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We’ve talked with the developers of Raji – An Ancient Epic to learn how the team is working on stylized environments, materials, modeling, and level design.
Hi! My name is Shruti Ghosh and I’m from India. I’m one of the founders and artist at Nodding Heads Games. It’s been almost a year that we have set out on this indie journey. I have a traditional painting background for my fine arts major and a diploma in 2d and 3d animation. Even though of my painting background I’m a self taught 3D artist. I have mostly worked as an Environment Artist for games like Burnout Dominator and Open World, VC Arts Fantastic Four etc. Even though I was working as Art Manager at EA, India I was not creatively happy hence we all quit our jobs and started working on our dream project. In Nodding Heads Games we are 8 of us, Ian another founder and artist is the veteran of the team with almost 18 years of experience who has worked in companies like Stainless, Acclaim, Rockstar, Ubisoft and The Chinese Room. Then we have Anirudh, our concept artist, Avichal who is the third founder and the game designer( the task master), Himanshu our animator, Paras our coder, Rafael our VFX artist and lastly Linus our sound designer and composer.
About the game
The main aspects that shaped Raji – An Ancient Epic are the many Indian lores and myths, such as epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana, and the magnificent Medieval architecture of Rajasthan. We used the foundation of lores as inspiration but Raji is a unique universe.
Concept art for the Jaidarh Fort
Use of mandala patterns on the floors of the ruins
What we did was we used existing medieval palaces and forts as inspiration and sketched out ideas which would fit our universe and levels then went on to actually building them. For example, we are using the carvings on walls to depict the story.
- To tell mythical stories through animated environmental assets
- Mandala patterns, geometric symetrical patterns played a major role in our environments
Initial sketch of the ruins done by Shruti
Initial sketch of ruins done by Ian
Painting of Hanuman (Monkey God) etched into the wall.
The antagonists characteristics and looks are heavily inspired by the balinese culture, such as Rangda, who’s one of the many bosses and Tezabsura, who’s an acid spewing frog like demon. We localised on the masks, which are beautifully design and yet, this gives and binds them to a unique look within our universe.
Moodboards for Antagonists inspired from Balinese Mythology
Thumbnails for Tezabsura (Acid demon)
Concept art for Rangda – one of the bosses. She is one the most powerful from the Bali mythology.
The weapons which Rai utilizes are of Indian origin, for example, the Trishul (trident) is specific to Shiva. And Raji is a reflect of Durga and this is what we want to portray in the game, since Durga was blessed by all of the gods with different weapons to defeat the all mighty Messasura since he can not be defeated by ANY man. You can expect to see a lot more indian weapons such as the chakra (throwing disc), Gada (Mace).
Trishul sketch to final in game asset
We are happy that everyone really likes the art style. When we started with this project I wanted to portray the old traditional Indian painting which has personally inspired me like Pahari paintings have a very prominent art style themselves. Though it was a challenge to achieve that old painting look in the game but we kept experimenting till we actually achieved something that we were happy with.
After experimenting and many iterations later I came up with a workflow, we would create the basic geometry, adding slight chamfers wherever necessary (lighting purposes), then onto ZBrush for detailing, back to Maya for retopology and unwrap to bake the high fidelity details to the UVs of the low geo. Then we take the baked maps into Quixel when we create base material. Then we would head over to 3D Coat for painting and adding details.
Palace interior shot – Modeled and unwrapped by Ian and textured by Shruti
We also followed the same detailed process for the characters in the game.
Gadasura hi res model
Gadasura modeled and textured by Ian
The complexity of this kind of style in production is just the limited number of workforce. It was a lot of modeling, texturing and then beautify and placement in engine for pair of us. Also, the quality and the level of details we wanted to achieve was time taking but everything came down to discipline and sheer passion that we had to get it done in time at a certain level of quality.
Like most other games our process is quite similar so first our designer Avichal would start blocking out the level in the engine while he is testing and experimenting with the pacing of the game I would export the level from Unreal to Maya, which is my choice of weapon!
Initially me and Ian would work together on environments and character since we are the only two artists working on this. Then with constraint of time Ian moved on to doing characters and I worked on the environments.
The process for the building the levels were:
Moodboards and Sketching
Basic geo and modular pieces
Export it to engine
Softwares I used through the duration of this projects are Maya for modeling, Marmoset Toolbag for baking, Photoshop, Quixel and 3D Coat for texturing, Zbrush for sculpting. This was pretty much the standard process for me and Ian. Initially we have to do a lot of back and forth for scaling issues and colour values for the maps used because I was not getting the look I visualised in the engine. Hence a lot of tweaking of the diffuse maps and the material parameters got us to the final result that you see now.
We used optimised modular pieces to create a mountain range and that used one material with one diffuse map. As for the clouds, they are animated billboards, they’re relatively cheap as far as rendering is concerned and yet they give create a dreamy/fantastical atmosphere.
Though we want to try the matte painting process once we’re in full production.
Thank you so much for appreciating the environments and loving the details, we’ve put so much efforts into. So, Ian and me have always believed that environments are characters themselves, where each and every corner has a story to tell. Hence whenever we created something we would ask ourselves the questions – where, what, when and why?
According to the setting of the story and where the game begins, Raji finds herself at an age old temple ruin. After a thunderous storm things are broken and destroyed.Once we knew the setting it was easier for us to achieve this look.
For instance, the ruins had a subdued dark and dank feel to the architectural elements which sets the mood of sadness. To add life to the ruins and balance the dark tones I added creepers and veins with contrasting colourful flowers to draw the eye to the areas of importance. Also We’ve got a keen eye for composition so hence we’re always looking at the environment with cinematography in mind, for instance the camera movement when introducing the mandala puzzle, then there’s the arches where the camera changes from an isometric to a 2D side scroller.
Working with Materials
We’re using Unreal 4 for many reasons, one being the material editor because it’s extremely user friendly and very powerful making it relatively easy to master. We tend to use one master material and instance them when applying them for the foliage, the environment (which was multi material blending), the character and the weapons, there were a couple of miscellaneous materials for decals etc. We’re also utilising the PBR system with a twist, adding a hint of “old school”, where we’re adding the Ambient Occlusion in the diffuse map. And to save memory, we’re using multi maps, and this typically involves assigning one materials to a single asset unless I’ve packed several assets into one texture page. This is done in the name of optimisation and saving memory wherever we can.
There is no other texture artist actually, everything in environments are modeled and textured by me and characters are done by Ian.We experimented for a while and finally rested on this particular look because we weren’t wanting a photo realistic finish.
This method I devised worked really well for me and it was not as time consuming as painting everything from scratch.
I bake out the details from the hi poly model to the low one.
Then I do two things which has been a massive help to me is I create a base black and white value map for highlights and shadows. This is made from the AO, Curvature and the height map.
Then I would make a base material for the asset in Quixel and use the diffuse from that to paint. After that I use the diffuse from Quixel Suite and the value map I created in Photoshop to add details and paint which thereafter is used in the engine.
Finally all the details are painted in 3D coat then I would rebake normals and ao etc. Lastly we use a mix map with AO and Roughness maps in green and blue channels respectively.
To start with, the designer and the animator discuss the action needed to be animated. They discuss all possibilities and variations needed to make the action both creative and entertaining. After the discussion, the idea is presented to the entire team, where we usually end up with valuable feedback. Once we have finalised on how the action will happen, we move on to collecting reference footage for the action. We usually end up shooting our own reference, which is fun and and great way to feel the action.
After studying the footage, the animator sketches key poses.. These are the storytelling poses. After making many thumbnails (small sketches), a pose is pushed till it is clearly readable and has a strong silhouette. After series of sketches, we move onto the 3d software.
Ingame – Animated by Himanshu
The animator then starts to manipulate the 3d rig according to the poses planned out on paper. Checking the arcs, and fluidity of the motion. Making necessary changes, we move to the graph editor., we check for the smoothness of all the curves a must.
One of the main challenge we faced was to keep the animation well weighted and responsive at the same time. In games, to make the character responsive, the animations need to be short and quick. Which can result in loss of weight. Keeping that in mind we had to resort to creative solution, to preserve both the responsiveness as well as the weight of the motion.
Firstly a Lighting moodboard was created and then it took Ian three days to research and experiment in Unreal to get the desired mood. We wanted to create a morning dew, where a storm has just passed, the sun is rising, whilst keeping the cool colours and playing with numerous settings such as volumetrics.
The Lighting was achieved through a directional and a skylight and many hours thinking with many of the settings in PostProcessVolume, ExponentialHeight & Atmosphere fog which adds the necessary depth to create “that” low lying morning mist. We’re working on a vortex system which reacts to the pratoganist and the NPCs movements. And lastly a LightmassImportanceVolume.
The vfx don’t interfere with the lighting, that’s how seamlessly it’s work. We wanted a stylised and yet semi realistic feel for the lightning, hence we had our concept artist sketch out some ideas and these were then forward to our VFX artist who resides in Brazil. All communication was done mainly through either Slack or Skype (rarely).
We plan to distribute the game through Steam for PC and we will also launch for Nintendo Switch, XBoxOne and PS4. The game will be going live in Q2 2019!
Shruti Ghosh, Founder/Game Artist at Nodding Heads Games.
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev.