In Inside Gaming, we invite Sketchfab game developers to talk about their work. We asked Mihai Dobrin to talk about his transition from artist to team player and what he learned at his time at Rift.
I graduated from an acknowledged art school, which at the time made me quite popular at family gatherings. My father expected I’d end up marrying a model and make photoshoots for ice-cream commercials during the summer, my mother was finally at ease with my long hair and gloom attitude, and deep in her heart I think she saw me as one of the Parisian avant-garde painters who would reinvent art, while my little sister was totally excited and was pestering me about introducing her to what she called ”the artistic community”.
It didn’t take me long to question the feasibility of my plans (and theirs). Not that I don’t appreciate fine arts, but I didn’t quite fancy being an artist who starves to death only to get recognition afterwards (besides I didn’t really believe that would be the destiny of every starving artist living in a Parisian-like garret).
Stop thinking in ”I” terms
When you first enter the gaming industry, there’s the problem of signature. You have to be able to give up signing an entire work of art with your name and yours alone and make peace with the fact that you will be part of a credits list. For me, the choice was obvious. I’m more of an introvert and never appreciated being the center of attention as much as my colleagues would, so praise is often wasted on me. I was more than ready to be part of a team.
Second, there’s the idea of an industry. You have to be aware that at this point, games are as much of an industry as they are an art, if not more so. Industry translates into a work quota, deadlines and a few simple rules that would probably apply in a factory too, but not always in an art studio, where the artist patiently awaits for his muse. This didn’t bother me either and I got to internalize a schedule quite early and made it into an advantage. I suppose that if you can’t do that, it turns you into a liability for any respectable 3D graphics company out there.
Lastly, you learn to let go pretty fast or you end up frustrated. Sometimes, especially in the beginnings, you only get to make the clothes for a certain character. Other times you adjust armors or put different expressions on the face of your characters. But after you get into it and learn the trait, the lead characters start rolling in. You just need to be patient and dedicated, and you need to invest in your training.
I started working at the amazing company AMC Pixel Factory and I suppose that is where I grew up. They had a contract for the game Rift, which is quite an awesome fantasy MMORPG.
Now, working for a MMORPG means many things – flamboyant effects, monsters that can kill your character in the most creative ways and plenty of creativity to go with the costumes and biography of the characters. In terms of 3D graphics, MMORPG also means that you have to cram as much graphics as you can on a small canvas. It was the first restriction that struck me and to this day I still believe that is the best way to learn a trait. We all know about creative restrictions, but you only get to value them when you look back at your work.
Tips and Tricks
For a while I was the blacksmith of the company – the armors that came out of my forgery stood up to the challenge. I’d go crazy with the high-poly (isn’t that the fun part of our work?) and made some clean low-poly – no separate objects, and water-tight models. If you’re just starting now, think of low-poly as a cup – if you put water inside your model, it shouldn’t leak out from anywhere.
Sometimes the native tools in Maya, 3DSM and Blender are all you have and you need to tweak the programs and use whatever they got, other times you find gems of programs that are modified to do the work for you, but improvising is key. I always appreciated programs like TopoGun (great tool for retopology and really fast baking), LCReproject shader (cg shared used to create highlights in the diffuse map) and Xnormal Photoshop plugins. This leads me to textures.
When it comes to textures, something called “knowing your character” comes into play. You need to know how your character got a certain scratch, how he or she stands on a chair, what their daily activities are and how they got their grime and mess all over their clothes and skin. Just tossing dirt onto the armor doesn’t cut it. The gamers are way smarter than that.
Next step is optimizing. Unlike with other games, you can’t count entirely on the game engine, not because it couldn’t handle the work, but because the game has to run on all sorts of platforms and your character has to look at their best when the user modifies settings or picks the basic shader, so many of the info has to be transferred on the diffuse map.
We had a firm restriction when it came to the number of maps – only one specular map, no specular power or gloss, so you had to improvise adding different types of noise on the specular. For example, with metals – although the specular has to be high, meaning white, you have to use contrast to your advantage and simulate the effect of high specular power. I was speaking earlier of LCReproject, that does half of the work for you when it comes to fake specs. There are many programs out there that make good side-kicks, so don’t limit yourself to whatever your main 3D graphics program has to offer (whether it’s Maya, 3DS Max, Blender – don’t underestimate this one, Zbrush or whatever your weapon of choice is).
Three years ago I decided to live that artist lifestyle that was envisioned for me when I first started as an artist – the Parisian mansard and bohemian lifestyle. I moved to another town, got a few cats and a bike and migrated towards the equivalent of bohemian in 3D graphics, which is…freelancing.
I was nervous and knew that first things came first – taking my work out there was the first step and I had to make a signature for myself, people had to link me to a work style. That’s where Sketchfab comes into play. It was nice to exhibit my work in 3D, which gave my customers the needed confidence in what I have to offer. When you draw the line, you want to show your work the way it was intended, in 3D, not via a reductive printscreen.
Luckily, the working schedule didn’t change much and my muse is still on the clock 5 days a week.
At this point, collaborating with the studios, we use screenshots for feedback. I hope that in the future we’ll be able to use online platforms like Sketchfab for working together, especially since the implementation of PBR.
– Mihai Dobrin