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Raw Crude: Twists And Turns In The Concept Pipeline
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Raw Crude: Twists And Turns In The Concept Pipeline

March 4, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

Pipe Dreams

Unfortunately, the progress we were making wasn't as solid as it seemed. Events would soon show that for every problem that was sidestepped in this phase, another two still lurked behind it.

The feeling that all those problems could be spotted and solved in the concept phase was doubly dangerous. Not only did it turn the concept drawings into something more like a mechanical drafting exercise, it also created a false sense of security. Having avoided (it was felt) so many pitfalls in advance, it must surely be safe to start driving for the final layer of polish.

With a fat folder of pretty pictures in place, it was time to turn the vision into reality. Since one of the HiveHound's jobs was to star in a prototype vertical slice, he had to be a fully "next-gen" character with all the normal-mapped goodness, high poly counts, and crazy shader effects you need to impress a potential publisher.

This meant that it was necessary to create the scaffolding that would hold up this mighty next-gen edifice as well as the art itself. A mini pipeline for assembling a complex, multimillion poly version of the creature had to be put in place as part of the test, and also a shader system that could handle the glowing-acidy-lava-tube thingies that were a key part of the design.

Some of this was unavoidable investment. Unfortunately, the need to proof the pipelines translated into even more pressure to treat the design as finished. The zillion-poly version had to be built because the zillion-poly pipeline needed to be tested. The fancy shaders needed to be tweaked because the shader engine needed to be put through its paces.

The unhappy result was that the HiveHound reached the animation and rigging stage as a completely modeled and shaded mesh with weeks of work sunk into the high-resolution model, shaders, UVs, and texture work. It looked great, but serious problems were about to pounce on us.


In a traditional concept pipeline, the evolution of the character is over by the time the design is handed off to the modelers. In reality this isn't the end of the design phase -- it's the beginning of the most important and difficult stage in a character's evolution.

A character is not just a drawing, or a model of a drawing. It's a living entity. Behavior is just as important as graphic identity for selling the character. Imagine combining the body of Shaquille O'Neal with the moves of Richard Simmons. You'd get -- let's just say, a very different character than either a standard NBA player or a standard exercise guru. All too often we treat the design of a character's behaviors as an afterthought, as a detail to be dealt with only after the "real" work of finding the character's look is done.

Figure 3: From concept to fancy next gen model. Unfortunately, the design was flawed -- the character's rear legs didn't allow enough freedom to run and gallop.

This doesn't help the artistic integrity of our characters, and it's a big risk in production terms. The case of the HiveHound illustrates both risks all too well. When the beautifully shaded and rendered character (see Figure 3) was prepped for animation, we discovered a critical flaw that had gone completely undetected through all of the concept iterations that came before it: He couldn't move right.

His proportions were loosely modeled on those of a wolf or hunting dog, but his leg arrangements had been made more angular and simpler to reinforce the insect side of his personality. Without the compressibility of canine rear legs, his fastest gait was sort of a baboon-like lope instead of the bounding wolfish run he'd been intended for.

An equally damning problem emerged when it came time to prototype the creature's ranged attacks. A lot of energy had been expended on brainstorming how the throwing mechanism would work, right down to detailed sketches of flexible "fingers" that let him flourish his throwing spikes with theatrical menace (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Trying to head off problems by detailed concept work is a good idea. Too bad it only goes so far.

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