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    Developer interview with Art Director Phillip Morales.

    CGSociety :: Game Production Focus
    10 November 2009, by Peter Rizkalla

    As an independent game development studio, what does it take to put together a title that gamers will come to adore? A lot of innovation and a lot of gorgeous design. This is the very same challenge that TimeGate Studios was faced with when developing their newest title, 'Section 8. Long before the release of the game, trailers of Section 8 began to turn heads and garner the attention of the gaming community. Onlookers were already leaving comments on these trailers of how gorgeous it looked and how they couldn’t wait to give Section 8 a shot. The design and promising looking gameplay whet the appetites of the gaming community and, of course, CG lovers. Getting a little bit of time to talk with the art director, Phillip Morales, at TimeGate Studios gave us some insight on how the initial vision of Section 8 became a reality.

    © TimeGate Studios Inc. Published by SouthPeak Interactive, LLC.
     
    © TimeGate Studios Inc. Published by SouthPeak Interactive, LLC.

    Due to Phillip Morales’ background in concept art, the task of initially designing the armor, environments, vehicles and most everything else in Section 8 lay on his shoulders. As development grew larger, the concept art team took over and built up what Phillip Morales had already put together. “We wanted the game to look like a mix of Aliens and Blade Runner in terms of believability,” says Morales. “In our universe you will be shooting heavy metal at each other with the intention of ripping through shields and shredding through armor. We wanted the feel and look grounded in realism, yet we still wanted to push the boundaries of believable technology.”

    Although the design of Section 8 is heavily stylized, in no way was it TimeGate’s intention to make something as outlandishly designed as say 'Unreal Tournament III'. “We wanted to develop tech that is 500 years into the future. However, it still had to relate to a person playing in our present day," Morales continues. "One major mandate is that there are absolutely no goo-guns or phasers in our universe. Our tech is grounded in reality and that translated to the armor, environment structures, vehicles and weapon designs. This also meant having a very mechanical universe so you will note that we have a lot of moving parts on the helmet visor, jetpack fins, how our weapons reload, etc. Everything needs to look like it could exist without needing to use a sci-fi / fantasy explanation. For the environments and structures, they needed to feel as if they had been built under harsh planetary conditions by colonists looking to strike it rich through mining for resources, but ultimately struggling to thrive. The weapons, armor and vehicles had to look heavy yet sleek and ready for combat.”

     
    © TimeGate Studios Inc. Published by SouthPeak Interactive, LLC.
     

    The intense, yet lustrous looking armor of Section 8 is one of the first gorgeous elements that is noticed in the Section 8 trailers. Soldiers in Section 8 would drop through a planet's atmosphere from 15,000 feet into battle so keeping the physics believable by using real-world references was the trick to the design. Morales gives a very visual idea of how the look of the armor came about. “Imagine an American muscle car styled by Mercedes or Lexus, and apply that hybrid style with military purpose. Couple that with the need to burn in from atmospheric heights and how the fins / steering ailerons / airbrakes are brought into play. Finally, the suits are designed to augment and enhance the user’s every move on the battlefield and the suit’s AI is integrated making the user’s thought-to-action processes instantaneous. The functionality of the suit was inspired by the powered suits described in the books Starship Troopers and Armor; but we imagined those tech / designs as the first iterations of the suits in our universe. In the subsequent years and battles that followed (as more and more planets were colonized / terra-formed) the suit designs and tech have been streamlined to where they are in Section 8.”

    So what did TimeGate have in mind when designing the Section 8 armor. What exactly was the design of the armor intended for within the Section 8 universe? “We were going for a futuristic alloy, designed to absorb the impact of high speed projectiles. We imagined that structurally it had the strength of metal/steel, but with the weight and look of a composite alloy. The design of the suits and the vehicles also had to lend themselves to every environment type that the 8th Armored Infantry could presumably fight on. This includes everything from the vacuum of a desolate moon to the toxic, corrosive atmosphere of a volcanic world.”

    © TimeGate Studios Inc. Published by SouthPeak Interactive, LLC.
    .© TimeGate Studios Inc. Published by SouthPeak Interactive, LLC.
     
    © TimeGate Studios Inc. Published by SouthPeak Interactive, LLC.

    The look of the planet surfaces in Section 8 range from desolate and infertile to almost Earlth-like locales. TimeGate’s intention is that each environment would give the viewer / player a different feel when exploring it. “We wanted the world of New Madrid, our desert-themed planet, to look harsh and uninhabitable, with a sun-scorched surface and minimal fauna. Since it had been untouched and unexplored in any way, the mineral / resources were abundant to an almost unfathomable degree. When the first deep space exploration units relayed this information back to Earth, a worldwide surge for further space exploration, terra-forming, and colonization was experienced as never before, and New Madrid was finally colonized after a series of failed efforts. In short, life was not intended to thrive on this desolate world. For our temperate world, Atlas, we wanted the planet to look closer to Earth in terms of being able to sustain human life, so it was much easier for the colonists to tame it to their needs. With large mountains, oceans, and trees, this environment also made for a good contrast against New Madrid’s more arid backdrop to give the player a lot more variety in the game.”


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    Practically, creating maps that give the sense that they are 15,000 feet high and also wide enough to accommodate the high speed sprinting ability would require some resourceful thinking on the part of TimeGate. “When we decided upon making these vast, expansive maps found in Section 8, we knew we would be sacrificing in terms of “next-gen” asset density. In our multiplayer game, all the assets in the map have to be loaded the entire time and since our maps are 4 times larger in footprint than the largest Unreal Tournament map, we knew we would be stretching ourselves in that regard. Ultimately, we did what it took to create the gameplay experience we wanted, learned what it took to achieve that goal, and maximized our resources appropriately.”

    Particular effects in Section 8 absolutely stand out as a dazzling display during the gameplay. The one that intrigued us the most was the neon, hexagonal grid that appears around a character’s armor when they take damage. This, of course, is supposed to represent shielding. Phillip tells us more about the thought process that went into putting this effect, and others like it, together. “The evolution of this effect is actually a great example of game design and art coming together. Given that the weapons in Section 8 react differently to shields and armor, it was important for us to have a recognizable effect associated with the shields being knocked out. When designing effects like the shield, we envisioned the engineering that would be needed for something like this to exist in reality."

    "The shield is made of plasma and was designed to allow infantry to burn in from atmospheric heights unharmed, as well as stop the high-velocity rail shots from weapons. The plasma is held in place by a network of generators woven into the armor in a hexagonal lattice. It’s a very volatile mix of energy and technology, so once the shield is worn to a critical level it will completely collapse in a very visual way.”

    © TimeGate Studios Inc. Published by SouthPeak Interactive, LLC.
    .© TimeGate Studios Inc. Published by SouthPeak Interactive, LLC.
     
    .© TimeGate Studios Inc. Published by SouthPeak Interactive, LLC.
    © TimeGate Studios Inc. Published by SouthPeak Interactive, LLC.

    Getting down to the production work, the art and animation quality of Section 8 obviously requires an adequate tool set and more than adequate knowledge of those tools. The entire team’s plan was to focus on completely understanding their tool sets when going into this project. “For animation, we used Motion Builder to incorporate a mix of hand-keyed animation and motion capture for both the gameplay and cinematics. Combining Motion Builder with Unreal Engine 3’s animation tree helped us attain our goals in terms of animation quality and seamless blending.

    The tool also proved invaluable as we moved further into production, as it was heavily relied upon to help pre-viz features such as “burning in”, heavy armor fatalities, and the in-game cinematics. For design we used Photoshop CS3 to concept and 3ds Max 8.0 to model, with fine details being accomplished in ZBrush, Mudbox (depending on the artist’s preference) and CrazyBump. We knew we had a tight deadline for the production, so we focused on getting good with these tools, and used other software only when absolutely necessary (such as Maya).”

    As our encounter with Phillip Morales came to a close, the subject of a possible sequel to Section 8 came about; so when directly asked about a sequel he seemed very confident in his response, “This isn’t the last you’ve seen of the 8th Armored Infantry or the Section 8 universe.”

     

    Related links:
    Section 8
    TimeGate

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