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Making the Character Art of Dragon Age: Inquisition

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Dragon Age: Inquisition is one of those games that doesn't need an introduction. It is, quite literally, the Game of the Year for 2014. If you read our recent interview with Patrik Karlsson, you got some great insights into what went into the character art. Because every artist works differently, and partially because we just wanted an excuse to learn more about the making of Dragon Age: Inquisition, we dug deeper into BioWare's pool of talented artists and had a chat with another of their Senior Character Artists for Dragon Age: Inquisition, Rion Swanson, to learn how he put created some of Dragon Age's most recognizable characters.

WIP in-game render of Vivienne, one of the characters Rion worked on. Image is © 2014 Electronic Arts Inc.

Q

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us Rion. Can you take a moment to explain what you do at BioWare?

You’re very welcome, and thank you for having me!

I work as a Senior Character Artist at BioWare Edmonton and have been working on Dragon Age: Inquisition for about three years. Summed up, my job is to take a piece of concept art for a character and build it in 3D which includes creating the high resolution sculpt and the in-game model and textures.

Before After

Hover over the image to see a slider you can drag back and forth to view different angles of Rion’s sculpt for Vivienne’s head. Images © 2014 Electronic Arts Inc.

Q

What was a typical day for you during the creation of Dragon Age: Inquisition?

Whereas I’d always go into work to do the same job of creating ‘character art’, the work could vary quite a bit day to day. Typically, a Character Artist at BioWare will work on character models (bodies, armor, heads, hair), creatures, ambient creatures, and even weapons and vehicles depending on the needs of the project. Some artists will do more work on creatures, and some on heads and hair, but this can often depend on their strengths, or balancing out work amongst artists.

On Dragon Age: Inquisition, I worked mostly on Follower character bodies/armor. (A Follower is more of a feature character that will join your party in the game). This could involve anything from working on high-res sculpts, to creating a clean in-game mesh (Rendermesh) including setting up the UV map, baking out normal maps, setting up the model (with all its mesh variants) in the game engine, and applying materials and making sure all the texture maps worked properly and looked to quality standard.

Other tasks involved creating new ‘craft-able’ materials such as metals, cloths, and leathers. These materials are either found or crafted and applied to your character outfit to change the look and stats.

Various other tasks all added up to fill our days. Some of these tasks included: Creating morph-able head mesh shapes for our head system, using our head system to create NPC heads, editing helmet mesh shapes to better fit existing heads, creating tint color variants for NPCs, creating LOD meshes, fix and polish work including work on UVs, meshes, and texture maps.

Rion’s base sculpts of the Vivienne character. Image © 2014 Electronic Arts Inc.

Q

When you sit down to create a character, what’s one of the key things you usually start with and why?

For a typical character in Dragon Age: Inquisition, I’d start with the existing nude body model. The proportions are already set, and the angle of the arms, hands, and legs are already determined. I can immediately start into giving more or less bulk to the character and building armor plates and cloth sections to block everything out.

I’ll try to do this as quick as possible to keep the excitement and enthusiasm high. For me, there’s something very enjoyable and even rewarding during this early stage. Just the viewing from different angles as you’re building out the larger shapes – you’re nailing down the core of the character at this point, so that at a glance, you can get a real sense of what this character or creature is.

Because there are so many different characters in BioWare games, having good nude body models is very important. We have nude bodies for each in-game race (Human, Elf, Dwarf, Qunari) and male and female.

There are cases, though, when we have to build from scratch. This can be challenging but can be even more fun when you get to work on a new creature, for instance, that will have a rig (skeleton) that’s being developed at the same time.

There’s a lot of collaboration between the Character Artist and the Technical Animator, and Animator on this type of task. Anytime you start right from scratch, you will naturally feel more ownership and pride in the model, but in the interest of saving time (and doing what makes sense) we mostly build off of the base models we already have.

Rion’s base sculpt of the Blackwall character. Image © 2014 Electronic Arts Inc.

Q

What are some of the most common modeling tips and tricks you found helpful while working on Dragon Age?

I’ve never felt that I have a bunch of tips and tricks per se; for me what it comes down to is making sure I’m doing a good job at each task in the process – and there are a lot of tasks a Character Artist must be well-versed in. Also, what seems like a basic task for me now may be considered a tip or trick to someone new to character art, but it’s difficult for me to pick those out.

An example that comes to mind though is the Noise Maker tool in ZBrush which came in very handy at one point in particular when I was working on the jacket for Blackwall’s base outfit.

New challenges will present themselves regularly and having the support of your team right there with you helps in such a huge way. Online tutorials and presentations by game developers is always great reference as there’s just so much to continually learn.

Later in the project, we were using Quixel’s DDO for dragon textures and the whole process was amazing in itself. We could very quickly get all sorts of variation that really worked well for us.

Q

Can you talk about your typical pipeline for character creation? What software do you use and what sort of methods do you use to transfer them?

I’ll start with blocking out the character in 3ds Max and as mentioned above. For a human character, I’ll start by working with our existing DA:I nude bodies. Mesh is duplicated, cut up and placed to set up the basic shapes to block out the form.

ZBrush often comes in really helpful here to quickly push and pull shapes and add volume. Any parts that were shaped in ZBrush will then be brought back into 3ds Max to refine further.

I find it’s important to really pause at this point to make sure all the base shapes are working well (according to the concept art) and as a 3D object. I’ll be sure to seek feedback from my team on this and I find it’s a good idea to get the Concept Artists’ eyes on it at this stage too. They’ll often see little things I may have missed, so then I can correct any shape issues early on.

From there I’ll have to plan for how mesh parts will work together or separately as SubTools in ZBrush. If I want to group some meshes I’ll be sure to quickly UV them so that I can do a Group by UVs PolyGroup selection.

I’ll import all the mesh parts, test to make sure they subdivide how I want, and then get started on detailing. The sculpting and detailing stage is typically the most fun, but I find I do have to really plan for how long this stage should take and use my time wisely so that I have enough time for the next stages which are all very important.

Rion’s base sculpt of the Cole character. Image © 2014 Electronic Arts Inc.

Once the sculpt is done and approved, the in-game mesh has to be built. The importance of the proper construction of the Rendermesh can easily be overlooked by artists but it really is so key, and the time needs to be put in to make sure it’s done well.

The basic structure of the Rendermesh usually starts as the lowest subdivision mesh from the ZBrush sculpt.

The Blackwall character rendered in-game. Image © 2014 Electronic Arts Inc.

For example, I’ll export the SubTools from ZBrush back to 3ds Max (ex: Hi_Leg_Level1.obj, Hi_Torso_Level1.obj, etc.).

Once back in 3ds Max, some of the pieces will have to be welded together, and there will be a certain amount of clean-up and re-topologizing necessary, especially in oddly shaped areas, joints, and seam areas where different parts will have to fit together precisely.

UVs will be done next. I will do this in 3ds Max and it’s pretty straight forward. It’s always the issue of trying to be as efficient with space as possible and making sure there’s plenty of pixel density given to face/head/hair, neck and upper chest, and hands. Once the UV map is all set, I’ll bake the normal map using XNormal.

All the texture maps are next, including the diffuse/color map, specular, smoothness, and tint map which we often use to distinguish which areas will be customizable. Sometimes we’ll also need to create special maps such as opacity maps, depending on the needs of the character.

Most of the texture work would be done in Photoshop. Sometimes I would use either Mudbox or ZBrush for painting on the model itself to quickly block in the major color areas. Quixel’s DDO was used at times as well. Basically, we’d use whatever we felt would help us get the job done well and quickly when creating textures.

The model was passed along to a Technical Animator to get the skinning work done, and this could happen anywhere from the time the Rendermesh modeling and UVs were finalized until the model was fully textured.

Once the skinned model was exported into the game, we’d make sure the materials were setup and applied correctly. The textures were all finalized and polished as necessary, and this could take a bit of back and forth to make sure they were working well with level lighting.

 

Q

What are some of the ways you make sure your characters fit within the established Dragon Age universe?

The Vivienne character rendered in-game. Image © 2014 Electronic Arts Inc.

The look of everything in the game, including all the characters, is considered in many different stages. It’s first considered at the concept stage with the concept artists and Art Director. Visual targets are set from the beginning and will be refined further as the process continues down the line.

Through the entire 3D model building stage, there’s a lot of back and forth consultation between Character Artists and Concept Artists, as well as Art Directors and other heads of art. Early “gold standards” for character art are approved so we’re all clear as to the look we’re going for.

We had at least one full character (and even a few characters I believe), including head, hair, body/armor that was set as a gold standard which all the Character Artists could refer to. Animation and other groups also set visual targets in order to align with the set look of characters in DA:I.

Q

How much collaboration do you do with the other Character Artists there at BioWare?

There’s quite a lot of collaboration with other Character Artists, and I’m glad about that because it’s really a great thing. It’s easy to get buried down into your own world just enjoying the process while building a character model. You can easily get in a zone.

But there are many times where you’ll have a lot of discussion with the Concept Artists and Tech Animators for improvements and corrections, and there’s always a lot of casual discussion as well as regular proper critiques with the other Character Artists.

This discussion is an ongoing thing throughout the project and it is pretty enjoyable because the guys and gals I have the pleasure of working with are awesome people. This is where having the ability to communicate well and the ability to give constructive feedback (in other words, with reasons for why) really matters.

I find that when people are able to succeed in good delivery, it helps artists to not take things personally and focus on the work or critique of the work at hand.

Bitpack progressions for the Vivienne character. Image © 2014 Electronic Arts Inc.

Q

What was one of your biggest challenges you came across on Dragon Age?

Planning for what we call ‘bitpack’ variations was a challenge. In order to give players lots of choice in character customization, we created a number of armor and clothing variations for each Follower character (as well as your Player character, of course).

We made base clothing outfits, which are the clothes you start the game in and are relatively simple in design. Then as you progress through the game you can find or craft armor upgrades to your existing outfit.

These armor upgrades are the ‘bitpacks’.

So we’d build a set of armor that would fit on top of a base outfit. While in-game you’ll find or craft some new armor, but first you’ll get just a part of it, then you’ll gain more until you have the full set. So the planning for this required some work as you might imagine.

It started at the early concept phase, but making sure the different bitpacks fit with all the bases and could be interchangeable within all that character’s various mesh parts had its own challenges from a modeling perspective. It took a lot of planning and work, but in the end it gives the player tons of options so I think it was worth it.

The Sera character rendered in-game. Images © 2014 Electronic Arts Inc.

Q

What was your favorite part about working on Dragon Age?

I was very happy to have been able to build in-full or in-part some of the amazing characters in Dragon Age: Inquisition. That has always been one of my favorite things about my job, ever since I started on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic — being able to play a part in bringing these characters to life.

Initially getting excited about the concept art, then putting in the work to build and paint the character, and then watching it come to life with animation, voice, magic FX, etc.

I also had a really good team to work with as I mentioned before, so I’m extremely happy for that. That makes a big difference on a day-to-day basis.

Q

What are some of the ways you get inspired?

The most direct way is to simply turn around in my chair or get up from my desk and walk a few feet and talk with the other artists I work with.

Just taking a look at what others are working on, and getting an even more in-depth look at the work at our regular character art meetings helps keep everyone in the know of what ‘character art’ is working on and tends to be pretty inspiring. Sometimes I’ll see what they’re working on in their spare time and that can be really exciting too!

Browsing through our own concept art folders (for DA:I or other projects) always boggles my mind! There is so much incredible work — characters, creatures, environments, weapons, props — all drawn and painted up beautifully. It’s a little piece of art heaven! I’d browse through there more often but once you get in there, it’s hard to pull yourself away from it.

Another way I’ll get inspired is by quickly browsing artists’ images on web pages like Art Station or artists’ personal sites, video interviews with artists, sculpting tutorials, watching movies or TV series such as Game of Thrones.

The Vivienne character rendered in-game. Image © 2014 Electronic Arts Inc.

Q

Thank you again for your time! Can you give us any final advice to aspiring character artists out there who want to break into the game industry?

What you want to do is increase your value as an employee or potential employee. Expand and broaden your skillset where you can, for example: Learn character modeling and texturing, but also learn some basic skinning and rigging. But absolutely do focus on an area and really go deep with that too; get really good at one thing such as modeling hard surface or organic forms.

Another important thing is to avoid getting too comfortable. At the beginning, everything is new (software programs, techniques, people, etc.) but it’s up to you to keep pushing yourself; you are responsible for your own growth.

Get in the habit of trying new programs when you can. As time goes by and you get more able and develop some skill, this is when the comfort of it all can start creeping up on you without you even realizing it’s a problem.

Basically it’s like learning a new language where the best situation is when you immerse yourself. So jump in with both feet and keep practicing regularly.