In this age of reboots, people are often jaded with the idea of their favorite piece of entertainment being remade and rehashed. The new Doom reboot was being eyed skeptically by many, and with good cause. Doom has been the foundation of fond memories for gamers. The original Doom set the stage for the next 20 years of gaming with its irreverent and unapologetic take on the sci-fi stories. Most importantly, for an entire generation, Doom represented some of the most fun moments of gaming. Leading up to the release of the new Doom, many gamers (including us!) were wondering if it would hold up to the excessively high expectations.
Doom finally hit the stores in May and not only did it meet the expectations, it exceeded them! And beyond that, it reintroduced fun as the central element of the game. We have enjoyed this game for the last few months and keep going back every chance we get.
We are very proud to have our software GeoGlyph play a key role in the creation of Doom's environments.
We had the terrific opportunity to talk with renowned artist Ryan Watkins on the heels of this latest Doom release. Ryan has worked on major AAA titles such as Halo and Destiny, and most recently was immersed in id Software's Doom reboot.
QuadSpinner: Hi Ryan! We're so excited to learn more about you and hear about Doom. Before we dive into the nitty gritty, share with us your background... your path to greatness. :) Which experiences led you to be an industry leader? And what might surprise our audience?
Ryan Watkins: I grew up in Colorado where I spent a lot time in the outdoors and developed a deep love of nature. I went to a small college in Colorado and studied traditional art. I love sculpture and spent most of my time ditching class and working in the schools foundry on bronze sculptures. I was also an aspiring painter. After I left school, I worked as a graphic artist for several years. During this time I began to teach myself 3D modeling and decided to go to Vancouver Film School. After graduating, I worked as a freelance matte painter, mostly working on small indie projects, but I did manage to land a couple small contracts on larger films. I continued to create personal art work and began to move more towards real-time rendering and games. Finally I got a break and got a job at 343 to create skyboxes for Halo 4, my first AAA game. After that, I went on to work at Bungie as a skybox artist on Destiny and finally got the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work at id Software on Doom.
QS: We first met you during your work on the Halo series, followed by Destiny. What were the most valuable lessons that you learned from each project? How did they shape your perspective and your workflow?
RW: Both projects were very unique and each had a very different way of creating the skyboxes. In Halo 4, we went with a more traditional 2D matte painting approach. We used multiple layers of 2D planes with images mapped to them to make vistas and skies.
Destiny had the added challenge of Time of Day. We wanted the game world to feel alive so the sun rises, sets, and moves across the sky. Because of this, 2D matte painting with baked lighting would not work. So we had to create 3D landscapes that would allow the lighting to change dynamically.
Creating vistas in 3D definitely has a lot advantages- there is a level of fidelity and depth that you just can't get with 2D. The integration of the vistas into gameplay area is much easier and feels more connected. 2D matte painting works so well in film because you can make things for the camera, in a FPS game the camera is always moving and under the control of the player. Because of this, 2D elements quickly become disconnected from the rest of the environment and the game world feels less believable.
QS: Beyond CG, we enjoy your photographic eye. How does your passion for photography influence your environment work?
RW: For me photography is an invaluable tool for creating my art. Getting out into the field is always very inspiring and capturing the natural world with a camera gives you an understanding of lighting, atmosphere and the geological formation of the natural world. Over the years I have collected a large library of clouds, skies and rocks that I use for creating in-game skies and vistas.
QS: Which are your favorite real world environments and why? And where does your compass typically lead you in the field?
RW: I love the desert and mountains - these places will always have a special place in my heart. I'm always wanting to return to Colorado not only because it is home but it is an amazing place that shows the incredible geology of the Earth - erosion that has exposed layers of rock, upheavals of strata layers that form amazing peaks, and rivers that have cut deep canyons.
QS: How did you find your new home at id Software, one of the most famous game studios ever?! And what were you most looking forward to on Doom?
RW: One of the key reasons I landed at id Software was keeping in touch with classmates and developing a professional network of colleagues. id Software is a studio that I have always dreamed of working at. When I first saw the original Doom it opened my mind to a whole new world of possibilities. Getting the opportunity to work in a world that I have been dreaming of since I was a kid is very exciting.
QS: As Environment Artist, what were your primary responsibilities for this mega title?
RW: My primary responsibilities were creating all the vistas and skies for the single player campaign. This included modeling, texturing, lighting, and creating atmosphere and effects.
QS: What is your strategy to design such remarkable vistas for games? How do you evolve it from concept to final production build? For example, the Mars exterior around the UAC buildings.
RW: I always start by loading up the level and running through it, calling out areas that will have vistas and thinking about what the theme of the level is, and what element will need to go into the vista and sky to support that theme. I work closely with concept, world build, lighting and design to develop those themes. After that, I start by generating base terrains using World Machine and GeoGlyph, I'll also start blocking out lighting and atmosphere and other elements like buildings or any other large set pieces.
QS: 'Hell' by itself is a strange, other-worldly concept. Yet hell permeates the entirety of the Doom franchise, which gives its own unique interpretation. In this latest version, however, hell plays a more sophisticated role in the story. As Executive Producer Marty Stratton described it, "Hell has been fractured into many pieces." How did you approach the design of the spectacular Hell Vista?
RW: The hell vistas were definitely the hardiest to execute, both technically and conceptually. The concept team created many very beautiful concept paintings, constantly iterating on color and theme. The idea of the fractured 'Hell' with pieces of other worlds floating in a dense atmosphere was very challenging - creating believable volumetrics is one of the hardest things to do in a game.
QS: We're delighted that you're an avid fan of our environment plug-in GeoGlyph. In fact, you were among our first users! :) What role did GeoGlyph play in the environment creation for Doom?
RW: Wow, I feel so honored - GeoGlyph is an awesome tool. I used GeoGlyph to create all of the Mars vista terrain and textures. It was also used for creating tiling rock textures. It allowed me to work fast, do many iterations and get amazing results. It has become my go-to for creating landscapes.
QS: Which features or devices were most useful for this particular project and why? And which features are you keen to explore further?
RW: I love all the generator nodes - some of my favorite are Mountain, DunesSea, Perlinoclast and PerlinWave. The GeoFlow, Mesa, and NeoFlow are some of my favorite modifiers and GeoShape, RealColor and HeightFrag are some of my go-tos for creating color maps.
QS: For gargantuan titles like Doom, environments are everything. Achieving excellence often requires complex processes. Do you have any such anecdotes from the project?
RW: I take a very painterly approach, starting with large brush strokes and work my way to small more detailed ones. I also find it very important to work modularly and be flexible to changes. Creating a game is very organic, involving many people and ideas where things change all the time. One of the worst things you can do is paint yourself into a corner where things are hard to change or take a lot of time to make adjustments.
QS: What are the pitfalls aspiring new environment artists can face? And how can they overcome these situations or issues?
RW: It's a very hard industry to start out in. You're going to need a lot of perseverance to succeed. Never stop learning and experimenting.
QS: And finally, now that Doom has shipped to critical acclaim, what's next for you? And, do tell, which is your Doom weapon of choice? ;)
RW: We have such an amazing team of artists, designers and programmers who all want to push gaming and technology forward and right now we're busy working on DLC for DOOM. Weapon of choice: Double Barrel shotgun.
You can visit Ryan's blog at http://ryanwwatkins.blogspot.com/