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Travis Williams Interview - Prelude to Darkness

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Travis Williams Interview - Prelude to Darkness

Interview - posted by Mistress on Fri 29 November 2002, 20:21:25

Tags: Prelude to Darkness; Zero Sum

1. Could you tell us a little about yourself, your role at Zero-Sum, and your involvement in the development of Prelude to Darkness?

Travis Williams: My background is pretty diverse: I've spent a lot of my professional life in academic research (cognitive psychology), freelance graphic design and illustration, and playing music. My work at Zero Sum represents my first serious foray into the world of video game creation.

I was the lead artist at Zero Sum, and for much of the development, I was the only artist. We had some other people doing some concept illustrations and some excellent character portraits, and additionally, Mat Williams, the lead designer, has a background in art so he contributed to the overall look-and-feel of the game. But for the most part, I was responsible for essentially all art resources: 3D models, texturing, animation, and GUI elements. Basically I got to wear the giant hat that said "artist" on it.

I also collaborated with the other members of the team on the overall gameplay design, and created the intro and endgame sound, and the music that plays when you finish the game.

2. What attracted you to working in the field of game development, and what do you see as the benefits of working on an independent project?

Travis Williams: A large part of the reason I was drawn to game development is the same reason everyone else is: I have a lifelong love of games, especially RPGs. I think anyone who really loves games can appreciate the desire to create one of your own. (I certainly have many memories from when I was very young, trying to write adventure games in BASIC on my IBM PCjr, and later trying to build them in Hypercard on my Mac Plus. Hypercard, for God's sake!) Aside from this motivation, I also think it can be a very satisfying way to work as an artist - more creatively fulfilling than designing advertisements or company logos all day. And one of the really great things about working for a small company on an independent project is the amount of creative control that you have - I had the ability to design things from the ground-up. I could think to myself, "It would be really cool if this town was built out of four different kinds of marble with prominent Greco-Roman motifs," and then go ahead and do it all just like I imagined. It allows for a lot more creative expression than just being Texture Artist #8 in a team of 30.

Also, it was nice to have Guinness on tap in the office at all times. Not a lot of people can say that about their office jobs.

3. From your point of view, what were the benefits and limitations of working with the 3D engine used in Prelude to Darkness? What are the advantages and disadvantages for you as the artist, working with a 3D engine as opposed to a 2D engine?

Travis Williams Obviously, the creative process is very different when you shift from a 2D engine to a 3D engine. Building art resources for a 2D engine is essentially a matter of "painting" them, which is entirely different than sculpting 3D models. This was a significant transition for me, because I had very little experience with 3D modeling, texturing, or animation. So I had to do a lot of learning, and fast! Creating Prelude was an extremely educational experience for me, as I was essentially learning proper modeling techniques over the course of the game's development.

As an artist, building a game with a 2D engine is a lot simpler in many ways, because you have more control over the way the game looks. The look of the game is very constrained by the art resources; there's not much else to it. With a 3D engine, so much of the final look is dependent not only on your art resources, but also on the engineering of the 3D engine: the way the camera works, the lighting, the terrain rendering system, and so forth. I found this posed a significant challenge to me: I would build and texture a model, but then find it looked very different when imported into the game. As a result there's a lot more back-and-forth collaboration between artist and programmer than needs to happen with a 2D game.

Another difficulty you have to wrestle with is that a 3D game engine constrains your art resources, sometimes more than you'd like: there are poly count limits to your models, of course, and you are often limited to fewer textures, or lower-res textures, than you'd like to use to make it look good. You get used to making a lot of compromises.

4. How long, on average, does it take you to create and complete a model or texture? Can you tell us a little about the software and techniques you use in the process right through from creation to optimisation?

Travis Williams: I'd never really created low-poly character models before, so the amount of time it took me changed pretty dramatically over the course of development as I became more skilled. These days, I can create a good low-poly character model and texture it properly in a couple days. I always start with some concept sketches and draw the character from a couple angles, to use as an aid for modeling. I like using 3D Studio Max for modeling. There are a lot of models I had to create for the game (characters, items, furniture, minor architectural objects like fences and pillars, and trees and bushes), so to get it done in time, along with my other art responsibilities, I found the best system was to first build a set of archetypal models (i.e. a good human model) and then tweak them and change them to create other models (i.e. a cavern dweller). I use a combination of techniques in modeling. For the most part in Prelude I got by doing things the simple way -- building models out of modified geometric primitives. These days, especially when I'm building complex organic shapes, I tend to use a slightly different technique: I place vertices manually on top of my scanned character drawings, then build the faces between those vertices.

For textures, I usually create composites out of digital photos and Photoshop work I do by hand. Some textures I manage to create entirely in Photoshop with airbrush and paintbrush tools. I found properly texturing my models, especially the character models, to be one of the most challenging and time-consuming tasks.

After building the models and texturing them in 3D Studio Max, I exported them to Truespace, which I used to do the skeletal-based character animations. Every type of character model in Prelude has its own set of animations, so I had to create all these.

5. Obviously technology puts limitations on your work, what were the polygon constraints of modelling for Prelude to Darkness?

Travis Williams: Our requirements for poly count changed over the course of development. They initially started quite low, which is the point at which I started modeling, so even though at this point I think the game could handle more complex models, it's still using the very low-poly models I originally built. All the characters are between 110 and 300 polygons, if I remember correctly. The average human is around 125 polys. It's tough to do a realistic human model that can animate properly at this level of detail.

6. What is the most complex model/texture/mesh you worked on for Prelude to Darkness?

Travis Williams: We were always more interested in diversity than complexity. We knew that we weren't going to be able to make the most graphically sophisticated game the world had ever seen, so we wanted to focus instead on providing a lot of graphical variation - things like making different areas of the game world look very different from one another, or providing a lot of visual variation in NPCs (hence the system of clothing that can create hundreds of unique characters). I think this paid off: different towns and regions have very different aesthetic atmospheres. So I focused on producing more textures, and different varieties of textures, than extremely complicated ones. Same with models: none of the models are more than a couple hundred polys, so there's not a terrific amount of complexity.

7. What would you say was the most complicated aspect of your work on the game? Were there any major problems you encountered?

Travis Williams: The most challenging thing when it came to modeling, I found, was modeling trees and bushes that looked realistic. It's a tricky thing to reduce such a complicated organic shape to a model with around 100 faces. After trying to do this, I have a profound respect for games that have been able to model wilderness well.

The most complicated aspect of my work overall was probably the animation. I already had a lot on my plate, considering I was producing all the models, all the textures, and all the GUI elements, among other things. I understood character animation, but it was not one of my strengths, and so confronted with the task of creating dozens of good character animations, I found myself struggling. I found that what looked good in Truespace frequently looked different in the game engine. Early in the process, I wasn't exaggerating motions enough - I realize now that what may look cartoonish and exaggerated on your screen when you are animating, often looks fine in a game engine. I had to spend a lot of time tweaking and re-doing these animation cycles.

8. Of the things you worked on in Prelude to Darkness, what stands out as your favourite? Which models are you proudest of? What armors do you think work well together as a look? Are there any improvements you would like to have made given more time?

Travis Williams: There are a few things I like a lot. I really like the way the armor and clothing system changes your character textures. It's very satisfying to outfit your character in a suit of plate mail and see him looking all shiny and powerful. I am proud of the way the Barrier city looks - the models and textures came together nicely in that area to create a distinct look and feel. The "mushroom forests" in the underground environments are really fun, too.

Sometimes I like to take the pants off all my characters and make them run around crowded towns.

There are many, many improvements I would make if I had time. As I've mentioned, the development of this game was very much a learning process for me. I do have a certain amount of regret that I had to learn a lot of this stuff as I was going along - if I could start over again with what I know now, Prelude would look a lot slicker. I am proud of the way many of the models look, and I do think it is a good-looking game, but I also feel I could do better at this point. I'd like to add some more creature models to the game, and maybe a couple more human models - to reflect different body types a little more, or to change depending on what kind of armor you're wearing.

In addition, there are improvements I'd like to make to the GUI. In fact, Mat and I are working on this right now.

9. What do you consider to be your main inspirations and motivations? Can you tell us about any major influences on your work?

Travis Williams: As an illustrator, growing up I was very influenced by comic books. (My mom has thousands of crayon drawings of superheroes packed away in boxes in her attic somewhere.) This style of art, as well as the aesthetics of Anime, had a lot of influence on me. I still draw inspiration from people who manage to do visually exciting and fresh things within the medium of comics (i.e. David Mack) or the medium of animation (i.e. Miyazake).

When it comes to the art in computer games, I like to see work that breaks the mold a little. I'm weary of seeing the same burly barbarians and busty longsword-swinging Amazonian women in every RPG. I'm tired of seeing Tolkein-races and their variants. I like it when characters are ugly as often as beautiful, and I like novel approaches to character races and monsters.

10. Is there anything you find particularly challenging about working on a computer role-playing game? Given free reign, is there anything you would have done differently on Prelude to Darkness?

Travis Williams: I spent so much of my childhood playing RPGs, I found myself very comfortable. I'd find it much more challenging working on a first-person shooter, or a driving game, because I never really played these and I still don't. The whole logic and language of the RPG is well-internalized in me, so I really had fun building one.

And to be honest, I was practically given free reign by the team, so I have nothing to complain about in that sense. There are things I would do better or differently in retrospect, but it's not because I didn't have the creative freedom to do so at the time. It's more an issue of gained experience and hindsight. One of the things I would do a little differently is spend more time developing the GUI! I was so absorbed in learning to build character models and working on animations that the GUI was not given the time and care it should have been.

11. On the current market, are there any games that particularly impress you? What features in a game attract your attention?

Travis Williams To be honest, I haven't had much time to play games these days. I used to try and play as many RPGs as I could when they came out, but I've been too busy for the last couple years. I'm interested in trying Neverwinter Nights. I also want to give Warcraft 3 a try because I think the Blizzard team is great; their artists are really impressive.

As I've mentioned, I prefer playing games that have RPG elements to anything else. Beyond that there are a few features I appreciate. Good writing and good quest design is SO hard to come by, and it's such a pleasure to me when something is well-written. One of the things we tried to emphasize in Prelude is an intelligent story and script, and quests that had some depth to them, because we were all so tired of the same UPS-style gameplay. Pretty much every game that comes out these days claims it has a good storyline, but none of them do. I also love a somewhat unusual look-and-feel to a game world. As a recent example, I don?t think Planescape:Torment was a great RPG, but I loved the fact that the look of the world and the characters was really different from your typical warriors-and-ogres-and-elves fare.

12. Prior to working on Prelude To Darkness, what were you doing?

Travis Williams: I started working on Prelude right before I went to grad school for a while. I studied at NYU for a Ph.D. in cognitive science, focusing on comparative approaches (I worked with monkeys and apes, in the lab and in the field). At some point I realized that graduate school was not for me, though, and I went back and worked full-time on Prelude.

13. Outside of your work with Zero Sum what do you get up to?

Travis Williams: No good, mostly. I spend my days working as a researcher and graphic designer for a small market research company. I also do freelance print and web design work. I am harboring dreams of being a rock star, however, so I spend roughly four nights a week practicing with the two bands I play with here in Boston. We're gonna be, like, really famous, I swear.

I'm planning on getting back to video game development sometime in the next year or two, though, and looking forward to it.

Thanks to Travis Williams for taking the time to answer these questions!

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