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Creating content for virtual reality when your aspirations are set high can be a daunting task. In order to move beyond the low-poly small bitmap textured environments that have come to typify video game art for the past couple of decades, the small indie team must focus on mastering a wide number of tools. The principals of this creativity are the same as they are for Triple A titles, but instead of 300 people creating the world we are but two guys.
Since this past summer when Joe and I agreed that we should start collaborating on building something for VR, a lot has changed as the game industry undergoes an amazing evolutionary convulsion. What stands out is the fact that hardware, software, and competition from the indies is at a critical stage of altering the business model and shows no sign of letting up. The convergence of GPU rendering power, high quality mobile display tech (the backbone of the VR headset), procedural and physically based textures, the Steam network and various other platforms for content distribution, along with the myriad advancements in general PC hardware such as inexpensive ram and fast SSD’s that allow us to run Blender, Unreal, Substance Designer, Photoshop, and DayZ all simultaneously are giving the individual an incredible amount of leverage.
With this power and opportunity we are facing steep learning curves every single day. At first we struggled with simply learning how to make seamless textures. Then the long slow arch of learning UV unwrapping showed up like Godzilla to crush our ideas that we would just throw these materials on our meshes. Because we were looking to bring these skills to work with Unreal Development Kit(UDK) we were only focused on low-poly meshes. Neither of us had any game creating experience and so as we understood things, we needed to be super conservative with the geometry and size of materials.
Then Epic started teasing more details regarding the much anticipated Unreal Engine 4 and we started dreaming that it must be around the corner. Maybe we should build things with the idea that we’d migrate our work when Epic finally made the update from UDK to whatever they would end up calling the consumer version of UE4? Just as we are making this transition I learned aboutAllegorithmic’s Substance Designer and their Database of over 700 procedural textures and a new jumble of highly technical stuff was thrown at us. As quickly as we were adapting to this new paradigm of working with textures and materials, Allegorithmic addsPhysically Based Rendering (PBR) to the mix. We’d seen hints of this in one of the UE4 demo’s so this just solidified the fact that this was going to be something important. Sure enough, here comes Marmoset with Toolbag 2.0 and a heavy emphasis on PBR too. Better bone up on what this will bring to the workflow.
If that wasn’t enough, David Green with LilChips continued to offer us updates to his still alpha landscape building software calledTerresculptor so we had to investigate those changes too. An email pops into my mailbox from Allegorithmic inviting us to Los Angeles for a sneak-peek into Substance Painter; we can’t resist. The first version is primitive, too primitive to work with but great to steal a glimpse into what those guys have in mind. Luckily we couldn’t deep dive into Painter yet and instead held our focus on our other tasks while this software matures, but we now know that 3D painting is certainly going to be another tool in helping us achieve the kind of results that were exclusive to the Triple A guys.
By late December we were fully immersed in the process of building high-poly models, learning about retopology, and that auto-unwrapping UV’s was not going to cut it. Displacement maps in our modeling techniques looked appealing and from what we were seeing from Surface Mimic these maps that were being used in Substance Painter performed great in Blender and our sculpting tool of choice; 3D-Coat.
Problem was we were not making a lot of progress building out our world, all we were doing was learning; all the time. With the New Year came a date on the calendar I needed to tend to; Steam Dev Days hosted by Valve. With a large portion of the Seattle based conference focused on VR, I thought it might be worth the expense to learn more about this platform we are so fascinated in developing for. As I wrote in a previous article, Gabe Newell made it possible for me to get a peak into their VR headset where instantly I knew that not only were we on the right path, this is going to be more epic than I imagined back when I first put on theOculus Rift Dev Kit 1.
From Palmer Luckey, Joe Ludwig, Michael Abrash, and the rest of the people who were talking about VR during those days in the Pacific Northwest, it was made abundantly clear that large scale environments weren’t ready for prime time yet. I didn’t want to acknowledge this because my hope was Nvidia would rectify poor frame rates with their new Maxwell line of GPU’s, but slowly I’ve given in to the idea that we would have to shelve part of our world for a time and find a different focus. Luckily we found a compromise that would temporarily push our earlier efforts to the side while we focus on a “corner” that will allow for a tighter focus on the intimate instead of the massive.
Riding on the elation of what I’d seen in Seattle and how far Joe and I had already come, I thought it was time to write an email – to Epic. Within 24 hours of that missive I learned that we would be on the next cycle when new devs are brought on. I don’t think I could have been anymore dumbfounded as I was at that moment. In about a week we were both downloading our own personalized (for security purposes?) version of UE4 (not it’s code name but I’m not authorized to speak ‘its’ name :).
Shiny-toy-itis comes on like a fever, Joe disappears into deciphering just what it is we are wrestling with in UE4 while I continue to try to understand the disparate pieces of what we are assembling and nudge our original plans.
It has now been a couple of weeks since our heads were spun around their axis and things are starting to normalize, if that is really possible. We are again making progress in the creative department, but weaving all of this together is a gargantuan task. In three weeks we’ll leave for San Francisco to make our first visit to GDC (the Game Developers Conference) where we will likely once again be overwhelmed by the rapid evolution that is occurring in this industry. None of this is a complaint, on the contrary, we are too astonished right now to see any of this work as a burden. We stand humbled by the gravity of what is coming and are excited to see what is to be shared in the near future.
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