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The Mechanist

One more image from Fallout 4 – The Mechanist from the first DLC: Automatron.

The Mechanist from Automatron

Some Art, For Once

Do people still write blogs? No, they don’t. But, until I get around to making an Artstation account, this will do for the moment.

Fallout 4 shipped in November and that was pretty cool. Sadly I don’t really have the freedom to post a bunch of work I did for that game, but if you pick up the art book, a bunch of the stuff in there is mine.

It’s weird to post concept art as I only spend a small amount of my time on it. Most of the stuff I did for Fallout 4 was 3D, but it’s so modular and piecemeal that it’s hard to show. Feral Ghouls and Synths a couple of my characters, if that matters. I’m happy that Nick Valentine and Drinking Buddy have had a good reception.

Here are a couple of Commonwealth Residents from Fallout 4 that got posted along with the Art Book announcement:

Concept art for the Feral Ghouls:

And before we move into old stuff, here’s something completely different – a couple of pages from a story book I wrote/illustrated for my kids about their stuffed animals:


Getting into old stuff, here are some concepts for Skyrim DLC – Dawnguard and Dragonborn (2012):






And now, let’s venture into ancient history, when I still worked at Mythic 5+ years ago. There is some old Warhammer stuff, and a few things that are all over the map from when Mythic was trying to reinvent itself as a studio:







Good ol’ Teal and Orange

I wrote this as a reply to somebody in a forum recently and I thought it was worth re-posting here. The OP was asking about why we always see the same color palettes – Teal&Orange and Brown – over and over again. Here’s what I replied:

The reason a lot of movies are color graded Teal/Orange is because skin tones are in the orange range of hues. If you take everything that is not faces or in a similar color space to skin and push it in the opposite direction (complementary colors, natch), you get teal. Now, your eye is naturally drawn to look at the faces and not the unimportant scenery. Warm colors draw your eye more than cool.

This works for movies because the colorist can key the grading off the faces in every single shot. If the face is lit by blue skylight in this shot, that’s ok, just key the grade off the face. If the face is lit by warm incandescent light in this shot, that’s ok, just key the grade off the face.

This technique is tougher to do in games where the color grade just gets baked down to a single LUT for all lighting situations. That’s the answer to your question. Instead we usually go for a more general color grade – one more balanced, or one more warm and appealing (the brown look).

Another reason teal/orange works for movies is because the faces are almost always the most important thing in the composition. Faces are warm and warm colors draw the eye, thus teal/orange. In games we often care more about an entire character wearing a costume, or an inanimate object. Often in games we have a lot of dirt.

In movies, not every object in the background has been colored specifically to fit within a palette. In games you can texture everything to a specific palette (this is not always done in games, but it is possible). The teal thing is more necessary in movies to unify the palette of the scene. I really don’t care about the doors behind Iron man in the shot above, so make them all teal to blend in with everything.

When games do teal/orange, it’s more often an attempt to ape the aesthetic of a movie and elicit the same tone.

Why don’t we see more color variety in games? Why does it have to be just two colors (teal/orange) or one (brown)?

Lots of the games you reference go for an aesthetic of high detail. High detail is often targeted in AAA art direction as a shorthand for MOAR GRAPHICS – we have the best tech, the highest fidelity, the most future in our codes. Sometimes, this is actually true (Gears of War, Battlefield). Often, this is weak art direction.

Lots of these games also have high value contrast, like Saving Private Ryan, to give more of a ‘wartime’ feel. They are super explodey combat games, so this is appropriate.

If you have high detail and high value contrast, adding in a complex color palette would be a mistake.

It’s a matter of contrast. Artists use contrast to draw the eye. There are lots of forms of contrast:

– Value contrast (black and white)
– Color contrast (lots of different hues, strongly complementary colors up against each other)
– Edge contrast (lots of detail)
– Temporal contrast (any of the above over time)

If you have high contrast of all types across the whole scene, you have visual shit.

So, the games you see with more colors are usually the ones with less value contrast or less detail.

The Complexity Wall

There is a complexity wall you hit during development. Even if you are on a small team, there is a point early in development where the complexity of the game makes it too cumbersome to add new systems. Either there are too many systems already there, or too much content built on those systems. What this means is that the initial period of development is a golden time. It’s the one time during the making of a game when it’s easy to change something.

It’s hard to understate how important this idea is toward making good games. Game design is more about process than theory, much like John Carmack would say it’s more about execution than the initial idea, and much like how Steve Jobs said product design was more about process than the initial idea.

Getting the right pieces in place before you pass beyond the complexity wall is what makes the difference between a good game and a bad one.

You have a choice on what to spend that early time on. You can spend it on making a new graphics engine. You can spend it on prototyping a fresh and exciting new core loop. Or, you can spend it on animation systems and cameras for narrative storytelling. Fairly quickly, you will pass the complexity wall and that thing you chose to work on at the beginning will be the de facto defining element of your game.

The foundation of the Cerny method was that, for action adventure games, you should spend that golden development time  on the 3 C’s (camera, control, character). Mark formalized preproduction as a way for teams to stay outside the complexity wall until they had a good foundation based on those three elements. If you didn’t have a great “First Playable,” or “Vertical Slice,” you did not get greenlit and move on to production. Staying out of production meant staying on the cheap and flexible side of the complexity wall.

There are many studios who are repeatedly successful because they are good at focusing down on one thing early in development, one thing that is good to work on outside the complexity wall for their kind of game, like Bungie with its sandbox. I like to belive Bethesda Game Studios has this quality.

If you choose to focus poorly, you can end up stuck with a bad foundation, and then there’s no amount of time, money, or talent that can turn that project around incrementally. The inertial resistance to change beyond the complexity wall is too great. At the beginning of development your game is a small, nimble go-kart. Beyond the complexity wall, it’s a thousand ton train and you ain’t turning that thing around, even if you know it’s headed to shitville.

I’ve been on a few trains to shitville (not where I currently work), and it’s a terrifying, helpless situation.

If you scale up a team too soon, as is fairly common for teams up against a looming release date, you’ve taken a voluntary pass on the golden period outside the complexity wall.

Now, there is one way to tear down the complexity wall, and it’s relatively common thing to hear about from the best games ever made. Throw out the bathwater and start over. 

Yep, just toss it out. Reboot. Halo started out as a Mac RTS and ended up as a console FPS. Large portions of the original game were thrown out and started from scratch. Half Life was famously thrown out and started over, as was Half Life 2.

The sunk costs fallacy (and budget politics in big companies) might lead you to believe that throwing out the current version of the game is an expensive idea. It is surely daunting, but it’s the only way to regain that ability to change your game significantly. If the current game sucks, it’s often cheaper to throw it out and start over with a smaller team with a smaller burn rate.

Luckily, throwing out the whole game and starting over is not necessary if you choose the right things to focus on early in development. Most great games don’t need to get made twice before they are released once. Usually, there’s a proven previous game that gets sequeled or made greater (Mario 64, Battlefield 1942, Uncharted 2). Or, there’s a great initial prototype or mod to build on (most indie games, most Valve games).

The complexity wall is important to recognize because it’s the most common downfall of producer-driven development. The fallacy of the producer-as-creative-director is the idea that he can steer the big ship, make directorial decisions mid-development that direct the team back on course towards success. Producer-driven development is the hallmark of big publisher owned teams, and it’s why you don’t often see innovation there.

People think creativity is inherently lacking at the big companies. That’s not the case. Creative risks get taken all the time on big teams. The problem is when the creative idea gets adopted on a big team, it needs to be shepherded by a producer. Guess where that producer lives? Behind the complexity wall. No matter the level of selflessness or skill that producer has, she will have a epic challenge opening a hole in that complex game to fit in the creative idea.

The complexity wall is why we can’t have teams assemble on the fly like hollywood movies. It’s why a stable tech foundation works to a team’s advantage. It’s why you have to have your core loop understood before anything else, and it’s why you need to understand the tone of your game before you grow your team.

The complexity wall is why game design is more process than theory.

Game Art Style Presentation

I gave this talk at BAF Game 2012 and I thought it was worth recording before it left my head. It’s about art direction in video games, or at least how I think about art direction in video games. Since it’s a fairly big subject, this is just my take on it.

In 3 parts on YouTube: