Trees, Glorious Trees!

As I’ve mentioned before, Tombeaux has a main narrator character who we hear reading journal entries throughout the game experience. But there is a group that I would argue upstages our narrator, and that (as you probably guessed by the title) is the trees. Before the St. Croix was a river of recreation for fishing, canoeing, and speedboating like it is now, it was a river of pine, acting as one of the nation’s busiest highways for timber in the mid to late 1800’s. During this time, non-logging boats were lucky to get up the river at all, due to the waterway being clogged full of floating logs (or even worse, a logjam that stopped everything in its path). Since the St. Croix directly connects with the Mississippi, and it had what seemed to be an unlimited supply of tall and straight trees growing along its edges, it was a resource ripe for the picking (or chopping…sorry).


L: group of Pinus strobus, R: distribution map of tree (images via wikipedia)

While Tombeaux is not entirely about the logging industry, it definitely does take the player on a journey to see what it might have been like both before and after the timber harvest. Because of this, I wanted to set the stage by creating an old growth forest, with the main silvan feature being that of Pinus strobus, or the eastern white pine. These old growth forests of white pines are nearly impossible to find now, as only 1% remain in North America due to logging in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This type of pine is the tallest tree found in the eastern (and northeastern/midwest) United States and Canada. With a mature white pine living well past 200 years old, reaching heights of well over 150 feet (while keeping a very straight trunk), and a diameter of 3-4 feet, they were particularly attractive to lumber barons.


Mood Board for reference

After doing some visual research, both online and in person (last post I wrote about my trip to northern Wisconsin, in which I did some bark texture reconnaissance), it was time to dive in to creating this giant beast of the forest, including the many iterations that it might take, such as sawed-off stumps, beaver-chewed stubs, and dead (needle-less) versions (both standing and downed).  Additionally, I wanted to make sure I was creating an environment that felt both native and diverse, filled with other types of trees such as oak and birch. At a later date, I plan to return to the detail meshes and plants, to create native species such as wild celery (an underwater type of river weed/grass), wild rice, ferns, and wildflowers.


One iteration of an eastern white pine, inside SpeedTree

Once I compiled a small mood board, I set out to learn and use a new program that I had been itching to try, called SpeedTree. It is an industry standard tree and foliage creator for both movies and games, and now that it is naturally integrated into Unity 5 and Unreal 4, we will most likely continue to see a great deal of high quality natural environments in the coming years from both indies and AAA companies. One way to use their tech is by paying and downloading high-quality, pre-made tree assets from their store (but what’s the fun in that?!). Another, more creative way is by paying a $19 per month subscription fee to use their modeling/creation software. As a point of reference, two months of paying for the software is actually cheaper than the $39 price tag for a single tree from their store!). Since it is my goal to create as much in my game as possible from scratch, I decided to download the software and start making assets myself.


2 Stumps and 1 Gnawed Beaver Tree in SpeedTree


Bare (Dead) White Pine in Speedtree w/ Bark Detail

Simply put, SpeedTree is my new favorite software. One can quickly and easily create natural assets for a game, using an intuitive, node-based interface that tries to mimic how a tree is naturally constructed. Starting with a trunk, and then adding elements such as roots, branches, and leaves provides for a very smooth workflow. Everything is highly customizable as well, with integrated wind effects, collision capsules, seamless branching, randomizers, break points for branches or trunks, and automatic billboard and LOD (level of detail) creation upon export to Unity.  Once I created a base white pine tree, I was quickly able to create many iterations by simply removing leaves (bare tree) and breaking and capping trees (stumps).  I didn’t even use many of their features, and hope to dive deeper into the program when I use it to create plants and other detail foliage.  Again, I can’t say enough about how much this program has helped my environment-heavy project achieve a great look.


LOD transition feature in Unity (LOD 0 on left w/ 9K tris, LOD 2 on right w/ 2K tris)

Once you bring a SpeedTree asset into the Unity engine, it offers other great options for you to tweak. With the LOD’s that were auto-created/exported by SpeedTree, you can adjust them to your liking in the engine, so that it seamlessly transfers to a billboard at the distance you set. I really like the fact that you can also drag and drop the trees into the scene as objects or prefabs. Since these also have the LOD settings, you could put a hero tree (a hi-poly, hi-detailed tree) in your scene without having to worry about relying on Unity’s finnicky terrain.  With that said, I painted most of my trees on the terrain, as it makes it much easier when you have a large amount of assets to place and randomize.


Here there be beavers…and downed trees…the perfect natural barrier!

Due to my game being on a river, it is important that I have some invisible walls that will stop the player from continuing up and down the river at their leisure. Implementing barriers correctly is tricky, as you don’t want the barrier to scream “HEY, I’M AN INVISIBLE WALL PUT THERE BY A GAME DESIGNER WHO DIDN’T REALLY CARE ABOUT YOUR IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE THAT MUCH!” (sorry, it is one of my biggest pet-peeves in games). While natural-looking barriers are great, you also don’t want it to be mistaken for just another stick or bush in the game that one thinks they can walk over.  I try to put some purpose behind the walls when possible, which is where things like downed trees, beaver dams, and beaver-gnawed stubs come in to play (plus, it’s always a great way to show off some of your hard work in a more up-close view!).


The view from directly outside the cabin door

While the exterior river scene is hardly complete, I’m happy with the progress I’ve made in the past few days on the tree elements.  So far, I’ve created and placed four iterations of the white pine, three of the birch, and two of the oak. Additionally, I have three white pine stumps, three gnawed-beaver stubs, and three downed trees.  Once I give the same attention to the plants and detail rocks (they are all currently the low-quality placeholder plants that Unity provides), spend some time on the lighting (it is just a single real-time directional light w/ default skybox at the moment), and add some environmental effects like haze and fog, the river will hopefully start to look more like it did 200 years ago.


Looking up to the cabin from the river (underneath a couple towering pinus strobus)


Certificate of Authenticity

It’s been a few weeks since my last post, so I wanted to speak about what I’ve been up to, in regards to Tombeaux’s progress. While I haven’t been able to devote as much time to creating visual or design work for the game as of late, many other necessary elements have been accomplished in the background.  Most of that behind-the-scenes work has involved me doing a lot of reading, writing, and traveling, all in support of the game’s research.

Since Tombeaux – more than any other project I’ve done to date – includes an extremely large amount of history, the emphasis on solid research has been crucial.  Just as with any historical fiction piece (book, movie, game, etc.), I feel like I have spent just as much time reading and researching as I have been modeling and designing (if not more!).

Since Tombeaux is a historical game that relies more on fact than fiction, I’ve returned to a sources, all of which I’ve consistently used for reference in making the game:


Important Sources for Tombeaux

These books are actually what got me started on this journey over a year ago, and it’s been a pleasure to revisit their pages. The experience has simultaneously reaffirmed old ideas and sparked new ones for the game. In the past few weeks, these texts have helped me to get close to finishing the characters and dialogue found throughout the game.  At this point, I have seventeen different characters from different time periods, cultures, and backgrounds (the player never sees these people, but does hear their voices in short narrative bursts). These include historical personalities such as a fur trader, an Ojibwe woman, a lumber baron, a tourist, a homesteader couple, and a farmer, to name a few. I’m attempting to stay as authentic as possible in crafting their dialogue, so while I have taken a few artistic liberties, the characters will speak words which are an amalgamation of both fact (actual quotes) and fiction.  I’m nearly finished with these, and look forward to seeking out voice actors for these various roles (if you or someone you know might be interested, please do reach out!).


In addition to the reading and writing mentioned above, I’ve been diving deep into various primary resources, such as letters, photographs, maps, journals, and certificates, many of which I plan to somehow feature in the game as “virtual artifacts” of the actual text/image (hanging on a wall, sitting on a desk, etc).  I would never have been able to find nearly as much material if it wasn’t for the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS). In addition to having an unbelievable online catalog of visual materials, the History Center in St. Paul houses a world-class museum and research library.  I had the good fortune of spending a bit of time at the center and interacting with the employees, making it one of the highlights of my time working on Tombeaux thus far.

But it doesn’t stop there with the MNHS – they actually manage 26 different historic sites scattered across the state, a few of which I’ve recently visited to seek out visual references that will aid me in making my game’s scenes as authentic as possible. This summer, I’ve been able to visit two sites of particular importance – the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post, and the North West Company Fur Post (both are 60-90 minutes north of the Twin Cities and only an hour apart from each other). In both cases, I had specific goals of what I’d need to capture with my camera, in hopes that I might be able to use it to aid me in creating the worlds of Tombeaux.

2015-05-16 14.51.19

The “Four Seasons Room” at Mille Lacs

At Mille Lacs, I discovered that the museum had curated a wonderful combination of both contemporary and historic Ojibwe culture, culminating with an experience in their “four seasons room”. This particular room was so rich with identity and history that 15 minutes of photographing that space has saved me hours of combing the internet and archives for reference imagery examples of 19th century Ojibwe living customs!

The North West Fur Post provided museum-goers with somewhat of an opposite experience from Mille Lacs, approaching things from the perspective of the english fur trade culture set at a re-creation of a famous 19th century trading post (I recommend visiting both sites in the same day, for the balanced historical perspective as well as out of convenience). I was able to gather more visual materials for Ojibwe culture, as well as new elements of fur trading culture and history, all of which will be visual examples to be references when modeling objects and environments in the game.

NWC hero

North West Company Fur Post

In addition to these focused and deliberate trips, things also sometimes just appear when you least expect it. I spent last week on vacation at a cabin north of Hayward, Wisconsin, and had the opportunity to gather some miscellaneous elements for the game, including: the chance to inspect and photograph some century-old branded timber from the logging era (courtesy of the Barnes Area Historical Association), gather some white pine tree bark textures from the surrounding area, and visit the Sawyer County Historical Museum.

This is why I love what I do – I’m able to combine two passions I’ve had since I was a kid: the urge to express myself in a visual and creative manner and my desire to soak up everything I can about the history around me. And honestly, I don’t think I could be happy doing just one of them. I need my artwork to be rooted in authenticity and research and I can’t imagine how I’d ever write a scholarly history book like James Taylor Dunn did (unless I was able to fill it with more pictures than words!).  Making historically focused and inspired artwork is truly an enjoyable process, and I can’t wait to finally share that experience with everyone else (as I’ve always found that sharing is half the fun!).


Top: White Pine Trees, Bottom: Hayward Museum (left) and stamped log from Barnes Historical Association (right)

Art Update

I thought I’d put up a post showing some of what I’ve been up to, in regards to modeling and texturing over the past few days. Note: nearly all of this is WIP, so certain textures and details are yet to come!

I’ll start with the cabin, where the player will frequently be returning to throughout the game. I modeled it in Maya and wanted to keep the exterior under 1,000 tris, all while trying to recreate a cabin similar to an authentic homesteader’s cabin. As you can see, most of the detail work is handled by the texture maps, since it has flat walls that don’t demand a high-detail geometry profile. Also, the player will not be able to walk around the entire cabin, so my focus was mainly on the front and sides of the structure. Soon, I plan to add a handle and hinges to the door, a stove-pipe on the roof and wooden boards nailed over the windows.


Base for Cabin Exterior in Maya (835 tris). Inset: reference image

Albedo & Normal Map for Cabin Exterior

Albedo & Normal Map for Cabin Exterior

I have also modeled a few outbuildings/objects for the cabin.  The outhouse will sit in proximity to the main structure, and the lean-to will be found behind the cabin, as if it was a later addition to the home. I’ve created some barbed wire fencing as well, using albedo, normal, and transparency maps. Its design is based on the 1874 version by Joseph Glidden from DeKalb, IA (itwas the first barbed-wire patent awarded in the United States).


Outhouse in Maya (188 tris)

Lean To

Lean-to in Maya (166 tris)

Barbed Wire Fencing. (L: Glidden's 1874 Patent, Top Right: Model in Maya, and Bottom Right: Transparency Map for wires.

Barbed Wire Fencing. (lef: Glidden’s 1874 Patent, top right: Model showing textured and untextured versions in Maya, bottom right: Transparency map used for wires (black makes it invisible, white makes it visible).

Cabin, Outhouse, Lean-to, and Fencing (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

Cabin, Outhouse, Lean-to, and Fencing in Unity (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

I’ve also steadily continued to create the rocks and cliffs that will be found in the game.  As I talked about extensively before, the environment in which my game is set demands a great amount of focus on these geological creations. At this point, I’ve created one giant cliff (2K tris), two medium cliffs (1K tris each), and two large rocks (500 tris each).  My goal is to have about double that regarding assets to choose from, in order to dress the river scene’s set so that it is both believable and not redundant.

Cliff in Zbrush (top) & Maya (bottom)

Medium Cliff in Zbrush (top) & again selected amongst the other rocks/cliffs Maya (bottom)

5 Rocks/Cliffs, separated for demonstration (in-game)

5 Rocks/Cliffs, separated for demonstration in Unity

As seen above, to create objects with unique silhouettes (that can stand on their own as interesting pieces) is one challenge, but to also design it so that they work as a “team” in a modular fashion is a bit trickier.  Below, I’ve duplicated and arranged the five rock/cliff models into a grouping to show what I mean. I will need to eventually line both sides of my river level with rock and cliff formations that have unique nooks and crannies, so as to create memorable images and moments for the player to stumble-upon during their experience. I’ve thrown in some trees from Speedtree as well, to provide scale and reference.

Shot of assets (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

Modular cliff set-up (using 5 unique, instanced assets) (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

Shot of assets (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

Modular cliff set-up (using 5 unique, instanced assets) (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

While I’m content with the modeling pipeline I’ve established for these rocks and cliffs, I still need to give a lot of attention to their texture maps.  Currently, all of the geological forms share the same non-native, generic albedo texture, and while that is helpful for continuity, it becomes a bit boring when the player gets closer to the forms. In the coming months, I plan to return to the St. Croix River to shoot reference photography of the sandstone for the base rock textures.  I’m also planning to add lichen and moss into the secondary albedo detail maps, in order to give more interest for close-up inspection. Finally, I plan to turn the specular highlight way down (unless the rocks are wet, of course, which some of them will be!), as I’ve cranked it up only to show the secondary normal detail map. When it comes time for set-dressing, I’ll also be interspersing natural growth throughout the cliffs, such as grasses, flowers, weeds, and even trees.

Cliff Detail (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

Cliff Detail – albedo and spec maps will be changing (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

Cliff Detail (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

Cliff Detail – albedo & spec maps will be changing (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

So, hopefully this helps you envision the world of Tombeaux just a bit more, as the objects (both natural and human-made) are beginning to take shape and make their way into the game engine! As always, I’d love any comments, questions, or constructive feedback in the comments section.

Shot of assets (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

Shot of some assets from Tombeaux (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

Like a Rock

The Cliffs of the St. Croix

Some cliffs of the St. Croix

For this post, I thought I’d focus on the pipeline that is involved with making a fairly common asset found in my game – ROCKS.  Due to the outdoor level taking place on the St. Croix River, I’m trying to stay as true as possible to the natural environment one would find on that river.  For anyone who has traveled to the St. Croix, they probably know that the lower St. Croix (as you get closer to Stillwater) is lined with beautiful cliffs that surprise you around each bend in the river.  Sometimes it is a small ledge that creeps up on you, while the heights of other towering cliffs invite – or even dare – you to jump off its ledge into the waters below.  Due to this diversity, I knew I couldn’t just make “one cliff to rule them all”, but instead would need an assortment of fat ones, skinny ones, tall ones, short ones, big ones, small ones, and (more often than not) oddly shaped ones.  People who play my game will be see quite a lot of these rocks, so I knew that giving special attention to these guys was important, even if it did seem counterintuitive to care so much about them 😉

A mirror of the same cliff, found two different times in

A mirror of the same cliff, found two different times in “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter”

Since this was my first round at creating a rock for the game, I decided not to attempt an entire giant cliff, but instead approached it from a modular standpoint. If done right, a game level can have multiple repeated objects in the scene, without the player even realizing it (unless they are really REALLY looking for it).

A game that does this well is The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (above).  Through flipping, rotating, and scaling, they achieved a lot of visual diversity at a low-cost. In fact, when I started looking for it, identical rock formations and textures began showing up throughout the game. If you haven’t yet played this game and are a fan of first-person adventure/exploration titles, it comes highly recommended (ironically, it is supposed to be set in Wisconsin, yet it is made by a European studio!).  The game is actually so gorgeous that as a game artist it depresses me every time I play it (the rocks are so real you’d think you’re looking at a photo (and it turns out that you actually are!)). They didn’t actually do as much modeling as you’d think, but instead took hundreds of pictures of rocks and turned those photos into 3D models and textures (using photogrammetry). I’ve got a friend and fellow game design colleague at UW-Stout, Seth Berrier, who focuses a lot of his research in this field. He’s given a number of really interesting talks that tie this advanced tech into popular uses like game asset creation and archival preservation.


An idea board of St. Croix pictures, created to visualize silhouettes and scale for Tombeaux

To begin, I made out an idea board (above), so that I could start envisioning how these rocks would be put together in the game. For this go around, I aimed to create a medium-sized rock that could be stacked and combined with others to create a larger whole. I also wanted to keep it below 1,000 tris (tessellated triangles created for the game engine render it on-screen), so I was going to depend a lot on the maps I’d be placing on the object.

My preference for a 3D modeling program is Autodesk Maya, which is basically an all-in-one poly and NURBs modeling program that incorporates a great deal of other features like rigging, animation, effects, and rendering (to name just a few!). I knew that to get a believable rock, I’d need to also use Pixologic ZBrush, organic sculpting software that uses a pen tablet, and attempts to simulate working with clay.  To begin, I created a polygon cube in Maya and smoothed it twice, to make a more pillow-like structure (below).  Starting in Maya allows me to establish good topology right away,and sets up my pipeline for going between Maya and ZBrush using .obj files.

Starting out in Maya (top) and then on to ZBrush (bottom)

Starting out in Maya (top) and then starting to form the silhouette in ZBrush (bottom)

Once the mesh was exported from Maya, I imported it into ZBrush and began working.  As with any artwork, I began with broad strokes before diving deeper into detail.  I made deep cuts into the rock, using a brush that simulates cutting butter with a wide knife (almost more like pressing).  I also continually went back over specific areas, building up the digital clay again (see above). Since ZBrush is such an extremely powerful tool in a modeler’s bag of tricks, one can get lost for hours in the little details, so I needed to continually remind myself that this part of the pipeline was specifically focused on silhouette – both due to the number of these that I will need to create and the simple fact I was working on a ROCK and not Michelangelo’s David, I did not need to dive too deep into sculpting the details – that can be shouldered by the textures. I relied mainly on a small collection of 3-5 brushes to make the chiseled and broken effects I was going for.

Near the end of the sculpting phase in ZBrush with a clay polish pass

Near the end of the sculpting phase in ZBrush with a clay polish pass

Once I was happy with the shape and overall rough texture of the object, it was time to bring this high-detail mesh down to a manageable level that could be worked with in the game engine.  As a reminder, I was shooting for <1,000 tris for the object, and the current number in ZBrush was around 630,000 tris (which is actually fairly low for a model in ZBrush).  I lowered the polycount through ZBrush’s Decimation Master plugin, which brought it down to just under 1,000 tris, and I was ready to bring it back in to Maya (below). I held on to the higher resolution model, as I’d use it later on to create the details in the normal map. A normal map is a very important element to any game that is aiming to show high amounts of detail on the surfaces while also keeping the total polycount low. It is an image that catches light in specific angles, tricking the player into thinking that there is surface detail or texture on the mesh, when it is all really just a trick of light and image.

Final Decimated Mesh in ZBrush and lo poly version in Maya

Final Decimated Mesh in ZBrush and lo-poly version in Maya,

Now that I had the silhouette of the rock formed, it was time to work on how the textures would be applied to the mesh. While some people prefer other packages or plugins for this, I’m a Maya traditionalist, so I did it the old school “manual” way.  Essentially, I cut along some of the mesh surfaces, unwrapping the mesh from a 3D object to lay it flat on a 2D plane (below).  This would allow me to take a 2D image (created later) and “wrap” it back up around the mesh the same way I unwrapped it. This UV map data also will tell other programs how to read the mesh’s connections to images, materials, and textures.

Laying out the UVs in Maya

Laying out the UVs in Maya

Once finished with the UV stage, it was time to bring all of what I had worked on to this point (lo-poly 1K mesh in Maya, hi-poly 630K mesh still in ZBrush, and flat 2D UV coordinates from Maya) into the third tool in my pipeline, xNormal.  xNormal is a free piece of (Windows-only) software that does a wonderful job of reading the hi-poly mesh details and projecting them on to the lo-poly mesh, by placing them flat on to the UV coordinates. It creates normals, ambient occlusion (or AO), specular, and many other maps as well, automagically for you. After baking out a normal map and ambient occlusion map, I brought the rock into a fourth program, Marmoset Toolbag 2.  While Maya can display the normals just fine, Toolbag does a great job of simulating closer to how the game engine will present it to the player with HDR lighting, real-time rendering, and skyboxes.

Baking the maps in xNormal and previewing in Maya and Marmoset Toolbag 2

Baking the maps in xNormal and previewing in Maya and Marmoset Toolbag 2

For the purpose of the game, these normals looked good.  I was still going to be adding a few more maps on top of this, which will give color, detail, and specular highlight to the object.  All of these things involved me working in Photoshop with tiled textures.  The first texture I was going to take on was the albedo (formerly referred to as diffuse, before Physically Based Rendering came along), which handles the color properties of the texture.  Using (a site bookmarked by every texture artists out there), I found a small tiling map of a smooth, worn rock face that I thought might look good on my asset (top left in below pic).  Since I wanted my overall texture size to be 2048 x 2048, I tiled this 8 times and did some image editing to it, resulting in the main tiled albedo texture for my rock (top middle in below pic). Finally, to create my main normal map, I used the map created by xNormal as a base, and then turned my albedo texture into a normal map to overlay on top of it (top right in below pic), using the sixth program in the pipeline, NDO (a Photoshop plugin). NDO (by Quixel) is another automagic program, using presets to turn your images into highly detailed normal maps.


Various Maps that go into the texturing the rock, using xNormal, Photoshop & NDO

In order to achieve the detail I wanted for players to see when they were close to the rock, I needed to also create a secondary normal map, as well as a specular map.  The game engine I’m using supports secondary maps, which go the extra mile in providing realism to a scene.  I went through the same pipeline as above to create this, based on a higher-contrast image I found on and using NDO to create the normals (bottom midde in above pic).  Since I didn’t want my rock to be too shiny, I toned down the specular map to a dark grey, so only certain areas would catch the light in subtle ways in the engine (bottom right in above pic).

Now that I had the lo-poly mesh and five different texture maps (Albedo, Normal, AO, Spec, and Detail Normal), it was time to bring it in to the seventh and last software program in the pipeline, the Unity 5 engine.  While the procedure of getting the textures on the rock were fairly straightforward, I needed to spend some time tweaking the render settings and lighting for a bit to achieve the results I wanted. I’m still not 100% happy with the lighting, but it will have to do for now. So as you can see, the process for creating assets from scratch (which is unfortunately rare these days) is somewhat tedious at first, but once one gets into the flow, things can go relatively quickly.

Final Rock Asset in Unity 5 (detail normal/spec in corner)

Final Rock Asset in Unity 5 (detail normal/spec in corner)

If you have any tips or tricks (or questions!) for asset creation, feel free to share them in the comments below.  Thanks for reading, and rock on! (sorry)

Cabin Fever

Kate Craig of Fullbright, showing her main reference for Gone Home – a Sear’s Catalog from the 90’s

I had the good fortune of attending an amazing talk at GDC this past March, featuring Fullbright’s Steve Gaynor & Kate Craig. They talked about their meticulous and methodical approach to level design in Gone Home (a game that is one of the many reasons I was inspired to pursue my project in the first place).  Kate Craig talked about how important it is to do your research and focus on what looks both good *and* believable, I immediately connected to her approach as a game artist and designer. Even better, Kate personally sat down with me after the talk and provided some valuable feedback for Tombeaux, much of which has shaped the game’s current state (thanks Kate!).

As I mentioned earlier, I am working on two levels that the player spends time in while playing Tombeaux.  One (larger) level takes place on a small section of something inspired by the St. Croix River, while the other (smaller) level takes place inside a small cabin atop a cliff, overlooking the river.  I’d like to talk a bit about the cabin itself, and how I’ve seen the design transformation of such a key level in my game. Although I’ve grown fond of the below screenshot, there was something that just didn’t seem right about it.  Having learned a lot about level design over this past year, I knew I had to (almost) start over with this scene.

Former cabin interior from Tombeaux

Prototype Screenshot of former cabin interior from Tombeaux

So with that said, I’m going to break my realization down into three distinct nuggets.  They might seem like no brainer’s, but I can honestly say I didn’t think about them nearly as seriously a year ago, and now I’m paying for it with having to do a major amount of cabin remodeling (literally!).

Real Estate Tip #1: Who lives in my cabin?

My game is filled with characters, dialogue, and embedded narrative.  While you don’t necessarily see the characters, you hear their thoughts and read their writings. What this means is that these virtual people need to live somewhere in my game.  Not just in a few lines of code or an audio file, but instead I want the player to feel like the characters were present just moments ago – the campfires are still smoldering and equipment is waiting for its owner’s imminent return. Regarding the cabin, it has a unique owner. While you as the player never meet this person, his presence is felt through the decor in the space and the words he’s left.  In fact, the cabin’s occupant is the main narrator of the game, speaking as if he is standing right next to you.

I’ve been working on bios for all of my characters, but due to his prominence in the game, he’s received a bit more attention than the others at this point. As a character, he is timeless and nameless, acting more as a representative of a collection of ideas rather than a specific person or opinion. Yet his dialogue hints at some elements of formal education and a high society lifestyle, with a longing for something more primitive and simple. I’m using Thoreau’s Walden, William H. H. Murray’s Adventures in the Wilderness, and elements of Teddy Roosevelt as some inspirational jumping-off points for his design.

Books & People who have inspired my narrator character

Books & People who have inspired my narrator character

When I designed the cabin last summer, I wasn’t thinking about characters enough. I was more focused on creating a 3D space than giving it “character”.  Sure, the grey-boxing doesn’t need “character” (or characters), but it still provides a large amount of drive to why objects rest in the space that they do (and why those objects are even there in the first place!). So, while my “2014 Cabin” served its purpose well through providing the player a place to navigate and also helped me to envision the style of the game, it was only surface level about its reason for existence.

For instance, my earlier cabin design didn’t even have a bed, sink, or toilet. Instead, I decided to make a closed-door in the room, that would hint that those things were behind that door.  But what do you think everyone wanted to do when they saw that door (and how frustrated they got when they couldn’t do that thing)? Remember, although you think you’re making this game/level/cabin for yourself (or a fictional character, like above), that is only part of it – the true judge of its merit will be the player.

Screenshot of Old Cabin Interior (Maya)

Screenshot of old empty 2014 cabin interior (in Autodesk Maya). Brown door leads NOWHERE.

Real Estate Tip #2: Who is going to visit my cabin?

While designing your virtual space for a virtual character to inhabit is important, it is also crucial to consider how guests visiting your space will react to the world you’ve created.  I boil this down to two questions to ask: Will the player be able to navigate my world efficiently? Will the player believe in the world I’ve created?

Regarding efficiency, I feel that the design of my cabin was fairly straightforward – in both cases I used simple geometric footprints for my layout (long rectangle in 2014 and large square in 2015). While I would have loved to create a more unique blueprint, I thought about the location and timeless period that this cabin is found in and realized that I needed to forego luxury and spatial design for minimalism and efficiency (I have decided to add some outbuildings to the cabin that the player would see when outside, to add some more complexity to the design in a different way).


2015 (filled) cabin on left, 2014 (empty) cabin on right (Autodesk Maya Screenshot)

While my 2014 cabin was visually interesting due to the objects, textures, and lighting, it didn’t make any sense as a living space.  It was long and narrow, lacking half the things you’d normally find in a cabin, and confused the player with an extra door that never opened. In my 2015 redesign, I’ve attempted to create something that is more open, yet feels extremely compact (borderline claustrophobic), to give the sense to the player that someone had lived here for a long time. There is now a single point of entry/exit to the cabin, and I’ve tried to lay out the objects in a way that feels like someone has been accruing memories across multiple time periods. While half of the objects have yet to be modeled, I already feel better about this space, for both the player and my narrator (half of the objects are already modeled, but I haven’t applied the textures yet, as I need to update all of them for Unity 5’s materials).

New Cabin Interior (Grey-box), 2015

New Cabin Interior (half modeled, half grey-boxed), 2015 (in game screenshot, Unity)

Real Estate Tip #3: How much inspiration does my cabin need?

A trend that I’ve been (happily) noticing in-game design lately is the amount of research – or pre-production – people are doing for their games.  While this has always happened to a certain extent, devs and companies are starting to realize that the more seriously we can take our medium from the beginning, the more likely others will take it seriously as well.  Whether it be the AAA studio who flies their devs to Florence to research Renaissance Italy, the mid-sized game dev company who uses on-site photogrammetry to create the majority of models for their game, or the artist who uses a Sear’s catalog as her style and image reference guide, people are doing solid research these days, and it is paying off ten-fold in the final product.

Objects from the Pine Needles Cabin, Modeled in Maya

Select objects from the Pine Needles Cabin for Tombeaux, Modeled in Maya

As an academic, I take research very seriously. When you add my obsession with details and rule-following to the pot, things can get out of hand really quick.  This actually happened last summer with the cabin, as I decided to recreate the exact cabin I was living in, down to many of the objects in the room. While this was a good exercise in observational modeling (and I had access to great texture references), I simply got too caught up being inspired by my surroundings.  The environment I was creating wasn’t making sense for the player and fictional character, and much of that was being driven by the exact place in which I was eating, sleeping, and working.  While the residency at Pine Needles was a monumental and crucial element to envisioning and starting Tombeaux, it took a lot of of user (play)testing, self reflection, and research to realize that it wasn’t the right fit for my game.

Exterior & Interior View of 2014 Cabin Inspiration

2014 Cabin Inspiration (Exterior & Interior of Pine Needles Cabin)

Now a year later, I’ve realized that – in addition to the lack of connection to the subject I was attempting to recreate – I simply don’t have time to be so exact and anal-retentive about everything.  I’ve got A LOT to model and texture, and while that cabin is very important, I can’t lose sleep over how many inches wide the windows each were (yep, I was approaching it like an engineer instead of a level designer!). So now, I’ve reconfigured the cabin’s exterior shape to be loosely based on a simple pioneer cabin.  The interior seeks out another source of inspiration: I’ve discovered the work of Eastman Johnson, who spent most of 1856 living and making artwork on Lake Superior, among the Ojibwe people and the fur traders. He sketched a few cabin interiors that I’ve found particularly pertinent to the look, feel, and time period that I’m hoping to achieve in Tombeaux’s cabin (and river) environment.  His sketches, combined with a late 19th century cabin exterior is shaping up to be a better fit for the game.

Exterior Interior

2015 Cabin Inspiration (L: Homestead National Monument, R: Eastman Johnson Sketch)

So, just as the mantra has been for the past few posts, a lot can happen in a year.  Although it sometimes feels like I’m taking two steps forward and one step back, I think it will be worth it in the end. It is my hope that the player will walk into the cabin and immediately feel my intentions for the designing the space, through their observation of a strong narrative, thoughtful visual layout, and solid research foundation.

and so it begins (albeit a year late)

My name is Dave Beck, and I’m an artist and professor living and working in Wisconsin. I’m writing this blog for you. I hope this peek into my development process will give you a better understanding of my project (which I’ll introduce below), and possibly inspire you to follow and learn along with me on this journey.  I’ve got a lot of lost time to make up for, so before I dive into the “now”, I’ll start with the “then”, much of which happened over this past year.

On that note, I really should have started this devblog a year ago, when I first began the project.  But then again, I had no idea that it would grow to such the monstrous behemoth that it has, filled with so many design doc pages, polygons, pixels, sounds, and lines of code!  The project I’m talking about is Tombeaux. 


Tombeaux Blog Header

Tombeaux is a video game that I am creating.  It is an interactive experience that explores the convergence between cultures and the environment across a few hundred years of midwestern American history, taking place on a small section of the St. Croix River (which serves as part of the natural border between Minnesota and Wisconsin).  Through exploration, the player discovers new objects, environments, and narratives, all of which cause reflection upon our history and our future.

Map of St. Croix River, by Kmusser, based on USGS data, via Wikimedia Commons

As an artist, I see the medium of games as having a fantastic future in contemporary art and new media. It’s a wonderful way to educate, entice, and entertain an audience in ways I’ve always wanted to do with other media, but just couldn’t fully accomplish. I’m making Tombeaux for a variety of reasons, many of which I’ll expand on in future posts. I’ll talk about my inspirations behind the game, the development process, the factual research fueling its content, the collaborations supporting its creation, and other things that provide interesting angles about Tombeaux.

It’s already been a heck of a ride, and it’s only halfway there.  I hope you’ll consider joining me for this last leg of the journey.