Bonner Orc Take 2, Zbrush Summit

I went to see the Warcraft movie recently, and was pleasantly surprised. Duncan Jones can make a good movie out of inferior Orcs! The best Orcs, of course, are Paul Bonner/Rackham Orcs. I decided to go back and polish up my sculpt of an Orc head from way back when I first learned Zbrush.

In other news, I’m very excited to be presenting at the 2016 Zbrush Summit alongside my coworker at BGS, Dennis Mejillones. It’s at the Gnomon School in LA in September, so if you’re going, be sure to say hi.

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:

Valve is coming to the living room

Gabe confirms.

I wish I hadn’t made my post on the future of the living room so huge, burying Valve on page 4. I suddenly have the desire to update the picture with a companion cube submarine emerging from the depths between the Apple and Google ships. Here’s why we should all take Valve seriously: They are insanely efficient at leveraging their small size.

Valve has the sharpest outlook on how a software/services platform should be run in the game industry. Despite being a small company at around 300 employees, Steam is dominant on the PC. Michael Abrash’s recent post illuminates how Valve is optimized around delivering maximum value per employee. Valve’s 300 is more directly effective than, say 300 of the people working on the next Xbox (efficiency #1).

They also fly the flag of open platforms and direct access to customers. They believe (as I do) that connecting developers to customers as seamlessly as possible will create the best experiences and ultimately the best platform. Oppressive certification is a waste and a platform hindrance. TF2 is a massively better business on Steam than it ever was on the 360. That direct connection creates an efficient platform, which requires less scale on Valve’s part (efficiency #2).

An open platform device doesn’t have to be as complex and monolithic as an Xbox or an iPad. The graphics hardware race is largely irrelevant on anything that’s not mobile these days. Valve is capable of taking PC components, putting them in a box, and using Steam as an OS* (efficiency #3).

An open platform device doesn’t need a huge launch with a massive marketing push. Forget retail. Valve is big on market experiments and I can see them putting out a Steam box in a bare-bones version 1.0. From there they will learn, iterate and scale up (if the market supports it). It’s an antithetical strategy for a hardware platform launch, but it’s gospel for a software platform launch (efficiency #4).

The thing about the next generation is, it’s going to be much more about software and services than hardware. Valve is in a great position to disrupt the big players purely by virtue of their dedication to open platforms. Not to mention, they understand the importance of a good controller to the living room experience, something I’m not sure even Apple gets, what with their undying devotion to the all-powerful touchscreen.

I once made the mistake of expecting Steam to take over and disrupt the PC market overnight. I was right in my predictions but utterly wrong on the time scale. If anyone can do this, it’s Valve. Just understand, it’s going to happen on Valve Time.


* Most games currently on Steam use DirectX, which is part of Windows. Valve (including Gabe himself) are working on a Linux port of Steam – Why? There is probably a solution to the DirectX issue either by either launching their Steam Box without the DirectX titles, or by using a networked Windows PC (already running Steam) to render those games over the network back to the Steam Box.

Next Gen is Terrifying?

I don’t think Naugty Dog has anything to worry about. Next gen will be less about a graphical leap than ever before. Sure, the hardware will be much better, but the initial graphical leap in game tech and art will be imperceptible next to current PC games like Battlefield 3.

So what’s the selling point? Certainly Sony can’t put out a $900 PS4 and expect anybody to buy it on the back of “MOAR GRAPHICS.”

Next Gen will be defined by the declining retail market more than anything else. MS/Apple/Sony understand that they are making a platform for digital content delivery, not just big AAA games, but also small XBLA games, free to play games, social games, but potentially more importantly: TV and Movies. A new way of interacting with your tv and games, that’s the selling point.

Apple is doing this which means MS and Sony need to strike preemptively or be disrupted. Believe it or not, there are lots of people that would happily never own another “game box” if their TV played Wii Sports and Just Dance. The PS2/Wii era market penetration is the realm of iTV.

I work on AAA games so please don’t remind me that AAA blockbusters aren’t going away. I know, I know. I like those games too. Yes, we will always have them and they will get more uber in the future. It’s great.

But that’s not the highest end of the market. The highest end is $100/month TV & Movie subscriptions that people currently pay to the likes of Comcast and Verizon. The highest end of the games market is not even Mondern Warfare 3’s Billion Dollars, it’s WoW’s Several Billion Dollars.

The next gen is about making and owning the living room software & services platform. Look at how well Apple and Google have done on the backs of iOS and Android. Everybody wants to do that in the living room. The competition is not between Xbox 720 and PS4, the competition is between:

– iTV
– Xbox Live
– Google TV
– Steam (which is remarkably well positioned to be relevant in the living room)

Platforms. That is what matters and is what will define the next gen. The level of uncertainty around the future of those platforms is far more terrifying to me than “how much RAM will the box have?”

Smart TV at GDC 2011

There have been three bits of news from GDC so far that paint a better picture of how Smart TV will disrupt the AAA game industry in the living room. Once again, Valve is ahead of everybody else in their thinking:

  1. Iwata’s Keynote was about a crisis for Game Developers. My Translation: Nintendo is the one in crisis. Everybody on Facebook and iOS is doing just fine. Yet, Nintendo can’t follow up the blue ocean strategy of the Wii with another Wii – it’s a red ocean now with Kinect, Move on the motion control side and lots of new competitors (Smart TV, cloud gaming, iOS) coming on the cheap disruptive side. Still, they clearly recognize the problem and that’s the first step towards finding a way to make a Nintendo machine part of the future living room.
  2. Google recognizes the fact that control and therefore UX is a big problem in the living room. Well Done! Then, they point to tablet and smartphone touchscreens as the solution. Oops! As I mentioned in the bigger article, touchscreens lack tactile feedback, and so they can’t be eyes-off controllers. I don’t think people want to give up on-the-big-screen UI’s and spend all of their time looking down instead of actually watching a show while they surf for something else. Plus, the larger market of apps (as a device selling point) is only enabled by a controller that can navigate on the big screen. Despite being first to market with the most fully featured Smart TV platform, Google is leaving the door open for somebody else to build the great controller experience. This puts Microsoft in a great position. A “Kinect TV” product (cheap, focused on great TV UX and an open app market) could be huge. That is, if Microsoft can bring themselves to put up an open app store.
  3. With my favorite bit of news, Valve announced “Big Screen Mode” for Steam, which makes my longshot scenario of a Steam-enabled Boxee 2 much less of a longshot. Big Screen Mode also features a controller-enabled UI. Very soon you’ll be able to hook a cheap PC up to your TV, buy Modern Warfare 2 for less than it costs on any console and play nearly the exact same experience. Steam has more disruptive potential than anybody is giving them credit for. Already, Super Meat Boy, a game designed for controllers, sold more on Steam than Xbox Live Arcade. I tweeted Boxee telling them to hook up with Steam, so we’ll see if they can recognize their leverage to crush Google, Apple and Microsoft, and dominate the living room.

AAA Games versus Smart TV

DISCLAIMER: This is a speculative opinion piece based on public information. These opinions are my own and do not represent my employer.

The game industry is about to get flipped. The console in the living room has long been the king platform for games, but these days the living room is different. Only blockbusters like Call of Duty or breakout indies profit in the arms race of the AAA. The traditional games business as a whole is shrinking.

The old console cycle of simply iterating on graphics hardware is dead, and it’s never coming back. Nobody is sure what the next game box will look like. What’s more, Apple TV and GoogleTV are trying to bring some of the magic of Android, iOS, and the Web into the living room and are threatening to upend the PS3 and Xbox 360 in the process.

Game consoles are primed to be disrupted, and the next generation of Smart TV might just be the new champion.

Where We Stand

There is massive growth happening in the games industry on smartphones, Facebook, the Web, and Steam. That style of game product – digitally distributed, service oriented, focused on ongoing revenue – is bound for the living room.

Enter Google and Apple

When they get there, an app store will meet the realities of couches and big screen TVs and a very peculiar new box will be born. This new box will have a fancy controller, sort of like a game controller, and it will happen to play games, but it won’t be an Xbox or a Playstation.

It’s not just games that are in for a shakeup, there is a full on war brewing in the living room around access to video content. There are Smart TVs like those from Samsung, there’s Roku and Boxee, and the old giants like Comcast and Verizon are getting smarter about the services they offer. The Web and services like Hulu and Netflix are changing TV behavior forever.

Google and Apple that are the most interesting contenders because they are big and don’t keep content out like the game console manufacturers. In this respect they are open. What also makes them interesting is that games will be important part of their arsenal in this battle and that will pit them against Microsoft and Sony’s AAA firepower.

It certainly doesn’t look good for games in the short term – the traditional business is in decline. But, once the dust settles and the new living room app store reigns supreme, this new box could be incredible for the game industry. Read on for the full analysis:


New Site Design

If you’ve got the RSS burned try re-burning it from the link in the footer – I’ve switched to feedburner and I’d love to know how many of you out there are reading from a reader. I should have a pretty big post this week with some art and a whole lot of industry prediction, so you’ll want that feed updated. I should also have some new Warhammer art that I dug up posted shortly.

I’ve got a twitter account which will probably be rarely used, so you’ve got that alternative to the RSS. I’ll tweet out any new content that shows up here.

For posterity, here’s the previous site design. I liked the header and background, but I wanted something cleaner here, and I wanted a wide format so I can ditch the lightboxes.

old site design

New Model – Hazardous Environment Suit

A bit of hard surface practice in 3dsmax, plus a chance to use Zbrush for something not bumpy and lumpy (the head).

Game Logos

The first one is for a would-be game of mine called Starfunk. It’s a space opera with a strong infusion of modern music and a visual style of psychedelic color mixed with retro sci-fi illustration. I hope to do some concept work for this universe someday. (click the logo to enlarge)


City Arch

A sci-fi piece for fun.

City Arch

Orc Bust – Finished

I wrapped this baby up with 2 days left on my 30 day Zbrush free trial. Polypainted and rendered in Zbrush. I’m not decided yet on whether or not to get a 3D print of it.

Orc BustOrc Bust

Star Wars Uncut – My Clips

Watch the trailer first to understand what this is:

Star Wars: Uncut Trailer from Casey Pugh on Vimeo.

Then watch the original of the clip I remade:

And here is my version:

Star Wars Uncut – Scene 428 from Lucas Hardi on Vimeo.

This was so much fun to make. I did it in a few lunch hours, I didn’t stop to change something if it was crappy looking, and I worked as furiously fast as I could. It was probably 3-4 hours start to finish. I know it looks like crap, but that’s kind of the idea with Star Wars: Uncut – having fun and rediscovering your love of Star Wars.

Nick LaMartina here at Mythic did the audio, which I think makes the whole thing work.


A second clip. This one was not as much fun as the first to make (and not as successful), but still good practice for embracing the spirit of prototypes. I’m hoping this “quick and dirty” spirit will spill over into my game dev. We often learn a lot more about what works and what doesn’t by doing. Once again, Nick went above and beyond with the audio.

Star Wars Uncut – Scene 206 from Lucas Hardi on Vimeo.

Another Orc Bust, WIP

My first sculpt in about 3 years, the same subject as my last sculpt, but this time Paul Bonner style (still WIP):

Orc Bust

And an update:

Orc Bust

Designing The Warhammer Online UI

After spending two years as the Lead Concept Artist on Warhammer Online, I was asked to take over the UI design. It was about 6 months before we planned to release the game, we had completed the bulk of the concept art for the game, and Michael Phillippi was ready to step up as the new Lead Concept Artist.

We needed to do a ground up redesign of the UI in 6 months (it turned out to be more than 8). The UI for an MMO like WAR is a huge piece of the game, almost like an OS for the game. Beyond the HUD (which is very complex in itself) it has maps, chat, mail, a social network, maybe 50 windows total. . . basically everything you would find on Xbox Live and more.

The reason I enjoyed this gig was because I had the opportunity to come up with original features. One that made it into the game was the Open Party system. Players in WAR can see a list of groups sorted by distance, and just join up with them in one click. This makes playing WAR’s open RvR gameplay much simpler because you can find people nearby who are playing the way you want to play, be it fighting other players or fighting monsters.

I think there is a lot more we could have done with this system, and there are arguments to be made that it actually reduces community stickyness in the long term, but I think it’s a huge improvement over the old LFG standard, and a step in the right direction. This kind of functionality is a big interest of mine going forward – how do we take players playing cooperatively and help them form longer-term connections? Are open guilds the next logical step?


Warhammer Online Concept Art

I found some more pieces that I thought would go well on the site here. These were done between 2005 and 2007.

Max Payne

I’m not a fan of the new look that was recently revealed. Without going back and looking at any of the old games, I did this sketch (less than an hour).

War General

This was a painting for Dominance War 4, an art competition for game artists. I’ve been so busy with UI, that this is the first painting I’ve done in a few months.

Game Design Nuggets

I posted these on a forum recently. I can’t claim them as original thought, but I have found them to be my most useful heuristics in filtering game design ideas:

Everything Rests on the Core Loop

Sometimes called the “game mechanic” or the “30 seconds of fun,” the core loop is the series of actions the player will perform over and over again in the heart of gameplay. The core loop of Gears of War might be: 1) Encounter bad guys and take cover 2) Move to a good attack position 3) Kill the bad guys using a selection of your weapons 4) Re-arm and move on.


The smeXbox

I found this sketch on my hard drive. It’s about a year old, but I still believe we will see a lot of the ideas come to fruition in the *next* generation of game consoles.

The basic idea is that the momentum from successes like the Wii and the social games market will focus the device down to a casual, cheap box. It will be like a Wii that runs Xbox Live and has all the great content available on the web (like what XBL has done with netflix). Then, the hardcore crowd can go and buy a plug-in bit that will kick it up a notch and let it run Gears of War 5 in 1080p. The hardcore market has proven in this generation that they don’t mind a fragmented, multiple SKU console with the 360 and PS3.

Pressure from quasi-open devices like the iPhone, open platforms like Facebook, and digital distribution of games in places like Steam will push things in this direction. Somebody is going to realize that if they open up their console and go against the traditional Nintendo model (tight grip on the content, complex certification), they can win. The manufacturer of this box should profit from hardware sales, but also from owning the marketplace. They can take it away from Wal Mart and Gamestop, and I believe they will try.


I always enjoy a chance to look over a list of recommended books and add a few to my amazon wishlist. So, I thought it would be a good idea to look over at my favorites on the bookshelf and write a list for the site here.

These are the top three (or 6, depending on how you look at it) books that I’ve returned to after I’ve finished them, and the books with the most to offer to a game artist: