To give an idea of what exactly “visual effects” covers, it’s all destruction, water effects, smoke-and-mirrors play, and other elements of that nature – here are some stats the speaker gave us:
Gears of War 3 has:
- 8,299 hand-placed Visual Effects systems, including explosions, water, lighting, and destruction.
- 2,137 unique particle systems.
- 95 minutes of FX-intensive, real-time cinematics.
- 30 visual effects were produced per day. If one day was missed, the following needed 60FX produced.
Thousands of assets produced by only 2 artists in such a short development cycle seems unrealistic for most companies (many of Epic Games’ game dev colleagues hire teams of 2-6x as large), but Epic managed it. In Francois Antoine’s discussion panel at ECGC, we were told that much of the effects were concepted and created through Epic’s high-efficiency pipeline.
“We have a very thin hierarchy,” the Epic artist told us, “The art department has one art director over thirty artists – above the art director is no one, just the president of the company.” He emphasized that this allows the company to place weightier expectations on the individual contributors, allowing them full responsibility to ensure their ideas were heard at round-tables. Epic Games also has what they call an “Epic M.O.M,” sort of an in-house events and team-building coordinator, whose primary responsibility is to arrange beer runs, massages, events for the employee’s families, and other morale-boosting outings.
“She can set up beer runs with the [higher-ups] so it’s not like anyone’s looking down on you, we’re very open that way.” To prove the point, the audience at Epic’s panel was told a story about how, upon initial infiltration, Epic’s offices had a dividing wall through the middle of the team. Epic Games hired a contractor to tear down the wall and create a single, massive room for artists, programmers, designers, and everyone else to coalesce and work together.
“We can look at each other’s screens and make suggestions,” Antoine said, “Anyone can modify your work for the better.” All assets produced by team members at Epic are up-for-grabs among the team, “It’s about who’s the best for the job,” he said, “you eventually get used to the fact that people are going to change your work, but it’s still your work.” The idea here being that if a visual FX artist sees something an environmental artist made, as an example, the VFX person can then add dust or other effects to the object. This ensures that there’s fluidity among the team and encourages everyone to remain tight and communicative, which is another key point to success, said Francois Antoine.
The advantages of Epic’s artistic pipeline were detailed as a focus on easy experimentation, asset modularity, fast iteration times, visual scripting (allowing artists to script events without interpretation of a coder), and general communication. “It feels easy to be productive at Epic, much more than when I was in the [movie industry].”
Tools also play a big role, of course: Epic’s famed Unreal Engine is capable of nearly anything and has a framework that allows easy collaboration among team members, but the overall statement in the conference was pure efficiency. Tools and a specific, fluid, open culture at Epic allow maximum effectiveness with the team at hand, reducing overall per-hour investment made by each team member (and combatting the infamous work hours of game developers).
“The components to make a production team efficient are part of our production culture,” Francois listed the items that Epic looks for in new-hires, primarily:
- Self-driven and motivated, since middle-management is eliminated wherever possible.
- Experience working with others and in groups.
- Culture-fit – they want someone that will ‘fit-in’ with the rest of the environment.
- Sharers – someone who can share work and isn’t afraid to be an expert in a certain area to tweak the work of others.
Epic’s production culture, as briefly outlined above, is most focused on keeping the company small and clean. It’s important to avoid micromanagement wherever possible, we were told, and instead allow individual contributors to update the rest of the team with progress or requests for help. The open pipeline reduces requirements on single people – if someone needs a break, gets sick, or otherwise doesn’t have the bandwidth to work on content, that item can be off-loaded to another team member without any intermediary “I don’t know what the goal of this is” problems that are seen so often in bigger corporations.
Here’s a quick video to showcase some of the stuff that Francois Antoine worked on:
It’s insane to think that only 2.5 artists did all of this. This goes to show that a smaller, focused philosophy in game design and development can go a long way when executed properly; its advantages over megacorporations (at least, with respect to the relatively-small game world) are easy to highlight and understand.
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-Steve “Lelldorianx” Burke.