Friday, December 9, 2022

Back to the Drawing Board

 


I've been doing a lot of end-of-year revising of my work lately - some of this is because I'm in the middle of Old Skies, and the middle of a project is where the sheen of a "new thing" has dissipated a little, and the job is largely production work rather than creative solving problems, some of it being because Nighthawks is going to soon be at the point where I need to go back and polish things, cast an eye over everything I've already done and fill in the missing pieces that we didn't know were missing, and I need to have my critical glasses on in order to polish that project up the way it deserves.

The tough part about this sort of revision is that usually with a few months of space between the creation of a piece of work I can see the flaws that I was happy to ignore at the time, and while this can be a little frustrating and also generates a need to quickly touch up endless amounts of work, it's also satisfying because it feels like this is the right mindset for growing & learning. I've got a couple of months of pretty hefty study planned to fill in some of my massive weak areas, especially after a year of pretty solid production work, and my brain has never felt more ready to tackle some specific elements of technique & knowledge that have intimidated me in the past. By the end of a study block like that I'm always absolutely ready to take a break from learning things and just get down to production, too, which is also a great thing.

For now, here's an old study piece I did a couple of years ago that I liked well enough to touch up just a tiny bit tonight. Been too long since I did this sort of thing. Thanks for all the support this year, and here's to a wonderful 2023 for us all.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

MEAT


Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator's aesthetic was a vulgar, throbbing mess. What a fun project. The palette ended up being a mix of P1 phosphor greens and a sickly alt-CGA dose of magenta, purple & infra-cyan, dithered to hell and brought to life in flashing, pulsing style.


That palette helped us make the game something unique. I always like to work on projects that are recognisable at a glance - being memorable is more interesting to me than just "looking good". It's fun to make a game that you can't possibly mistake for anything else.

We chanted "MEAT" at each other, shared our love for the Command & Conquer install program, and embraced the dither, the weird palette shifts and somehow wholeheartedly brought this to life. Try to convert a screenshot of the game to greyscale and you'll see how much of the palette's contrast was derived from unusual leaps in hue & saturation that somehow end up working. I love limited palettes for a multitude of reasons, but hadn't used them in over a decade. This might be one of the best ones I've worked in.


I think the fever of our work on the game shows in the finished product. Colours flash and glow, the flesh throbs, the market moves constantly and stressfully. It's uncomfortable, kind of repulsive, and it knows exactly what it is trying to be. It took me back to days of gleeful chaos in jam games, weird experiments, of being a young game developer and indulging in the act of creating something. It's very different to most of my work now, which is carefully planned, and quite rigid in its definition of success and beauty. Very satisfying work, but I also loved revisiting that chaotic energy of old here.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Re-Imagined

One of the most fun personal projects I had this year was taking inspiration from a variety of games that I love the world/characters/aesthetic of and seeing how they'd look in the style of adventure game that I'm used to drawing. I already posted about the process behind one of these but it seems sensible enough to collect them here as well for posterity.

There's a couple of reasons I loved doing these. One was that I got to play for a little while in these other worlds, settings that I don't normally get to experiment with, and that's always wonderful. Especially as I'm an epic sci fi/fantasy kind of guy, and rarely get to draw that sort of thing. Another great aspect was trying to take design cues from other artistic sources and incorporate them into my own work. Amazing what you can learn doing this. Finally, and probably the best of all, it's just nice to do tiny projects, things that can be finished in a single evening or two, especially these days when the games I work on are always getting bigger and more complex and everything takes years to do. It's a huge boost to just finish something small and put it out there into the world. There were a bunch of other games I would love to do this for - Anachronox, Omikron: The Nomad Soul, The Outer Wilds, Caves of Qud, Planescape: Torment, the list goes on and on. Maybe someday I'll do some more.

One quick note - I never ended up posting the scene from Command & Conquer: Red Alert because I finished that one on the 23rd of February 2022, and posting it at that time seemed to be in very poor taste. I'm putting it up here for posterity, nothing more. I only ever showed it to about three people, but I had a good time looking at M√łnsted's snow and trying to figure out how he did the colours. I'd do it slightly differently looking back at it now, as would I put more detail on the tank, etc, but such is the nature of hindsight and rushed personal projects. 

Thanks to everybody who boosted these back when I was doing them, the response to this project was so encouraging.

Disco Elysium

Heaven's Vault

Beyond Good & Evil

The Operative: No One Lives Forever

Shadowrun: Dragonfall

Command & Conquer: Red Alert

Outcast

Thief: Deadly Shadows

Final Fantasy IX

Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee


Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Six!

 


I've started working on the next section of Old Skies, getting Fia's next outfit designed and then walk, talk, and "pickup" animations done in preparation. The normal stuff necessary for a Wadjet Eye game protagonist. This means that she now has six different outfits in the game so far. That's as many as all the companions in Unavowed plus both female & male versions of the player character. Anyway, here's a fun little preview of some animations using all 6 of those outfits to celebrate this little milestone!

And as a little bonus, here's a pigeon animation I did today:

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Class: Cartographer


 Might & Magic I may be the perfect game for someone like me. To clarify, it is perfectly suited to someone who loves drawing maps, loves making careful notes, loves playing with a sheaf of pages by the keyboard that need to be referred to constantly.

One of the best things about playing this game as an artist is that I can bring my interests to the experience. When drawing maps I am thinking of ways to make them look nice, or inventing simple ways to draw icons for things I want to highlight. When making notes I am using my skills in round hand calligraphy to invest in the theme of a sprawling fantasy RPG. It’s the kind of game that requires me to pull equipment out of my drawer in order to play. Some might say that’s how an adventure should be.

But best of all, I’m actually doing something. Cartography and chronicling is a massive part of this game, perhaps a good half of it, and the game is well set up with neatly divided maps and careful orienteering tools to aid in your mapmaking. Every map is the same size and shares a coordinate system. The world map that comes with the game has features shown on it that you will actually encounter, so when you see that sector E-4 has the “Perilous Peaks”, you know that you can name that sector of your map that. The presence of a sea monster or a giant scorpion on the map similarly warns the attentive player: here be danger.

There is plenty of danger, too. As is to be expected, one must use heroic might and powerful magic to overcome the various opponents in the game. But combat in RPGs is never amazing for me. There’s usually too much of it, it’s usually either too simple or too complex, and mostly I appreciate its presence as a way of making the exploration varied, tense and challenging. I like having to protect myself from fire against dragons, or use turn undead on skeletons. But I can get that in any game.

The true challenge, the true wonder of this experience is the exploration - I consider exploration as a vital form of gameplay, that complements gameplay like combat, puzzle solving and resource gathering. Finding stuff feels great, and Might & Magic I has me poring over my maps, looking for clues in the structure of dungeons or studying the layout of features to work out mazes (which are wonderful to solve when you’re drawing every single square in a grid out clearly anyway). There are jokes, tricks, puzzles, traps and patterns hidden in these maps, and it’s a joy to uncover them, to mark them out, square by square, and to unravel the secrets of this world. Better than waggling some imaginary sword in some virtualisation of a combat experience, better than picking spells that obviously counter the spells of my opponents (and let’s face it, game magic is usually so elemental, so rule bound), here I’m genuinely interacting with the game world, line by line.

My party of adventurers are knights, clerics, sorcerers. But without me, their trusty surveyor and scribe, there’s no way they can prevail. I’ve never felt more important in a game.

Friday, February 4, 2022

Process Breakdown - Using 3D as a base for a low resolution scene.


 I've had a few different people ask me about my process for using 3D and for painting low resolution scenes, lately, so I've been sharing a basic step by step of this recent tribute to Heaven's Vault that I drew. I'm posting it here so that I can link people to it whenever they ask.



Step one is to gather reference files. Especially important because I'm paying homage to someone else's vision, and I want to try to be reasonably accurate. I have a mix of screenshots, concept art, pose references, anything that I think might be important. I use PureRef for handling my reference images, a wonderful free tool that I recommend to everybody working with reference material.



Following my reference, I make a very basic 3D model that allows me to experiment with composition. I vaguely know in my head what lighting setup I'm going to use, so I put that in place as well. My goal at this point is to get my 3D models fairly accurate to the source. With an accurate model I can easily change positions of things with relation to the camera, so getting that right makes life much easier when I want to move things. I render this with a transparent background, because I know I'm going to paint my own sky in. I'm using Blender here - a great, free tool that does everything I need.


For the characters, I use Aseprite, a program that I've been using for pixel work for years. I like to have a basic sky colour in here, so I can see how everything looks together, and for pixel characters I don't really have any secrets. Just work to the reference, try to be accurate, and try to capture their character in the basic standing pose. Aliya and Six are nice to do because they're quite distinct, which usually feels like I know when I haven't quite got them right and need to keep working on them. Most of the challenge is just in fighting the pixels, and getting the look right in such low levels of fidelity.


With the characters just about right, I block in my sky and backdrop. Getting this in place sets me up to decide the composition of the rest of the foreground elements that I know I need to have. There's no secret to this, really, just working from my reference images, and trying to make nice silhouettes that interact with each other in interesting ways. For example, I know I wanted to have two of the long stone spires cross each other in an interesting way, and I know I wanted to have the river dip behind the cloud before re-appearing.


With the distant composition mostly solved, I paint in the foreground elements that I know I need to have. In this case, the only essential element was the feet of a broken off statue present in this location. I block these in roughly, and try to rough out how the light is going to affect them and how they'll affect the light on the ground that they sit on.


With all of my essential elements in place, it's time to finalize the composition. This is an extra step for a mockup that I'd never do in a painting for a game, because there's no way of knowing where a character is going to be in a game. Here, though, I know Six is going to be harder to read against a light backdrop because of his white features, so I put a nice dark lump of stone behind him. I know Aliya's outfit has a warm beige for her torso and a cool blue for her headscarf, so I paint the backdrop cool to contrast against her torso and warm to contrast against her head. I also add in some framing elements like the rock in the bottom right, and try to push the lighting on the flat surfaces a little.


From this point on, it's just careful painting work, tweaking colour values, adjusting things for balance, and constantly checking my reference when adding detail to things like the ship and the buildings. Very few secrets here, just painting to the best of my ability and patience. Eventually I reach a point where I'm tired of painting detail, and any further painting is just fiddling, and I call the piece done. I then like to wait a couple of days, just to catch any stupid mistakes that I made because I was tired of working on the piece and rushing to get finished, and then it's finished for real. As soon as I show it to everybody, I notice all the mistakes, and vow to learn from these for next time.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The power of a workflow

 


One of the most interesting areas of focus for me when drawing is on finding a powerful workflow for asset creation, that exists in the form of a deliberately delineated series of steps which I do to completion before moving onto the next stage. My idea is that each stage should address a specific problem, and solve it to full satisfaction, before progressing. That way I'm not thinking about colour when I'm trying to paint light, I'm not adding lightsources when trying to paint texture, etc. For an artist who is easily distracted this helps to maintain focus, and also stops me from being overwhelmed. The image above is an example of me trying to refine my workflow for background painting for Old Skies. While it's not quite indicative of the process that I use now, it was a vital step in finding that process, and you can see my basic notes that helped me to remember what I did when.

Today I was working on character design, and I realized that I have not delineated my workflow here sufficiently. I have it well defined for the stages of creating a final drawing - lines, colour, shadows, etc, and have very clear notes, palettes and brushes created for this section of the work. What I'm missing, though, is the construction phase.

The issue is that when constructing my characters, I'm still relying on a lot of guesswork. I should know how many heads my character's proportions are - if not from memory, from a set of notes that I can check. I should be able to break the process of drawing a character's line art down into a series of constructive steps that solve things like posture, proportion, volume and silhouette. I do not currently have this in place. That meant that today was a poorly directed series of re-drawings, never quite focusing on a single element at a time. To have a carefully designed dynamic silhouette that is badly proportioned is not very useful. The same applies to spending a lot of time detailing overlapping volumes over a stiff or awkward pose. Said pose should be completely solved before I even begin to think about those volumes - just as the proportions should be measured and decided before working on the silhouette.

Happily, well documented processes for constructing figures exist in bountiful quantities, are well described, and quite sensibly illustrated with examples. My issues lies simply in my inexperience drawing in this style, and my focus has been largely on trying to figure out what the style actually is. Now that I have a good understanding of that, I need to go back to the basics of how to reach it from a blank page. I should have kept this in focus from the beginning, but being foolish and lazy has served me reasonably well to date, and therefore it takes days full of poorly directed efforts like today in order to be motivated enough to alter my methods and do things right.

For me, though, this is one of the best things about being a working illustrator. Art isn't a magic skill. You don't have to be born with it to succeed. You just need to learn the steps, one by one, and practice them. How hard can it be, right?