block out to textured final asset. Depending on the complexity of the project, it will take several weeks to complete. Bringing the weapon to life requires the help of multiple people and departments. Building the model is only the beginning: it still requires audio, animation, visual effects, and gameplay. Each of these departments play a critical role in video game weapon production.