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Creating Art for Games: How 1518 Studios Brings Player Immersion Across Genres
Lifelike realism is a crucial element for player immersion in many of today’s latest games.
As next-gen consoles and PCs deliver gaming experiences with the latest graphical advancements such as ray tracing, gamers are coming to expect a higher level of realism, achieved through the art style of their gaming experiences. Players expect games to grab their attention, immerse them, and make them feel truly part of the worlds they are exploring and interacting with.
No matter the genre of a game—be it Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Horror, or Adventure—the 3D characters, props, weapons, and environments found in a game often have an artistic yet believable realism in their style, purposely built-in from the get-go to better immerse the player in such worlds. But what the average player might not realize is just how much went on behind the scenes to create the realistic art in the latest game they’re playing. Every little detail on a character’s jacket, or a hairstyle, or a special weapon, must be accounted for.
So what exactly needs to be considered when creating realistic art for video games?
At 1518 Studios (part of the PTW family of brands), we’re experts on the full pipeline of bringing 3D realistic art to life in a game. When developing art for any client’s project, our artists engage in deep research, applying learnings from many disciplines such as human psychology, color theory, and historical archetypes. Today, we look at 3 examples of projects we’ve partnered on, and how we worked to expertly craft a sense of stylized realism, always considering the key factors that will immerse a player in the game’s world.
The Callisto Protocol is a survival sci-fi/horror game from Striking Distance Studios, released December 2022. The game was directed by Glen Schofield, co-creator of the Dead Space series. The player assumes the role of Jacob Lee (performed by Josh Duhamel), sent to a prison facility set on the Jovian moon of Callisto, where he must fight against prisoners infected with an unknown disease while uncovering the dark secrets of the facility.
The theme is dark and gloomy, and the creatures are realistically terrifying in an otherworldly way. The team at 1518 Studios was thrilled to provide support on early-stage 3D modeling of the creatures found in the game. Our main task was to create the in-game low-poly models based on the block-outs / high-poly models provided by Striking Distance, and prepare them for texturing by Striking Distance. Technically, these are the models which can be seen in the final game; thus it was important to follow certain rules and nuances so they would work correctly in the game engine.
Striking Distance sets a very high bar for the quality and polycount required, which led to more meticulous work from our team on the low-poly stage—especially for the characters who would be animated, where having a correct grid is essential. The Callisto Protocol is a Sci-fi Horror game with the goal of scaring and enthralling the player, and the feeling of horrific immersion derives from witnessing the realistic animation of gore, scares, and disgust.
Here we see how horrifyingly an alien disease takes shape, with the bulbous, grotesque design of the Mutant’s realistic 3D body and head.
The UV stage was also important: due to properly placed UV shells, dynamic shader effects such as blood, rain, and sweat can be displayed on the model correctly in-game.
Baking is similarly vital. After baking, we get an in-game model with minimal polycount, but maximum detailing. As a result, we delivered the game models and Substance Painter scenes with separate materials, fully ready for further texturing by Striking Distance.
Another terrifying look was envisioned for the Grunt, the “Biophage-infected” human that’s encountered as an enemy in the game. Its body and head are in the early stages of being afflicted with bulbous hives, missing teeth, and other facial deformities. Our artists understand that there are certain horror archetypes and human psychology involved when it comes to designing realistic horror art in games. By incorporating classic fears of the grotesque, the unknown, and the inhuman/alien elements, our artists kept Striking Distance’s vision top-of-mind during the meticulous behind-the-scenes work needed on the 3D modeling. In the end, all the elements combined into a fantastic game that has immersed players around the world in the realistic, terrifying fear of The Callisto Protocol.
Next, we look at some of our work done for New World, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) developed by Amazon Games and released in September 2021. The game takes place on the supernatural island of Aeternum, where adventurers have shipwrecked and must forge a new destiny for themselves.
Our artists directed key attention toward how to bring the sense of adventure through artistic details in clothing, accessories, and hairstyles, immersing the player in a time that could be the mid-seventeenth century. In the game, players must team up with others to survive by protecting fortified strongholds against hostile creatures and other players. Players get to choose among realistic yet fantastically detailed clothing options. That, mixed with the gritty realism of being in a new land of adventure, makes the sense of adventure/survival even more compelling.
In New World, one of the highlights for our artists was creating the abundance of different patterns and ornaments on character armor. Having such realistic, detailed character customization options helps to furnish the element of player immersion and expression in this "New World."
One key challenge for our artists was the various layered skirts and the abundance of tiny details. These details—such as fasteners, ropes, and bandages—are important for artists to pay close attention to, as these design elements can influence subsequent skinning and animation work.
Our artists always closely consider these nuances at an early stage, making sure that the quality remains consistently high, and that the intricacies of this stylized yet realistic art remain believable across the world. All of these small details add up to immerse players in a "New World" that feels both real, yet fantastical and full of adventure!
Finally, we look at some of our work in SMITE from Hi-Rez Studios.
First released in 2014, SMITE is a free-to-play, third-person multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game, where players control a god, goddess, or other mythological figure and take part in team-based combat, using their abilities and tactics against other gods.
1518 Studios is delighted to be involved in the production of many character skins found in the game. In SMITE, players can choose between a large variety of character skins from different cultural lore and mythologies, including Babylonian, Celtic, Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, Hindu, Japanese, Norse, Polynesian, Slavic, and Yoruba. Even character skins derived from King Arthur's legends and the Cthulhu Mythos are represented in the game.
For SMITE, it’s been such a great experience working on the art style of these character skins, which is a hybrid of realistic art and stylized art. By combining the highly stylized silhouettes and shapes of the gods with the intricate, realistic details found in clothing, weapons, and armor, the feeling of ethereal realism of the characters is elevated to new heights.
Building these incredibly detailed models of the gods serves to immerse the player in the feeling of mystical realism. With players assuming the role of a god, capturing the line between real and ethereal in each design of a god’s character skin is important for our artists. Drawing upon cultural history, lore, and the inherent powers of these gods in the game, our artists have learned to strike this balance for each character skin.
Is the god more human-like or animal-like? Is the god meant to be terrifying, intimidating, or endearing? What other elements of the mythology of a particular god (such as fire, water, lightning) can be incorporated into the god’s character design in a unique way? These are the types of analyses our artists keep in mind when bringing these realistic 3D characters to life.
The detailed yet ethereal realism of the character design even extends beyond the confines of the game. It becomes important for cosplayers exhibiting their fandom of SMITE in real life, too. The ability to play as a god in such an immersive way has lent itself to SMITE having a widely popular fanbase that loves to express itself. The game has been played by over 30 million people worldwide.
In closing, it takes a real skillset to bring to life such a wide variety of 3D art in different game genres. For players to feel immersed in a game, in truly fantastical, dreamlike worlds, a sense of realism must be maintained across all genres. Whether it's Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Horror, Adventure, or any other genre, it comes down to emotion.
Immersion is emotion. Why do dreams feel so real when we dream them? Because they produce emotions while we are experiencing them. If you ask our artists, who are gamers themselves, they’ll tell you that’s why we play games. To feel like we’re in a waking dream, to escape to new worlds, and to feel truly immersed in them. It's more than just admiring the beautiful art that surrounds you in a game, or seeing your character’s outfit as an extension of how you would express yourself in that world. It's about the believability of the art style existing in that game, and how the gaming experience will stir your emotions, and inspire dreams within you.