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Gameology | Game Development Analytical Media | Conversation with Chad Chatterton

The world of The Division is a significant place to wander. It’s merciless, wild, cold but yet it have little lights of hope in it. This amazing world was created by Chad Chatterton, lead environment artist at Massive Entertainment. We had a chance to interview him about his career, the way they work at Massive and of course, The Division.

Tell us about your background, how did you become the environment artist that you are now and how did you get in the game industry and especially in Massive?

 I first did a degree in Art History and Cultural Theory and then, part way through my Honors year, I left to do a Fine Arts degree because I wanted to practice, not just read and write about cultural output. My Father was a Computer Science Teacher at High School level as well as a photographer, and this meant that computers and photography have always been a part of my background.

 After University I set up my studio and began to exhibit work in galleries in Melbourne, but then I had an epiphany playing Half Life 1 death match for the first time with with friends Julian Oliver and Stephen Honegger (look them up!). We played for nearly 24 hours straight and came out of the experience changed, and I realized what game engines had to offer was more interesting than what I was seeing in art galleries.

 Together with Julian on a presentation given in 2000 at RMIT University in Melbourne, I created a virtual simulation of the RMIT Architectural Department where the presentation was being held and demoed the space live while Julian spoke. This was my first real foray into creating virtual environments.

 Helen Stuckey, who is an important figure in game art history studies, saw the presentation at RMIT and suggested that we apply for Arts Funding to develop a game project tied to the then newly built Federation Square in Melbourne. This became ACMI Park which I worked on for 2 years. ACMI Park was a virtual environment that contained a site-specific, multiplayer game-based re-imagining of the Australian Center for the Moving Image in Federation Square, and was the first non-commercial, public online multiplayer artwork of it’s kind. This is  really where I taught myself to build real time environments and work in 3D.

 After completing ACMI Park I took a year off and lived in Tokyo. I then applied to Funcom in Norway and was lucky enough to get a position as a junior Environment Artist. It was difficult to attract and keep talent in Oslo, so I suppose that’s why I got a break.

 On Age of Conan I was responsible for creating large, naturalistic outdoor playfields from start to finish, and was part of a team that raised the bar of what was expected visually at the time from a next-gen MMO. I spent over 4 years on the project, which launched in 2008. I specialised in Terrain creation but was also handy at general asset creation. The terrains were all hand painted in Age of Conan. Didrik Tollefsen was the Art Director and was a great teacher. 

 A friend from Funcom called me up one day and said that he’d met a Ubisoft recruiter on a train and had mentioned me. They’d probably been at a conference or something. I got a call some time later from the recruiter and one thing led to another and I got an interview for a position at Massive.

 I was the original Environment Art Lead on The Division, though now there are several including Co-Dev studios. I currently lead a team focusing on Missions and Incursions. 

 What exactly is the duties of a environment artist and what is the job of the lead environment artist?

 I discuss and disseminate the needs and wishes of Directors, help determine the overall game playable world, how it will be built, where our focus should be and I define what my team can deliver. I ensure we deliver by tracking work, removing obstacles, testing the game and giving feedback and generally trying to be helpful. I coordinate new hires, mentor interns, attend a lot of meetings, coordinate with co-development studios and if time allows, I take on some of the world building. I also speak with other departments on Environment Art issues.

 As for the duties of an Environment Artist on The Division, there are 2 areas you can focus on, either building the open world or building Missions. Missions are dedicated large scale encounters that are usually indoors. So while your skills are generally the same as the Open World Team, your experience as an Environment Artist is different overall.

 The Mission Team at Massive sit in pods of 4 people that work together very closely, 2 artists and 2 Level Designers. Their tasks are really too many to list, but I’ll try and describe something of the experience of creating a Mission:

 To begin with Directors will define the Mission outline in a very brief document outlining basic narrative, visual themes, player goals, and any particular physical transformations to existing real world locations. These wishes are developed in line with the overall vision for the game. Once this proposal has been discussed and approved a larger document going into more detail is created, which is again discussed and reshaped until everyone is happy and there is a general belief that we can pull it off in time and that it will be fun.

 From there another document is created, this time by the pod assigned to the Mission, and this is where the Environment Artists and Level Designers collect and organise their research, adding new ideas to enhance the gameplay and visual experience, and make changes where needed. As part of this process the team will start to block out the spaces in the editor to get a true understanding of scale (ie. relative to other Missions), potential optimization issues (ie. view distance too large), as well as visual reveals, pacing and so on. If we are able to test any gameplay ideas at this point then we do so.

 This document is more image heavy and Concept artists also contribute to help nail down the art direction and overall feel, and also to help solve specific realization problems (ie. How do we make a Fire Truck converted into a war machine look realistic?). Once this document has been approved by Directors and Tech Art, and all agree on the content, only then do we start to move at full speed on the creation of the Mission. 

 This pre-production process could take a few weeks at least, but it’s very important to be thorough, anticipate questions and difficulties and to use this time to bring clarity to the next 3 or more months of work. It also helps provide autonomy to the content creators, meaning the Environment Artists and Level Designers can now be left alone to do their thing as everyone’s confident that the Direction is clear and understood. So fewer people looking over your shoulder.

 Now that we know what we’re doing the team focuses on fully blocking out the space with simple colored blocks and whitebox structures. We try to avoid using existing polished assets at this early stage. If Level Designers are placing finished assets it becomes unclear if it is a temporary test or is intended to stay in game. Ultimately the Environment Artist is responsible for the placement of visual assets. These simple blocks however represent metrics and have cover and vaulting functionality so we can experience the gameplay.

 At this initial stage the Environment Artists are compiling an asset request list. Most of these assets will go to outsourcing or be made in-house by dedicated Prop Artists. Sometimes the Environment Artist will take a few of those assets to completion, but usually they are too busy doing everything else. They will though create simple whitebox versions of all the requested assets as part of the asset creation pipeline. So instead of spending a week creating a new portable generator asset, they spend 20 mins creating a simple model to scale with cover and vaulting systems attached so they can get on with creating and managing the rest of the environment.

 You can think of the environments we create as being made up of many layers. As Environment Artists we are mainly concerned with structural layers, some technical systems layers and the visual narrative layers. Level Design, AI, Audio teams and so on are concerned with different layers.

 In building up an existing location we first aim for an infrastructural layer. So imagine picking the environment up in your hands and turning it upside down and giving it a shake. All that doesn’t fall out onto the floor, all that is left is the infrastructural layer. The buildings, roads, sidewalks streetlamps and so on, these civic elements comprise the base layer upon which we build other narrative and visual layers, and in the case of the Mission team, it’s this infrastructural layer that Environment Artists usually create themselves, and comprise simpler, larger surfaces that can be made quickly and will often need to be updated as spaces adapt to ongoing gameplay needs. 

 Thinking in these terms is also important from a workflow point of view. We don’t aim for the final look from the outset, instead we build up in layers, even if we know we are going to replace some of those elements along the way. This approach also forces you to take your time and think things through, which allows for new ideas and adaptation while creating a solid base.

 On top of the base layer we start to create the visual narrative layers where we tell the micro and macro stories. Let’s say you want to tell the story of a particular building in a neglected part of town, so you might dress a building up to look more worn, add hanging laundry on the fire escape as well as some kid’s toys, board up one of the windows, add graffiti to the billboard on the roof to show that someone has climbed up but that nobody has bothered to clean it, and add a broken drainpipe that has left a stain on the side of the wall. 

 And then on top of that layer you could tell the story of an Enemy Faction having been, they’ve graffitied the building with their gang sign and smashed a store window leaving some of the goods on the sidewalk. Bullet holes and blood on the painted brick wall show there was some gun play and someone got hurt. A light is on in the alleyway and there you find a body. You could keep adding layers like this, but too many layers will muddy the story and will eventually become noise. A couple of layers should be enough. 

 The more the space progresses the more feedback is required, and this is what I spend much of my time doing. The challenge is developing the visual language, unity, rhythm, balance and so on, so that it supports and adds to the gameplay experience. Level Designers often like symmetry, boxes, clean paths for example, while Environment Artists don’t, and so we have to find ways to maintain a natural, interesting look. All the while artists areensuring the scene is in budget and that it’s smooth to play through.

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 Some other aspects Environment Artists work on are a footstep detail layer to help show where people have been and where players can go, a dynamic object layer ensuring that these expensive assets are not missed by the player, a branding layer that ties in appropriate advertising, and a signage layer covering things like parking, fire alarms, traffic signs, trespassing and so on. There are many other aspects that Environment Artists work on, especially things you don’t see that relate to optimization and other technical systems like destruction that need to be managed for example, but this covers some of the major aspects. 

 What are your sources of inspiration to build a world?

 First and foremost observation. There’s no end to interesting places and details; the poetics of space are everywhere. Remaking the world involves deconstructing it and that’s where a lot the knowledge comes from. Also conversations and reading, I usually have a few books on the go. Of the arts I guess cinema and photography impact me the most. I do look at other art forms and of course games too.

 When working on an environment I’ll take a lot of photographs if I’m able to. This enables me to spend more time with the space and dwell on details I couldn’t take in at the time. Those details can be inspiring.

 Also boredom. It’s important to let yourself get bored sometimes so you naturally find out what you are interested in, then follow the lead down the rabbit hole.

Creating a world in a game is like a mirror in mirror job, how do you use the real world in order to understand the logic of another world inside of a game and how do you use it to create a fantasy word like Age of Conan?

 Many decisions are informed by considerations of cause and effect, how surfaces react to time and weather, how things got the way they are and so on. For instance if you’re adding leaks and stains to a wall for detail and interest, then add some vents and pipes as a source for those leaks and stains. If you have a convenience store in your game world, then strew some related packaging in the area and place some shopping baskets nearby. If a car has ended up on the sidewalk, show what it crashed into getting there, add skid marks, damage the car. Did someone break into the car and steal from it afterwards? Show that with a smashed window and an open door. Maybe there’s a rag in the fuel tank where they siphoned the fuel. Just being logical with your story building in this way will deliver richness and stability to your world. 

 In Age of Conan the outdoor environments I worked on were informed largely by time spent in Norwegian forests, as well as research online. I spent a lot of time observing and taking photographs, and some of those photographs became textures used in the game (we might not do it that way anymore). We tried to employ logic when placing rocks and vegetation. Plant life tends to thrive in sheltered indentations in the landscape for instance, rather than on the peak of a rise where they are more subject to the wind. So this tells you where to start planting your trees and bushes. Rocks may have at some point broken off from larger structures and rolled down to finally rest at the base of a slope. Create those larger structures. Create clusters of things that have some reason for being together.

 When creating clusters of trees and rocks I would think of the group like a family, say 2 larger parent elements of similar but different sizes, and then a handful of smaller child elements nearby. Perhaps one that’s strayed from the group a little that looks a little weird. This approach can deliver a stable pyramid structure that feels grounded and natural and interesting. The same thinking can be applied to small clusters of objects, and well as larger structures like villages and so on. Clustering things together is also a way of stating their presence in the game world more strongly, and makes a scene easier to read.

You’re also a photographer, how does it help you in your job?

 There are few better ways to connect to a place than to spend time there photographing in my experience. To begin with Photography gives you a role and a reason. So you are there and you are spending time, you are interested in how light performs in the environment and so you are interested in being there at different times of day. it’s a very active role, even if you are trying not to be noticed.  Studying other photographers, both old and new is also a way to learn about environment creation as they are also making choices as to what to put where, how to look at a space.

 Good quality, organised research photographs help enormously when creating an environment. If you know what you are doing then you will have high resolution images of the right things, and that’s almost always better than what you can find online.

 Photography also gets you off the computer for a time, it helps to take a break.

 

 How can a environment artist make a good eye in order to create more creative worlds? overall, how can one train him/herself to be a better environment artist?

 I believe it’s the same training for any artist working in visual mediums. You must learn to work with visual language such as balance, rhythm, scale, color, level of detail, form language and so on. You don’t need to go to art school, in fact you might not even learn the right things there, but it does help to have a community of some sort. Concept Artists are excellent teachers in my opinion, and there are some good Concept Artists teaching online.

 I don’t think it matters too much what you are working on, be it a concept, a modeled scene, photography, you’re still thinking through visual language. Just keep working on something. Having patience and balance in your practice is important though. Young people will always try and race towards the final look rather than build up a scene in the layers we talked about earlier for example. 

 

 Tell us about the relationship between you and game designers and also concept artists, as a environment artist what do you want from them and how do you make sure that you’re on the same page with them?

 At Massive, while I sit in on meetings with Game Designers and have discussions with them, from a day to day perspective Environment Artists don’t often interact with Game Designers directly as we work with the rules that have already been laid down. Level Designers on the other hand we work with in parallel on a daily basis.

 Concept Artists are of course crucial for pre-production, and beyond that we ask for their help when we have to imagine something that is not there or we’re having difficulty with a scene for some reason. We may ask for a sketch, a full blown concept, or perhaps just have a discussion. Concept Artists are excellent at understanding logically and dramatically how a scene should come together. These are skills that an Environment Artist should have too of course, but Concept Artists tend to take it to another level.

 

 Sometimes it might be hard to decide between beauty of an environment and the functionality of it with the gameplay, what do you do in such a situation?

 This is a constant struggle. Generally you must allow for gameplay needs so that the player has a smooth experience, and if you can’t achieve this then the team is not working. Usually the Environment Artist can find a way to make the spatial needs of the Level Designer interesting and visually satisfying, but sometimes you have to challenge the design of the level and offer new ideas. Sometimes the visuals are greatly compromised, and not just for gameplay but for technical reasons also, and you simply have to make the best with what you have. At Massive we have good relations between Environment Artists and Level Designers so this aspect, while difficult sometimes, is usually fun and challenging.

 

 Lighting is of course a very important factor of a vivid world. How do you work with the lighting department, is it part of environment art or something separate?

 At Massive the Lighting Team is part of my Environment Team, so yes we work very closely. The difficulty is that the Lighting Team has to wait until we are mostly done with the environment before they move in to do their work, but in practice we are actually never done with the environment. So what happens is that towards completion we are all in their together iterating and making changes to make the lighting work.

 Even in an Engine as powerful as SnowDrop lighting is quite restricted, that’s the nature of real time, but our Lighting Artists do an excellent job with what they have. Beyond that, on The Division they are working with a day / night cycle in an open world, and that’s a difficult thing for a lighting artist. They tend to have more fun in Missions where you are more likely to be indoors.

 We have some great talent and experience on the lighting team, they understand art production in a broad sense. One of them is an excellent photographer also. 

 

 After years of working on a same game, now with the release of The Division’s new DLC, how do you keep yourself fresh? How do fight against the boredom that might grasp you?

 I’ve just now taken some extended vacation for the first time since joining Massive, so I can tell you that when I’m back at work! I think it is important to take a step back and find fresh eyes though. Forgetting everything for a time is probably the best way. Reading something new. Exploring some other interests. 

 

 Do you play games yourself? What was the last inspiring game that you’ve played?

 I play games but not as much as you might expect. I prefer games that I can enjoy with my friends, so I have played a lot of death match and shooters. These days it’s harder to get online together with friends. The last game I really got into was Hyper Light Drifter. Really loved it.

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