We get a lot of good feedback about the art style of Zero Gear, so I thought it would be a good point to try and write up a little retrospective about the art direction of the game since that is one element of Zero Gear that seems to have firmly established itself. This was my first time playing art director for an entire game. I have had plenty of opportunities to design the look of many stand alone elements: environments, GUI's, textures, models, graphic design, to name just a few of the disparate things I have worked on over the last 8 years or so. This was the first opportunity I have had to put all those things together into one package, and it was very exciting to dream up.
We started off with a pretty clear picture of what we wanted the game to be technically and design-wise though it has evolved some since the start. We knew the game was going to be very physical, and we knew based on the knowledge of ourselves and the way we work together that it was not going to be a serious type of game. We needed an art style to compliment that.
Here are the goals we had to achieve with the art style of Zero Gear
Eye catching and awesome without being overly serious.
Quick to create, and cheap to render.
Goal 1: What is awesome and not serious looking?
As is common amongst most designers, the first thing to do when trying to get ideas for a certain look or feel is to gather lots of reference. Reference is anything already existing that has some element in it that is inspirational to what you are trying to accomplish. I have a big folder of reference from Zero Gear, from other games that are visually attention-getting and do not feature any kind of realism.
Out of all the reference I gathered - I decided to focus on these common elements:
- simple shapes
- chibi / deformed / cartoon-ish propotions
- bright solid colors and gradients
- over-simplified texture detail
- curved surfaces accentuated by highlights
Goal 2: What is both quick to make and fast to render.
The complexity of most modern AAA game assets is staggering. You have high poly versions, low poly versions, normal maps, AO maps, specular maps, and all kinds of other materials to create just for one finished asset. Many games will have a team of 4 or more people just to create the background miscellaneous assets for a game - I have to make ALL the assets myself, so I needed to save a lot of work here. Here is what I have limited my art pipeline to, which enables me to work quick and put assets together with a minimum amount of extra work.
1. Medium poly count
Having a medium amount of polygons per mesh allows me to create assets at a reasonable pace - without having to be obsessed with optimizations - but low enough so that I don't need to create different levels of detail in order to render them on screen. One asset, one mesh.
2. Diffuse maps only
There was no way I was going to be able to create quality normal / specular / etc maps for every texture in all the assets in the game. So as a general rule - I limited myself to just a diffuse map, what you see is what you get. There are some exceptions to this rule, the customizeable assets in the game have a specular and a color mask to tell the engine what parts of the texture is shiny or can change colors.
3. Easy to duplicate effects
There are many effects in the game that I use all over, like environment maps to make things shiny or appear rim-lit. These effects are really easy to add to any asset in the game by copy/pasting some material script text, so they are easy to add and don't require me to do any special work per asset to implement.
4. Limited animation
I have gotten a lot more proficient since the start of the project - but at the outset, I had extremely limited experience animating game assets. I made sure to design the style of the game away from needing to create many objects with complicated animation sequences. One of the benefits of Zero Gear being so physical is that most of the motion in the game is an emergent property of the physics engine, and is a lot of weight off my shoulders. If I had to animate what every tumble, flip and spin of an object in the game looked like - for one it wouldn't look as good, and two - it would take a lot of work. We do have animations in the game, on the characters and karts and weapons, but nothing with 8 directions of animated cycles blended together, or characters that talk with lip synced phonemes, etc.
That is it for this installment of Zero Gear art talk, I am hoping to take a time lapse video of the next asset I create to make into another post, if I can remember and record it correctly!