Frogsong Studios is just about to release the latest update to Spellsworn their Online PvP Arena game, that smashed its way through Steam greenlight and is now barging its way through Early Access. Although for once, I’m not going to say anymore. Instead, I’ll leave you in the capable hands of Chris Sloane (@riacuro), a top bod from Frogsong Studios, and let him tell you about Spellsworn and the thought process behind their latest update.
Hey there! My name is Chris Sloane, and I’m the Marketing and Production co-ordinator for Frogsong Studios – an indie studio currently developing the Early Access title, Spellsworn, available on Steam – bit.ly/spellsworn. Inspired by arena and player vs. player classics, Spellsworn is a PvP arena game in which you must use magic and quick reflexes to outsmart and obliterate your opponent in an ever-changing environment.
This week, we’re proud to announce the release of version 0.7.11, which includes, among other improvements, the deployment of skin reworks for 4 in-game characters, the Acolyte, Vagabond, Jule and Bogwitch. To mark the occasion, we’re collaborating with TheZombieChimp.com to bring you this interview with two of our creative artists, Anders Thelin and Jonathan Gard. In this piece, we’re going to pick their brains on the reasoning behind the rework and the processes they use for the art development of Spellsworn.
Thanks for taking some time out to speak with us, gents! Before discussing the rework, could you tell us a little bit about Spellsworn and the characters in particular?
Jonathan: No problem at all and thanks for having us! Spellsworn is set in a war-torn world, in which spell-casters and witch-folk battle for control in arenas and areas of power. Within this setting, players must fight across 5 rounds, using spells to damage and outmaneuver their opponents while also avoid the changing terrain. Players have access to a wide arsenal of spells and, using the in-game currency, they must use their limited resources to select their loadout of spells, which they can modify or upgrade in between rounds as they receive additional currency. It really is a game that requires a quick hand, strategical thinking and wit.
The Acolyte, Vagabond, Jule and Bogwitch are playable characters that belong to either the Order or the Coven; the name of the two warring factions in Spellsworn. Each character has their own backstory and place within the game lore, which will be expanded upon in future content
Why remake the Jule, Vagabond, Acolyte and Bogwitch skins?
Anders: With this update, we are looking to add more depth and complexity, while also improving the design of the characters. The original versions of the Jule and Vagabond were more placeholders than anything else; a test for making sure the customisation system worked. Jule was actually a Christmas Easter-egg initially, as the name might hint at, and they both use the Acolyte’s body as a base, which I felt didn’t do justice to the characters they represent.
They were always planned to get a rework and with the lore more established, it was the right time to do it. In the redesign, I had a chance to move the characters closer to their personal allegiances and to be better reflect the symbolism and design associated with each. When it comes to updating the Acolyte and Bogwitch, I felt that they didn’t get the love they deserved in the beginning and now was the time for it.
That sounds fascinating and the skins really look wonderful. Where do you draw inspiration from?
I mostly get my inspiration from other video games, concept art, and eerie photography of abandoned and overgrown buildings. My most recent love is “From Software”, the studio behind the Dark Souls and Bloodborne games. Every enemy and environment has a unique, creepy, and sometimes outright horrifying design. It inspires me greatly to see that even such a done-to-death concept as “undead medieval warrior” (pun intended) can feel fresh and creepy.
Another constant presence, like a horrific tumour at the back of my head, is the Silent Hill series. From faceless children, to lumbering trunk-armed monstrosities, to the horrifying judge Pyramid Head, there’s so much to draw from.
I grew up with video games and fantasy, so old classics like the Legend of Zelda and Warcraft have always been very inspirational. Now with the internet, it’s super easy to find all kinds of fantastic art to be inspired by. In particular, I love everything fantasy that has that perfect mix of toony and realistic, and the aforementioned games do this incredibly well. Other than that, I’ve started listening to a lot of music lately, and it’s easy to find weird inspiration in all kinds of music, depending on my mood. Then, of course, there’s a lot to be found in movies and TV-series, and I especially love the superhero wave that’s been going on recently.
Before beginning the actual 3D modelling, do you sketch the image or character out first?
I always begin with a sketch. I have a tendency to quickly get bored with the things I create, so sketching is the part I enjoy the most. It’s where an idea can be explored freely. After the final design is decided upon, that freedom is restricted and replaced with interpreting and polishing it until the final product (in this case, an animated model in-game) is done.
Oh yeah, for both 3D-modeling and 2D art. A lot of sketches are just doodles on paper to get the brain around the idea, but I usually try to refine it afterwards digitally with my Cintiq companion. It’s always good to visualize it before you start working on something, especially if you want feedback from other people.
Is it iterative, or do you succeed first try?
I don’t think running with the first version of a design is good practice in general. I feel that the initial sketches and ideas should go through a few iterations, preferably with outside comments and feedback. This is where both the thumbnail and concept art (more on these later) are awesome – they’re the perfect places to experiment and try out different looks without being heavily committed to an idea or design. Changing a detailed 3D model after it’s done could take hours and can be very demoralizing (at least for me).
Very much iterative, especially if it’s something that I’ve never tried before. There’s always something that can be changed afterwards, even to the point of scrapping the entire thing and starting over.
What software do you use and why?
- Sketches made in Adobe Photoshop using a Wacom Intous tablet.
- 3D Modelling made in Autodesk Maya LT.
- Highpoly in Zbrush
I am most comfortable with them, I guess. Photoshop was the first advanced drawing program I began with over 16 years ago.
As for Maya and Zbrush, these are programs that The Game Assembly were using during my studies and, since I’m comfortable with them and they wonderfully fulfil my needs, I’ve stuck with them over the years. Maya in particular has great shared standard navigation controls, making it easier to go between different programs without having to remember the different buttons for “transform” and “rotate”. It also gets better with each update, adding new features, such as updated skin binding and uv-lapping tools.
- Adobe Photoshop for 2D art and textures
- Autodesk Maya LT for 3D
- Quixel Suite for creating normal maps and realistic looking materials
- When needed, Zbrush for 3D-sculpting.
Most of them are industry standards, not to mention that they’re well established tools with a huge support base and relatively low cost.
Was the software difficult to learn/master?
When it comes to the 3D programs, I didn’t have any experience whatsoever when I began my studies with The Game Assembly 5 years ago. Prior to this, my focus had been on 2D art, making regular illustrations, comics, and film – something that doesn’t readily translate into being proficient with technology. Now, I feel very comfortable with them and have no trouble getting into new programs in the same area. The school was a very healthy environment for learning; the more experienced and knowledgeable students helped others and we started making games from the very first week. The “trial by fire” style of teaching made grasping the programs much easier than it should have been.
Yeah – most of these aren’t tools you can just pick up and suddenly be good at it. Photoshop is mostly “learn while doing” and 3D is a lot more involved. I’ve been using Maya regularly for five years, and I’m still learning new things about it. Zbrush and Quixel Suite are even more intimidating for new users, but fortunately, there’s a lot of tutorials and help online. It’s not necessarily hard to learn, but you have to want to learn or it’s just going to feel like a chore.
Can you take me through the process step-by-step?
The process most often looks like this:
It usually starts with me sitting down with Photoshop and my drawing tablet. If the design is of a character, I will create a bunch of “thumbnails” (a very small, solid silhouette), each varying the design or idea. After the coolest looking one is chosen, I move on to the concept art – a detailed look at the character. This is often where I’ll expand on the initial design and thumbnail, adding buckles, belts, and all that good stuff. When a final design is decided upon, I move on to a “turn-around”. This is the character drawn from multiple angles, front, back, and side, made for us in the 3D modelling.
After the turn-around is imported and placed in the Maya scene, I start building the basic shapes of the character after the images, adding more and more detail and props in time. Then comes the UV-mapping. This is to decide what part of the 3D model should have what place on the 2D texture – like making a world-map of the earth.
Next step is the highpoly in Zbrush. This is adding minor details to the model – smoothing out the corners, making cracks in the metal, creases in the cloth, wrinkles in skin. Though tedious and sometimes time-consuming, this is where you can really add character to the character. Minute details like scuffs and cracks can be very telling.
Finally, I create the last step of the actual 3D model – the texture! Highlighting, adding dirt, colour, and glowing eyes. Here I go back and forth between Photoshop and Maya to see how the 2D texture fits on the 3D model. This is one of my personal favourite steps; making tasty looking metal is so rewarding!
Now we leave Photoshop behind and focus on Maya to paint skin weights! Attaching the 3D model to the skeleton and deciding what joint should move what part. It’s like making virtual muscles and tendons. connecting the model to its skeleton. This is the step I personally find the most frustrating, but it must be done if we want the model to come alive!
Once all of the above has been complete, the model is ready to be imported into the Unreal Engine and let loose on the unsuspecting magic-torn world of Spellsworn!
For 3D art, this starts with a doodle, no matter how basic or rough, and usually some refinement if you want to pass it around for feedback. The more time you spend here, the more interesting the final result will be, and it’ll give you a good plan for how to solve design problems later on, like how to lay out the texture map, which parts that can be re-used, etc.
After the concept, I start out in Maya, blocking out the shape and refining it by adding more and more detail within the constraints of the game (or whatever the final product is). For high-level details, I usually toss it from Maya into Zbrush or Quixel Suite, or both. Once I have both the low-detail and the high-detail models, I sketch up and map the texture in Photoshop, material by material, then I start going adding more and more detail, using Quixel Suite to get material definition, etc. There’s a lot of tossing it back and forth between Maya, Photoshop and the game engine (UE4 in my case) to make sure the model looks good, is within the limitations of the end-product, and works in the game engine.
How long does the process take?
All in all, it takes about 2 weeks from the concept art until it’s added into the game. This, of course, depends upon how advanced the model needs to be and if something goes horribly wrong on the way.
Greatly depends on the complexity of the model, and the level of detail you want to add, so anywhere between a couple of hours to several days.
That’s quite fascinating. Any other graphical work in the coming months?
We are currently concepting brand new skins and variations on the current characters, as well as new staffs for your branding pleasure. Other than that, it depends on what we decide is most important. I want to make some tweaks to the GUI during matches and to the Lobby as well. They will all be addressed; the only question is in what order.
Always! We’re already designing and concepting a new cool level, with an entirely new art set. We’re also working on adding more characters to the game, and adding more options for cosmetic customisation in the way of weapons and trinkets.
Well, we certainly look forward to seeing what you have in store for us. Many thanks for doing this interview with us!
So, there we have it – we hope this has given you some insight into the creative process behind Spellsworn’s beautiful art and world. We’ll be hard at work over the coming weeks on something extra special and we look forward to bringing you more of these in the future!
We’d like to give a big thank you to the wonderful folks at theZombieChimp.com for collaborating with us on this piece and we’d love to hear your comments and feedback. Don’t forget to check out Spellsworn (bit.ly/spellsworn) and you can also follow us on Twitter (https://www.twitter.com/frogsongstudios) or on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/FrogsongStudios)
Have a wonderful and frightening Hallowe’en and we hope to see you on the arenas of Spellsworn!