It’s the game that takes you inside of gargantuan mechs in deathmatches across dystopian late 21st century landscapes, and with an expansion released in July 2018, Archangel: Hellfire might just be one of the more exhilarating experiences on Oculus and Steam.
Published and developed by Skydance Interactive, 3D Artist recently sat down with 3D artist Nathan Lange, producer Aaron Gray and project lead and creative director Mark F. Domowicz to talk all things VR, god-like mechs and more.
Can you each run through your responsibilities on Archangel: Hellfire?
Nathan Lange, 3D artist: On Archangel: Hellfire I was a 3d Artist, so I was responsible for all the Mechs, Cockpits, Vehicles, Weapons, some of the props and buildings that you see in the game. I created all of the in-game meshes, unwraps for texturing, PBR materials, and I also had to skin some of the models for animation. I also doubled as a backup UI & FX artist, some of the abilities and buttons in the current game are the initial prototype that I implemented.
Aaron Gray, producer: My responsibilities on Archangel: Hellfire included ensuring that each person has enough time to work on a particular task and making sure there was nothing blocking the team’s ability to finish said tasks, as well as properly setting up the game in the stores it will be sold in (Steam and Oculus).
Mark F. Domowicz, project lead and creative director: I was responsible for establishing and maintaining the Archangel: Hellfire’s creative vision and for driving its overall execution. For example, I worked with the team to define the Mech’s special abilities. This process included brainstorming and then identifying candidate ideas that not only fit Hellfire’s tone and lore, but also fit our production constraints such as timeline and on-hand expertise. From there I managed an iterative prototyping process, which allowed us to quickly decide what works and what doesn’t. Finally, from our finished prototypes, I helped coordinate the people, their availability and their tasks to develop the in-game special abilities we have now.
Where did the idea for the second game come from?
Nathan Lange, 3D artist: The idea for Archangel: Hellfire came after the completion of the first Archangel game. The next step for the franchise was clearly to take it off-rails and bring it into a more free movement open world experience. Through prototyping what exactly the continuation of Archangel would be, player vs. player was clearly the most fun game type that was presented, so we went ahead with that.
Aaron Gray, producer: After releasing the first Archangel, the main pieces of feedback we received included 1) taking the mech “off of the rails” and 2) adding a player vs. player element. So we began prototyping a version where this could happen. We played around with the controls until we found something that felt not only good, but natural. Once we had the control scheme down, we knew we could make the jump to fully taking the game off-rails the mech was constrained to in the first game. From there, we needed to make sure the mech vs. mech gameplay was solid – allowing players to actually strategise on the fly while controlling the mech. The action had to be frenetic/fast paced, while making sure the player felt he or she was fully in charge of a giant war machine.
Mark F. Domowicz, project lead and creative director: The genesis of Archangel: Hellfire was simply the idea that it would be really cool to make a high-quality multiplayer mech game, using as much as possible the tech, art, and design investments from the original Archangel. As for the universe, it was only natural to set Archangel: Hellfire after the events of Archangel, which told the story of how a Mech proved its combat viability, or superiority rather, for the first time. In the game, we present a universe that is the direct consequence of these events: a mech arms race becomes a mech war.
Nathan Lange, 3D artist: VR allows the player to be fully immersed in the complex cockpit of the mech, when you look around there are buttons and sliders all around you that are part of the gameplay. Since the controllers have a finite amount of buttons, many of the functions of the mech are actual physical objects you need to interact with around your seat. Because of the VR touch controllers, you can look out at your mech’s arms in the game and they are move as your real arms do, opening and closing the fists based off how hard you squeeze the trigger. Also being that there are two separate controllers you can aim and shoot at two different mechs simultaneously, in case you are in a 2v1 situation.
Aaron Gray, producer: VR allows us to fully immerse the player into our world. Players can do more than just control a mech, but actually feel like they are piloting the mech. By adding this dimension, the player is a part of these mech wars, and not just a spectator.
Mark F. Domowicz, project lead and creative director: Skydance Interactive’s mission is to create top tier VR entertainment. So, on the one hand, Archangel: Hellfire is in VR because that’s what we do. But on the other hand, a large goal of video games in general is to transport players to different places, and convince them they are doing things that they couldn’t normally do, if at all. The sheer presence that comes from VR, automatically, is a huge tool to this end. And so I think, even if VR wasn’t our focus, as a video game company, immersion and believability are, and so VR would be a likely option regardless.
Can you tell us about the visual inspiration for the mechs and the guns etc?
Nathan Lange, 3D artist: The main inspiration for the mechs and everything in the game was the movie Pacific Rim. We tried to use that as the bar for detail and scale of the in-game mechs, and also for the cockpits and weapons. Other inspirations for the game range from our favorite childhood anime like Gundam & Evangelion, to more recent ones like Metal Gear Solid, Zone of the Enders, Hawken, Mechwarrior etc.
Mark F. Domowicz, project lead and creative director: For the original Archangel, there was the initial idea that we wanted to make a mech game where the player had one-to-one control of the arms and hands. This implied a more humanoid type of mech along the lines of Gundam or Pacific Rim, from which we took a lot of inspiration. For Archangel: Hellfire, it was important to make sure the two sides had a distinct look and feel. And so for the USFF resistance fighters, we centred around traditional military themes and shapes, while for the HUMNX opposition, we wanted something biological but also corporate.
Can you run through all the 3D tools that were used to build the game?
Nathan Lange, 3D artist: There is a very large list of software used on this title: ZBrush and Medium for high detailed sculpts, 3ds Max and Blender for hard surface modelling, 3D-Coat for retopology, Maya for rigging and animation, Substance Painter and Quixel for material creation, Photoshop for general texture work, and Unreal Engine for all the in game work. Additional packages include SketchUp, Knald, KeyShot, Modo and many others.
I know that Oculus Medium was used, how important was it as part of your process in creating a VR shooter game? Did Oculus help to create that god-like feel of the mechs?
Nathan Lange, 3D artist: Oculus Medium was an incredibly useful part of the process, all the mechs and cockpits were initially started in Oculus Medium to nail down the aesthetics and feel in VR space first. Being able to dynamically sculpt the form of the cockpit around you was a huge timesaver.
Aaron Gray, producer: Oculus Medium was a vital part of creating the cockpits for these mechs. Our concept artist would create cockpits using Oculus Medium, which we could then put right into a game and see how they looked during gameplay – are there any elements of the cockpit blocking the players’ view, are HUD items clearly visible? All these questions can be solved by popping in these cockpit concepts right into the game.
Mark F. Domowicz, project lead and creative director: We used Oculus Medium heavily for our conceptualization work. As the creative director, this was an invaluable tool for helping me not just understand a concept visually, but also feel and experience it. This meant, for example, that I could see just how tall a mech would feel to me if I was standing beside it. And that I could know exactly how a cockpit design would look if I was actually sitting in it.
Were you creating assets with an Oculus Rift/Touch controllers in the room? How often were they used?
Nathan Lange, 3D artist: I personally didn’t use the Oculus Rift in actual asset creation, but the concept artist on the project Bryant ‘Momo’ Koshu used the Rift constantly in designing the concepts for literally everything. Unreal Engine has the feature to design levels in a VR space, but due to the amount of time spent creating environments I tend to save my headset time for when I’m just playing the game.
How different is it developing VR games compared to for console?
Nathan Lange, 3D artist: There are many pluses and minuses for making VR games over traditional console games. The main difference is the sense of scale and connectivity the player feels with the environment around them. The opening hangar bay scene in the game which I modelled really lets the player know how big the mechs are relative to you, 6 stories tall or more! It was very rewarding to be able to see what you worked on look larger than life while in the headset. The main drawback, however, is performance of the hardware. Current-gen PC and console games have a very set guideline for visual specifications, but in VR you are rendering the same screen twice at much higher focal range. So not only is the polycount and drawcall limit cut by a factor of 4, you can literally see more around you so more objects are being rendered at once.
Aaron Gray, producer: When developing for PC, we have a little more wiggle room when it comes to performance. Where PCs come in all sorts of flavors, for consoles we need to make the game work for one set of hardware (or two now that consoles have 4K versions). Also, there are a larger number of technical requirements that come with the different consoles. The game must satisfy all applicable requirements before it is officially approved for release. Lastly, development time can be more of an issue when developing for consoles as we would need to account for pre-certification testing times, as well as submission testing periods. We do have some submission tests when it comes to PC, but those times tend to be a bit shorter.
Mark F. Domowicz, project lead and creative director: VR development is largely similar to traditional games development, but with a few added difficulties. One of them is just that, as an industry, we have not yet defined a common language or set of solutions to a number of basic design problems. And so where a traditional console game might just simply use “mouselook” controls for movement, in VR, we must carefully design movement because no established solution exists.
Can you tell us about how you’re able to render complex scenes with high framerates for VR?
Nathan Lange, 3D artist: A lot of the game had to be heavily optimized to get the framerate to a playable state. The mechs, although very detailed, are not too high in polygon count, and neither are the environments for that matter. There are no realtime shadows in the game, instead we opted for using capsule shadows, which are a much cheaper cost and worked very well. Also, finding the balance in the game for the LODs (level of detail) for the mechs and environments helped to keep a consistent and playable polygon count for what was on screen, as well as limiting the use of alpha and translucent textures, and very few static lights. Lastly, the fact that the levels are relatively small allowed us to more easily control the total impact on the video card and CPU.
Mark F. Domowicz, project lead and creative director: There are a number of techniques for achieving high framerates, many of them not too different than what has been used traditionally for the last decade. But perhaps an interesting conceptual change is that per-pixel screen-space effects that are used on consoles because they are fast, must be avoided in VR due to the high-resolution panels. So things like ambient occlusion and full screen colour grading are actually better implemented using forward rendering techniques, in use in earlier console generations.
Is there a difference in the way you manage your assets for VR compared to for a typical console video game?
Nathan Lange, 3D artist: Basically drawcalls are the main concern, even more so than polygon count. VR renders the screen twice which ends up causing an exponential increase in object draw count. If there are a lot of building assets in a scene, making sure they are all on the same texture atlas page and in most cases merged together as a singular static mesh helped to keep drawcalls down. Unreal Engine is very good about automatically lowering textures dynamically in game based off distance, so we were able to author all the mechs and cockpits textures and materials at 4k resolution so they still looked good up close, while keeping more everything else around 2 or 1k resolution.
Did you run into difficulties whilst working on Archangel and working in VR? Can you tell us about some of the bigger challenges from your perspective?
Nathan Lange, 3D artist: The main difficulty was team size and time. We were a relatively small team with very short deadline, so we had to be scrappy and creative when it came to how we would tackle content creation. We ended up developing a relatively discreet method for building the mechs, cockpits, weapons etc with the idea in mind that we had a small window of time but needed to hit a very high detailed bar for the look. The biggest challenge for me, personally, was wearing many hats and constantly learning on the job. From editing blueprints and data tables, to rigging/skinning and creating FX, I got to work on pretty much every aspect of the game aside from learning how to program. I learned a hell of a lot working on Archangel: Hellfire and am immensely grateful.
Aaron Gray, producer: I think the biggest challenge working on this project was our team size. While we knew what game we were making, the amount of work we had to get this game to where we wanted it to be was quite daunting. We also set a high quality bar for the game, so it wasn’t just a case of getting the things we wanted in the game in, but making sure these features and assets reached the quality bar we set for ourselves. Time was another issue for us, especially given our team size. Unfortunately, this resulted in some tough decisions on features that ended up not making it into the game. All in all, I am absolutely proud of what the team has put together. Archangel: Hellfire is a game that we absolutely love, and we absolutely love playing!
Mark F. Domowicz, project lead and creative director: One of the biggest design challenges was creating a fast-paced, high-action, experience that didn’t make players sick! In VR even something as fundamental as turning has the potential the cause discomfort, if not done properly, and we were attempting to create a free movement game, with hovering and two-handed firing no less. In the end, I think we achieved quite a nice result, not too unlike a PC first person shooter, that most players find quite comfortable and playable for hours at a time.
For the environments, what kinds of things did you have to focus on to really immerse the player in the late 21st century, all while in VR?
Nathan Lange, 3D artist: It was a fun challenge creating the realistic and detailed wasteland of late 21st century United States. The main focus was scale, always making sure there were little indications of just how big your mech is in comparison to the environment. From the pine trees in Collins Base, to the cactus and destroyed vehicles in Genesis and Sanctuary, there are always little markers on screen that let you know you are literally 6 stories tall or more depending on your class. To tell the story of the dystopian world of this game, you’ll see ominous Humnx towers dwarfing the mechs in most of the levels sucking resources out of the barren radioactive earth. In the city level, you’ll see hundreds of abandoned cars and toppled buildings, with the wreckage of the gigantic Leviathan boss from the first game in the background. It was very rewarding to watch as buildings topple around you during combat in the Sanctuary level, very reminiscent of the most recent Pacific Rim: Uprising film.
Mark F. Domowicz, project lead and creative director: Having giant mechs is almost all that’s needed to effectively communicate the futuristic setting. This meant the environment design had to do everything possible to sell the scale of the mechs, and make the player feel that they are truly in a massive, six story, war machine. To do that, most of the traditional techniques applied, namely incorporating as many human scale elements as possible. In our city level, for example, we have cars and trucks scattered throughout the map. These are, of course, tiny compared to the players, and are a visual reminder that they are piloting a giant mech.
What’s the best thing about working in VR for you?
Nathan Lange, 3D artist: Really feeling as if you are literally sitting in the cockpit of a giant mech. Experiencing actual vertigo looking off a skyscraper, the rush as you jump hundreds of feet in the air expecting to feel the jolt of impact when you land. This is pretty much exclusive to virtual reality, which is why it truly is the future of games to come.
Aaron Gray, producer: For me, it is about figuring out how to make the player feel more like he or she is actually a part of the game. Solid game mechanics are important for every game, but for games in VR, we need to figure out how to put the player there. There’s nothing like seeing someone who has never played your game before put on the headset, look around and just let out a, “Woooooaaaaaaaaaah!” Makes me smile every time!
Mark F. Domowicz, project lead and creative director: I love that, in creating VR games, we are quite literally doing something that humans have never done before, creating experiences that humans have never experienced before. As we invent new design solutions, we are informing how people will interact with software forever. Even when we get it wrong, we are advancing our knowledge. I love that when future generations talk about “pioneers of VR”, they will be talking about us.
See more of Archangel: Hellfire in issue 122 of 3D Artist!