Importance Of Particle Effects
If you look around while playing a game, you may not notice just how important particle effects are. The sand blowing across the ground as you cross a desert, the dust floating through a beam of light, or the smoke floating out of the barrel of a gun, while it may not be quite so obvious, particle effects are a major contributor to a gameplay experience. A game could have great models, maps, and sounds, but if the effects aren't up to par, then the whole thing falls flat. Particle effects can give life to environments, enhance an atmosphere, and add impact and intensity to a player's actions.
One major setbacks that a lot of Source mods suffer from is the lack of a dedicated effects artist. Either the developers underestimate the importance of particle effects, or they are simply too lazy to go out and look for somebody who's good at making them. Usually they either use default source effects, or rely on another member of the team who has limited knowledge of the particle editor to make a few effects. This usually ends up with a mod that still can't shed some of the Source engine's 2004 look. Luckily, Firearms: Source will have a full set of brand new effects to replace all of Source's dated defaults. New explosions, new muzzleflashes, new impact effects, and much much more.
Designing The Effects
Knowing how to use the particle editor is different than knowing how to make a particle effect, similar to how knowing how to use a pencil is different from knowing how to draw. Source's particle editor is relatively easy to use, but if you don't know what makes for a good effect, then you're better off not using it at all.
When I'm given an effect to make, the first thing I do is look up reference. Starting a particle effect without any reference is just as bad as making a model without any reference. If the effect isn't something that you can find reference for, then drawing up concepts and looking at inspiration is just as useful. However, unlike modeling, you won't be making a perfect copy of your reference, and so you look more at the general picture of what the effect should be, rather than the finite details. You look at the most important and obvious aspects of what your reference, such as the general shape, how long it lasts, how quickly it moves, things like that.
Getting The Effects In Game
Once you know what your effect is, and what you want it to look like, you need to consider what kind of effect it's going to be. The three big things you have to take into account are looks, functionality, and optimization.
You always want your effects to look good, but you might have to sacrifice a bit of visual flare in order to keep it functional and optimized. Functionality means that the effects serve the purpose that they were made for, in other words, you could have a muzzle flash that looks good and is well optimized, but if it blocks your view every time you fire, then it isn't very functional. Lastly, if an effect appears very often, then you'll want to make sure it's well optimized, while if the effect is more rare or a one time thing, then you can add a couple hundred extra particles into it to make it look better.
Some other important things to keep in mind, you always want to make sure each effect is distinct and easily recognizable. Making a lot of unique effects not only helps you recognize what's going on around you, but it adds a lot of visual excitement to the situation. You also want to make sure that the effects themselves have some nice texture to them. Giving it a lot of variety in the sprites it uses, having various ways the different particles move and interact with the world, it all helps to make the effect feel more natural and dynamic. One thing that can help you with this is to make your own sprite textures. A lot of the time I'll see mods using nothing but the default sprite materials for the particles, and while some of them can be quite useful, you're really limited with what you can make. One more important thing to keep in mind is that, especially when making quicker effects such as muzzleflashes, milliseconds can really matter. Sometimes, if you distance when a couple particles emit by a mere fraction of a second, it can really improve the feel of how the effect flows. Usually you can figure this out just by trial and error, pushing one part of the particle system to emit just a moment later or earlier can make a big difference.
Becoming An Effects Designer
If you have an interest in effects design, here are some tips. First of all, never be afraid to experiment. Even if you think you know your way around a particle editor, there can be many other ways to create effects that you would never think of. You can oftentimes find a way to make the particles act in a totally new way. Also, other games can be a huge source of inspiration. Take a look at a game with particle effects that you think look good and try to break down the effect, and see how they made it. Then, when you go off to make your own effects, you can try to replicate what worked so well in that game.
Lastly, always keep your eyes open. I often find myself simply staring at fountains in parks or clouds in the sky, asking myself how I could replicate that in a game. Just look at everything around you, because you never know what could inspire you from what you see.
I can't wait till you guys get to experience these effects firsthand!