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Folklore : Industry Shortcuts

Every development cycle requires that the team takes as little resources as possible to create the maximum amount of content and playability. As a result, many clever techniques must be used to reduce workload. Some call it “cheating” some call it “shortcuts”, but I prefer to call it “efficiency”.

Folklore is no different in this instance. It, like many other games, does as much as it can in order to create as much content as possible in the least amount of time. After all, in the game industry, there are tight deadlines to meet, and lots of overtime that is required to cover it. This post will cover some of the “tricks of the trade”. Knowing what these are will give you a better insight on how the rest of the game industry functions.

Brute Force or Cleverness

Appreciatively, it would take an artist a long time to make unique pieces of geometry for any given thing. And if something changes, (like say a level is cut) that’s a lot of unique artwork that gets thrown away. To compensate for the incredibly high amount of risk in invested hours it would take, there are two solutions – one is to hire more artists, and the other more cost effective method is to duplicate the assets.

Simply hiring more artists to do the job usually works, and is the ideal solution – the developers get to keep their vision, and get lush and beautifully unique environments and models. However, ideal solution doesn’t necessarily mean the most practical solution. Every artist that is brought onto the team needs to be trained to use the tools, to know the art style, the production guidelines, the art bible, etc. And when more resources are added, more management resources are needed, more equipment is needed, and most likely, more technical issues arise. Overall, it ends up costing way more than simply “hiring another artist”.

Cloning an Asset is like Cloning an Artist

Ultimately, regardless of risk in cutting levels or not, developers want to work as efficiently, and as cost effectively as possible. Duplicating assets are as easy as Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V for the most part. (well, I exaggerate, but for the effect). It requires little time, no additional resources, and is a relatively mindless job to do. If planned within the production schedule, it can save lots of time. Even better is that the artists can spend their hours better polishing up the work.

There are several “techniques” to duplicating assets. Some poorly than others. Duplicating assets to reduce workload has been a part of the game industry since the old 8-bit days. The simplest is straight out copy/paste. Other variations inlude color swaps, and subtly re-purposing art.

Tiles

In the old 8-bit days, there wasn’t a whole lot of VRAM to have unique objects anyway. Environments were generated in what are called “tiles” Basically, if you imagine a square image that seamlessly blends from one edge to the next, and then repeatedly copied over a grid, you get a larger image composed of these tiles. These tiles are put together to form environments. You’d have grass tiles, stone tiles, water tiles, path tiles, brick tiles, and even tile tiles!

Tiles are still used in modern times for the same technical reasons, as well as production reasons. Except now, they are textures mapped onto 3d geometry. If you pay close attention to the textures on walls or floors of video games, you may be able to pick out a repeating pattern. Of course, modern techniques have ways of hiding these repeating patterns, as well as dressing them up with additional layers of textures to make them seem more unique.

If you look carefully at the floor in the first area of Undersea City, you’ll notice there are some rocky areas, and some stoney concrete-like tiles around too. But, if you pay close attention to the actual texture, both are using the same rock texture. The floor’s rock texture is made a little more unique with these concrete-like tiles using a layer of texture to make it more unique. In this particular instance, it is using a bump-map and spec-map.

Specularity and bump map for Undersea City to give the appearance of unique terrain.

Props

Another more strategic use of duplicating, is used for environment assets. Using the Undersea City as an example again, if you look carefully at some of the coral, you’ll notice they look identical to each other. These coral are prop objects, that are completely modular. What the artist does is create a library of these props (maybe 6 or more different props, maybe some slight variations here and there), and these props are then littered all over the environment. Since they are modular, they can be placed anywhere, scaled up or down in size and rotated.

Props are used to give terrain some interesting theme, and uniqueness.

You can imagine removing all the props from the environment – all you would be left with is an unconvincing slab of rock. By using modular props, the artist can populate a barren slab of rock (which by the way, slabs of rock are very easy to make in 3d) and turn it into a lush environment of pretty much anything, from an undersea city rich with coral, to a jewel embedded vista, all with the same slab of rock.

Partial Duplication

Yet another clever way of recycling assets is in the form of partial duplication. This is more prominent in characters, but can apply to environments as well. This involves taking assets from a few different sources, and re-assembling them to make a new asset. An example of such in Folklore would be Hawk, Bullseye, Barrager, and Ambush from Warcadia.

Warcadia Folk – partial recycling.

All four of these characters share similar base models, except that Bullseye has some goggles and a helmet, Barrager has a gas mask, and Ambush has different goggles and the same helmet. With these simpler modifications, the developers are able to create new assets quicker, doing only a fraction of the work. In the case of the Warcadia Folk here, they were probably sharing the same character rig as well, which allowed the team to share animations (they could all have the same run cycle, or idle animations) saving even more time.

Story Incorporation

Building on that, the simplest and easiest way to duplicate character assets without even lifting an artist finger is to build it into the story or the world. The denizens of Folklore all seem to look roughly the same, a race of elves and faeries. As such, they can excusably look completely identical. This is common in all sorts of games that feature non-human races.

This guy is everywhere!

The reason it works is because we’re not used to noticing the subtle differences between creatures of another race. Even animals of a species all look about the same. However, the same cannot be applied to humans for obvious reasons, unless the human characters in question are in uniform and masked. That’s why they work well in first person shooters.

To solve the problem of recycling human characters due to uniqueness, is to simply increase the function of each unique character. There are only a handful of characters in the village of Doolin, and the player spends a lot of time talking to each of them, over and over again. This helps with developing these characters too, and reduces workload of needing to make more characters.

One of the few characters of Folklore.

Blatant Cop-Outs

Of course, duplicated creatures don’t always work. Commonly seen in Final Fantasy games are the palette swaps, where you get the same creature but in a different color. The creature typically behaves differently, but to most gamers, this is considered one of the biggest cop-outs ever. I agree with that. It’s sometimes inevitable, but unfortunately, it breaks the fourth wall down, and ruins the experience for the player.

Unfortunately, Folklore applies this principle in abundance. I actually found myself getting confused as to whom I was fighting, or who’s ability I had active. This is not good design, or good planning. I think that this technique should be avoided at all costs, and that the previous mentioning of partial duplication be applied, planned for as a contingency plan, and maintained throughout the project. It doesn’t even work for environments – show the same environment twice, and the player will feel like it’s a cop-out. Show the same environment twice, but with the props re-arranged, and a bit of topology changes, and the player won’t feel like it’s a cop out.

Next article, we’ll explore the clever ways recycling is used specifically with Folklore, as well as explore the team’s morale throughout each level.

Glossary of Terms

  • VRAM – Video RAM. RAM is memory on a computer system that temporarily stores information. The more RAM you have, the more information you can store. Video RAM is essentially the same thing, but specific to display functions, such as the number of textures stored, the number of animations stored, the number of polygons stored, and other information.
  • Texture Mapping – Assigning a texture to a polygon. It’s like applying paint to a surface.
  • Bump Map – a black and white image used to define areas that appear bumpy using a render effect. It’s used to give the appearance of a bumpy surface. The efficiency of it is two-fold : You can have a single polygon surface (flat) have the appearance of more topology detail than there really is. This lowers polycount, and the amount of time it takes to model.
  • Normal Map – essentially a more complicated bump-map. Has greater definition because it takes into account multi-directional light sources. Functionally, it gives the illusion of high-polygon detailed characters on a low polygon character. Creating a normal map is time consuming, as it typically requires the artist to create a high polygon model in order to create the texture map.
  • Spec Map – Specularity means how shiny a surface appears. The rougher the surface, the more the shine is diffused across it, making it appear dull (plastics, wood, skin, etc) while shiny surfaces that are almost reflecting a light source (a tight circular point on the surface) gives the appearance of a high gloss surface. A spec map is like a bump map in that it’s black and white. Instead of defining bump though, it defines shine. You can make a single polygon appear to have two different roughnesses.
  • Fourth Wall – The concept of a “wall” dividing the audience from what is happening on stage. This “wall” is the concept that the characters on stage are unaware that there is an audience watching them, or that one even exists. It’s to incorporate more realism and immersion into a show. Breaking that “wall” breaks the immersion and the audience suddenly realizes that they are watching a play. The same can be applied to video games.
  • Rigging – an art all its own. A skeleton used in game needs to move, which requires control handles. Imagine a string puppet. Rigging is essentially attaching strings to the skeleton. How effective these setups are determines how easy it is for the animator to animate the character.
  • Skinning – a character can’t animate on it’s own, because to the program, it’s just a bunch of vertex points in space. How is it supposed to know where an elbow is and that it’s supposed to bend? Skinning is applying a skeleton to a character to define these characteristics.
  • Weighting – The program will still have troubles figuring out which vertex should go with which bone. Sometimes, when a vertex is too close to the wrong bone, it gets pulled funny. Weighting is manually going in and re-assigning each vertex to the proper bone. Most verticies are assigned partially to multiple bones, in order to create smooth flexing motions like real skin.
  • UI – User Interface. Information that the user can see, and manipulate to show different data. These include stats, character portraits, health meters, maps, etc. Usually themed to fit the style of the game

Jump To:

  1. Development Process
  2. Art Production
  3. Industry Shortcuts
  4. Specific Shortcutting Strategies
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  1. February 7, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    agree that folklore use this kind of things, but this things are standards in today games πŸ™‚

  2. February 7, 2008 at 10:03 pm

    yes, that’s why it’s called “Industry Shortcuts”. The entire article covers tricks that the game industry in general uses, but I just apply Folklore as an example. I haven’t yet gotten into the specific ones that Folklore itself uses.

  3. shino
    February 9, 2008 at 11:51 am

    Pretty much can only comment on the palette swaps, since thats something I’m much more familiar with since whenever game art books which include the bestiary gallery typically shows the same darned thing with just different colors altogether ^^; It doesn’t really ruin the experience for me though, in fact sometimes I find it a pleasant change if I’m reminded by the game that I’m the audience (no offhand example comes immediately to mind, but something like if a character warns another character to chill, because “someone” might be watching I guess).

    That said, I do have to admit that some players really take their game experience seriously, so the “art” of the maintenance of the fourth wall really requires precise balancing I guess (I guess it’s almost impossible to please everyone when it comes to games?)

    Dumb question here: I noticed some games have bestiary that has different colors, but looks basically the same with the exception of perhaps maybe added horns, wings, different weapons, etc. So would that be considered partial duplication? A palette swap? or both?

    I see in your example of partial duplication that the Warcadia folk can be derived from the same base model but yet they don’t look too alike. So where does that leave the ones that I’ve mentioned?

  4. February 11, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    Palette swaps are definitely cop-outs. It’s at the point when the player says “Hey! I’ve seen this model before!” that the fourth wall breaks down, and the player is no longer immersed into it as much. “I’m just playing a game…”

    I know what you mean though – sometimes, you can deliberately break down the fourth wall as a technique for humor. Metal Gear Solid does it all the time. In fact, one character even said once “Stop playing so much video games and go out to get some fresh air!”

    In terms of balancing, and not breaking the fourth wall, all that is needed is that the player doesn’t feel like he’s playing a video game. Very often, when a player is defeated in a game, he thinks “Dang, I died!”. Not “Dang, the hero died!”. It shows that the player is immersed – the hero is the player. Anytime that the player sees something that doesn’t fit into the world that they are playing in, such as palette swapping, then they are removed from that immersion.

    I think that duplicated parts with palette swapping is a good technique, but it really depends on how drastically different it looks. The Warcadia Folk have palette swaps so to speak, but those swaps add to the uniqueness of the characters. If the general shape of the creature isn’t that different that you can recognize that “hey, it’s just a palette swap with different horns!” then that too is a cop-out. The more different parts you use to change it, the more unique it will look. So in your suggestion, it would be considered both. Definitely can’t put my terminology to pen and paper though, but it gives a general idea. πŸ™‚

    Thanks for commenting!

  5. Kin
    February 13, 2008 at 12:28 am

    As games have become so large and so immersive in the newer generations, cop-outs definitely do stick out like a sore thumb when lots of other things are so spectacularly different. The downside for games so huge is that any sort of shortcuts will eventually become repetitious when you encounter it enough times.

    However, for me, I don’t really mind having a few duplicated characters/creatures here and there. It really depends on the games though. In games like Endless Ocean, there are noticably lots of duplication of aquatic life, but enough for you to think there is lots of diversity. For games like Assassin’s Creed, where the whole draw are the large sandbox cities, just running through one of the areas in a city once already reveals a huge amount of duplication in both characters and sound effects.

    So here comes the question, should developers keep on making games larger and larger when their goal is to be as realistic as possible and there really is no time or budget to make every single asset unique in its own? Cost and memory restrictions aside, would making every single asset in a game unique be just too far fetched and ambitious for any game big or small.

    After thinking about those questions, I am thinking, “why would anyone want to make everything unique, that would be such a waste of time/money. In a business sense, that would not be feasible”

    I have to say though, environments in some games are way too big for their own good, with or without duplication. Oh yea, I really liked how you added a glossary at the end. Nice touch! (bΒ΄Π΄`)b

  6. February 13, 2008 at 12:41 pm

    duplication is not a bad thing. It’s only bad when the player notices it. In games like Turok where you fight dinosaurs, or in Killzone, where your enemies essentially are in uniform, it’s perfectly acceptable to duplicate. In fact, it’s expected.

    It’s a problem, as you say, when there are lots of unique characters/creatures. At that point, when something is duplicated palette swapped even just once, you would say “What a cop-out!” when in reality, it’s games like Killzone and Turok that are the real cop-outs.

    Making games larger and making games more realistic aren’t co-dependent. You can have vastly large and unrealistic words. You can have large worlds with lots of duplication – it’s just how you utilize it. First person shooters duplicate stuff all the time, yet they are probably the most realistic looking genre.

    I agree with you that unique assets don’t make sense from a business standpoint, and so does the rest of the game industry too! πŸ™‚

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