Hello, and welcome back to Dev Diaries, the blog where we take a peek behind the curtain and see how RuneScape is made! This post is Part 2 of our chat with those clever creators in the art teams. To catch up with Part 1, click here.
Q: How do you get from 2D concept art to completed game characters?
Mod Ante: As with all graphics projects, Concept and Character Artists work together to sketch out first ideas, which then become quick thumbnails and rough designs. This stage is always about rapid iterations to land on something we like: sometimes we just use stick figures early in the process!
When we have a good bunch of ideas on paper we can dig deeper, pushing and refining to create a fully fleshed-out concept design which will then provide the basis for production of a 3D game-ready asset. The Character Artists also do their own research – this might be material references, fashion designs, anatomical dissections and other useful stuff which allows them to create believable characters. Once they have supporting references, the next step is to create a high-definition digital sculpture, which then gets rebuilt in the form of an optimised game-ready mesh. This optimised mesh then gets textured and prepared for rigging and animation work.
It's a long process to take something from the drawing board and get it moving around in-game, but it’s a lot of fun for everyone in each department to work together, share ideas and push each other to create the visuals we all love. We're lucky to be surrounded by a lot of knowledgeable and passionate folks who love RuneScape and care deeply about its development!
Q: What goes into the design of a new creature, and how long does it take to make?
Mod Ante: Initially, our Concept Artists work with briefs from our Designers. These briefs ensure that the Artists understand every requirement before getting started. Making art is an exciting creative process with a lot of moving parts in the RuneScape team – Artists work alongside all other development teams on their tasks, and everyone is encouraged to share their feedback on everything that gets made.
The time frame for asset production varies a lot, largely depending on two things: how big it is in the game as an object, and what level of importance it has to the story. For example, an enormous boss will take a long time to design, model and animate, while a smaller object – let's say a discarded book laying around on a floor serving no other purpose than set dressing – will be much quicker. A tiny item's production time can range from as little as a few hours to perhaps a few days, while a full set of armour or a smaller NPC can take weeks. A creature that's many times bigger than the player, meanwhile, could take months in total if we add up the time to concept, model and animate it.
The boss in The Croesus Front was a major effort from all departments, because she's a sizable creature with some very special features to her visuals and mechanics. Over to Mod Paul B, who can explain the animations and rigging work he and his team did for this boss…
Mod Paul B: Once you've got a mesh, it's ready to be rigged up. A rig is just a series of controls the animators use to pose the character – one control moves an arm, another moves a leg and so on, allowing the character to be posed. When this is done with a variety of poses across multiple frames, it results in the illusion of motion.
Croesus was one of the most complex rigs we’ve created for a character in RS3. She has many limbs, projectile-firing pustules, and a series of organic openings in her base roots. To add a creepy, living fungus feeling we wanted to add a breathing motion to these openings, but to achieve this each opening needed to have its own control, resulting in a very complex rig.
We have some limitations too: for performance and efficiency reasons we’re limited to 200 bones per character. We don't want to create overly complex rigs for every creature we create because we'd bring the RuneScape client to its knees with horribly low frame rates! We can push up to the very limit with boss characters, and with Croesus we ended up only 13 bones away from the maximum, with 187 in total.
Ultimately, we think the complexity was worth it, as she feels very different from any of the other bosses in RuneScape with her breathing and organic motion, and she's all the more intimidating as a result!
Model ready to be rigged
Marking out the rig control positions with proxies
Rig built - That's a lot of controls!
Just the model, bones and animations are exported to the game engine
Mod Paul B: We’re also working on animation design at this stage. This is where ideas for how the character can and should move (based on character requirements and personality etc) are worked out between Design, Art Direction, Content Developers and Riggers/Animators. Often, working sketches are drawn up by Concept Artists, or in the case of Croesus, the animation team. These sketches make sure everyone is on the same page and understands the requirements and main beats of the animation.
The next stages are pitching, blocking, splining and polishing.
Pitch: This is where the initial ideas are roughed out to check that they work on the rig in the same way we imagined in the sketched designs. This stage only requires the key frame poses to get the rough idea across to the viewer. It's like a moving sketch, basically.
Blocking: At this stage we're developing the animation and getting the key frames (poses) in there. These are the frames that tell the story of the animation – they communicate the character's intentions. We also work with the Content Developers to get these early-stage animations in-game for playtests. Animation length and timing can be changed without lengthy reworks, so this stage is key to making sure everything is working as expected before splining.
Splining: This stage is all about refining the animation. We’re taking the key poses and changes we've made in the blocking stage and adding in-between poses, which show how a limb gets from one key pose to another, as well as how quickly and with how much energy and inertia.
Polish: As the name suggests, this stage is where all the work comes together in the final 5%-10% of the production process. The relationship between all moving parts is refined to a high-quality final state.
Between all these stages, the animators and I discuss how it's all developing. We also update the wider art team via our internal communication channels. This is to make sure everyone is happy with the progress, and let the Animator receive helpful ideas and feedback about the animation’s performance.
Croesus’ animations were heavily influenced by the snappy, uncomfortable and painful-looking motion of traditional shambling zombies from TV, film and games. Awkward, restricted motion was a key design driver for her animation set.
Mod Paul B: As Mod Ante pointed out, the time frame for all this varies based on the complexity of the character being designed and created. In the case of the Croesus boss, we went through quite a few design iterations until we settled on the horrible, twisted, organic creature you’ve fought in the Croesus Front. There was much more back and forth between the teams than there would be for your average bipedal boss! We were dealing with a creature that was rooted to the ground and couldn’t get up and walk around to pursue the player, so it required a fresh approach with lots of creativity.
One of Croesus’ most interesting features is the secret she hides underneath her body: a section which opens up to reveal a skilling node! This part of the design alone went through many stages as we discussed and designed exactly how she would reveal the node and what the player would have to do next.
Due to her immobile nature, and the fact that the players could be positioned anywhere around her, we decided her idle animation should have her glancing around over her shoulders. This gave the impression that Croesus was sensing the players presence. We created animations for both sides, so it looked as though she knew where players were at all times, adding to the sense of menace.
Q: RuneScape has a unique look. Do you find that this constrains you at all?
Mod Stead: It's true that RuneScape has a unique aesthetic, and this is part of its 20+ year evolution. We’ve benefited from improved technology, stronger artistic ability, and a cohesive and appealing visual direction. That being said, RuneScape's legacy is just as important to us as its future evolution, and that's the fine line we have to walk with every project. It's rarely constrained our ideas or aspirations, and we continue to produce deeper, more immersive and higher quality content year on year.
As an example, we're still exploring the possibilities of an avatar refresh, with extra levels of customisation. This is a highly complex and challenging project, because an avatar is linked to so many other systems and content, plus it has a deep emotional attachment for our players. It needs to be handled delicately, and we want to be 100% confident we get it right. We'll cover more on that in future posts.
Mod Ante: I would say that having a unique look and art style actually helps streamline our ideas and allows us to land on designs we like and fit to the game quicker than if we were to create anything without any cohesive rule set. The look of the game is much like a great canvas for a painter – we have the space we know we can fill with shapes and colours, and we know where we need to aim with the paintbrush to create some happy little trees! But if we had all the tools and options in the world to create whatever we like we would be lost. We wouldn't be able to create a cohesive, tailored fantasy experience which feels like the RuneScape you know and love.
Whenever we set out to create something for RuneScape we go in with the intent to enrich and deepen the love we feel for the game. Every era of art style you see in the game is done in this spirit. This way we can always land on great visual quality no matter what timeline we are in, including times when the art is pushing the limits of the technology we have.
Q: What are you working on right now?
Mod Stead: We’re well into the development of our 2022 roadmap releases, many of which are undergoing their final tweaks and polishes. On top of that we're already in the planning stages for next year’s content, all of which is obviously top secret for now. But fear not – you won't have long to wait before some truly ace content drops, including an epic boss fight with a new look Zamorak!
For the Zamorak rework, we wanted to stay true to his original design while adding extra detail and more realistic surfacing. He also has a range of new animations, a re-imagined arena, and we've added a number of new areas for you to explore, one of which is under Senntisten itself.
We're also deep in the Wilderness refresh, which is keeping our environment team very busy. They're loving the opportunity to update such an iconic area and dial up the drama to a whole new level!
Mod Ante: Refreshing the Wilderness and Zamorak has been an excellent opportunity to give older content a shiny new look. A big part of this work was to identify a fresh and cohesive new design for the demons in RuneScape. Our designers and concept artists are busy working on beautiful and unique designs for various creatures and NPCs, including the different types and ranks of demons. What you have seen so far is only the tip of the iceberg. It's an exciting opportunity for us to level visual quality in RuneScape and we can’t wait to talk more about it.
Mod Chilly: I’m currently working with the rest of the environment team on the Wilderness graphical improvements to go along with our new PvP ruleset changes. We’re breathing new life into the area and doubling down on that dark, atmospheric tone. It’s also a good way to show how older assets can be refreshed with modern techniques, the most noteworthy being the new crater and Sword of Edicts, which look much more impressive as a result!
Mod Paul B: Alongside overseeing work on the Demons and Zamorak boss fight, I'm currently working on an all new, Maya-based rig for the human characters in RS3. For new creatures and reworks all rigging and animations are now created using Maya, but the human models are still using the older, in-house systems. With the hundreds of animations humans use, we have had to tackle this update separately, as it's a much more complex task. This rig will afford the animators a much more straight-forward and friction-reduced workflow, making human and player avatar animation much easier, more efficient and fun – all while allowing for higher-fidelity animations! It's still in the research and development stage, but it’s progressing well. Here's a few videos to show the work so far:
Q: It is not everyday you get to face off against Zamorak. How are you going to convey the epic experience of fighting a God?
Mod Ante: The art teams were all aligned to push the limits and possibilities available to us for this battle. They've brought the very best visuals and tailored them to compliment the story, so it should be a treat for those bold enough to go face-to-face with the Lord of Chaos!
While the original character design didn’t wholly stand the test of time, it is iconic. We’ve clarified and refined a few key aspects and utilized all the latest tools we have at our disposal to create a much higher-fidelity character than what we possibly could at Zamorak’s initial release. We also spent months creating, designing every bit of detail for the fight. His current form, the environment where the battle takes place, the animations bringing the characters to life; everyone involved had a blast and loved every step of the journey.
Mod Paul B: The Zamorak rework saw a huge jump in the model’s fidelity and the rig and animations needed to match that complexity to do him justice. He is also huge, meaning all areas of his model and animation are under heavy scrutiny. There needed to be enough control for the animators to achieve that feeling of detail and scale.
The rig needed to include control for the hand-like wings, facial animation and the many layers of cloth hanging from him. They were just begging to be animated, swaying around to match his motion!
Zamorak's rig requirements were so high that we actually hit our maximum bone limit for his rig. A fitting achievement for a god!
For most characters and creatures in RuneScape we create only one attack animation. For some creatures (such as pets) we do one extra with a special attack. But for bosses we like to furnish them with multiple attack animations, to make them really interesting to fight.
Zamorak is certainly no exception, with multiple attack animations... as you'd expect from a god of his calibre!
In these animations, Zamorak not only uses his power to throw projectiles but also attacks with his huge wing-hands and claws. A formidable arsenal for the player to deal with! The combat animations required close collaboration with the content developers to work through the timings for these animations. There was a lot of back and forth over exactly how long an animation would play for and where each impact of a hand smash into the ground, for instance, would happen.
The very nature of Zamorak's detailed character and rig meant that these animations are pretty complex, with a lot of areas requiring detailed animation to move appropriately. Whenever Zamorak moves, not only do we need to animate the main areas of his body, but also the many hanging sashes and skirt areas. These need to drag and flow in a believable manner. A lot of work, but a great end result!
Mod Chilly: From an environmental perspective, we wanted to establish an epic battle in an iconic location – the Wilderness crater. To do so, we decided to rework the crater from scratch and build all new textures and assets to make the setting more believable. On top of that we built a giant forcefield mesh and new lighting which helps tie everything together into a visually cohesive experience.
Q: Redesigning the Wilderness must have been an overwhelming challenge, what can you tell us without spoiling too much?
Mod Chilly: One of the biggest challenges we faced when graphically updating the wilderness was making sure that all existing content functioned correctly. To make sure it all remained unchanged we worked closely with QA and the producers to track all quests, Clue Scrolls and any unique content. This meant we had direct communication with all stakeholders as we made graphical changes.
The intention was to bring the Wilderness up to the standards of our newer environments, while keeping it familiar. We believe that with the visual changes we have made we strike a good balance between impressive visuals and familiarity.
The updated Wilderness has a much greater range of colour and atmospheric effects, leading to a feeling of dread and desolation that also doesn’t feel overly barren. Almost all the assets have been replaced with new versions and key landmarks have been set-dressed to look more grounded and believable.
Q: Is there anything on the horizon that you can speak about that has an interesting or unique art style to it?
Mod Stead: Well, you won't just be fighting Zamorak. He's conscripted demons into his ranks! Our demons have undergone reworks in the past, but some are looking quite dated now and didn't make sense next to our refreshed Zamorak and his epic arena. So, we took this as an opportunity to polish up our Avernic demons, giving them a full Art and Design pass which fully explored their origins, established lore and visual progression. Our ultimate intention is to create a cohesive visual thread that runs through all types: imp, lesser, greater, elder and any new demons we add to the family. We want you to not only see the progression but feel it too!
Our key visual influences included goats, rams, and boars, with all the usual demonic trappings you'd expect to see - horns, tusks, hooves, and wings. Their colour palette is a combination of fiery reds, meaty browns, and scorched purple and black tones. All of this gives an aesthetic that truly embodies their brutal and demonic nature. We've made sure every aspect of their design echoes a sense of threat, embodies their rage, and that any new animations and details match our refreshed Zamorak for quality. We hope you love and fear them in equal measure!
Mod Ante: Thanks to the marvellous designs from the concept team (see above) it was easy and fun to create the demon minions. We had plenty of information regarding shape, form, colours and general vibe in the design which let us get started with the blockout sculpture. We very quickly landed on a form which captured what we wanted, then went on polishing the blockout and developed it into a fully fleshed-out, high-definition sculpture. We make these HD 3D meshes to use as reference when we move onto creating the low poly, game-ready version of the character. Meshes also allow us to capture lighting and surface definition in the form of texture ‘bakes’ which can then be used on the low-poly mesh textures, giving the illusion of detail and resolution while keeping things performance-friendly.
Once we fully establish the low poly geometry we proceed to texturing. Again, this stage was straight forward, given the amount of thought that had gone into the design itself.
When both the game-ready mesh and texture were complete, the assets were given to the Riggers and Animators. It was time to bring the demons to life!
Mod Paul B: We're currently updating all the demon animations, which are shaping up nicely. We really wanted to push for more raw, unrelenting, rampant aggression in these guys. We think they're living up to that!
Q: Retro skins have been a topic in the community for some time now. Do you have any update on this project?
Mod Stead: We certainly do! You might remember that we asked you to pick your favourite version of the Dragon Scimitar and the Abyssal Whip. The results of that poll are in, and we've started concepting what a remastered version of the Dragon Scimitar could look like, and adding a few extras sketches that remain faithful to the original while giving extra detail and flourish. Let us know what you think!