Step 4 of Game Development: Production
Now that all of the creative ideas have been thoroughly planned out, the production phase is just working the plan. Ideally, this phase is relatively easy since the project manager picks the best people to implement each part of the game, based on what their strengths are. The programming side includes which developers should be assigned to creating the base infrastructure, UI implementation, and FX. The art side includes which artists will do the modeling, rigging/skinning, animation, characters, and environment assets.
The length of time of this phase relies entirely on the game. Each art asset going into the final game is a task. For example, if you increase the number of playable characters then the team will need to increase one of two things: time to complete the tasks or artists to create them. The business pyramid comes to mind - everyone wants speed, quality, and low cost, but you’re only ever allowed to have two of those things. A high quality product can be created quickly, but it won’t be cheap. A cheap product can be created quickly, but it won’t be high quality. Managing a game project is always going to be a juggling act between time, resources, and budget.
During this phase, the team will have small meetings on a daily or every-other-day basis. However what has been most important for our team is the weekly meetings every Monday morning where sprint goals will be set for what should be fully implemented into the game by the end of the week.
Going back to production, it’s important to not lump all concept artists into the same group. Just because someone is amazing at digitally painting characters doesn’t mean they’ll work well when tasked with painting environments. A good project manager knows the differences between subsets of talent. Let’s look at a 3D modeler and a 3D artist. A good 3D modeler can create high quality 3D models with a high degree of fidelity to an established piece of concept art, but usually struggle with creating their own concepts to work from. A 3D artist is just as comfortable modeling someone else’s concepts as his or her own. Character artists are usually a completely different breed than environment artists, and employ very different workflows in order to create their assets. Environment artists don’t need to know as much about rigging, skinning, and animating characters, but they need to know a lot more tricks when it comes to laying out UVs efficiently and creating compound textures for environment assets. Programmers also have a good range of expertise. Some are better at back-end, bigger picture stuff, whereas others are better at writing tools for the art team, or setting up the UI system of the game.
The three core groups of talent for any game are design, art, and programming. Design shines during pre-production. It sets the stage for the other two core groups to go about creating the actual game by implementing the ideas that came from the design team. Some individual tasks for the art side are 1) concept artists/digital painters 2) character artists 3) environment artists. When a model is built, it is one solid color. In order to apply a texture to the model, you have to tell the computer how each face of the model is laid out in 2D coordinates. This is called “unwrapping” or “laying out UVs.” After the UVs are laid out, artists then paint the textures. It’s now standard operating procedure for studios to have artists dedicated to sculpting high-polycount digital sculptures for every asset in the game. Once a model is sculpted, you use a process to render out the normal map for your model and apply it to the low-poly (lower resolution) version. Characters need to be rigged and skinned. A “rig” is a custom bone-rig skeletal structure for the 3D character models in order to allow them to move. You don’t animate the mesh, you bind the mesh to bones, and animate the bones. “Skinning” is when you assign weights of influence to each of the model’s vertices that affect the individual vertex. Animators are the ones who give life to the characters. Animation is a big job, since anyone can make something “move,” but it takes years of practice to develop the skills to make a character “act.”
Some challenges and triumphs of this stage were related to the flight ability. Since we decided to try out the 2.5D painted background style for our game, one challenge we immediately ran into was finding that any scene where we will be allowing players to use their flight ability will need special case camera work. Painted 2D images attached to 3D planes in true 3D space works really well for the 3D parallaxing effect, but as soon as you start moving the camera up, it instantly destroys the illusion. We’ve decided players may fly at any point in the game, but the camera won’t follow them unless it’s a pre-determined area where we’ve hidden a collectible or secret passage.