What do you do for a living? Butcher, baker, candle-stick maker? Some write words, some read laws, some sell goods, some build roads, some drive lorries...
Chris Wells creates warriors.
His business card doesn't put it quite like that. It just says "Artist", and that's true, too - but Chris Wells' role in the broad field of Art is very specific. He crafts muscle and metal into aggression and strength. He creates warriors.
Presently, Wells is creating warriors for Unreal Tournament 3, Epic Games' upcoming high octane shooter - which is already being positioned as a showcase for the capabilities of the Unreal Engine on the PS3.
His task is to take the sketches and paintings turned out by the studio's concept artists, and turn them into in-game 3D models - characters that can run, jump, and of course, be blown up into chunky kibbly bits.
"The concept is sort-of a guide," he explained to Eurogamer when we met him at the Develop conference in Brighton last month. "It's meant to inspire you to take the model further, or to go in a direction and really elaborate on certain things that really stand out to you in that concept."
"It's not to be taken verbatim, and that's where the creativity comes in. It's pretty fun. What happens normally is that when you go from concept to final model, you'll see elements of what was in the concept - just an elaboration, or a slight change, on the final product."
The Lines All Go Up
We're chatting with Wells about the challenges that he and other game artists are currently surmounting as the next-gen platforms become established - challenges which, we learn, are changing the way artists work on videogames in very fundamental ways.
While the step up to next generation hardware has changed how everyone in the game development industry works to some extent, nowhere has that change been more evident than in the role of artists. On a very basic level, the scale of the difference can be understood in simple figures.
"Previous to joining Epic, I was working on PlayStation 2 games," Wells tells us. "To create a character would be around about six days, modelling characters of around 1500 to 2000 polygons, unwrapping it and skinning it."
And now? "Well, ideally, what we try to go for is two to three weeks for modelling the high poly, about a week for processing, and about one to two weeks for materials creation. Sometimes, depending on if it's a hero character, that can take about forty-five days including the concept part of it - because of the density of the meshes that we work with."
"To get the detail that we need, our characters are upwards of 30 million polygons."
From six days to six weeks; from 2000 polygons to 30 million polygons. "It's a big difference," grins Wells, possibly winning our award for best understatement of the week - and even then, the basic figures only scratch the surface of the change that has occurred in game art in the last few years.
After all, the polygons themselves tell only one part of the story. With that higher detail comes the need for vast levels of additional processing - and, of course, for much more detailed texturing and lighting.
"With materials creation, our working file size for the bitmap is 2048 by 2048, and there tend to be about 14 of those maps per character, all told," says Wells. It's a far cry from the last generation, when many game characters simply had one low-resolution texture to cover the entire model. "That includes diffuse, specular, normal - all sorts of different maps to achieve the realistic effects of skin, metal and so on and so forth. It takes a lot of time."
State of the Art
The change isn't as simple as just requiring more detail, either. Successive generations of hardware have moved the goalposts in terms of what artists need to know, and the level of talent required to express the vision of concept artists and game designers.
"If we went back say, two previous generations - maybe to PSone - when characters were 1000 polygons or even less, maybe 800 polygons, a lot of detail that you can put on a character could be implied, as opposed to fully explained," Wells tells us. "That pretty much levelled the playing field for a lot of artists to create assets."
"The more detail that's required, the more expectations that consumers have in this generation, the more knowledge you need to have to know how to place those details into characters, environments, weapons or what have you. You need more of an eye for detail - and for character artists in particular, you need a really good, sound foundation in anatomy - human anatomy, animal anatomy, and so on and so forth."
He pauses for a second. "It's like, at this point, the limitations are just how much knowledge you have," he concludes. However, for talented artists who have been able to keep up with the rapid progress in this field, the increased difficulty of the job is traded off against a fantastic boon - namely the ability to express their creativity in far more rewarding ways.
"It was sort-of born out of necessity, since we're trying to express so much detail," Wells muses. "The concept sketch gives you very broad strokes in terms of how the character will develop, and what have you."
"To put all that detail into the concept sketch would take longer to do, and we would still arrive at the point in the model of having to put that detail in anyway. So, we really leave it up to the modellers and the texture artists to put their own creativity into it."
At the other end of the spectrum, though, Wells acknowledges that there is a lot less scope for artists to make mistakes - which, we sense, can also restrict the ability to experiment with new ideas. When every character takes six weeks to create, going back to the drawing board is a painful process; it's important to get the art right first time.
As artists get to grips with the next-gen development process, though, new ways of working are emerging which prevent artwork from being wasted - and allow artists to experiment without risking wasting months on a creative dead-end.
"There's definitely much less room in the schedule for doing assets over again," Wells confirms, "but there are some workarounds to make sure that you avoid redoing work."
"You can start from creating a base male and female model, which you use as a template to create all of your characters. If you do that, it saves you a lot of time, and you retain anatomical proportion even though you have a lot of gear on the characters. You're also not remaking the wheel every time."
"Secondly, as you go to create these hard surfaces on the armour - instead of modelling it out, or testing out an idea that may be different from the concept, a good idea is to do a quick sketch or paint-over of a screenshot of the model. That way you can flesh it out and really see if the elements work together."
Of course, what we're discussing here is still an industry in flux; the development cycle for the PS3 and Xbox 360 is only a few years old, and both artists and coders have much learning still to do before they can fully exploit the power of Sony and Microsoft's new systems.
So, to throw a tricky question out there, just how much more detail does Wells think we'll be seeing in our console games by the time the PS4 and Xbox 720 appear on the horizon?
"Oh, that's a tough one," he chuckles. "You know, you can always optimise more. You can always squeeze more out of it - and you know how these cycles go. Once you get to that fourth or fifth year of a console's life, that's when people are really using everything, and running on all cylinders with the platform."
"I think it'll turn out the same way for this generation. I don't know what percentage we could say we're using, of each particular platform - but I think you'll see the same thing."