Avatars are a big topic for us these days. A few months back we took a look at the state of the art in our game and realized something interesting: we were getting a lot better at what we were doing. The environments, lighting, ships, animation and overall vision of the world evolved dramatically over time. But we hadn't revisited our characters and as the rest of the game's look advanced, they became more and more noticeably out of place. We decided we needed to take a new approach to the avatars that would better fit with all the great work we were doing in the rest of the game.
At this point, we are extremely excited about our character direction and the way they successfully marry with the game world. Ken, Mat and I will give details in this dev log about what has changed and why.
To best explain, I think the topic needs to be broken into categories: style, modeling, texture, shading, rig and most importantly, team – all the components that go into character creation.
Style With our environments taking on so much individual character, our avatars appeared less and less distinct- they weren't as evocative as the environments they inhabited. Pirates of the Burning Sea Character Lead, Ken Osuna, reflects:
"Our original goal was to make the character as generic and un-stylized as possible, and give the player lots of accessories to make individuated characters.
"While this sounds reasonable, it turns out that actually nobody really wants generic characters when they play a pirate game; what they really want is to play someone who is believable in the pirate universe; someone with character in the appropriate way. When players look at our avatars they should get a reaction like, "Wow, that looks like that one pirate from Peter Pan!" But instead we got a reaction that was more like, "Wow, that guy is odd." I kid, but my illustration illuminates the heart of the problem we were facing.
"The first thing we did to address this was to conceptualize the overarching vision for our characters. This meant looking at all the great piratical things we could find, as well as the art style that has already evolved throughout the rest of our world. Through this process, we concluded that we needed some darker undertones, artistic touches that define the true reality of a pirate's world, while maintaining those light-hearted overtones that keep the world fun. Once our vision jelled, we set to work building a sample model that we could all agree was the benchmark, something that the rest of the Character Team could use to help in the evolution of their work. In the end, this allowed the various teams that make up ArtCo to work in concert, it gave us a coherent vision."
The older characters (on right below) lack style, as can be plainly seen when compared to the new avatar (on the left below, and then underneath). The older figures are made up of a series of tubes – tube legs, tube torsos, tube arms, etc, while the new characters have much more shape in their contours.
3D Character modeling is an art form unto itself, distinctly different from all other types of modeling. 3D Characters require a rig (which I'll discuss later in the Devlog) for animation purposes and need to deform in a convincing fashion based on the whim of animators.
Consequently, this introduces unique technical problems that require some troubleshooting – primarily something we call 'edge loops'. Edge Loops are a 3-D modeling concept affording relatively little geometry to convey relatively large amounts of spatial information in any given mesh object, in any condition. Ken Osuna explains further:
"One of the major issues we faced early on when modeling our characters involved communication with the animation team. Frankly, we weren't taking the time we needed to consult with AnimCo to identify their needs, so that was the first thing we sought to improve in our process. Since then, we made a strong effort to keep AnimCo (the animation team) continuously involved in the modeling process, and vice versa. As a result we were able to create meshes that would bend in every way we needed- even in the most extreme conditions required by our avatar combat system.
In the past, our character shader used something we call 'normal maps'- which while adequate in the past, turned out to be insufficient for our current needs. It was a big decision to make, because it required us to rip out these normal maps in the effort to overhaul our avatars. While normal maps are a cool technology, we've learned that they are not always the most appropriate choice for specific artistic goals. Our goals centered on creating an illustrative and romantic image of the 1700s, as oppose to a hardboiled realistic view of the era. Our vision clearly defined, we realized characters with higher resolution textures would serve us, and ultimately our players, better. By dropping the normal maps, we opened up a lot more texture space and that meant we could give our characters the texture resolution they needed. We also gained rendering speed, since drawing normal maps is hardware intensive.
The biggest problem with the character textures was low resolution – forced upon us by the processor expense of normal map technology. This choice made our colors muddy and our characters "blurry". Once we made the decision to zap the normal maps, we had four times the previous resolution for characters and the difference was striking.
In my opinion, the most important aspect of imagery is lighting. Lighting separates good photography from bad, excellent cinematography from boring and great painting from mediocre. It would be awesome if we could create lighting in the 3D space that are as powerful and beautiful as the lighting we find in the natural world, but lighting in real time 3D engines have yet to reach these high standards. Because of this, we artists must find other tricks and tools to compensate. For instance, including lighting information in the texture maps in the form of highlights, halftones and even shadows embedded into textures goes a long way in making up for the shortcomings of real time dynamic lighting.
Characters move on a rig- like a skeleton, these are areas of movement that allow a character to salute, dance a jig, point a gun or parry a sword- hopefully in a way that looks natural. After some serious evaluation, it was clear that our former character rig suffered in this area. When it came time to overhaul our avatars, it fell to Animator Mat Staltman to rebuild our rigs. I'll let Mat explain this process in more detail:
"I'll try not to get too technical here but in Maya there are a few things you have to keep in mind when building a skeleton and a rig.
"If you sat someone down who had never animated in Maya before and said, ‘build a skeleton', they'd take the joint tool and start drawing out a skeleton that looks similar to how they are drawn in books. This works ok if you're using what is called 'forward kinematics'. Unfortunately, our process requires inverse kinematics, or IK. Essentially, IK is what keeps the avatar's feet planted on the floor while the upper body moves through its animations.
"Without IK, you would have to animate every frame, from the leg bones to the eyeballs, into the same position every single time- ouch! The problem is that when leg and arm bones are created in straight lines (like a book drawing), the addition of IK controls makes things behave unnaturally. Instead of simply bending the character's knees, they start flipping around all over the place, making sitting animations unattractive at best. To fix this, we had to build the skeleton in a way that also communicates to Maya how the bones should naturally behave. While this may sound complicated, I encourage any interested animators to take some time to and explore the tutorials that come with Maya- you'll see how easy it is.
"In the end, we had to re-build the skeleton, so that now, when we animate the characters, they move naturally, in ways you would expect from a human being. The improvement made our animations look better and animate faster. If you check out the images below, you'll get a sense of just how remarkable the improvements were."
This is the old skeleton/rig. All I have done is move the character down, and you can see the way the knees are beginning to flip around to the back, bending unnaturally and generally looking bizarre.
"Now, this image depicts the very same character motion, but with our new skeleton/rig. As you can see, the new skeleton allows for natural movement, with the knees staying in front of the character.
"But wait! There's an exciting part to all this: While rebuilding the skeleton, we were able to up the bone count. Our original skeleton only had 26 bones, total- that's 26 points of movement. But the avatar overhaul allowed us to triple our bone structure. For example, we now have 21 bones in the face alone! This means that you'll see NPC's blinking, moving their lips to talk to each other, and making all kinds of gestures while communicating to you. Our avatars now have the capacity to be more expressive, making everything in our world feel more alive.
"The avatar overhaul process has evolved our characters to meet our environments, allowing us to make animations that are more fun and expressive, that behave more naturally, while at the same time costing your CPU less. We hope you will agree!"
Now that I've explained a bit of the history of our characters and process, I'd like to take a moment to talk about the team working with Ken. Our character team is comprised of four artists: Ken, Young, Chiu, and the new guy, Vo.
Vo isn't new to the company, but has only recently found a spot that accommodates his true heart – character creation. He started with us in environment production and created many of the excellent assets you see as you explore our pirate universe. He is doing exceptional work as you will all see when you toggle through our variety of avatar pieces during the character creation process. Everyone is extremely pleased with his work.
Young is a recent graduate of the Art Institute and has proven to be an unbelievable machine, setting the production pace for everyone else. His output is fast and his quality high. Young interned for us during his last quarter at school and had a ferocious appetite to improve himself.
Chiu has had a tremendous gift for character concepting for as long as I've known him. His vision is clear and his "voice" (his artistic voice) is strong.
Ken is the character lead and it's fair to say that the characters in our game are his vision. We're doing this his way and the results are simply amazing to us.
We'll be posting more images of our avatars in the gallery as the avatar database grows, so keep watching and let us know what you think!