After last week’s revelation of the new Halo 2 multiplayer maps from our friends at Certain Affinity, we thought it would be nice to talk about how the art for these beautiful new maps was actually created. Chris Wood, Art Lead at CA, talked at length with us, about the technique and talent poured into the maps.
Was the intention for both maps to completely reimagine them visually or to pay homage to the originals?
Desolation and Tombstone both came with their own set of interesting challenges. The goal here was to pay adequate tribute to the originals while still giving the visuals a complete and total makeover. It was an interesting balance. I threw around terms like “Warm Fuzzies" and "Goose Bumpies" more often than I care to admit. Every day we thought about what hardcore Halo fans would think of our daily art decisions and incorporated those thoughts into our development process.
This concept shot of Desolation shows the trees and mountains beyond the Forerunner structure.
Derelict, while hardly logical, has a kind of symmetrical visual logic at least – did this translate into the choice of Forerunner architecture?
Absolutely… The forerunner’s sleek and intersecting lines lent themselves so well to this map. It really came together quickly and we knew from the first moment that this environment would be Forerunner tech.
While metallic and rigid in form, Desolation also incorporates organic themes – what was the process behind that thinking? And what were the challenges?
When I began the original concept for Desolation I started painting in the middle of the map, working out texture detail and lighting and quickly found myself imagining this cold, clean, stiff metallic bowl. I thought… "Wow… there's gotta be some life in here somewhere." After trying large flower pots under each window and bunnies at each base I scrapped those ideas and placed this metal arena into a moody overgrown jungle… with plenty of monkeys sprinkled throughout.
The symmetrical nature of the map is well suited to Forerunner architecture.
These maps had to get by a stringent Bungie art approval process. How difficult was that, and how was that interaction handled?
We found as long as we brought the appropriate food offerings and animal sacrifices to the table, the approvals went much smoother. Actually, for the Desolation approvals I flew up to Bungie with Max and our Engineering Lead, Paul Isaac. This was my first trip up to see the studio and meet the team. That in-person interaction was a great way to get a better feel for what those guys were looking for. Everyone we met that day had great input (Marcus and Mike especially). But I'd have to say the easiest part of the process was how consistent and creative their feedback was.
During firefights, the simply vertical structure offers few hiding places, but lots of strategy.
Hang Em High is probably the most familiar to players – were you intimidated by the challenge of making it recognizable?
It wasn't nearly as intimidating as it was euphoric. Hang Em High was my favorite map from Halo 1 as well. So the fight to keep it true to the original was a necessity. Sure we added our own flavor to it. Our hope was to use the original as perfect inspiration and even though it would end up a completely different environment (even as far as the change from Forerunner to Human architecture) I wanted to be able to play it with my eyes closed… And if when I opened them and found that I had fallen through a crack and ended up in a location I couldn't have reached that way before? Well… That's just the icing on the cake.
Tombstone's grim horizon is a reminder that New Mombasa fared badly in the Covenant assault on Earth.
How much of Tombstone's design was based on necessity, versus pure artistic license?
Tombstone was quite the artistic challenge. I am a texture map artist at heart and the biggest hurdle we faced was blowing our texture budget on this map. The trouble is that you can see every texture in the map from just about any point you stand. We wanted Tombstone's performance to 'scream' so we had to be very creative in how we painted our textures. We are all very pleased with the end result.
Creating more logical human structures for the Halo CE classic was a challenge in itself - while retaining the level's familiar navigation.
What kind of process did CA use to take the maps from concept to completion, and what are the primary tools and techniques?
The art process would start after we received a final mass out of geometry from our design team. I would then take this 'blank canvas' map and begin mood and style paintings establishing color palette and material style. Once I worked out the overall direction, Brad (our concept artist) and myself would begin breaking the mood paintings into production drawings and atmosphere direction. Steve and Dean (modelers) would then take these concepts and implement them into the geometry. With the entire technical process coming under the careful watchful eye of our tech artist, Shishka. He looked after the procedural side of development with the same accuracy and care that he uses when peering through the scope of a battle rifle. While the modeling was coming together I did a majority of the texture work… a little lighting… some spec and bump… baked at 450 degrees for a half hour with love… and there… we have Desolation and Tombstone.
The moody lighting is dictated by the idea of an industrial waste on the outskirts of a ruined New Mombasa.
Tell us about the art staff at Certain Affinity.
Well, I covered a bit of this in the question above but here's a bit more detail. We have Brad (Pokey). He is our concept artist. Brad and I have worked together now for several years. This makes life on the art team a bit easier as we know each other's styles through and through. With a background in industrial design and a creative mind… Brad is one of the best. Dean (Spork) and Steve (Fuzz) have worked together for years as well. They are both long time veterans in the games industry and are huge assets to the team. Both are master modelers. Then there's Chad (Shishka). He is the self-proclaimed bitter pessimist. Which brings great balance to the team as I am the eternal optimist. Which brings us to me (-BIGCHRIS-). I do a little bit of this and a little bit of that but mostly I just make sure everyone's coffee cups are full. But seriously, I try to steer the art team with a consistent vision laid down with mood paintings and asset direction and then on the back end with mostly texture work and overall guidance.
Familiar objects take on unfamiliar hues in the all-new Tombstone graphics. Not a pixel remains unchanged.
What is your favorite map, artistically speaking, from the existing crop of Halo 2 maps?
I would have to go with Turf. I enjoy the map from a player’s perspective but even more from a Texture Artist’s point of view. Since the map is a series of alleys and corridors you are able to cram textures in to any given small area and not have a performance hit. From a development standpoint that is gold. As well just the overall variety of locations within the map and the color scene changes are fantastic… ya… for sure my favorite.
What are the art boys at CA working on next?
Dead Men Tell No Tales!
Tombstone's homage to Hang 'Em High is as pretty as it is playable.