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Breakdown of Character Design in Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

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A panel of character artists from the game studio, Naughty Dog, spoke at today's Sony's Playstation Experience discussing the design approach to Nathan Drake, Uncharted 4's digital protagonist. The 3D team talked about how they achieved a cinematic realism with Drake's physical appearance. The entire discussion (below) was over an hour long, so I've provided a quick breakdown of some of the highlights following it. I've provided a time code for each section if you want to watch them in full.

Character Concept (2:40)

Drake is an already well-recognized character, so his concept art was not geared to designing a brand new character. In addressing Drake's costume design, concept artist, Ashley Swidowski, made some important points that all narrative game designers should keep in mind:
  • Costume design should be subtle and appropriate rather than over-done and distracting. The reason for this is because obtrusive costumes can distract from the story line."The costume designer doesn't want you to focus on the clothing. It's not important, and if you are focused on it, it's bad costume design," she states.
  • Designing for a contemporary character is often harder than for a period film or game setting. The reason: audiences are much more forgiving towards period costumes because they are already foreign to our contemporary experience. We don't know exactly what they are supposed to look like, so we are more prone to accept what's presented. There is obviously a limit to this.
  • Drake's accessory design was made simple so as not to distract from the head model, acting performance, or mood of the scene. Below are some iterations of Drake's holster and accessory bag. Swidowski notes that the holster on the second model from the left was rather dramatic, however it didn't create the "filmic and cinematic" feel the artists were going for. In short, it was a bit too distracting.
character holsters Here is the final concept design for Drake. You can see that the artists settled on a more subtle holster design and a darker shirt to make it and the bag less prominent.

final character design

Modeling the Concept (8:51)

Character artist Colin Thomas was in charge of modeling Drake's clothing design. Some of the challenges was getting the clothing to fit correctly. Taken into consideration where how pants, shirts, and other items would react, fold, creese, etc. under particular types of stress. This provided clues as to where wrinkles should form and how they should appear realistic. clothing modeling At this point in the production process, Naughty Dog concept artists would normally put a lot of fabric detail into the fabric sculptures. However, on Uncharted 4 the team decided to use shaders instead, which could give them higher res details in the clothing textures, stitching, etc. A lot of consideration had to be given before handing the model off to the rigger. Below is a closeup of Drake's leather holster modeled in Maya. Much of the detail was done with shaders. The modeling department had already determined the size of the textured weave of the shirt, the holster holes, etc. Previously, these textures would have been painted in, but with next gen consoles, a higher level of photorealism was achieved through shaders alone. This also kept models at a low-poly count, and details are maintained even when moving them in-game. closeup holster

Face and Arm Sculpting (15:45)

The exposed parts of Drake (hair, arms, chest, etc) were done by Lead Character, Artist Frank Tzeng. All of the sculpts were done in ZBrush and are show great amounts of detail. Veins, muscle structures, and even pores are visible in the below sculpting shot. arms After skin and hair textures were applied for the in-game shot, the final results were rendered. arms Upgrading Drake's facial features from Uncharted 3 to 4 involved more than just adding more resolution, finer texturing, and shaders. It involved keeping him recognizable as an already established franchise character known by millions of gamers. Therefore, artists couldn't use scans of real humans, which Naughty Dog's team is hesitant to do anyway. Any changes to Drake's facial structure had to be balanced with keeping him familiar. The comparison image below shows some subtle changes to the character nose, which before was squarish and angular at the brow ridge, along with other additions like fine lip lines and refined skin texturing. modeled face Again, the result is a much more realistic depiction of a human that contains the facial elements of a particular character. Notice that the Uncharted 4 Drake's eyes follow the classical drawing technique that places one eye's width of space between the two. This creates a much more realistic look. The old Drake's eyes are much further apart. Nevertheless, both characters look as if they could be brothers or related in some way. face after Adding wrinkles to react during facial changes was next in the pipeline. You can see in this comparison of the original sculpture and the final in-game render, that the wrinkles were maintained even in this relatively normal facial expression. This allows players to see Drake's facial details within the game itself. Visible wrinkles were key to creating a new Drake, who was intended to be a bit older than his prior Uncharted 3 self. comparison

Shading Materials (30:15)

Shading artist, Yibling Jiang explained what shading in a 3D world means and why games need real world shader technology to compete with the reality of films. Calculating renders in real time, as games must do, takes a lot of work. Shaders are basically algorithms that calculate the way light interacts with different surfaces, leaving them with the appearance of having different textures and colors. For example, hard, metallic surfaces reflect and refract light very differently from soft, coarse ones. Jiang demonstrated the difference in appearance that light has on the same textures with a series of images that were taken at different angles to the sun. Real world shaders attempt to use the actual physics of light properties and how it actually interacts with objects. shaders In the example above, you can see that each set of textures appear vastly different depending on which direction you look. This is what shaders have to consider with the various textures they're given by the modelers and sculptures. With next gen gaming systems, shaders and real time rendering is much more possible to achieve. Naughty Dog's shader package allows artists to quickly create a variety of textures by applying a wide variety of shaders. For Drake you can see these shaders in action as surfaces like his eyes are made more realistic by adding touches like reflections and eyelash shadows.
Before After

Rigging Drake (41:42)

Aside from rigging arms, legs, and facial expressions, what was important to Naught Dog’s team was the realistic animation of Drake’s hair and clothing. Lead character technical director, Ryan Trowbridge, explained how they designed Drake’s hair to react to the wind that existed within the game environment. To achieve this, each strand of hair was given its own wind dynamic. Drake’s clothing, such as his shirt, was also given joints that let it react to wind conditions. This level of detail even extended to Drake’s shirt collar and chest hair.

wet hair

Hair and clothing were also designed to change when coming into contact with water. You can see in the image above how Drake’s hair changes, becoming heavier and angling away, during this fight scene as it gets wet. His shirt was also designed to slowly absorb the water, turning it a darker color.

You can also see the recently release gameplay action of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End to get better idea of how these touches of realism translate within the game’s environment.