Notes on GameDev: Dane Olds
art interview character art
September 24, 2008
Ready for a Retro-Future with customizable characters and a wide range of new creative "homemade weapons" to blast away your nuclear waste enemies? The time is almost here! But until then, there's a range of concept art and sneak peek screenshots. In this interview we feature character artist Dane Olds, who is responsible for weapons as a character artist for Bethesda's much anticipated Fallout 3.
Fallout 3 has some very interesting customizable features that I'm sure gamers are very eager to jump into and a lot of it has to do with character art, which you're partly responsible for. Can you start off telling us a bit about how you became a character artist?
From the time I was a kid I knew I wanted to work on games. I spent a lot of time drawing my own game characters and levels. Videogames were always a source of artistic inspiration for me as a child. In high school, I started to gear myself toward getting a job in the industry. I read a lot of gaming magazines and learned as much as I could about the different jobs in the Industry. I took all the art classes I could and played a lot of games.
My first year of college was at Ivy Tech. It was a community college that had a small graphics program. There I familiarized myself with 3d Studio Max and Photoshop and started to get a real feel for computer art.
I transferred to the Savannah College of Art and design my second year of College. I enrolled in their Game Development and Interactivity program. I learned a lot about creating art specifically for games and met a lot of awesome like-minded students. My senior year a group of my friends at school set out to make a mod project for Half-Life 2 called Forever Bound. It had a Horror-Western theme and it was outside the artistic realm of what we were usually doing. We had a blast working on it even though it was an extremely short ten weeks of development time. That experience was instrumental to our transformation from students to developers.
When I graduated from SCAD I applied at as many game companies as I could and landed an internship here with Bethesda. I’ve now been with the company for over two years.
Forever Bound sounds like a game I'd want to play! Moving from your student experience to industry, where do you fit in the pipeline process at Bethesda?
I’m a character artist here at Bethesda and work primarily on weapons for Fallout 3. This often means different things. Sometimes my job is to take a piece of concept art and turn that into a game asset from scratch. Other times it involves taking a piece of outsourced art and making sure that it meets the same visual standard as the other weapons in the game. This often involves remodeling areas of a weapon, correcting for perspective, retexturing, even adding new geometry and normal maps. Each weapon presents a unique set of challenges and maintaining a visual consistency throughout all of Fallout 3’s widely varied arsenal has been an awesomely rewarding artistic challenge.
I treat each weapon just like it is an individual character in the game world. An interesting weapon has to have its own personality. At a glance the weapon should say something about its function and its role in the world. A weapon’s proportion, weight, and wear all have to be carefully considered. The worn down Hunting Rifle you find at the beginning of the game looks wildly different than a Laser Rifle you find later in the game. The Hunting Rifle is weathered and worn from its years of use in the wasteland. One look at its duct-taped Stock and rusty barrel and you know that it has seen a lot of hard use in the harshest of environments. Conversely, the sleek lines and shiny exterior of the Laser Rifle show its development in a laboratory somewhere. These two weapons share a common thread though, in their age and weathering. You can tell that they’ve both seen better days but the wear is appropriate to the individual.
The fact that our game is played from a first-person perspective as well as a third person perspective also provide a unique set of challenges from the design, right down to the creation and implementation. Every weapon has to look good when you’re running around the wasteland, staring down the barrel at a raider, or blowing enemies to bits in VATS.
That sounds like a lot to look forward to though. What was the inspiration for character art in Fallout 3?
A lot of the inspiration for the character art in Fallout 3 came from the original games. We drew heavily from those Retro-Future roots and you’ll see that throughout the character art in the game. With the weapons we always referenced the old art from Fallout. Sometimes the weapons are very close to the originals, other times they’ve been overhauled to fit specifically to the game we’ve created. A good example of this would be the Flamer. It’s functional, and is inspired by the real flame throwers used in World-War II. We take the real military designs, and then see where we can make them more interesting, what we can embellish on, and what we might need to remove. When the modeling and texturing is done we have to have something that is visually interesting and functional. Another great example is the ever-popular Power Fist. The original Power Fist was kind of an electric gauntlet. The new one has a pneumatic piston mounted on a thick steel framework that looks like an engine block. This weapon visually feels like it packs a punch, and it certainly does in the game.
Retro-Future is such a rarely used genre compared to the range of fantasy and space science fiction out there in games. With this uniqueness in mind, can you explain for us an even more unique feature of Fallout 3--the way customizing your character works?
Customizing your character in Fallout 3 works similarly to the way it did in Oblivion. When you are born in the game a “gene-projector” is used to see how you are going to look when you are an adult. This is where you tweak the myriad of choices about how you are going to look. Your complexion right down to your hairstyle is all determined here. An approximation of that data is then used to generate the way you look as a child as well as the look of your father.
Cool! What's it like creating a range of customizable character content?
Creating the range of customizable character content in the game has been uniquely challenging but very rewarding. A lot of the weapons I made for the game are ones that you create yourself in the game. The art assets themselves had to consist of items that you’d find in the game world and then assemble to form a weapon. Our concept artist did a great job figuring out the look of these cobbled together weapons which made my life a lot easier when it came time to create them for the game.
What has been the biggest challenge on Fallout 3 so far?
For me the biggest challenge while working on fallout has been the sheer volume of assets that needed to be created. Every mine, grenade, gun, and melee weapon needed its own art and the attention to detail and care given to the object had to be consistent throughout. Working through this challenge has been a great experience for me in refining my workflow. Not to mention it’s super rewarding to see all the things I’ve worked on in the game.
Aww yeah I bet. Speaking of which, what are you most proud of on Fallout 3 so far?
I’m really proud of the game as a whole. I’ve put countless hours into it already and there’s always something fun to do and a new place to explore. It’s the combined effort of the whole team that has gelled to form a game that is a blast to experience.
Personally I have a couple of favorite individual weapons I created which I probably like the most. The Power Fist really was a challenge to create. It had to act like a piece of armor that could be worn like a glove. The fingers had to articulate and the pneumatic piston had to function the way the player would expect. Creating a model that could actually animate believably and would still look cool was a pretty daunting task. I think the results speak for themselves though, a lot of people think it looks really cool and in game it really is a blast to use.
The other weapon I really like is the Flamer. I’m just happy with the way it turned out in the game. It looks great, fits right in the world and is a lot of fun to take to the battle field.
And for all those readers out there checking this out and daydreaming about your job... Any advice for artists who want to make a career out of character art in games?
Any aspiring game artist really needs to concentrate on their foundations first and foremost. If you don’t understand the fundamentals of drawing and sculpture you aren’t going to be a successful 3d modeler. Observation is key and being able to recreate what you observe in 2d is just as fundamental as being able to do the same thing in 3d.
Become extremely familiar with what it is you want to do. If you want to model pick up a 3d package and spend time in it every day. Join a forum and communicate with other 3d artist. Learn as much as you can and practice as often as you can. Be passionate about what you do and your work will speak for its self.
Play a lot of games! A good director watches a lot of movies and a good writer reads a lot of books. The same is true for game developers. The tricks and techniques you can glean from other game artist just by experiencing their work in my opinion are extremely valuable. When you play the game you are experiencing the intent of their art and the context for which it was created. This speaks volumes that a simple analysis of a model or texture cannot.