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According to Gamasutra News (This article and its images were originally posted on Gamasutra News June 26, 2018 at 03:00PM.)
The Gamasutra Deep Dives are an ongoing series that aim to shed light on how specific design, art, or technical features within a video game come to be, in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren’t really that simple at all.
Check out earlier installments, including creating drama through a multitude of simple tasks in Bomber Crew, or maintaining player tension levels in Nex Machina, and achieving seamless branching in Watch Dogs 2’s Invasion of Privacy missions.
Who: Thomas Vasseur, artist at Motion Twin
“Big dreams yet limited means” could be the motto of pretty much all indie teams out there. It certainly was mine when I began work on our first steam game, Dead Cells, here at Motion Twin.
My name is Thomas Vasseur and for one year, I was the only artist on Dead Cells, designing and animating every aspect of the game. I was in charge of the Art Direction, characters, monsters, animations, special effects (FX) and most of the background of Dead Cells all on my lonesome… Until, fortunately, my evil twin Gwenael Massé came to help, factually doubling the number of artists on Dead Cells.
However, since being understaffed is a common reality in our sector, I think you might be interested in learning how I managed to stay sane during my time alone in the trenches. Assuming I’m still alive and all of this is not just an illusion.
What: A 3D workflow to design qualitative animations and new models – fast
I began by drawing a very basic 2D pixelart model sheet, which I use as a base creating the character and its skeleton in 3D (with 3DS Max), then I export it in filmbox format. The 3D modeling is very basic and would probably make the eyes of any credible 3D artist bleed.
But when the ingame height of the character will only be 50 pixels, well, spending lots and lots of time and energy on the 3D model seems quite cost inefficient.
A little homebrew program, developed for this very specific task, then renders the mesh in a very small size and without antialiasing, giving us that pixelated look.
Now, it’s time to make the model move. Dead Cells’ animations are designed, like 2D animations, on key frames. Once, and only once, the animation is convincing and correctly timed with the least amount of frames possible, I add interpolation frames before or after the key frames. Never in-between. Therefore, our attacking animations are essentially pose-to-pose animations, and we utilize VFX to give a sense of movement, impact and strength.
At this point, most of the work is done. We export each frame of the animation we made with the 3D skeleton to a .png, along with its normal map, allowing us to render the volume using a basic toon shader.
Exporting the whole as a sequence of frames also allows us to slip in a blend mode or two for an added wow effect.
Of course, these damn gameplay programmers can never get anything right the first time… They are always changing their minds. Which they actually should, really. In this case, my process for handling retakes is fairly simple demanding very little time. If the timings are the issue, moving the keyframes in the timeline will do the trick. Changing the pose isn’t really a problem either.
Let’s say this weapon is way overpowered, and we choose to slow down the attack animation to nerf it a bit.
Just moving the key frames and adjusting the pose to the new timing allows me to make my gameplay programmer happy (and me too, because I don’t have to throw my work – and eventually myself – out the window).
Actually, both of these retakes combined took me less time than uploading these GIFs, but that may also be because I’m a very inefficient Gif maker.
This 3D workflow also offers two other major advantages compared to a more traditional 2D process. Firstly, if I want to add some elements to an old model, for instance, a piece of armor, it’s easy as pie. I just have to attach the asset to the 3D model.
But the real benefit of 3D modeling is the ability to reuse old assets, designed for previous sprites, when creating new characters (in our case, mostly monsters).
This is probably the single most useful little trick in our workflow, sparing me hundred of hours of work, so I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.
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