Environment Feature

As an aspiring environment artist, the environment was one of the most exciting parts of the project. The irony is the environment literally uses the most "smoke and mirrors" tricks to create the impression of a more impressive atmospheric environment. I guess that's the challenge with any environment. I'm so lucky noir let's me cheat with the fog and shadows ;)

The inspiration for this environment is the old distillery district in Toronto, Canada. It's a tourist spot, so they kept some of the buildings intact. I went with a friend to take reference photos at the location. Besides being useful production material, the coolest thing is walking through the area in the game and remember the feeling of being there in person.

This area in particular stood out to me, so I made it the first place the player walks through in the game:

Might not be as fancy as Rue du Gros-Horloge, but it was the most interesting place I visited in Canada since the last time I left my room

Early Stage/Block-out:
What I like to do with my environments is block out everything in Maya and export the scene as one object to check scale in UE4. Then I split the environment into modules which are set up properly in UE4. From the very beginning I am thinking about and using modular parts in Maya, however they do not get detailed until much later. Sometimes the detailing is just fixing the UV's and applying tiling textures. In the future I would like to sculpt more unique assets as that is more enjoyable. But in the end it's the overall impression which matters.

The layout was based on old architectural plans of Toronto's Distillery district to create authentic scale
Modular thinking was used early on and throughout
 Creating building variations with trims, walls and columns is the quickest method

Since the overall balance or 'gestalt' is so important and difficult to manage, I like to do some lighting tests in Unreal as well. In the early stage of production, the environment was dark, but after some feedback I brightened it up. It's easy to get attached to the work and overlook these issues, but looking back at old renders it was extremely dark...

Early lighting tests were low-key with high contrast, but hit the mood and atmosphere

color was taking away from the film noir aesthetic, so the game remained in greyscale

Time Saving Techniques
I used some textures from gametextures.com and the example content in UE4 for the blockout to get sense of scale early on. Textures take a while to create so it's nice to have a visual of what the environment may look like and helps to create proper UV's early on. In the end I sculpting my own brick textures and used cgtextures.com for a lot of the other surfaces. Unfortunately I did not have time to replace all of the textures such as the roof tiles and crates (yeah of all things). In game development a priority has to be given to everything so in the end something takes a hit.

I also saved time by using some blueprints for the environment, such as laying out walls in rows using an array. Splines were used for the dirt tire marks. I used variations of these systems on other elements like phone lines and complete buildings.

Apply a tiling alpha texture to a plane attached to a spline made quick paths in the mud
Decals were used for some dripping wear effects

The following video shows the Blueprints in action:

It would have been nice to spend more time detailing the environment, but due to the volume of work a lot of the environment features had a much lower priority. In the future I will focus more specifically on environments and create at a smaller scale to allow time for necessary detail. I'm still happy with how this environment turned out and it gives off the slightly creepy, film noir vibe I was going for. People seem to be immersed in the world while playing which is a nice sign. If I can combine visual fidelity with immersion in my future environment work, then my objective has been reached. Until then I study, practice and improve.

Character Feature

The main character took a long time of 5 months to complete as I balanced her with other production roles. A temporary model rigged with a HumanIK skeleton was created early and used throughout the project. I was able to build a base mesh within the first month of August, apply animations and test materials in September. There was a long break where I didn't touch the character art and in January it did not take long to finish the final model as everything was set up.

There's always revisions in production, so this workflow made sense. I'll cover some of the challenges and compromises in this post.

Finished character model, Marmoset Toolbag 2

Creating a convincing outfit was difficult both in design and technical implementation. As far as I'm aware, there were no female detectives in the 1920s and 1930s. There were only a handful of female police at the time and they were not given the typical patrol tasks. Despite the low statistics, Alice Stebbins Wells became first LAPD cop in as early as 1910 and helped to organize the International Policewomen's Association in 1915. With this project set in an alternate world inspired by history, it was nice when there were facts I could base the designs on.

One fact I couldn't work on was dresses which pretty much every woman wore in the early 20th century, unless they were Katharine Hepburn. Early on I struggled with convincing dynamic cloth using Nvidia's APEX tools. It was too buggy and I did not wish to get too involved with character technical art. I settled for temporary 'leggings' which were used on my temp model until I got around to finishing the high-poly sculpt. In the end the pants remove a bit of the authenticity of the design, but as a design decision for a game with lots of locomotion, it works out in my opinion.

Left is the temp model used for half of production (just base meshes with solid materials) Right is an APEX cloth test
Early on I wanted to play with more drapery to fit the atmosphere, but in the end static clothing was easier to handle
Dresses just didn't work. Cut

In the early stages of the project I considered incorporating steampunk into the design, however that idea was cut as adding too many subgenres would confuse the main stylistic influence of film noir. I was already stretching it by adding crime and monster genre, but they were easy to fit into the narrative while steampunk was too 'out there'.

The following references influenced the costume the most. Since the lead character is a police detective, I went for more of a street cop/police look

The image on the left inspired the costume the most, especially with gun placement.
There were more influences which don't necessarily show up in the final results. I watched a lot of film noir and my research on Coco Chanel was interesting. There are a few more photo inspirations in the moodboard  part of the blog. I try to get inspired by as much of real life as possible and use other games as motivation.

Characterization: Designing the Face and Hair
While the clothes make the man (or woman in this case), their face and hairstyle was equally important for getting across personality. The head sculpt was actually the first asset produced for the entire project. In fact I had the look down to the materials finished before the first month of production. It seems the common methods to produce realistic characters these days is 3D scans, but I did not have access to any at the time. I used http://3d.sk/ for texture reference.

Early lighting tests in Marmoset Toolbag 2 let me study materials before even starting the game

Since the project started in the 1920s and was changed to 1930s later, I was looking into a Louise Brooks type of bob. In the end I went for a more glamorous Hollywood style cut and the blonde coloring gave her more innocence than before. While the game is black and white, color comes through in contrast and there was just too much darkness in the game for black hair to stand out. Blonde hair is also more innocent and reflects her rookie status.

Left: Louise Brooks's 20s style didn't work. Explored more iconic Hollywood styles in the Center and came to final at Right

Production: Texturing:
Sculpting characters is pretty straight forward. Basically have a good base mesh and make it look as legit as possible in the time given. The better the sculpt is, the best the bakes will turn out and texturing will be easier. I didn't have much detail in my sculpt due to time, but I had a clean workflow which made texturing easy, especially with Quixel Suite.

Quixel's DDO has a nice feature called DDO look dev which is a fancy way of pre-planning materials on a flat bake of your model before retopology. Color ID's are a big deal with modern texturing workflows, so I had a nice color coded model in Zbrush. I was able to decide my final look before touching a single poly, how cool! It's a bit easier to show with pictures:

1) Separate color ID's used on each material. Polypaint in Zbrush

2) The color ID was baked on a flat plane as well as normal, AO, standard stuff. This is what a bake would look like

3) The results can be tweaked in DDO and saved as a preset to be added in an instant to the future low-poly model. BAM.
The texturing wasn't finished with Quixel. In Photoshop I added some variation by hand. It may be hard to tell but it's there.

There's still retopology, rigging, blendshapes, setting up animgraphs in UE4, retargeting animation and all sorts of time consuming tasks I don't have time to cover here. As I found out, while creating cool character designs and models is time consuming, it's only a small fraction of the work. That's why bigger studios have an artist dedicated to problem solving the dynamic dress issues and several animators. Unfortunately this character was entirely my responsibility which limited possibilities, but overall I'm pleased with the final results. In the end it taught me the valuable relationship between design for visual appeal and design for technical feasibility. Artists tend to stick with the first and produce interesting stuff, but at the end of the day it has to work and excite at the same time. It was definitely exciting to see this character run around the first time and evolve over production.

Unreal Engine 4 Blueprints

The game portion of Project Rain was only possible due to Unreal Engine 4's blueprint system. I took a coding class in high school, so I already knew about variables and basic programming theory. However I am notoriously poor with spelling and as an artist there is just no time for programming languages.  Blueprints is the closest thing there is to a 'do it' button.

Here's an overview of how complicated the blueprints in Project Rain are:

Main character blueprint. I swear I know where everything is. I'm actually organized with all weapons stuff on right side, etc
This is a blueprint setup just for a short tutorial level (3-10ish minutes). Made it nice with color depending on the event.
Got to love booleans. There's a lot more and they were used almost everywhere.

It would take too much time to explain anything in detail. Not to mention my approach is nowhere near efficient (I'm an artist). It took several weeks to set up the blueprints with the majority of time figuring out the simplest problems (it's nice to hear I'm not the only developer who struggled with doors). Once you have a system in place, you can reuse old nodes so it would be much easier to add more narrative content after getting things set up.

If you want to learn how to use Blueprints for your Unreal Engine 4 project, check out Youtube channels. The official tutorial videos are a great place to start teaching the theory, then you can search for more complicated stuff like AI in other channels: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRhWc2kAhqI

Main Menu/HUD Feature

The other videos do not show much if any of the HUD/menu screen. It took a lot of work to set up those systems. I even created a unique environment for the menu. This video was recorded to show off that work.

Didn't design HUD graphics, it's just functionality and the environment.