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PDZ.com interview with Sam Jones

Original interview transcript from PerfectDarkZero.com.

Sam Jones has been creating imaginary worlds since childhood, and he's never stopped. Now Lead Background Artist at Rare, he's tasked with bringing the world of Joanna Dark to detailed, colorful life. Read our exclusive interview with Sam as he discusses the challenges and triumphs of creating the world of 2020 A.D.

ID Confirmed: Begin Transmission

Operative: Jones, S.
Classification: Lead Background Artist
Team: Rare
Mission: Perfect Dark Zero
Mission Parameters: Joanna Dark
Mission Hot Zone: United Kingdom

The universe of Perfect Dark Zero is rich in both detail and appearance, thanks to the many talented people who have helped construct the characters, stories, objects and places that make up Joanna Dark's world. Rare's Lead Background Artist Sam Jones givesus an insider's view of what it's like to build the world in which the perfect agent plies her deadly trade.

MGS: Can you tell us about your education and background?

Sam Jones: My father, (Geoff Taylor), a Sci-Fi and Sci-Fantasy illustrator, used to encourage me to imagine and draw fantasy worlds, as well as sculpt 3D models. Essentially, I’m still doing this right now. I did one year of school at Chesterfield College, and also studied 3D Computer Animation at UCE Birmingham, where I learned to model and animate characters.

MGS: What were your overall design goals for Perfect Dark Zero, and in what ways did they differ from other games on which you’ve worked?

Sam Jones: I can speak in terms of props and environments. The overall (aesthetic) design goals for these were straightforward, and the end result for everything that appeared in the game needed to display the following qualities:

A) Comprehensibility. It had to be real and recognizable (by anyone) – not completely leftfield in terms of design approach.

B) Vibrant color scheme. The color palette needed to be strong and not subdued or muted (like many other FPS’.)

C) Strong identity. As much as possible, we wanted to make our art assets distinct and have a strong visual presence all of their own – to this end we specifically (over) conceptualized set piece level sections, characters and props, and concentrated on getting the surface detail and reaction to light as cosmetically pleasing as possible.  In a nutshell, we think we achieved a strong identity through strong design and polished execution.

MGS: In a game like this, where the story is set in a fictional future, are there any particular challenges or rewards in the art design process?

Sam Jones: One of the main challenges was trying to maintain equilibrium between realism and our own “Rare-ish” vibrant visual style. While we recognize that we are making an FPS and that the target audience typically expects a certain amount of realism, we also want to maintain our own strong and colorful “manga-esque” style. 

A stereotype of first person shooters is the use of a predominantly brown or grey color palette which we simply found quite dull. It is a tradition at Rare to use a colorful scheme to render our worlds and characters, in order to instill a sense of vivacity and so we seized upon this. We hope that what you will see is a more vivid and, therefore, better looking game.

MGS: The locations in the game are all places that exist today in our world. How did you approach creating the look for the future versions of these locations?

This differed depending on the location – we used myriad reference material.  Amongst others we were influenced by “Ghost in the Shell,” “Star Wars Episode 2,” and “Minority Report.” For the backgrounds we tried to use as much real-life reference as possible from magazines, books, film, photos (which we took ourselves, for textures for example) and elsewhere. The approach was for Will to determine a ‘look’ by conceptualizing key areas of an environment and then we would use this as a basis for collecting suitable reference.

In execution, we emulate Will’s bright color palette and composition, but also capture a realistic and detailed finish to the actual surfaces and lighting. Again, the desired result was to achieve a balance between realism and an overtly vivid presentation.

As far as creating a futuristic finish goes, we specifically ensured that we were not going to go down the mega-futuristic route; there always had to be some grounding in modern day reality to whatever we did so it would be relevant to ourselves and the player. So it is futuristic, but not too far-fetched.

Furthermore, we had to ensure that locations were recognizable as everyday places and so they had to retain as much realism as possible, but they had to be futuristic enough so we could get away from a pure (dull) representation mindset. Some levels are more overtly futuristic than others, so we had more freedom to imagine what aesthetic they should exhibit. This was both fun and challenging.

MGS: What were the major challenges involved in actually implementing your artistic goals within the game? Did you experienced any surprises—for example, did certain as things turn out to be harder or easier than expected?

Sam Jones: The advent of new hardware threw up considerable challenges, questions and opportunities. Suddenly, the goal posts shifted in terms of what was practically achievable, and the mindset behind asset creation had to change along with the introduction of new technology. Certainly, from the offset we wanted to capture a very large amount of detail to convey a sense of context (on say, a character) and on previous iterations of hardware this was much less in the realms of possibility. The architecture of the 360 allowed us to add in the desired amount of detail through the media of normal, bump, detail, and parallax mapping – not to mention sub surface scattering, ambient occlusion and other technical, though useful, methods of rendering. Put simply, we couldn’t get exactly what we wanted before, so we are now much happier that we can realize our original intentions all the more authentically with the advent of a more capable machine and renderer.

Of course, to harness this new technology took a lot of research and the adoption of new skill sets. This was a challenge as much of what we did was new and explorative – we had to abandon many of our tried and trusted techniques in favor of new and relatively unproven ones.  As much of a learning curve as this was, it has kept us fresh and adaptable – as an art team we can go forward confident in our ability to expand our knowledge.

MGS: What's the process for creating a character, and how long does it usually take? How many team members are typically involved? What equipment and software do you use? Do you draw concepts on paper?

Sam Jones: A character’s life begins on the Will’s drawing board. Concepts are made by Mr. Overton and passed onto our character artists. The modelers use sub-divs (subdivision surfaces – a quick and easy way to model in both high and low denominations of detail) to make a 3-D shape based on the concepts. Initially a super high detail ‘Maya grey’ version is made to render off into a normal map to be overlaid back onto a lower detail (but by no means coarse) version that is used in game. Color, detail maps, translucency, etc. are applied to the overall shape to provide character and an authentic surface finish. Ambient occlusion is added to allow the characters to react to light in a complex fashion. Finally, these models and all their accoutrements are added in game, with animation, in the lighting context found in the environments themselves. Feedback is provided from the leads at all stages for quality assurance purposes.

We use Maya (as mentioned), a crossbreed of ATI’s NormalMapper, Deep UV, Z-Brush and Photoshop.

There are usually three members of the team involved in character art production – a concept artist, a head creator, and a body modeler.

All in all this process takes around two weeks per character from conception to completion (give or take a few days depending on status of character).

MGS: What kinds and sizes of textures did you use for the characters and/or their environments? What were the critical challenges in this area?

Sam Jones: Making the characters congruous with the environments was a key challenge.  The challenge is to ensure that the shape, detail, color palette, reaction to light and overall design of the characters is always sympathetic to that of the situation that the character finds itself in.  If there are disparities between the characters and their environs, the player’s belief in a consistent world is destroyed.  We did concentrate on trying to deliver a cohesive world to the player that aesthetically made sense in and off itself.

MGS: What was the most challenging artistic element of the game to design? What went through the most visual changes?

Sam Jones: We have to deal with both design and technical limitations in answering this question; many of our assets went through design and render engine changes but perhaps none more so than the Nightclub level and Joanna herself. 

Due to the nature of the architecture of our engines on previous hardware, we weren’t able to completely realize our initial design ambitions and had to make concessions to what was easily achievable at the time (and what would look best given the constraints).  Hence, in cases we had to downscale our ambition somewhat (always hard!).  Then suddenly, we had more power and were able to go back to what originally intended – this implies change.

More importantly, in both cases, we wanted to get each particular asset looking its absolute best in terms of the original design itself – and we were prepared to tweak and change the original design if we were unhappy with it or simply came up with a better look.

MGS: What element of the final art used in the game makes you feel the most proud?

Sam Jones: I am proudest of the single player Bridge model, which is featured in the single player level Bridge Assault (strangely). The design for this particular slice of polygons was collaborative and, as much as anything else, was driven by a design by function approach. In addition, this model was produced at a later stage of development, and benefited from a design ethic that took in all the latest techniques we had at our disposal. Hence, it has a high level of detail, a strong central design, a particularly fine surface finish and, in addition to this, it catches the light just right. But perhaps most important of all, it was designed to be epic and to simply be a visual spectacle that would wow players when they saw it. 

The fact that you see it as a distant and initially off-limits object first that you can actually go right up to and clamber all over later doesn’t detract from it either…

MGS: What is the best thing about what you do?

Sam Jones: Pretty much every part of the process.  I cannot really pick out specifics but I suppose, for me, the bookends of the process are the most exciting.  When you start something new – it is great fun doing explorative conceptualization and imagining what can be done.  This is an incredibly loose but adventurous part of what we do – but you’re always wondering exactly how what you’ve conceived of initially will look like in the end…

Then, of course, there’s the final polish stage, which is exciting because you see all the disparate elements come together, and you get a true sense of how everything will look in unison (with the exception of tweaking, of course).  Then you can see the fruits of your collective labor all together. This is very rewarding.