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Senior environment artist Harold Lamb talked about his work on neon signs during the creation of Infamous: Second Son. I was incredibly lucky to meet Harold during the Mapcore meetup at GDC 2017 and he was kind to talk a little about his work with environment and light in games. Big thanks for Sucker Punch Productions for allowing us to publish this interview.
Well, I have been lucky in my career because I’ve been able to work at three studios so far, and each of those have provided a lot of lessons for me. My first studio was a startup called Perpetual Entertainment in San Francisco, where I spent most of my time doing cleanup of outsourcing work. It might sound strange, but I really loved that job because I was just so happy to be working on games and to be part of a team I enjoyed working with. I learned that you often don’t get the awesome art assignments right out of school, and that you have to build your team’s trust in you before you get those chances.
The second studio I worked at was Bungie, where I worked on Halo 3. This is where I really got a chance to learn from incredible artists. I was so intimidated by them, and intimidated by the Bungie name and the Halo franchise. I mean, this was my dream of dreams – to get a chance to work for Bungie and work on Halo? It was crazy to me! The assignment that really changed things for my confidence was when I was given the cinematic Halo ring to finish. Here was a chance to do something really cool and just kind of go crazy with details and stuff, where I had a huge amount of creative freedom – when I completed that, that’s the moment in my mind when I became a real game artist.
The Bungie experience taught me so much about advanced art creation techniques, about amazing shader technologies, and level design. I learned about the importance of playing the game to test and improve it, and it was SO awesome to get a chance to watch players in the real world have so much fun in something I’d contributed to.
My third studio is where I currently work, Sucker Punch Productions. I’ve shipped 5 titles with SP, and the place feels like a second home, with my coworkers being like a second family. Working on the InFamous franchise, I’ve learned so much about open world game art, and in particular efficient use of memory for games. The biggest thing at SP that I value is how collaborative everyone is, and how talented the team is. Every artist is better than me at something, and I absolutely love that. Each person brings a skill to the table that is different from the next, and there are so many opportunities to learn from that. I could go into details on these things, but truthfully the most important thing I’ve learned at SP is how to improve myself. I can be difficult sometimes, and the real lesson for me during those years is figuring out how to become a better person. I’m still working on that!
Elevating Environment Production in Second Son
On Second Son we had the opportunity to take advantage of a really powerful new platform with the Playstation 4. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what kinds of new things we could do with it, and the biggest improvements in the game came from our new particle system, HDR lighting, and PBR rendering workflows. I tend to be a materials specialist, and when we had figured out how to properly integrate PBR materials into our game I couldn’t believe the difference it made for the visuals. When I compare the neon I made in InFamous2 to the neon I made in InFamous Second Son, there’s a huge difference in quality. There were many times I would glance over at someone’s television and think “that’s pretty good photo reference”, only to look again and see that it was our game!
We really wanted to push color and lighting effects, and we wanted to make sure everything was nice and wet – just like our Seattle home. To achieve this wet effect we had a global weather wetness setting per material type that would change depending on the weather to be wet or dry. We also developed a height blended environment material where we could hand paint puddles and water streaks onto our models and geometry. We saved our blue vertex color channel for this “wetness”, and if we painted blue to a certain threshold we’d get a puddle. Reduce the blue amount, and we’d get a wet effect but not a puddle. These hand painted puddles would get bigger or smaller depending on if it was raining or not, and they were really important to the look of the game.
The neon was my responsibility for the game, and the way I decided to try to solve the problem you’re asking about was to do a test area of the city with the design team. We took something like 5 or 6 buildings in a space and I placed neon around it where I felt it would look good, and also provide opportunities for gameplay. The design team looked at this as well, and I made adjustments based on their feedback. When we felt the space was good for design and art, we took those lessons into the rest of the game.
Actually, the two biggest art goals for the neon was to have it provide color and contrast so that they did stand out. The other goal was to represent real world landmarks in Seattle, and to give our game authenticity. The neon is a source of power for the player so we wanted them to be obvious, but we knew having too many would actually make the player too powerful so we tried to limit the number that way.
The game tends to be rather fast-paced, and we found that due to the speed of movement you don’t normally find yourself with this problem for very long, because you’ve zoomed away. The other thing was that the global illumination and wet reflective surfaces in most of the world still tended to provide a lot of light and visual interest, even in areas where we’ve turned off neon.
Alternative Use of Light Sources
Well, I know we were trying to do something that people hadn’t done before on Second Son, so our design team really pushed themselves to think of new ways to use common elements in our world in different ways. We tried to think of lighting and effects as something that was integrated into the entire spirit of the game. It was a conscious decision to try to have lots of visual pop and colorful reflections in the world to help reinforce this. When our character’s main powers were decided upon, we knew that we could break the rules of what came before. From that point on, it was all about letting the minds of the artists and designers have fun with the possibilities. I guess my best advice on this would be to try to think of everything in the world as a possible gameplay mechanic, and to not be afraid of your craziest ideas.