Area 5’s Jay Frechette and game producer Erin Ali met a few years ago when they were both working their way through game design programs at different schools (Jay at The Art Institute in San Francisco, Erin at The University for Advancing Technology in Phoenix, AZ). In Splash Damage, the duo discuss their experiences — the positive, the negative, the insightful, and the just plain funny — at game design school.
Jay: Most of my friends back home attended normal universities and pursued normal degrees. I’d get a lot of strange looks when I talked about class projects; they’d have some 20-page research paper due, and I’d be complaining about not having enough time to put the “future cycle” into my Moon Garage scene.
I know both of us had classes where we learned everything from level design to 2D animation, and these courses resulted in a lot of projects. I thought it’d be fun to do a little “Show & Tell” of some of the past pieces that we made. Why don’t you start by showing something and explaining what it was for and how you made it?
Erin: Before I took the production route, the two major projects I made were in character development — concept/writing — and 3D modeling.
When I begun modeling, it was quite a challenge. When I started at UAT, I didn’t even know what HTML was and how to use Photoshop. So imagine starting up something like 3D Studio Max and seeing all of the ways you can create a shape/plane and transform it into recognizable figures.
One of my favorite models that I worked on is Lovestruck Robot. The concept’s by Karen Chu.
Lovestruck was the first character I really worked to get right. The reason I appreciated Lovestruck was the texture of his skin; I worked on this the most. I wanted to give him this soft, malleable style texture, so I worked with different channels in order to make it work. In an attempt to animate him for a short, I made his feet too long to allow him to walk without hobbling.
I eventually scrapped the animation work that I wanted to do with Lovestruck, but I still hold the model close to my heart.
Jay: That’s very cool. I remember seeing a couple of sketches of him around the office when Karen worked at 1UP. He’s a great character.
I focused more on environment and level design. I really enjoyed thinking about and creating spaces where players could explore and interact with things.
One of the first levels that I built was Moon Garage. I used Unreal Engine to make it. This was the first time I had to create or build all of the models in the scene. I got the idea for the garage from another project that I was working on in another class; we were working on a design document for a racing/platformer game.
My favorite memory of this scene was playing deathmatch in it against other students in my class.
Erin: Oh, wow! The lighting along the walkway is gorgeous. I never really worked with major scenes. Level design was one of the things that I didn’t attempt.
When I was working toward becoming a modeler, I did want to try to create realistic scenes. I tried to render a complete stage scene in 3D Studio Max from one of my favorite DVDs, Blast — a marching band on Broadway…way nerdy
I worked on the scene for two weeks. I watched the DVD over and over to try to get the lighting right and modeled each drum. When I turned it in, I was basically told that I could’ve faked the same lighting by using three or four lights in the scene, which would’ve cut the render time by 75 percent. I lost a lot of sleep when rendering that scene, but it was a lesson well learned.
Did you have any “Oh, shit!” moments when working on a project? Did you ever realize that your scene was either too difficult or too easy to navigate? Did you ever encounter anything that made you rethink how to build your next scene?
Jay: That’s a great scene. I just finished Brütal Legend, so seeing a stage scene reminds me a lot of that game.
I definitely had similar “Ah, ha!” moments. I was working on a bedroom scene for my materials and lighting class. I wanted it to look realistic, but I was having a hard time getting the lighting to look right, and my renders were taking a very long time to process.
A very talented friend of mine helped me with the scene and showed me how to “fake” a lot of the look that I was going for while cutting out a lot of the render time. It turned out great.
Erin: For awhile I also really wanted to try my hand at character development. For me, part of the wonder of role-playing games is how elaborate costumes and the character depth make the world seem more realistic. So I started working on concepts with what little skill I had in drawing.
I never really got proportions down and had an awful time with hands. As I drew more and more, I did tweak my skills, going from efforts completely based on Japanese culture to attempts that were a bit more realistic.
At the time I wanted to do concept work for Square — hello, Final Fantasy fangirl here! — but the more I worked on character drawings, I realized that it was something that I wanted to do as a hobby instead of a profession.
Jay: I was never great at character art. Creating characters in my head was never a problem, but when it came to drawing or modeling them, the translation from my head to the drawing board never turned out that great.
Whenever I had to create something with characters in it, I kind of cheated and added life to an inanimate object. One scene that I made was a joystick that played itself in a living room. I modeled the room roughly after my apartment and drew inspiration from a standard Atari joystick as my “character.”
Erin: I realized that production was the way to go for me. I could show off fancy, colorful Excel spreadsheets that no one could understand. My art took a backseat and became a hobby.
What I did realize, though, from the work that I did with modeling, animation, and character development is that I now have a baseline of knowledge of the effort and skill that artists need. As a producer, it’s better that I understand how my team functions than come in with no knowledge at all.
I might not have a detailed knowledge of the tools as an artist would, but I have something that I can work off of and learn from so I can become better equipped to help my team.
Jay: It was pretty much the same thing for me. I felt completely mediocre as an artist, but I’m glad I stuck with it as long as I did because even though I won’t be an amazing game artist, understanding the process and how art assets are put together should make me a better producer or designer in the future.