Tidal Terrors: Designing the Monsters of DREDGE

3D Artist and Animator at Black Salt Games Michael Bastiaens told us about the team's approach to creature design in DREDGE, discussing the pipeline and the tools they use.

Introduction

Hi there! My name is Michael Bastiaens and I am a 3D Artist and Animator at Black Salt Games. I’ve been in the industry for over 10 years working on what seems like everything from Transformers to Disney princesses. Designing the monstrous creatures that lurk in the depths of DREDGE was an absolute blast and I’m excited to share a little bit of what goes on behind the scenes to bring these deep-sea denizens to life.

Delving Into Where to Start

Each of the different zones in DREDGE has its own unique biome and we wanted each of these areas to have a monster or obstacle that inhabited it that would, more often than not, actively look to impede your journey. Once we locked in what we wanted for the environment, we could then start planning what these monsters would try to do to the player. We would draw up ideas on a whiteboard and plan out gameplay objectives for each area, then ideate around possibilities to hinder the player. This process allowed us to lay the foundation for each monster's behavior and create immersive environments where the player would feel constantly challenged by their surroundings.

Our general philosophy around designing monster behavior started with simple ideas and we gradually iterated on them through testing. During development, we play-tested each monster and made adjustments based on our own findings as well as feedback from our play-testers. Most of the monsters we created evolved as we play-tested and very few of them stayed in their first iteration.

When it came to figuring out what these creatures would actually look like, I ended up using a bunch of different methods. Some creatures were much easier to come up with since we had a good idea of what we might want them to look like from the start, but others went through a number of rounds of design. I would usually start things off by doing a bunch of research and reference gathering for each monster, then jump on Pinterest and Google something like “deep sea creatures” or “terrifying fish” and see where that took me. From there, I would either have a pretty good idea of what might look good and do a few quick 3D concepts in ZBrush then pass things over to Alex, our Art Director to do some of his wizardry with his paintovers. Or, if things were vague from the start, I'd do some rough and ugly sketches in Photoshop and ask the rest of the team which ones resonated with them. Usually, the idea that I was probably the most dismissive of was the one they ended up liking the most, so figuring out how to blend those things together was probably the most enjoyable part of the whole process.

Concepts and sketches created for the Marrow Monster:

Some concepts and ideas sounded great in theory but then we’d block them out in the game and realize, “Oh, the water is too shallow for something like this” or the environment made it harder for the monster to chase you down without smashing into everything when it turned a corner. The way things appear underwater or at night also played a big part when it came to iterating on the design of the creatures. We had to balance things looking and behaving in an interesting way within the limitations of our scope and platforms.

Bringing Things to Life

When it came to the actual creation of the 3D asset for each critter, I used a combination of Maya and ZBrush. I used Maya to create a super rough block-out for the creature to get an idea of the scale it might be in the game; and by ‘rough’, I mean a bunch of spheres smooshed together. Most of the actual modeling happened in ZBrush.

Sculpting and texturing are my favorite things to do in both my spare time and at work, and I'll often pick music that suits the theme of what I'm working on, like the Souls game and Blue Planet OSTs. Sometimes, I’d even park up at a dock in DREDGE and have our ambient ocean and storm sounds playing as well.

Initial Prototype Monster > Blockout Mesh > Final Asset

Once I’d finished sculpting a monster, I’d then bring it back into Maya to retopologize it. The models inside of ZBrush are made up of millions of tiny squares and triangles and the more detailed an object is, the more polygons it will have, and that brings with it its own problems. To get things to run smoothly across all the different platforms we were designing for, the fewer polygons an object could require. Fortunately, things aren’t as complicated as they used to be 10 years ago, but in the design process, we still tried to keep the game as low-poly as possible. Since we used geometry to help texture some of our assets rather than relying on texturing everything by hand, some things in the game are actually more detailed than they seem. This technique has its own drawbacks, but we needed it to achieve the art style we were after, especially for some of the larger creatures in the game.

Once the models and textures were done, I would then jump into rigging and animating the creatures in Maya. This process involved creating a skeleton to control how the monster moved. Once everything was set up, I’d create a set of different animations and collaborate with our programmer, Joel, to bring them to life. We’d usually spend a bit of time trying to set things up so that they could be tested in the context of the full game, and this is where I’d usually discover that I needed to add or change existing animations depending on what we felt would make things more interesting, or possible for that matter. Getting things tested was important to fine-tune the experience we wanted players to have, and there were definitely a few times when we would have to change up the environment and our creature behavior to really bring to life the scenarios we had in mind.

Although I was usually the one taking things from start to finish when it came to creating our monsters, I really liked that everyone on the team was able to influence some aspect of each of them, and it’s been amazing seeing everyone’s reactions since the game launched earlier this year. With our debut expansion, The Pale Reach, out now, I can’t wait to share more of our creatures with the world soon!

Michael Bastiaens, 3D Artist and Animator at Black Salt Games

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