The developing and making of a game character protagonist can be tiresome. One has to consider several aspects: what the character represents, how he fits the game world, what personality does it have and how to present int on context of game values. Besides, we must understand what made this character who he/she is now. I have to admit that this task is far greater than what I originally anticipated since at idealization phase everything seems smooth and straightforward.
Let me tell you this: what I wrote above turned out to take a great deal of time and labor. A lot of things are going on in a protagonist's creation process. In the case of Extinction: AG, the main character is Rotbrute - a Saurophaganax. Putting into consideration the game's artistic approach, a graffiti and abstract based oriented design started and, after doing reference research it became obvious that this would be no trivial task. From the start, we had to outline technical details such, as High Poly, Low Poly model - Triangle count, LOD and PBR set-up,, Normal Baking and UV, and texture quality -among others.
Imagine a 4 meter colorful tall and massively powerful armored dinosaur with a pair of heavy machine guns mounted on its back. Sounds pretty cool, right? Well, you might ask: how did this end up happening? There is interesting story to it. The goal of Rotbrute, originally, conformed of different sectors. He, as a protagonist, represents the mood of the game. A game of power, strategy and strength. Its his duty to enforce the ideals of the game, which, for Rotbrute, specifically, symbolizes the failed attempts to unite societies by forcing clashing ideals together, which is why it looks as a lab experiment failure. With that said, it also hold meaning of the fortitude to go through tempests and remain standing, he conveys the ability to recover and reform.
For a task this size, a way to be able to materialize these symbols was needed. At that time, with the style of the game being dark but having humorous kick and focusing on the absurdity of things, we had to build the emotional portrait of the Character. With aforementioned game's emblems, a big-scale contender was required: Rotbrute. With the hardware limitations in mind and aiming for middle-gamma, the best result had to be achieved from a design perspective with as little resource usage (when rendered in real-time). Using Unreal Engine 4 and its PBR system, We used the approach to make a high poly model, retopologize it, bake the texture and normal map information and finally proceed to the diffuse and roughness/scalar map creation.
So... It was... Research time! While looking into references is always fun, one must not forget that time is gold, so hands were put to work. Looking through references was fascinating, especially because there are so many different representations of the Saurophaganax. The initial concept was to borrow from three major sources:
And thus it was decided. Modelling process of the dinosaur has started. Colorwise, it wasn't yet entirely clear what it would be, but after the conception of the model –and according to our style at the time, this was the outcome:
This is not a bad start -not bad at all :) . Add to that, the fact that the original artistic choice was on the verge of being cel shaded, imagine a mix between something like Borderlands 2 and Battlefield 3. It wouldn't be until a month or two after, that the whole scope of the game –artistically- changed to a semi-realistic as the quality to follow. This meant, of course, to completely redesign the characters. The humans design have also drastically changed, and you can see those changes in the images below. A change so broad, however, meant a lot of work 'lost.' The levels in the making had to be redone, the characters, many of the already custom made models and their respective textures, too but it was what the symbols represented that were the biggest hit: it would be a serious tone, with a slight touch of cynical humor. Big changes coming to the mighty protagonist, Rotbrute.
Having mentioned that Extinction: AG has an odd artistic choice –and odd as in unorthodox to most games, Rotbrute had to be adapted to this colorful and meaningful setting. The idea from the design stages of the game was to show feelings and events and with Rotbrute's adaptation, it showed an Iguana, a rose and in its upper head, lighting, representing the will of nature, the rarity of a rose and the power of lighting –in this developer's opinion, a good delegate for the game- and its adaptation into the new artistic focus would not entitle a complete redesign, but a total remake in the 3D world. We used different references, such as the following and got to work. The result was the follwing:
This time, it needed to be more impactful, more fearsome, and even more memorable. All of these just mean, in a way 'more of the same,' which any designer knows how hard that can be. The new concept was not so different from the previous one, but the approach and image it left was different and furthermore, more impacting would also mean to smartly 'numb down' the levels so that no matter the location, it would be highlighted, which is something I will talk about below in more detail.
Even though this has sounded like an Italian melodrama, designing always has it ups and downs and sometimes the ups overcome the downs limitations. For example, regardless of all the work that each iteration went through, seeing them evolve and progress was fun and each layer of work opened the doors to wonderful ideas, many of which did materialize in-game after Rotbrute's finalization. There's a problem, though: Art is a never-ending task and it was tough to know when to say "that's enough detail" or "it's done!" Sometimes a stepping stone was met and climbing over it seemed hard back then... And still hard today when remembering it.
As much as one wants to postpone the task of protagonist creation, one has to know that in many cases, a lot of the games depend on the final outcome of such assignment to determine how highlighting will work but more importantly, how to blend it into a more congruent scenario.
Making protagonists shine is always a hassle because the mix has to be just right and its until final execution that its effectiveness starts to show. Even a tiny variation can make it obvious whether it's either blending completely with the world –and therefore losing impact value- or over highlighting and make it annoying for the one interacting with the experience. How do games do it? Well, glad it was asked (imaginary audience laughs). Different types of games do it differently, of course. Single-player games have a whole experience to embrace and glorify them while multiplayer experiences require a more subtle execution. Take the Gears of War franchise and how even though they do have both modes, all highlighting comes in the single-player by immersing the player into the whole world as you go through this world with your AI pals/enemies. If a game like Evolve is chosen, however, they take on a very different approach. While having critical characters (the monsters), they still execute it much more slowly. Not to confuse the two scenarios, though. Nevertheless, it is important to note that these highlights are usually done (whenever done properly) from the design perspective and not execution. A game such as Duke Nukem Forever did the highlight more from execution and well, in this dev's opinion, it feels shallow and has a very hard time connecting with the player.
Having 17k triangles and 2k textures (although with a lower artistic fidelity), the first model stood pretty high for the respective design. Now that the new model was coming in, it was time to compare. A pretty staggering difference, and more suiting to the aggressive settings of the game while still staying expressive of the factors defined before. It came at 22k triangles, 2k textures at a bit higher level but a much more detailed normal map.
The artistic switch that the game went through was to appeal better to the settings: a dying world succumbing into extinction from WW3, with countries desperate to find a solution and up to a degree to think that dinosaurs were a good bet to win the war in a place where resources are scarce. With this in mind the design that would then follow with the raptors –as well as with other dinosaurs that are planned for the game- made much more sense. To use colors as an expression but to have them in a meaningful way. While some of these colors are lost in the speed of the gameplay, the team will thrive to also immerse the players into the world of Extinction: Archaic Genesis.
It is needless to say that the creation of Rotbrute helped us define the tone of the game as well as lead us in the right direction when switching artistic approach. With a graffiti world and a fearsome creature, it is certain that all creatures and humans that wonder the area will think twice before entering the reach of this enormous predator –with guns. Something that personally surprised me was the amount of hidden work in between layers when creating this character, especially coming from a programming perspective and having limited knowledge of the 3D pipeline. I think I can speak for the team when I say that it helped us learn even more how to represent an entire universe, with a single factor. In our case, is a meat eating, shooting, rock throwing and devastating monster and to be honest, I could not be happier to have anyone else, than Rotbrute.