Greetings Reapers, today we have the very first in a series of interviews called Developer insights. In this blog I will be speaking with various people from the gaming industry. Picking their brain a little bit about what they do and how they do it. Today I am pleased to announce that we have the magnificent modeler who has been hard at work on Ember. Our special guest today is none other than Joseph Pena, or as you know him: the mighty…. Joe Solo.
Ronyn: Let’s begin with you telling our readers a bit about your particular specialization in game development.
JoeSolo: My Primary specialization(s) are Character Modeling and Hero Asset modeling. If it isn’t modular, I probably build it.
Ronyn: For our readers can you tell me what you mean when you say “Modular”?
Joe Solo: Think of modular assets like the wood planks that make up a real-world barn. Each plank is basically the same, they are placed next to each other. It’s the same idea in 3-D. However, in 3-D I don’t create a new 3-D plank from scratch every time I need one. I simply make one “master” plank in 3-D, then copy it over and over again to make however many planks it takes to build the barn. This is a basic way to understand it.
3-D modular assets take this idea much further still. Duplicating a singular object like a third dimension wood plank 2k times might not be efficient for your project. It also might not look very good. One identical plank duplicated everywhere is VERY noticeable. It is too easy to tell. It’s also six sides of an object duplicated 2k times. That’s a lot of polys for something to look bad. Making 2k individual planks costs too much time for a game.
So what do you do? You may need to make a larger rectangular plank that fills up 1/4 of the side of the barn that contains 8 – 10 different planks painted onto it. That’s eight custom planks of wood on a single six-sided plank! You just saved yourself a lot of polygons! What’s interesting is that by including say eight planks of wood on your texture sheet, you actually open the door to a bit more customization for the wood itself.
Example: I make one panel of wood, textured a specific way. I duplicate this wood everywhere. It looks very “repeated” quickly. Once you put these five identical objects in a row, you can tell that they are, in fact, the same. However, if I make a texture with with five different wood panels “painted” into it, then when I start building my barn you get the impression that panels are different than others. It takes longer to notice the pattern repeats.
Ronyn: How did you acquire these skills? Did you go to school for it?
Joe Solo: I drew a lot growing up, learned to carve out of wood, as well as make furniture stuff. Had uncles into tech that got me some basic 3-D programs in high school. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Game Art from the Art Institute. I also studied life drawing under Charles Hu for about 4 years at both AI and Gnomon School of Visual Effects.
Outside of that there is really a lot of self-teaching through various outlets, mentors, friends, and colleagues. You can only really do this job if you are always picking up new things, and in tandem studying the fundamentals of how to go about creating or making something. This includes design, programming, art, basketball, etc. What the game industry/entertainment industry is for any true craftsman is “the pursuit of mastery.” The idea you want to be better tomorrow than you are today, and will do what you can to make that happen. I hope to be better at sculpting at 50 than I am today. I don’t just mean making cool stuff either. I mean, having a deep understanding of what it is I am doing, which in turn will hopefully make my art look even better.
Ronyn: What tools or programs do you commonly use?
Joe Solo: Zbrush, 3DS max, Maya, Substance Painter, Headus UV Layout, Unreal 4, Marmoset Toolbag, and Photoshop. That’s the main list of what I am usually dealing with at any one time.
Ronyn: What is it like working with Mark Kern, AKA Grummz?
JoeSolo: He is probably one of the easier people I have worked with directly. I have worked with him directly on feature teams for FireFall before Ember and he is very good about getting his ideas on a sheet, or some other example.
From my experiences he takes a lot of the guesswork out of what I have to do. He also allows for a certain amount of artistic wiggle room which I think is essential to artists being able to feel that they are contributing something. I will also say Mark, myself, and the others, share similar interests and tastes in media. I think that helps on a small team like Ember. Most everyone here has already been drawing upon similar interests for years. This allows some things to go almost unsaid or seem obvious during meetings.
Ronyn: Do you have any advice for our readers who might be interested in doing what you do some day?
Joe Solo: I would like to offer a place for people to start. Pick up a copy of George Bridgman’s “Bridgman’s Complete Guide to Drawing from life”. Once you get it. Start doing copies of the drawings in there. Master studies and practice are the key ingredients. They also don’t require a computer. If you can understand (even simply) how forms interact with each other in 2-D, when you get into 3-D, you will have an easier time. Outside of that. Draw all the time.
Ronyn: Where did the name “Joe Solo” come from?
Joe Solo: I could probably give you many different responses to that question. All of them having some meaning. Really though, it sort of describes “me” in a way. I love big games like Destiny, FireFall, TF2, etc, etc, but I am a “pub” or “solo” guy. I typically don’t group, or game/compete with a core group of people. Video games to me have always been a place where I go to “escape.” Art to me is a place I go to “escape.” To me gaming has always been about the core experience I am having and the story I craft for myself. What’s funny about this mentality is that I have basically only worked on multiplayer games my whole career. I love bringing people together. I just like being the guy who waves hi to other player, then runs off to quest lol.
Ronyn: What have you found easier to create, hard surface or organics?
Joe Solo: Hmmmm. Hard surface is probably “easier.” You start to realize though as you get further into this industry, that line becomes very blurry depending on the asset.
Ronyn: What are your favorite types of things to make?
Joe Solo: Human figures. If I could just do nude human figure sculpting studies all day, I would be happy. The human body is by far the most interesting thing to me.
Ronyn: I know the readers want to me ask, how is that T.H.M.P.R. coming along?
Joe Solo: It’s coming along pretty well. I would say the high poly is near completion. That’s the “hardest” part. Everything else will be pretty straightforward. I am not sure if everyone knows but I am recording as I work. This should all (hopefully) be compiled in some way at the end so the community can see a “making of.”
Ronyn: Is there anything particularly challenging about making it?
Joe Solo: To preface this answer a bit… Dev can take many forms. When it came to the THMPR and getting a pulse on whether or not fans wanted Ember, we tried to spend our time on what the core concept of the THMPR was. The idea of it not just visually, but in game as well. What will it do? How does it function? What’s the core loop involved with it’s game-play? These are all questions that needed answering in some capacity, on top of seeing some kind of visual. If you think about what I just said, 90% of it can be answered in a prototype that requires no “real” art. Just grey blobs. Grey blobs don’t sell a universe though. The visual has its own set of questions outside of its relation to game-play, that are very similar to the previously stated questions. What will it do? How does it function? What is it’s visual shape language? How does its shape language “communicate” with the rest of the world we want to create when we haven’t created it? These are very open sounding questions. They can even be intimidating questions.
So how do you (did we) solve these problems? Baby steps. You start with your knowns. 1. THMPR is going to be a bipedal jaeger type thing without a pilot. 2. It gathers resources for a free moving player. etc. Basically the list of what you want it to do. This gives us all the things it can’t be. it can’t be four legged as an example. Think about this for a minute. If you can come to reasonable, bite sized, understanding, that your game-play asset has two legs, you can do a lot. You can start thinking about its scale, how it moves, etc, all without really doing any art. This is informative though. You can now just take, say the unreal dummy (he is bipedal) and scale him to giant size, and make him your THMPR for very early testing, until a THMPR blockout or asset comes in. This is the reasoning you should have internally. Again though, a game needs visuals to sell it. People don’t understand that a “Giant Biped Man” is supposed to be a mech.
Knowing all of this and keeping in mind that at this point your budget is basically $0 because you are indie, all you need is art that “gets the point across” from a 2-D concept. Which is exactly what we have. Then it falls to the modeling artist (myself) to help fill in gaps we haven’t even thought about, or couldn’t afford to think about. If anything is challenging about what I am working on, it’s being a “concept designer” as opposed to an “artist.” I have to try and take what is fairly loose, and translate it to a 3-D style a concept artist can then tweak/build upon. Which in turn I will take/build upon, for probably a few models until we establish a firmer “visual language” for Ember. I think readers can appreciate this breakdown of how a game kind of “starts.” Different projects, and different stages of projects, come with different challenges. In a lot of ways, you can boil everything with the THMPR down to this: We are trying to do the best work we can, all of us. We don’t yet know where that will take us. But it’s a ride right now, that is fun as hell, especially thanks to our community.
Ronyn: What kind of crazy capabilities will it have?
Joe Solo: I don’t know how much I am allowed to say in regards to that. I will say though that Tommaso’s awesome concept art kind of dictates what “needs” to happen, especially in tandem with Mark’s game-play ideas. The community can expect awesome dash punches, some truly “anime” style mech combat moments, along with a lot of personality built in. I’m hoping the THMPR will end up feeling sort of like Dog in half-life 2. Not so much mimicking Dog, but having the same kind of character and presence Dog had. I think the core idea of Thumping in FireFall was always sound. It was basically a mini “horde mode” anytime the player dropped one. The player really had no emotional connection to it though, outside spending money on it. I think by giving THMPR movement and a sense of purpose, players will be more invested in it.
Ronyn: Can you give us a sneak peek if I say pretty please?
Joe Solo: More “peeks” will be coming as the weeks go on of this milestone. As the community has hopefully noticed, Dev is really transparent on Ember. It’s almost one-to-one as far as communication goes. We aren’t really hiding very much. Am I further along on the THMPR than the community has seen? Yes I am. Is that progress in a state, that if presented, the community can clearly understand? Not quite. That to me is the clear distinction. Anyone can show “progress.” Is that progress clear and understandable? That’s the real question. Often times during the creation of an art piece there is this “mediocre looking” phase. It’s mediocre to the casual observer, but vital to the artist. This kind of phase is confusing to see/interpret. I may have simple shapes that are supposed to represent “final” areas. These shapes may only be useful to the artist in whatever form they are in. To take this even a step further, internally, sometimes people aren’t sure what I am doing unless I explain it. This goes for other people on the team as well. We need to communicate to you guys in ways that make sense and that takes a little bit of elbow grease on our end sometimes.
Ronyn: This has been extremely informative. I can’t thank you enough. Is there anything you’d like to say to the community before we end the interview?
Joe Solo: I would really like to just thank the community for all the support on Ember so far. It’s been inspirational to our team to keep moving forward. Thank you Ronyn for taking the time to do this. I’m not very good at leaving my own words of wisdom, so I will quote one of my favorite college teachers for you guys instead. It’s helped me haha
“Work hard, don’t suck.” – Thomas Jung
Go to http://artguyjoe.com/ for Joeseph “Joe Solo” Pena’s own website to to see a bit more of his art.
There we have it folks. Some fascinating insight into what goes on behind the scenes. Is anyone here inspired to follow in Joe’s Footsteps? Or did someone perhaps learn something new about game development from Mr. Solo’s detailed response? Tell us about it below!
Until next time Reapers, Keep your eyes on the prize. – Ronyn