[Game] Blood, Sweat, Gold -- modular character system

This will be the artist devlog for a turn-based action strategy PC game scheduled to launch early access around September/November 2018. 

The game has been in development for more than a year by a sole programmer/developer and is in a fully playable state (some bugs crawling around, of course), but it lacks 3d assets that 1. look current gen, and 2. are optimized. 

The most important thing in this game is characters, as the primary focus for the player is to recruit characters, train them, and keep them alive (perma-death) long enough to build an experienced mercenary fighting force. However, each players experience will be unique, as both the strategy map and characters are procedural generated. So then, the mission is to strike a balance between creating good looking characters that don't seem like cookie cutter pieces, but also get enough unique characters with variations finished and polished to an acceptable degree by launch. Right now the plan is one outfit with texture variations, along with one unique face variation per week.

The player will be able to choose their characters face/body type, hair/beard, and swap head armor and outfits. To meet these demands, I've developed a system based on some archived threads from this site, although being new to 3d art, a good deal of trial and error prototyping has been necessary to work out all the kinks and develop a solid plan. So, after three weeks of prototyping, now I am beginning to build the first characters, and since a modular character system is both a complex undertaking and also something that is no doubt very interesting to indie/hobby dev's, I will record lessons learned and techincal notes here, as well as post the characters. 

Critiques are of course welcome, but keep in mind I am working in turbo-mode here, and so the most useful critiques are generalized ones that I can apply to future models, or put away until after the essential production is done and it's polishing time. 

Notes about the art style : 
1. Realistic
2. 10-11th century (chainmail is the highest form of armor)
3. Emphasis on the desperation of the peasant class involved in the game.
4. Three distinct body types (though all rigged to same skeleton) - "Soft" man, "Hard" man, "Great" man. AKA peasants, experienced fighters, huge motherfuckers.

First prototype character

First prototype outfit, beard, hat

texture variation

second prototype outfit

texture variation

With problems of rigging and in-engine performance and operation figured out, I started the first of three base characters last week. Here is the textured game model:


    Notes about a modular workflow: 

    Seen here is two minor variations on the same texture. As I work on texturing each character, I keep very meticulous layers inside Substance Painter, and I separate channels completely. For instance, the redness in the second image is a separate layer sitting on top of the splotchy yellow layer in the first image, and that splotchy yellow layer sits over yet another layer. Added altogether you get one look, while subtracting any gives another. If I do combine colors and, say, roughness in one layer, I make sure to annotate that for easy understanding down the road. Most the time for fill layers though I only work with one channel type at a time, so that if I change my mind I can make easier workarounds that way.

    I make sure to save these Substance Painter projects out into a neat hierarchy so that I can easily come back at a later date to build more variations without having to redo any work. How to organize and set up the hierarchies is the hard part, and I really didn't know how to do it until we got well into prototyping enough to figure out precisely how we needed to name and organize for the in-engine scripts to to work and also to meet the games design criteria. This would seem like something you'd have to sit around thinking about, but it's really too complex and confusing if you haven't done it before. You just have to get started, then the answers start to appear. Don't waste time trying to get a complex thing totally straight in your head. Prototype and it starts making sense, piece by piece.

    Eyes, teeth are 256 material. Bodies/outfits are 2k. If from the top-down perspective the 2k level of detail is lost, we will LOD to 1k materials -- or of course if there is performance issues. Hair and beards will belong to 2k atlases, and will consist of meshes for volume with just enough haircards for a fuzzy silhouette from typical game camera distance.
    The peasant base model. Wanted to do a lot more wrinkles, but that will have to wait for more time later. 
     I have little experience with rigging, and these are really good animations so my lousy rigging really shows, but nonetheless I have made some improvements over the course of several characters. I'm hoping to have a week or two at some point to just scour over the animations and polish the rigging as much as I can.

    The Legend. 

    For rigging purposes, right now this guy is the same size as the others, but in game the plan is to upscale him just enough to make him very distinguishable on the field. 

    Any MMA fans can probably tell who was my main reference. I chose Fedor because he does not look like a modern weight lifter, but has a very imposing, bear-like presence. The kind of guy with a lot of natural power, even if living in less than ideal conditions. 

    I found a way to get the body hair done very quickly using some of Substances fur generator materials and a few layers with mask. Pretty simple, but probably not obvious to raw beginners who might be more inclined to do everything by hand. Of course, going the slow way gives more custom and higher quality results, but the goal for this project, right now, is to meet a certain quantity, and thus I can't spend two weeks on each character. In total, the texturing took me about 2 hours, which I think is pretty fast! The key is that I basically have a system now, and I just plug in new colors, textures, and make little tweaks. Also, I hold onto the Substance projects, so I can come back later and do something like turn off the body hair, or intensify some of the color noise layers to give a more weather-beaten look, or make him look sweaty, or dirty, etc. All very fast to do as long as you have the layers organized, named appropriately, and you don't cram too many things into a single layer that you wouldn't remember later.

    Next will be a few of low-tier outfits. Peasant garb, bandit rags, stuff like that.

    Peasant outfit. Next up, short sleeve tunic, baggy trousers, tall soft leather boots. And hopefully a coif. But will be out of town for 2 weeks. :(

    These were made in MD, which I still kind of suck at. But after some hours playing around I'm able to get the results I wanted. By the end of this project, I think I'll be a pretty good seamstress.

    I shared some workflow advice, but it was actually wrong! I fixed the mistakes that I had made, but I'll wait until the end of this project to do more detailed breakdowns to avoid putting out bad info.
    Big stupid hat. It's just something quick for testing. Let a guy have some fun, ok?

    Getting the modular system to work is a big, complicated task of organization and lots of back and forth between the artist and the programmer. You really have to have strong communication, otherwise you're going to get frustrated with the tiresome back and forth of trying to define a system of organization with painstaking detail, and then design the tools to implement it in engine. 

    Here is what the basic structure looks like. It seems simple enough, but it really depends on a variety of factors, most importantly the game design. Anyway, after I finish this project, I'll do a detailed breakdown and maybe even a step-by-step tutorial to cover all the annoying technicalities when building modular characters. I don't think it would be much use for me to say anything about it right now, as I end up doing a lot of things over -- still learning as I go.

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