The incredibly detailed, beautifully illustrated, insanely intricate birth of a video game Mech
I'm a huge fan of Mechs, and I've always been fascinated by how they're designed. I reached out to Piranha Games, the developer behind MechWarrior Online, to see if they'd be willing to walk me through hw they designed one of their Mechs. The information they returned, complete with details from multiple members of the art team and detailed information about how each Mech is created, made my jaw drop. Come for the writing, stay for the incredible images, and thank the team for letting us peek into their process. Enjoy! Dennis de Koning (Art Director): The process of creating a Mech starts with a series rough designs in order to nail down a strong silhouette. Alex Iglesias (Concept Artist): I tend to start with a very rough black and white sketch to get a feel for a design, usually with the original art in front of me to see what iconic elements of the original I can bring out or build off of. Following that, I often tend to start exploring different poses and iterations based off of that, to see what works. de Koning: I will feedback to Alex any thoughts and changes I may have that I believe will strengthen the silhouette, mitigate possible future issues and drive the overall look, feel and consistency of the design. Iglesias: Dennis' feedback lets me know what adjustments to make, and which of the aspects presented earlier to focus in on and carry through to the later stages of the concept or into completion. de Koning: Alex will build upon the feedback and compose a more fleshed-out concept. From there, further feedback may be given for him to move forward. Iglesias: At this point most of the detail and coloring is in, but a lot of back and forth sort of adjustments and reviews will occur concerning a design. A whole lot of problem solving is involved as issues come to light or I realize stuff myself. de Koning: Once final approval is met, Alex can move on to the orthographic. Iglesias: With the concept mostly complete. I need to start extrapolating from the design to figure out how all the areas out of view ought to look. de Koning: The ortho is a necessary process that greatly aids in the conversion to 3D. Iglesias: Orthographics are the interesting point in the process where I start to discover all the strange MC Escher-like impossible geometries and mistakes I made in the original that now have to be ironed out and made sense of. In addition to that, it now needs to make sense to someone else. de Koning: I’ve always maintained that the concept process never ends with the concept artist. It’s not uncommon that during (or after) the 3D modeling process, design conflicts arise and small modification are necessary. Most are resolved by the modeler but some go back to Alex; others are just brought to his attention so he can carry them forward into his next concept. Iglesias: Just when you think you're done… de Koning: It may seem a bit anal to take these concepts to such a degree of finality, but we’ve always figured that there are probably a few Mech enthusiasts out there who might appreciate the possibility of an art book, poster or desktop image; so the highest of fidelity has always been paramount. Iglesias: There's usually a point with any design that if I'm working on it long enough, I just want to be done with it and move on. However there is almost invariably a point afterwards where I want to find any reason to go back in and fix and improve on all the things I've noticed are wrong with it. This was one of those times. de Koning: Regarding the Founders Program, Alex and I discussed at length the notion of these particular Mechs being handed down over generations. Adopting a retro style architecture in the fuselage and/or other areas of the Mech, as well as bolstering the appearance with a war-torn and weathered paint job would drive the idea home. Iglesias: I really wanted to make sure that the Founders' paint jobs really looked like they've been fighting since the very beginning. To really give the sense that the machine has been in and out of battles more than anything else out there, where the paint looks like it's barely even holding on, while the dirt and grime are practically a part of the Mech. de Koning: Alex can now conceptualize the Mech variants. Iglesias: The catapult was an interesting Mech to make variants for and one of the first to receive variants second only to the hunchback. The K2 was the biggest departure from the original, practically turning it into a new Mech. The other variants mainly involved capping off laser hardpoints. However the LRM 20 variant ended up simply looking far too awkward with tall launchers, and after some discussion it was decided to make the launchers wider instead; this is a good example of the modeler making the change as opposed to me repainting the art. de Koning: From the orthographic drafted by Alex, Kris can model a rough block-in. This establishes relative scale and gives the rigger/animators something to get a head start on. Kris will also begin modeling the variant components. Kristoffer Lyons (Modeler): After consulting with the animators to make sure the hard points will be able to swap with other weapons and avoid issues with the primary variant, I can start modeling the high-poly models based off of Alex’s concepts. Sometimes this is done from scratch and other times I can get away with modifying or kit-bashing pre-existing components. Once this is complete, the process of down-res’ing, baking normal maps and ambient occlusion passes are done. Then I import all the newly created Variant pieces into the animation rigging file to set them up and create LOD’s. de Koning: From Kris’ blocking mesh, Evan takes over and develops a high-poly and low-poly (game-res) versions of the Mech. Evan Halim (Senior Modeler): There is plenty of room for interpretation and opportunity for creative input when modeling the Mechs, like the architecture of joints & under-carriage and over-all detailing. Once the high-poly model is complete, it is abridged to game resolution by significantly and strategically reducing the poly count. Once the low-poly is ready and the positions of both models are aligned, the process of unwrapping the UV starts. This process is time intensive as all UVs must fit into one map with no overlap and texture density must be strictly maintaining. Normal and ambient occlusion maps are created by projecting the high-poly model information to the low-poly model. After the normal and ambient occlusion maps are polished, they are ready to be used as a base for the texture artist. de Koning: As soon as a Mech concept is approved, Amit starts working on the cockpit. This process is very holistic and free-flowing as there is no concept art created for it. Generally speaking, my art direction is focused more towards the silhouette as well as connecting the recognition of the cockpit with the Mech it belongs to. From there, Amit has an open canvas. Amit Joshi (Cockpit modeler/texturer): My primary goal when designing the cockpit comes from the concept images I receive. I usually just start with the windows and nothing else. The windows and their silhouettes are what tie in the BattleMech with its cockpit. Because of [Field of View] and perspective issues, the actual cockpit frame sometimes ends up quite different than the actual Mech model. From there it’s a matter of designing the interior to which I like to introduce some of the Mech’s exterior features; this gives a sense of purpose to the design. When it comes to designing the console, I like to mirror design elements from the BattleMech architecture which further cements the idea that the cockpit is connected in design. I flip back and forth between the 3D package and in-game because the view in which it’s modeled isn’t the same as the pilot’s view and certain elements don’t read as well in one as in the other. From there, it’s a matter of which kind of environment needs to be created, whether that be large and spacious or a claustrophobic and compact cockpit; and what makes that particular cockpit unique. de Koning: In the mean time, Kris models the damage states of the Mech and its variant components. Lyons: Once Evan has created the high-poly and low-poly Mech, it's time to add damage; this means using a large collection of parts from the garage. This garage-file contains many variations of high-res 3D object in many different shapes and configurations that I’ve slowly built up over many Mechs. These machine parts are strategically placed inside the low-poly mesh to fake the illusion of sub-armor components. Once all areas of the low-poly mech are filled with parts and it’s looking right, I’m ready to bake normal maps and make ambient occlusion passes. The next step is modeling damaged arms, shoulders and weapon pieces to be swapped with the undamaged versions for when they get blown off. Exposed wires, hoses etc. and warped, split armor where the limb or weapon was previously attached must also be modeled. Once this is complete, the damage states are done and ready to be exported into the engine and added to the Mech rig by the animators. de Koning: Enrique & Ben are responsible for hit-boxes, rigging, animation and personality of every Mech. Enrique Barahona Ramos (Señor Animador): As soon as we get a blocking mesh ready from Kris, with the important joints already in place (such as hips, knees, elbows etc.) I can get started drawing the skeleton that will drive the movement of the mech’s final geometry. This allows us to do the rigging and animation work in parallel while the artists continue refining the mesh, textures, shaders, etc. Once the bones and basic mesh are ready in 3ds Max with all the proper naming conventions in place, I export it to Motionbuilder for characterization and rigging. At this point, the keyframe animation work branches out to Ben while I continue in Max working on the in-game character rig: such as assigning ragdoll limits, collision volumes, hit surfaces that determine what parts are receiving enemy fire, weapon muzzle points, swap damaged components etc. All these elements are then brought in game as a CDF file or Character Definition File which contains the skeleton and component information; together with the animation exported from motionbuilder, they make up the final up-and-running Mech ready to kick butt in the game. Ben Driedger (Animator): During game play there is a combination of both hand-keyed animation and procedurally driven animation. Torso twists, weapons aiming (Arm IK), and weapons animations are driven by code; utilizing the hard work put in by Enrique. From concept to production to an animation ready model, every Mech’s design will convey a sense life, weight and attitude that will influence its motion that we will best try to capture while finding a balance between design speculations and artistic interpretation. As stats have already determined the speeds of each Mech, this will in turn affect how I approach animation. I will create locomotion sets that will match precisely the data already implemented. Comparing the locomotion of a fast, agile Mech like a Jenner to an Awesome for example, we might look at the movement of long-distance runners; trying to emphasize a long stride covering lots of ground versus the bulk of the heavy, battle scarred veterans trudging through the trenches. The movement of the “Chicken Walkers” like the Catapult; is inspired by the Avian and Prehistoric families. Other Mechs have a more military feel; straight back, head up, heavy march, ready-to-meet-on-the-field sort of attitude. de Koning: Once modeling is complete, Gabe runs it through his texture process. In this case, for the Founders Catapult. Gabriel Kessler (Texture Artist): The process of texturing Mechs is broken down into a many steps and a somewhat standard pipeline. The first and most important step is gathering source images for breaking down material types, and how those material types behave in changing light conditions. I try to imagine the cross section of the material from its core to the surface so I can break down the layers accordingly ie. metal core, primer, paint, and finally to the clear coat; so in Photoshop, metal would be the base and clear coat would be the top. Once the base materials and decals are complete, I move on to the top most layer of the texture: the localization. The localization layer is the story of the texture’s battle damage; chipped edges, dirt and grease build up etc., basically anything that has happened to the object over its life. I tend to jump back and forth between Photoshop and Mudbox at this step of the game, making masks and dirt build up. The final and equally important step is to study the texture sheet to make sure it reads the way I want the model to look; if I can’t identify the parts, I need to go back and rework the texture until it reads correctly. So that's how a Mech is designed, created, and animated in the upcoming MechWarrior Online. It takes many talented people doing many different jobs to create the walking weapon platforms we know and love. Now, with all due respect, shut up and give me the keys. The game will be released this year, but you can purchase a Founder's Package right now for instant entry in the beta.