Ryan Hawkins on Art in Games
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Ryan Hawkins on Art in Games
27 April, 2016

We’ve talked with Ryan Hawkins – 3d artist & outsourcing manager in Boss Key Productions. He was kind enough to talk about art in games, some of his personal projects and talked about his work on dense city environments for The Division. Interview recorded & edited by Kirill Tokarev.



My name is Ryan Hawkins. I am originally from Texas, but currently reside in Seattle. I’m working on Lawbreakers as the Outsourcing Manager for Boss Key Productions. I have worked on titles such as Tom Clancy’s: The Division, HAWKEN, and Aliens: Colonial Marines, as an artist. I’ve been fortunate to work with various studios on their projects while working with Quixel & Valkyrie Entertainment. I try to keep active in the video game community and stay current on techniques that the industry uses. I put together an ebook called Vertex each year with the help of great artists and friends throughout the industry in order to share those techniques.


Working on Industrial Design

I have a long way to go and there are a great deal of masters (i.e. Fausto De Martini, Daniel Simon, Vitaly Bulgarov, Scott Robertson, Jon Sibal, etc.) ahead of me that I pull inspiration from. I grew up doing an array of odd jobs from working around houses to working on my own cars and building things with my father. When I was doing these things, I generally hated it. In hindsight, I am glad that I had those experiences to draw from when working. I feel it has made me a better artist because I have actually interacted with most of the surfaces using my hands and have seen them with my eyes. I know how they should look from a material to model aspect. If you model or create a somewhat functional looking piece, it will help sell the scale of the piece as well as help sell the story behind the object. I feel the more functional detailed pieces modeled in, the better looking and believable it will feel.


Production Process

I’m constantly looking for any chance I can to try and better my work. I’ve been focusing more on automotive projects with car builders lately and have not had the time to create either a 2d or 3d environment. However, this doesn’t stop me from planning out or building reference for the scenes. I am always setting up projects to do and focusing on the goal of a project and how I want to go about achieving that goal.



With the Mirror’s Edge Fan art scene, I was in between moving back to the USA from Sweden and I felt that I needed a new portfolio piece on my Artstation. I had to rely on planning this scene out because I was working with limited time and hardware. I built this scene using Unreal 4 and my Wacom Cintiq Companion in three days. Due to the Companion being on the lower end of the hardware spectrum, I needed to thoroughly assess the scope of the project. If not kept tight, the project can easily get out of hand which may lead to the project not being completed. 


I decided that the goal would be recreating an environment from the E3 reveal trailer for Mirror’s Edge 2 and trying to do it in as little time as possible. I wondered what I could accomplish in a short amount of time if planned properly with the given restraints. I knew the scene would be more archviz and would be mostly focused on materials and lighting so the geometry didn’t need to be super dense. I think the entire scene is around only 15,000 triangles and it’s mostly long planar surfaces, unwrapped super quick with planar uvw maps and auto unwraps for the lightmaps. Obviously, this is a super crude way to tackle this but, it was all I needed to do to achieve the look and feel for my scene. It held up extremely well in rendering. I spent the bulk of my time in lighting for this scene. I felt I didn’t really need to waste time modeling the couches and felt that the base materials and couch, that come with the Unreal 4 example levels, would be enough for me to tweak and work with. This was an experiment, not an art test. I decided to use their props and materials and give them the credit rather than wasting time creating my own from scratch to achieve the same result. In the end, I feel I was able to capture the look and feel of the Mirror’s Edge universe.


Open Natural Environments and Dense Urban Scenes


I guess a good example of selling a good urban environment would be the work that we did on our E3 trailer in 2013 for Tom Clancy’s: The Division.

I have a few pieces in my portfolio from this trailer but, I did not create them myself. I was the Lead Artist on the project at that time and was in charge of setting the tone of the world with the wonderful team of artists at Ubisoft Massive. To sell a believable world like an urban city, I feel that it goes back to the previous statement that I feel if you create things with some sort of function they will help you sell the believability as well.

That was the case with how we worked on the world for the E3 trailer. Every little detail needed to be looked at and created to help sell the space. This would go as far as to researching certain types of buildings in that area and looking up when they were built and how the electrical would be built. We posed questions like does it have power exposed on the wall or is it ran inside the wall. We would even go as far as trying to make sure our buildings where up to fire code and exits and sprinklers and safety lights where installed.

Some would say that this is going a bit far when it comes to creating game environments due to the onscreen budget but, in our case we believed it would help us sell the world to the players so we focused on creating that experience and optimizing it. I am a big fan of letting the players imagination come up with a story of what they see in the environment without forcing one on them. Let them come to their own conclusions as to why the car ran over the fire hydrant or why the shop window is busted. This will help them with immersion in the game world.


Using 3ds Max

I use 3ds Max on a daily basis, roughly around 5 hrs or more a day. When you use something like that, for so long, it just becomes muscle memory and you naturally will get better at it because of how much time is invested. However, I’m still very sloppy with how I use the tool with the lack of use in hotkeys and I tend to fiddle too much with vert pushing. I would say for anyone trying to get better that it would probably be one of the cases of do as I say and not as I do.



Learn hotkeys and find ways to optimize your workspace. The fact that I vert push so much and model with cages and get away with it is because I have done it for so long. I know where or how I want the geometry to be or flow to. I think for someone just getting into modeling or modeling things at a higher density, this method could get away from them fast thus leaving them with a lumpy result. I create a great deal of bad geometry before it becomes clear to me and the shape/edge flow makes sense to me.




The Importance of Art

I think art has always played an important role in video games and entertainment. It’s what you see the most onscreen so it needs to be somewhat decent and should support the gameplay experience. I think the Uncharted and Last of Us franchises are great examples of great visuals and great gameplay supporting one another. I am not on those teams or have any inside knowledge on how it was in development but, I can imagine the communication loop between art and design was a key factor in its success. I think that communication is a vital key to the success of the two different teams supporting one another.

When that works, it shows in the final product. I think as the tech we use gets better and better, we will continue to push the bar further and further away because we are artists and we tend to never be satisfied visually. VR is a very cool way that the user can interact and or experience art but, I don’t think it is the last innovation. It is just the latest and most current way we are experiencing it. I am rather enjoying the VR phase.

I recently saw an article where Reload Studios took a museum exhibit room and recreated it so the VR user could visit and interact with the space. Seeing things like this just gets me all types of excited because as a kid I was glued to my encyclopedia britannica library and I can’t wait for the future kids to have an equivalent experience in education through VR.


Ryan Hawkins, Outsourcing Manager – Boss Key Productions





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