Today my guest is video game developer, painter, 3D artist, and visual FX artist Matt Waggle. In the gaming world he has contributed as an artist in games such as Halo 3 and America's Army 3. You can view more of his work at his website: http://wattmaggle.com
Brian Riggsbee: What inspires you as an artist? Have your inspirations changed throughout the years?
Matt Waggle: Anything in the Arts or Sciences that touches on the topics of the nature of reality or simulated realities currently. I see a lot of what we're doing in games as a pre-cursor to something even more evolved and impactful on our future - very sophisticated tele-presence and true vr immersion. I think getting there - creating these World Systems where we can not only play but experiment and interact limitlessly with no lasting consequence or material cost is very important. This has evolved from the root of loving video games and wanting to make them. But as I've matured I don't feel games have enough, so I want to inspire ideas about advancing tech into something new and complimentary to this reality.
BR: What is your process like when painting v. creating digital work? Do you find one to be more relaxing, fulfilling, or challenging?
MW: The concept of the paintings are these figures lost in between space time. Sort of glitched into a bad sector of realities hard drive. I want the viewer to think of things along that nature. In games we make worlds. Crude by comparison to this one but getting more sophisticated all the time. I envision a day where virtual World Systems will become just as important as this one to many people.
My process currently uses 3d to construct a scene - I spent the last 10 or so years learning 3d and I love being a little 3d demigod creating these vertices and connected faces then building the scene with lighting and materials and shooting the subject with cameras I place. In the real world this would cost 10s of thousands of dollars. I never want to stop using that tool. When the scene is blocked out like this I render an image and switch to more traditional techniques in Photoshop Painting over, scumbling, adding textural interest you can only really find in the expression of painting - the marks you leave behind is like a conversation with the viewer. I was angry here, I was solemn in here, I was gentle in this one, etc.
I haven't done much physical work - you can say I'm a student in that. I'm lucky to have a great painter for a roommate and a whole year to mess around so I will be learning how to pull these images out of the digital world into the real one and look forward to the challenge.
BR: Describe the difference between creating art for yourself v. for a company.
MW: Making art that is your own expression is hard - I had to learn to allow myself to do it. Maybe more accurately unlearn some of what I was told to believe growing up. I'm still learning and it's becoming an obsession now. Which I believe it should. There's a certain vulnerability you have to expose yourself to when making your own art - your putting it out to the world and asking - is it ok to survive on this? When you're starting out the answer is no no no no over and over. This is something so few persevere through - to somehow get to the yesses. And the only way to get there is to keep working on your art. Don't compromise. You will suffer through the no period but I believe it is possible for anyone to also get to the yes period and survive while living as just an artist to me is the ultimate expression of freedom.
Creating art assets for a company can be very fulfilling. It can be very frustrating too. The main difference is that you are not in charge really. Even if you were Art Director at the best studio you are still satisfying so many requirements. So there's a framework you must operate in and restrictions of time and technology. It can be nice to work within challenges like that. And it can also be frustrating.
BR: Is there something you created for a company that you completely dreaded working on?
MW: At my core I really hate repetition. I am happiest solving problems in creative ways, once the problem is solved I move on to the next challenge. The nature of game art is sometimes very repetitive. So - making 50 bushes - tiling textures etc. can be bad for me, I can get a bad attitude about it. I see some developments in procedurally generated stuff which may alleviate the problem. Example: I solve the problem of a seed - then grow 50 random bushes.
BR: In the gaming world, many companies opt to outsource part of their 3D creations to other countries. What are your thoughts on this?
MW: I think the US games industry needs to grow up a little. These outsourcing firms are tenacious and resourceful and leverage internet power to take jobs from the US. The big centralized studio is old school and narrow in vision. We are in the midst of a transition in society - especially in the tech field.
What I see happening are lots of "strike teams" of freelancers being formed. Teams of 5-10 who all know each other and vet each other - they form up. They then offer themselves as an outsource team to companies.
Think of the 24 hour cycle - If you had a team split in opposing time zones you could conceivably produce work 24 hours a day and communicate online. What other industry can say that?
I'm online daily with people on the East Coast, UK, Netherlands, Middle East, etc. and communication is very fluid. Even better than it is in some offices.
I think big studios are looking for a scalable model for their production and these small teams working through virtual hubs might be a great way to have that.
So outsource more? - which is weird to say but it's inevitable. Try to create a manageable sized team with little overhead - then offer your experience and ability as an entire team.
BR: For artists out there looking to start a career in gaming, what advice can you offer them?
MW: I got my first Game Artist job through a friend. I got my last Game Artist job through a friend. Put yourself among the people and places doing what you want to do or it will be much harder to find peers. QA is a great way to get started - My first job in the industry was doing QA for SEGA.
Find what you like to do and specialize in it. Define your process and only alter it to make an improvement. Embrace the iterative process. Make yourself indispensable somehow. Don't take things personally - it's a job. Stick up for yourself. Don't work for free. Be the solution not the problem. Put your art out there as much as possible. Work every day. Have principles and stick to them. Take care of your body and mind and your life. Look everywhere for inspiration. Read at least 1 book a month. Use post it notes and Google spreadsheets. etc.
BR: What do you find to be the most frustrating aspect of game development?
MW: Mouse and keyboard and sitting on your ass for such a large part of your life. It feels very primitive like a stick and a rock and it hasn't fundamentally changed for 20+ years. To me this is inexcusable. But I'm hopeful with new developments like the Oculus Rift etc. we'll see better human/machine interfaces. Obviously this ties in with my love of VR.
BR: What are you working on right now or plan to start soon?
MW: I bounce around a lot. Currently I'm splitting my days painting and working on an animation featuring a character entering a VR rig - in the hopes of promoting better human/machine interfaces. Trying to get 10 more digital paintings done and then transfer them to real world oil paintings this year.
BR: What are your favorite video games of all time? What are you playing now?
MW: This is too hard to answer for me - there are so many in the past that I've really loved. I'll just say Minecraft for now - The good it's done in the world is hard to measure against any other game.
I kind of jump in and play shooters - CS:GO, Hawken, and just finished the Titanfall Beta. Apx 20 minute sessions once or twice a day then back to work.
Looking forward to Dark Souls 2 - going to lose a few days to that I'm sure!
Recently I posed a series of questions to the various modding communities that use Valve's Hammer Editor to create environments, levels, maps, and campaigns. I want to thank that entire group of 46 participants that submitted a response to the survey (the full list is at the bottom with website links) and I will conduct more surveys in the future. The answers below are just some of the highlights that I selected to share, and in cases where the same answer appeared frequently between participants I made a note of it.
How long have you been using the Hammer editor?
Experience of participants ranges from 1 month to 16 years (including WorldCraft experience).
What projects have you created using the editor?
The most commonly mentioned games were Left-4-Dead 1/2, Counter-Strike: Source/Global Offensive, Half-Life 2, and Team Fortress 2.
For people just starting with the editor what key pieces of advice can you offer them?
What do you find to be irritating when using the editor?
If you could add one feature to the editor what would it be?
Overwhelmingly, the most popular response to this question (43% of those surveyed) was the desire to have some form of real-time preview mode so that designers can properly see the lighting of their environment without having to compile.
When preparing to start a new map/level/campaign how do you start?
The answers to this question ranged from no 'preparation work at all' to a very robust process of pre-production.
What is an important and often overlooked element in map making?
The most popular response to this question, by far, was lighting.
What is your work process like?
Any funny or crazy editor stories to share?
The majority of responses involved some form of corrupted or lost files.
If you have ever collaborated with other developers please share your experience.
Have you ever used any other level editors? If yes, which ones and how do they compare?
The most commonly mentioned editors in this response were Unreal/UDK, CryENGINE/Sandbox, & Unity.
Do you have any interesting Easter eggs in any of your designs?
Survey group: TZK203, internethandle, Filip, novalin, Punishment, Wouter Pleizier / Blueberry_pie, Jacol, George "Noface" Campbell, Bernt Andreas, Brickinator, marnamai, Arran Seaton, David Zetterdahl "LordDz", SM Sith Lord, Ark11, Nijbu, Nicole, Rectus, Hopna, Jess Nielsen, Oliver "FRAG" Curtis, Garrador, The_Blazer, DerpyBlade or Alex, HoliestCow, Peter Brev, unknown, SotaPoika, Text_Fish, Mr Funreal, Roflmahwafflz, Fauckers, Rev_deaddiet, insane3004, someone, Marcy, Sam Morris, Leafo, Devieus, 4echo, Element, needadonut, Dan, BlazingOwnager, RainingMetal, & RuninWivSizors.
76 maps were entered into the contest and of those 10 were selected for public voting. My map finished in 5th place, and I want to thank everyone that voted for it. I'm also thankful to CEVO and Gamebanana for holding these contests.
Recently I entered my latest map de_cefalu_go into the CEVO/Gamebanana CS:GO mapping contest, along with 75 other entries. The judges then selected the top 10 maps and de_cefalu_go made the list. Now the public gets to vote on their favorite. There are a lot of great maps in this contest, and I am happy to be in the top 10.
I have released what should be the final version of de_cefalu_go, which can be downloaded and rated at the steam workshop. Originally I created this map for CS:S, and decided to created this revamped version for CS:GO. The map has some architecture that I was inspired by from the city of Cefalu in Sicily, although the majority of the content is "made up". If I had to pick one thing about the map that I enjoy most then I would say it is the vertical diversity, as most maps tend to be rather flat in their layout.
Joining me today I have Shawn Snelling, designer and mapper of the popular Counter-Strike: Global Offensive map cs_museum. You can download cs_museum in the Steam Workshop and view Shawn's portfolio on his website.
Brian Riggsbee: cs_museum, your latest project for CS:GO, is quite the beautiful map. What are your favorite aspects of it? Are there any parts you struggled with?
Shawn Snelling: Thank you! My favorite aspect is how naturalistic and real everything turned out, which I have to attribute to good fortune and some planning. I didn't struggle with much during this project, but optimization was of course difficult considering the open environments outside of the Museum by the street and the vast number of exits and windows involved. If I struggled with anything, it was the technical limitations of the current incarnation of the Source engine.
BR: The lighting in cs_museum is definitely a strong point. What advice can you provide for other mappers out there that may be struggling with achieving good lighting?
SS: Good lighting is tough. It's even tougher on Source because you have to compile and wait ten minutes to see anything. I think the best strategy is to know what you want and not settle for something that seems "good enough." You have that vision in your mind, so keep making those tweaks even though it can be mind-numbing and requires a lot of patience. Until you get to where you want to be, you've got more work to do. But it's not an exact science. I remember many times thinking it would be impossible to get the lighting I wanted in the grand hall (T-Spawn), for instance, but I just kept plugging away at it, loading the map up countless times trying to get it right. In the end, I think I finally did.
BR: I noticed there are a few community members listed in the credits for cs_museum. How did they contribute to the project?
SS: 3DNJ did models (T-rex, golden lights, and also converted some of my brushwork into more optimized models) and penE did textures for the map. They are both immensely talented and helped elevate the map and realize the ambition of the map to place players into an environment that feels real.
BR: Tell us a little about some of your past projects.
SS: I worked on Natural Selection 2, on the map Veil primarily. The first map I released was called Anemia, for Day of Defeat: Source, which I'm still very proud of all these years later. That was a paradigm shift for me, to go from loving other people's levels, to then release one of my own. I think if you want to look at my work that's a great place to start. As for Veil, I think that's a real interesting one as well, it was sort of my college for level design. I learned most of what I know on Veil, which was originally an NS1 map, in my opinion the most classic and crucial one to the first game. I knew that to bring it to an entirely new engine and generation of gamers would be a big challenge, but I was worried nobody else would do it right. That experience taught me to respect the classics, if you ever want to make a classic.
BR: Are you working on any new projects now? Are there any games or projects out there you would love to be a part of?
SS: I'm working on a competitive bombsite map for Counter-Strike:GO which is set in India. I want to enter it into a big contest, the one CEVO is holding. If I do, the map will have been made in one month. Which I'm excited and frightened about trying to do.
I want to be involved with whatever Valve is working on. Simple answer. Other than that, I really like the Deus Ex franchise. Bioshock is up there as well. Those kind of games motivate me to continue making levels. But at the moment, to be honest, I'm involved in the projects I want to be involved in: I'm making cool levels and working with talented people, I just need it to be a more sustainable lifestyle financially, haha.
BR: What is your all-time cherished retro video game?
SS: I think I'd have to break that into multiple parts to do it justice.
Music: Mega-Man 2
Story: Zelda Ocarina of Time/Final Fantasy 7
Multiplayer: Day of Defeat 1/Super Smash Bros. 1
Greatest of all time: Super Mario 64
Back in 2006 I released a map for Counter-Strike: Source called de_cefalu. Fast forward to 2013 and I am nearing the completion of the revamped version of Cefalu for Counter-Strike: Global Assault. Below I have some screenshots comparing the 2006 CS:S version and the 2013 CS:GO version.
Hi all – Today I would like to share out the general process I follow when creating a mapping project. This process can apply to a simple Counter-Strike map to a more complex 5 level Left-4-Dead 2 campaign, and is geared towards personal projects (not something you create while working for a company). Also, this process may not work for everyone, and can be tweaked for your own personal style.
If anyone has any suggestions or feedback, please drop a comment in. And if anyone wants more details on anything, just let me know.
Concept & Theme
The first step of the process is to come up with a concept, or list of potential concepts. For me, everything starts with a written list, and I recommend coming up with multiple ideas before gravitating to your favorite one. Take into consideration your experience level, your timeline, and your resources when deciding on a project. In other words, don’t tackle something that is over your head and you don’t have the time to complete.
One of the best ways to formulate a concept is to first develop a theme, which in turn tells a story. A theme and story will also inspire you as you develop your project. For a Counter-Strike map, such as de_cefalu_go, this may be as simple as “A small, coastal city in Sicily, which accommodates tourists, with the main attraction being a large, central church. The architecture ranges from courtyards and cafes, to hotels and a small beach. Terrorists have moved into the town in order to destroy one of two key landmarks, and counter-terrorists have been deployed to thwart their efforts.” Whereas for a longer, more complicated linear experience as with L4D2, my theme/story was “Four American tourists in Eastern Europe are holding up in a large hostel after the zombie apocalypse has plagued the Earth. Their food and water supplies are running thin, and the hostel, which was once housing multiple survivors, has caught fire forcing them to venture out in search for rescue. Their only hope is to push forward and work together.”
If you decide to work with a team of developers, such as for models, sounds, and textures, then I recommend reaching out early into the process. Make sure you are comfortable coordinating the entire process as well, or assigning a point person that you trust to do this. If the project is complex, leverage a free task/bug tracking tool. Set goals with each person and create a list of work that you want each person to accomplish (and by when).
Now that you have selected a project, start collecting reference photos -- Take your own photos and/or using resources like Google image source. Save these images in an organized manner, such as using a naming convention. E.G. castle_exterior_01, building_ornatedetail_01, etc. This may seem time consuming, but it tends to save time in the long run, especially for the bigger projects.
Create mock-ups by drawing over your reference images, drawing concepts from scratch, creating inspiration boards that are a collage of specific key areas, and drawing top-down layouts on grid-paper. If your project is large, like mine was for L4D2, buy a poster board and attach your various mock-ups so you can see your entire layout in one glance. Take notes on your mock-ups, such as where items might be well placed, what type of lighting/mood you want, etc.
When creating layouts, I use grid paper so that I can draw to scale. Also, don’t feel like you need to perfectly emulate reality when referencing images. For example, the layout of a house may not work for your game experience. Take into consideration where twists and turns are important, where you want bottle-necks versus large, open areas, and what works not only visually but best for game-play.
I also like to use tracing paper when working on areas that have multiple levels (e.g. an apartment building), so I can see how everything will vertically align before I start building it.
Rough Layout & Detailed Section
With your concept locked down, reference images organized, and mock-ups situated, you are now ready to start building your map or level. If you are working on a multiple level campaign, decide which level you want to start with (this does not have to be level 1). Start with blocky, rough layouts first, and try not to get caught up in the greater details yet. Once you have your level roughed out, detail out just a small area so that you can set a standard for the rest of the level.
Feedback & Testing
It’s important that you test often when developing your map or levels. This not only allows you to capture and fix errors easily, but it also allows you to play-test your work before the details go into place. Once your details are in, it becomes much more difficult to rework those areas. Share the level with a few friends and just get feedback on the layout, game-play, difficultly, etc. as well as the detailed area you created. Create a list of questions for them, if needed, to help guide the feedback conversation. For example: What works well and why? What areas did you not like and why? Was the frame-rate/performance good? Any bugs?
Continue to Develop
For the larger projects, start blocking out the remaining levels. Once everything is blocked out, get more feedback on the remaining levels, and then begin to detail everything. I generally follow this order when developing my levels and maps: block out, detail geometry and place large models, apply textures, add lighting, place smaller models, apply decals and overlays, and add in SFX and VFX. All along the way I am compiling and testing, as well as optimizing.
When detailing an area, I determine what details to place based on my theme and story. For example, in the lobby of my L4D2 hostel I boarded up the entrance windows, because the survivors in this building were first keeping the undead out at this location. I selected objects like the cabinets and chairs to block the windows because those were objects available to the survivors in this building. In front of the boarded up windows are piles of dead bodies, which implies a battle had taken place there, in which the survivors seemed to fair well.
When lighting an area, consider what you want your lighting to accomplish. For Counter-Strike, the game-play and balance is very important to players since this is a competitive versus style game, so I tend to use more full lighting in most areas so players can see the opponents more easily. Whereas the lighting in L4D2 serves an entirely different purpose, as it sets the creepy mood by juxtaposing dark and light areas, as well as guiding the player through the linear progression of a level without making it feel too linear. In other words, the headlights of a car will point to the next area the players need to explore whereas the dark corners are dead ends.
I recommend first promoting a little before you are ready to release your Beta, so that people start to anticipate your project. Make sure you have a realistic launch date for your Beta, so that you are not communicating false promises to your future community. When promoting, be consistent: don’t post something 10 times the first week, then only once in the next month. Also, do not over share too much content, like screenshots of every area, otherwise the project won’t feel very fresh when you actually release. Once your project does hit Beta make sure to inform any threads you may already have started of the actual release with a link to the download page. Finally, don’t confuse “promoting” with “spamming” – your Facebook friends don’t want to hear about your personal project every day.
Where to promote is really up to you, and depends on the game you are developing for. Look for forums that relate to your project and make sure to follow the forum guidelines when posting. For Steam games, you can create a steam group. If you have your own website or blog you should of course mention your project there.
Promoting doesn't have to just be text and screenshots either. As part of my promotions I like to cut together videos that show off the environments and game play.
Even if you feel incredibly confident that your project is “perfect” I strongly encourage you to release a Beta first so that you can gather feedback on game-play, balance, difficulty, and bugs. Take constructive feedback seriously and encourage a system of feedback from the players that are testing your project. Try not to take the trolling negativity too seriously either.
When my L4D2 campaign Tour of Terror was in Beta I would join games and watch YouTube videos on my campaign, while taking notes on things I could improve. I discovered that I actually learned more from a YouTube play through than I did from most written feedback.
Create and Release Updates
Make changes to your project based on good feedback and fix any bugs that have been discovered. If there are a lot of issues you may need to triage your list of feature improvements and fixes, so that you are fixing the higher priority features and issues first. Sometimes with personal projects it’s easy to say “I have unlimited time to work on this, so I will just keep adding more and more features”, however, I find that it is important to find that critical stopping point so you can call the project complete and move on to other work. Art is never perfect, and there will always be something you will look back on and say “I would do that differently if I was doing it again now”.
Your project now plays well and doesn't have any major issues. You feel you are ready to call it complete and release the final version.
Brian Riggsbee lives in San Francisco CA. He enjoys gaming, writing, creating art, practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, chasing adorable dogs, and spending time with his wife and boy.