Creative Chronicles: VFX
22 February 2019
Creative Chronicles brings together key insights, information and statistics from the experts at Creative Assembly. We hope this will inspire students and those considering a career in game development.
This edition of Creative Chronicles focuses on VFX.
The VFX (visual effects) industry includes both film and production houses, however, it is within games that its role is quickly evolving as technological developments open the door to more possibilities. This 2018 report from BFI estimates that the VFX industry directly employs over 8,000 people in the UK and demand is growing faster than many other creative sectors. While BAME in Games reports that 26% of those employed in the sector are women, only 7% are BAME.
Game VFX is a spectacle, but it is more than just decorative and illustrative. It represents key ways to communicate to the player, to build anticipation and create moments of wonder that keep players engaged and intrigued.
Game VFX are amazing, artistic, complex, and technical. They encompass nearly all aspects of game art creation. Modelling, animation, technical art, shaders, workflows with super-fast iteration times, post processing, and lighting. They can sell gameplay the way no other visual part of the game can, from the firing of a gun, or impact of a punch, to the loss of traction in a racing game. They can sell atmosphere, from dread and fear to sun drenched utopias.
The great subtlety in creating good effects is what makes them fascinating, the fine timing changes that can tweak an effect from mediocre to great are amazing. The secondary motion from fires or explosions that add a sense of completeness to the effect never cease to be intriguing.
KEY CONSIDERATIONS IN GAME VFX
VFX should support the narrative, enhance the atmosphere and interact with the game world they are in. For a VFX Artist, key considerations for creating ‘good’ effects are composition, timing and how to integrate seamlessly with the artistic and design direction of the game. Gameplay is always the most important principle in your VFX.
While environment VFX can be purely aesthetic, enhancing the atmosphere and making the scenes feel less static, they will also support the gameplay. Alien: Isolation is an example of the atmosphere playing a key role in the player experience and response. For characters, effects on models might include fire, burning weapons or glowing eyes. These visual effects aim to enhance aesthetics and compliment the character models’ animation, but they are also used for gameplay purpose - for example, a distortion wave to show when a character strikes an enemy and from which direction.
12 BASIC PRINCIPALS OF ANIMATION
The “Twelve basic principles of animation” were introduced by Disney in 1981 and apply to all VFX animation. A good-looking effect can be totally undersold by poor use of these principles and a mediocre effect can be substantially boosted by excellent use of them.
When sourcing reference, slow motion videos can prove very helpful as it is possible to see when certain events in an effect take place, be it compression shockwaves followed by dust rising or the sequence of events that is an explosion. The 12 principles can be used to add stylization to effects, to add more emphasis to certain portions of the effect, just like exaggerated animation in cartoons.
Gameplay, value, colour, shape and timing are all crucial principles for your VFX.
You have likely heard the saying ‘gameplay is king’, and it’s true. Your VFX can provide important signs and cues to the player; signalling progress, directing the players actions and generally telegraphing feedback to support the narrative.
Value, utilising light value and low value to show contrast, is how you draw the players attention. While colour can define groups of things, e.g. your different factions in Total War. It can act as warnings and cues, we all know that red generally signifies a problem, but the context can completely change what you are communicating, such as red spells or the elements.
Shape communicates different things to the player like the area an activity is taking place in, and even the action type, e.g. the difference between fire and water. It also plays a part in showing movement and the direction of an action. Lastly, timing. The timing of your effect is important for both building anticipation and as a signifier of action. The longer an effect is on screen, the longer it is attracting the attention of the player, but you also need to give them time to process and time to react.
CHALLENGES AND RESTRICTIONS
In a real-time engine there are hundreds of particle effects on screen at one time. The challenge is to create visually stunning and gameplay relevant effects while reducing the overall noise, or clutter. Performance monitoring is also vital in VFX production, we cannot have large particles covering most of the screen due to overdraw, and we cannot have unlimited numbers of particles.
As a VFX Artist you are trying to get as much as possible out of something that might last only .2 seconds on screen, and the detail is in the expression and timing. There is plenty of creative freedom as very fast iteration loops allow for a great amount of experimentation.
Technical understanding, an artistic eye and great animation timing is required to create real-time effects in both in-game and cinematics, with the end-player experience always in mind.
WHAT TO EXPECT AT CA
Our VFX Artists use expert knowledge to add atmosphere, depth and impact to gameplay. Working closely with engine and graphics programmers, designers, character artists, environment artists and animators, VFX encompasses all aspects of game development. Its reward is ownership of content in almost every second of gameplay.
We use many familiar industry software such as: 3d Studio Max, Houdini, Fume FX, Adobe Photoshop and After effects. Custom tools created in the studio allow us to improve our processes, such as an effect editor, composite scene tool, animation tool, terrain editor for environment VFX, node-based shader editor, and a variant editor (character building tool). We are also introducing shaders that drive vertex animation for models in VFX and the environment, this opens a world of possibilities for the detail we can add to enhance the gameplay experience.