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Artistic Evolution

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Bruce Sharp is the Lead Artist for Pirates of the Burning Sea

A lot of people are familiar with what our game looks like now, but fewer are familiar with the way the game used to look. Our long time fan base at “Pirates of the Burning Sea” has kept a close watch on our progress over time, but I imagine that there are a number of you who aren’t aware of all the changes that have happened just in the past year.

A little over a year ago our game looked like this:

One-Year Old Screenshot

Today our game looks like this:

Current Screenshot

I thought I’d talk a bit about the things that have taken place between these two shots.

When I started my first day at Flying Lab Software, I’d seen the game in screenshots on the web and once during my interview. The course was clear in terms of what was missing from the game’s artistic direction: Romance! The game looked antiseptic in its art style, as if a lot of technical issues had been solved but few artistic issues had yet been explored, at least not the big, sweeping broad strokes that ultimately define the style or “voice” of the game’s imagery. As an artist I’m a true believer in the idea that the simple but abstract parts of an image, like the color palette (derived in our 3d space from the color of the ocean, sky, ship textures, direct light, ambient light, and distance fog), are where the image’s true power is; once established in an appropriate (and hopefully exciting) way, the image can then be populated with detail and content successfully. At the school where I’ve been teaching art since the early 90’s, I’ve noticed that a lot of students have this notion exactly backwards – most think that an image’s power comes from the details, which is where they put almost all of their energy, while ignoring the larger strokes like color, contrast, soft and hard edges, etc. Sadly a lot of game companies practice this same philosophy.

I spent the next weeks with Jeff and Kamal, the only two other artists at the time, exploring the tools available then for tweaking things like the lighting color and contrast, the ocean surface, and the ship’s textures in an effort to bend things in a more visually compelling direction, but ultimately the game engine could not output our vision. When the limits of the existing tools had been discovered we started a fresh dialogue with the devs, asking for more access in the existing tools, more complexity in the existing shaders, and some new shaders (like distance fog [I’m very keen on distance fog, it defines moisture content in the air and provides soft edges in the otherwise hard edged world of 3d]). Our goal was to transform the game’s appearance for E3 2005 (which would be upon us six weeks after the day I’d started). Heidi, our main graphics programmer, was simultaneously re-engineering our ocean shader for efficiency – her goal was also to have this in by E3 – and we saw her task as an opportunity to revisit the visual features of the shader as well. And so we added normal maps, depth fog, transparency, and a couple of secrets to the shader and, voila, the ocean became the most spectacular we’d yet seen in games. Hurray!

Old Screenshot

New Screenshot

On the ships I had two priorities: the sails shaders and the wood textures. Great imagery of tall ships is inevitably about the sails – the way the sun gleams off them, their color, contrast and form – all the romance is in the sails! Our sails were colorless and gray and the lighting on them felt computer driven and unnatural; it depressed me to look at them. They felt like Seattle on a winter’s day and made my SADs kick in whenever I went to sea despite the bright blue sky. Grayscale grays are horrible in full color imagery. One rarely finds pure gray in great works of representational commercial or fine art. Grayed out versions of colors are fantastic, but pure gray – blehhhh. Adding color to the sail textures was the first, obvious thing to do. I chose to make them more brownish than gray. Next I asked for self shadowing and the ability to define the ambient light color on the sails independently from the ambient light in the room.

The ship textures had a similar problem to the sails in that they felt very gray and lifeless. The ships had a feeling of being a color-tinted black-and-white image, rather than part of a full color scene. This condition was resultant from the attempt to solve the problem of ship color customization. The problem is as follows: how does one texture the wood grain of a ship in such a way that it allows the textures to be tinted whatever colors the player chooses? The logical solution is to use a white texture with gray wood grain, this way you can multiply any color you wish over the texture and tint the wood the color you want. Gray for wood grain would be the most neutral, least interfering color choice to be multiplied against. While this seems smart and logical, it results in the above mentioned colorized B&W imagery. The better solution is to use color in the grain. The end result will impact the color customization negatively in a few cases but spectacularly in most and avoid making the game feel like a badly colorized movie.

Old Screenshot

New Screenshot

To wax really artsy for a sec here, I learned about color and its relationship to lighting from the impressionist painters. Having grown up in the DC area, I weekly visited the National Gallery and had my first true love affair with art with the post impressionist period. What I took away from looking at them in the museum context was that although they did not paint detail to the degree of realism that many other art movements did, they managed to create images that conveyed the experience of lighting far more successfully than other, more realistic painters. Looking at their work one could actually feel the temperature of the sun dappling through the trees and understand what it felt like to be in the landscape. The secret of their success was not in detail but in color. Color, it turns out, is EVERYTHING.

Further, I cannot say enough about art history. I think a lot of game industry artists think of art history as a stodgy collection of boring names and dates, but in truth it is a fantastic resource of great solutions to all kinds of problems. We tend to be a bit too reliant on technology and programmers to define our solutions for us. If you think about it, so many problems have been solved by great artistic minds through out all of history, plus we have the aid of time to have filtered through it all and gleaned out the best for us to examine. If you want to make your game’s skies look fantastic, you can read some tech document about atmosphere and optics and examine data then have a programmer try to create some sky shader that simulates the underlying mechanics of skies, etc, or you can simply go study the landscape paintings of George Inness – who has the most amazing luminous skies in all of art history – and see what you can learn from him. With the sky shader you’ll likely be able to simulate all kinds of skies, even boring ones, but from Inness you’ll see how to create amazingly beautiful skies that are right on the money every time. It is this approach that has allowed us to create the visually pleasing and stimulating (I hope) environment that is “Pirates of the Burning Sea”.

New Screenshot

Old Screenshot

New Screenshot

This E3 we have a lot more content than last year. We’ve got lots of town exteriors, day and night versions, interior rooms, a fantastic world map that lets you navigate through the world of the game, fantastic particle effects, trillions of avatar variants, lots more character animations, some animals (no, you can’t ride a dolphin…yet), surf effects, prettier lighting, luminous skies, and boat loads more! I look forward to sharing our continued growth with PotBS fans, as there are many exciting developments on the horizon. Everything from grand ports to bustling cities, populated with fascinating NPC characters and an endless list of unique buildings to explore.

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Guest Writer