12.16.2016

Powered by UE4, Intrepid Studios is Bringing Ashes of Creation to Life

By Steven Sharif

Hello everyone, my name is Steven Sharif and I am the Creative Director at Intrepid Studios in San Diego, CA. My team and I wanted to give some insight into our work with Unreal Engine. We have been developing an MMORPG, named Ashes of Creation, over the past 9 months.  This non-faction based open world is designed around the player, and the community they are apart of. Below is an exclusive first look at one of our dungeons in Ashes of Creation.

The Water Temple (which is not the official name) is our first proper dungeon - a place with a lot of hidden secrets which will represent the human’s first foray into a group-based setting. It follows a lot of our design philosophy, in that we want the environments of our dungeons to be characters in and of themselves, not simply backdrops upon which the players play. We spent a lot of effort to make sure the temple tells a story, through both art and design. We want every column, every statue, every mural, every creature here to help us tell a tale that relates to the world and its history.

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Unreal Engine 4 has helped us to do that incredibly quickly. With just two artists assigned to this part of the project, we were able get a production ready dungeon into our designers hands within a matter of weeks. A lot of that has to do with the talent on the team, of course, but Unreal Engine is so artist friendly in the way it handles materials and lighting, that our artists get to spend a lot of extra time on the details.

The biggest impact that Unreal Engine brings to our art pipeline is the freedom to create shaders on the fly and for our artists to build them exactly how they want them built. The iteration process becomes a cinch through the Material Editor, allowing us to tweak and customize master materials, keeping our texture count low, while giving the scene a lot of variation in look and feel. To give you an inside look at the process, one of our artists, Jon Arellano explains:

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“For the giant tentacles coming out of the ceiling, I wanted to create a material that used a single normal map and a series of masks to help accent the mesh. This way I could utilize tileable textures but maintain unique one-to-one detail maps that the assets needed. By creating master materials with parameters, it allows us to make quick and easy changes to materials that share similar properties but may require different textures or adjustments, which I did with a lot of the other meshes in the scene. The tentacles, the platform, the wall murals, and the seahorse head all used variations of that master material.”

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It’s hard not to understate how much of what comes out of the box just works with Unreal Engine. There’s so much power under the hood that we can get a lot done in very little time. Using a combination of the landscape tool and modular rocks with dynamic materials allowed us to quickly build out a natural-looking tunnel leading up to the temple within hours, not days or weeks. The foliage system allowed for instantaneous population of the caves with plants to give an organic and living look. Our pipeline has a number of other tools involved, but Unreal Engine handles importing like a champ - once an asset is created, it can be re-imported quickly and efficiently. Any changes that get made further up the pipeline can be used just like that - no fuss, no mess.

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Lighting is also really important to every environment that we make. I’m sure you can see from the video that this dungeon has a really moody, watery feel to it, and much of that comes from the lighting design. Working with the dynamic lighting allowed us to efficiently create a darker and watery ambience, and the use of Light Functions allowed us to give a more interesting watery feel to the environment. Because Light Functions are nearly identical to what’s going on in the Material Editor, we don’t have to spend time relearning another tool, and can take the lessons learned in the Material Editor and apply them here. Again, this means quick turnaround and iteration - we can see in realtime the effects of lighting, and very, very quickly get a scene set up that looks exactly how our artists and designers want.

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And then to top it all off, that video of the dungeon was made via Unreal’s Sequencer tool. Using it we are able to create cinematic shots very quickly and achieve a very film-like look to the final rendered video.  Sequencer is a huge step up from Matinee and the new shot-based workflow allows for quick and easy edits within the engine itself. We can share a lot more with the community this way, and again, it saves us so much time and money to be able to do this in engine, at-will.

This is not really directly related to the tool, but we wanted to mention that the ecosystem of Unreal Engine 4 is great, too. The Marketplace is thriving and healthy, which makes it easy for us to get a handle on best practices, and just to see what other people are doing with the engine. This keeps us from having to reinvent the wheel, so we’re always moving forward with our project - there’s an answer out there somewhere, usually at our fingertips.

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We can’t tell you how important to us and our project efficiencies like this are. We’re not a big studio (yet), but we’re creating assets and content like we were a studio three times the size. We spend way more time making great art than we do trying to get that art into our game. If the lighting doesn’t look right, we can fix it on the fly - if we need a new material, we can just tweak the master material a bit. We can focus on making the game, not fighting the tools or waiting on builds.

For more on Ashes of Creation, please visit the project’s official website.

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