Creature Creation Part 1: Star Wars Zoology
The Star Wars galaxy teems with an amazing diversity of inhabitants. Creatures can be found just about anywhere, from thick swamps to cold gray asteroids in space, and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. In a game like Star Wars Galaxies, the task of creating the critters that are integral to the Star Wars flavor is great, and the team assembled to tackle the job is equally great, in both talent and number.
Star Wars Galaxies currently has more than fifteen artists and animators whose jobs are to re-create (and in many cases, create) the rancors, gackle bats , gnorts , dewbacks and dozens of other lifeforms players will encounter as they live the Star Wars movies through their characters. To get a good idea of how creature creation works in all its stages, I consulted with the team responsible for putting the skin on Salacious Crumb and the jelly in Jabba's belly laugh. However, this article ballooned as I began to see why the project requires so many artists!
So Many Creatures, So Little Time.
The process begins much like the planet building process, with hard choices: What creatures will make it into the initial release of the game, and which will not? In fact, the choice of planets helps determine which creatures can be included.
Haden "Shug Ninx" Blackman, producer for LucasArts, brought his vast knowledge and resources to the decision-making table to help in this respect. "We knew that Corellian slice-hounds are native to Corellia, for example," he explains, "so, we knew that we could include them. The wildlife of Tatooine and Yavin 4 are extremely well-documented. In the case of those two planets, where we probably couldn't include every creature ever mentioned, we started with the creatures that would be most recognizable and then moved to the creatures that filled a niche-as enemies, or pets, or whatever."
The design of the gameplay has an important influence on the decision-making process. All creatures to be included must fill a niche in the game, or have a "purpose" in the overall gameplay. The design team decided what these niches would be early on, and these included types such as predators, flying predators, herbivores, fish, mounts, and many others.
There is ultimately a limit to how many creatures can be put into the initial release, and with limited time available in which to finish the game, development efficiency is of primary concern. It fell to Joe Shoopack and Jake Rodgers to devise a system that would maximize creature variety and fill the required niches, while managing development time.
Once a creature has been given the green light, the artists can begin working on bringing it to life in the game. In many cases, the creatures come directly from the Star Wars movies, and it is these films that serve as the artist's primary reference. Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace proved a particularly rich resource for creature references. But there are many creatures you'll see in the game that did not appear in the movies, and this is where concept artist Arnie Jorgensen comes in.
Star Wars Galaxies. From clothing, to creatures, to furniture, if it needs initial visualization, Arnie can create it.
"Concept art begins at the design stage," Arnie explains. "A designer will come up with something he or she needs for the game that has never been seen before, and then they pass the idea on to me and the lead artist. I will take a look at it and approach the piece in different ways depending on what needs to be done. There are all sorts of rules and restrictions placed on the designs by the game engine. If it's a building, I know that I must keep in mind this rule, or that rule, and if it's a character, then I must keep in mind a different ruleset. Once past these challenges, I can really settle in to making it an interesting design. Normally, I rough out a sketch in pencil and then scan it into the computer to color."
Arnie doesn't spend time re-inventing the wheel in his concept work. Those creatures that have already been seen in the movies don't need a redress. However, if a dewback needs a saddle, then Arnie will concept it. "You'd be surprised how much concept art like that needs to be done," he says. "We have four movies and a mountain of "The Art of..." Star Wars books to look at, and yet there is still plenty to design."
Many examples of Arnie's concept work for creatures and characters have appeared in the "Creature Contest" and the "Guess the Species" contest hosted on this site.
I asked Arnie what are the most enjoyable and most difficult parts of creature concept design.
"The best part of this work is when I see the concepts that I've done fully modeled and textured in the game. When we're walking around in the game and look up at a giant dinosaur type creature that has never been seen before...it's fun.
"The toughest part of all this is to make designs that look like they 'fit' into the Star Wars universe. I can come up with an idea that I think looks great, but then when I step back and picture it next to a Wookiee or a Hutt and it just doesn't fit, I trash it."
"It's a Gut Thing"
Bringing together as many different artists on a single project as Star Wars Galaxies does, you inevitably end up with a wide range of artistic styles. As Arnie mentions, one of the hurdles the team faces when creating the creatures in the game involves "fitting" them into the Star Wars universe. Jake Rodgers, the art director on the project, and Haden Blackman take up this important responsibility.
"Mainly, it's a gut thing," Haden explains about reviewing newly created creatures that have never been seen before. "The creature has to look like it belongs in the Star Wars universe. There's no real formula for that.... I guess I'd say that the creature needs to look possible. It should, in some ways, remind us of creatures that we are familiar with, but still look alien.... That's a tricky balance. If the creature is too bizarre, then it won't feel like it belongs in the Star Wars universe, which is a very realistic place, in my mind. If it doesn't have any strange qualities, then it will seem too mundane.
"Fortunately, the concept artists on Galaxies are pretty amazing. I think they intuitively know what fits in the Star Wars universe."
Jake gives credit to Arnie for creating those creatures that make both Haden's and his own guts happy. "We discuss relative size and ferocity, eating habits, background like that, but then Arnie goes to work on coming up with some amazing ideas. I stay out of his way for the most part. Sometimes he will come up with something and we work on the idea until it is more of what I think of as the essence of the creature we're making, but usually Arnie surprises us with something different than we were expecting, and it ends up working better than we thought."
When the concept art is done for a creature, the concept is handed off to the team of artists who will create the 3-dimensional "mesh" of the creature and give it skin through texturing.
Twelve artists handle the modeling and texturing process for creatures in SWG. They include Don Alexander and Dan Borth, who both do a considerable amount of animation work as well; Minoh Kim, Bill Daly, Nick Zuccarello, Jason Minor, Kris Taylor, Damon Waldrip, Andrew Collins, and Jeff Jonas specialize in this kind of work. There is a fair amount of crossover between the art jobs on the team, so even though one of these artist's primary task may be to create textures, they can take on other tasks such as animation, too.
Who gets to do which creature in Star Wars Galaxies? Obviously, some critters will be very popular picks, and so Jake Rodgers and Joe Shoopack took requests and tried to assign tasks the artists would enjoy. "Some of them get handed to you, a few you get to pick," explains Minoh Kim, the texture artist and modeler whose work you've seen in the krayt dragon. "A year and a half ago, they asked what creatures we'd want to work on, and we submitted a list. I asked for the rancor and the [Emperor's] Royal Guard. I got those two."
Much of the work is done in Maya, but not all the artists came to the team with Maya experience. Again and again, the team echoes how important it is for the prospective game artist or animator to have a solid art background. "What has been my biggest asset from my past that has helped me in this industry," explains Jason Minor, "is my training in traditional art. Anybody can learn a piece of software, but without a basic knowledge in art, you're sunk."
"That Lived-In Look"
Modeling a creature can begin with something as unexceptional as a box. Minoh gives me a quick lesson in the basics.
"I work with primitives," he says, indicating the plain dark gray box on his screen. "I take a simple polygon shape, then I extrude polygons from it to get a basic form." With his mouse, he pulls at the edges of the box and a polygon extends like a rectangular wing. He angles two opposing sides until this wing looks like a pyramid with the point cut off. He does the same to the opposite side of the original box. With a few more example adjustments to the box, he begins to move faster.
"From there I make something that resembles the shape of a dog's head." There's no question about it, it looks like a dog's head, a Doberman to my eye, all from a boring box and in the span of less than a minute.
This process creates the "mesh" of a creature, which looks like just like it sounds, a mesh netting that seems to wrap skintight around the model, taking its shape down to the small details.
The Mysterious UVs
The next step involves making what are referred to as "UVs." This seems to be universally one of the less popular tasks, and involves a variety of techniques particular to each artist. To create the skin of the creature, or the texture, the artist basically paints it on. That's not as simple as it may sound.
So, what's a UV? Asking that question is apparently akin to asking for an explanation of pi.
"I forget what U and V stand for, if anything."
"This is really too hard a question!"
"I actually wondered what the hell a UV is myself, even after I learned how to UV a model."
Attempts to explain to me what "UV" means meet with resistance in my brain, like tossing a nickel against a brick wall. But eventually, I got the gist: The U and the V represent two axes of an editor grid (X and Y are already used, so, logically, U and V are next). The editor allows the artist to "unwrap" a model, flattening it out so he or she can paint on the texture. And that's all the explanation of a UV you're getting from me!
Each artist seems to have a favored way of creating UVs. Jason maps the vertices as they are, then pieces together the UV's and flattens them out. Bill Daly generally uses the flattening style and fixes his seams in DeepPaint3D. Nick Zuccarello also flattens out his models, while Minoh, who sits directly across from him, generally leaves the model intact and separates it. No matter how they do it, the final product is exceptional.
Next, the artist works on the texture, which is essentially the creature's skin. This is where a whole new level of detail comes into play and an artist's observational skills, sense of color and texture are great assets. This is also where artistic savvy can overcome technological limitations to achieve a creature that looks realistic.
Bill Daly explains: "I usually spend more time on my textures than on the model, since that's where all your detail is. The model has to be low poly so you really can't model all your detail. Instead, you rely on the texture to fill in where the poly count leaves off. Creating a good texture is very important. I find that spending a fair amount of time on an under painting is very helpful. I start by painting all the muscle definition, skin folds, wrinkles, etcetera, in shades of gray. So my initial texture looks like a primered model with a decent amount of detail. From there I use photo reference of various animal skins, rusted metals, marble patterns, etcetera, as overlays. At this point, things really start coming together. Add in a color scheme and spend the rest of the time flushing out the texture to give it that worn, lived-in look."
The final result appears very much like a stretched out animal skin, with each body part marked out on the hide. It almost looks like the clothes patterns my mom used to order from Sears that she'd cut into leg, arm, and torso shapes according to the guides, to pin down on her chosen material. The artists even "sew" up the seams of their critters, too.
Mom never sewed up a pair of krayt dragon slacks for herself, however.
Given such diversity in technique and style among the artists, one would think getting that consistent "look" Jake and Haden strive for would be a very difficult task.
On that point, one would be right.
A big part of Jake Rodgers job is to ensure what is produced for the game not only has a consistent look, but a consistent Star Wars look. How does he bring it all together, with so many artists at work on the project, each with their own artistic styles?
"It isn't quite there yet, actually," Jake admits. "We are currently working on another consistency pass on creatures. This usually involves adjustments to make all the creatures have the same relative feel of realism, brightness, contrast, and saturation. We don't just look at them individually, or in groups. They need to be in the environment they will actually be walking around in, with player species around, and with different lighting situations. Since the lighting in our game changes with the position of the sun, it's got to work in many different types of light and weather. We can't gear them for a real dramatic lighting situation like a film. It's more like making them for a zoo.
"Well, more like a petting zoo, or in some instances, a full-contact zoo."
The quality that Jake looks for in the Star Wars creatures they create is just a few notches back from photorealism. "Photorealism necessarily means complicated to me. I want to keep the textures as simple as possible, only enough detail to get across the idea, yet not so stylized as to be 'painterly.'
"The models need to be done with basically the same idea-enough to show what we want to show. The animators like little details, like an ear twitch, or a blink, or a good scowl, so Joe [Shoopack] and I try to allow as much as possible without affecting the player's performance too greatly."
The Krayt Dragon Revision
As Minoh Kim shows me a few samples of his work (one is a staggeringly HUGE critter that could swallow a bantha whole, and of which he is justifiably proud, but he says probably won't be in the initial release; so, I can't reveal what it is), and we come across his familiar krayt dragon.
But this time, it's not so familiar. Something is subtly different. I ask about this, and Minoh explains that the krayt dragon has gone through a small bit of revision based on the release of a recent Star Wars art book called The Wildlife of Star Wars : A Field Guide, by Terryl Whitlatch and Bob Carrau. This book is chock-full of new artwork depicting Star Wars creatures of all types, one being the krayt dragon of Tatooine. The Field Guide version is a little different from the original created for Star Wars Galaxies. It's more lizard-like in stance, with it's front section and head hanging much closer to the ground.
The team revisited their version of the krayt dragon and tweaked it to make it a bit more like the one featured in the Field Guide. The krayt still has his fearsome appearance, but now he looks slightly more...sinister.
"One of the great things about Star Wars is that it supports the visions of multiple artists," explains Haden Blackman. "No two artists are going to draw the krayt dragon in exactly the same way."