Dimitri Berman liked to play with dolls. Paper dolls. Virtual paper dolls, to be precise.
In roleplaying games, the portrayal of the player-character wearing assorted equipment is referred to by many players and developers as the paper doll. Players use paper dolls to get an at-a-glance overview of their character’s appearance.
Berman was admiring a paper doll of one of the character team’s latest creations, the Nature Godlike, a sub-race covered in vegetation and crowned with horns. As he tried on different pieces of armor, the paper doll changed to reflect his current setup. “The paper-doll system is very complicated technically,” Berman explained. “All of that stuff is assembled in real-time by the engine, and can cause a lot of bugs. Many of these systems have to work together really well.”
Outfits can be pragmatic: A leather vest that improves fire defense, gloves that enhance a magical ability. Outfits can also be designed purely for fashion instead of practicality. All outfits are status symbols. The gear players wear and the weapons they carry into battle communicate the investment they’ve made in their characters. As lead character artist, Berman appreciated what paper-doll screens brought to Pillars of Eternity. He was also the one who had to reconcile paper dolls with the game’s isometric camera.
The isometric view was perfect for giving players a sweeping view of environments. When viewed from such a great height, characters were more illustrative than literal. Some equipment was too small, too finely detailed, to be shown on the in-game model. But it could be appreciated in the paper-doll screen. “When we started Eternity 1, we allowed players to switch out gloves and boots onto unique models,” Berman explained. “Eternity 1 did not ship with that feature, and Deadfire doesn't have it either. You either have a full set of armor, or you don't.”
Characters in Pillars of Eternity boast highly stylized appearances so they are visually legible to players. “It's something we take into account with these games that you take for granted in first-person games or close-up, over-the-shoulder games,” Berman continued. “Lots of my time has been spent balancing that stuff. I think we're solid now. We know what we're doing. It was just quite a process to figure it out all out. It was new to me.”
Every feature of Baldur’s Gate and other Infinity Engine RPGs was as much as curse for game developers as it was a blessing for players. The features players took for granted had to be implemented by developers. Berman and his fellow character artists had to create droves of clothing, weapons, and other items. They were outnumbered: Pillars of Eternity would include hundreds of items to the development team’s three character artists: Dimitri Berman, James Chea, and J. D. Cerince.
Even so, skimping on customization was not an option. “That's one thing about RPGs,” said Rob Nesler, Obsidian’s art director. “You want to allow players to customize their characters and give them loot that they can switch out, so coming up with a vast amount of clothing, armor, and weapons to be distributed to create a party that is varied and interesting to the player was a big deal.”
“We knew, because our team was so small, and Infinity Engine games had so much content, that we needed to be tools focused,” Berman added.
Before designing any of Pillars of Eternity’s races or characters, character artists would speak with narrative designers to learn about their appearances and personalities. “Everything comes from design first, [narrative] and design, because that's what Obsidian games are made of,” Berman said.
Artists learned about characters through chats with narrative designers as well as by referring to character sheets that contained salient information such as background and distinctive features. “From there, it comes down to concept, and the concept artists create its look. A lot of times that's where I enter,” Berman continued.
“For concept art, usually we teamed up with an assigned artist when a particular place was being built,” Eric Fenstermaker said. “They’d pull requests out of our design documents, text and reference images, and have conversations with the appropriate designer. So they usually started with some guidance, but being as jaw-droppingly good as they were I think it was always wise to let them run with it and maybe give you something you didn’t expect.”
The team of concept artists was even smaller than the character art team. Kazunori “Kaz” Aruga and Polina Hristova talked with narrative and character designers to draw elaborate sketches that served as snapshots which other artists could use to create models. “It was kind of a scary position for me. I was working as a texture artist before [at Lucasfilm], so this was actually my first gig as a concept artist and also a UI artist as well,” said Aruga.
Berman worked alongside Hristova and Aruga to make sure their concepts stayed within certain parameters. “Concept artists tend to put in too much detail, which won't work in-game,” he explained. “Earrings, for example. We started adding stuff for faces, and buttons on shirts. It looks cool in concept, and it may look cool in the paper-doll [view], but in-game, you won't see it. It takes extra work for us to make it, and it costs extra polygons and texture space to render.”
There were technical reasons to steer clear of minute details as well. “Little details, when you zoom out, do not look good for a number of reasons. One, if they start to sizzle, the renderer can't handle them because they're too small to render nicely,” Berman said.
“In a 3D game, our camera is so pulled out, so I had to be mindful of how much detail [to show], and where I chose to show details. In the back of my mind, I was thinking of how everything should come together,” Aruga added. “That's one of our restrictions: The camera is isometric, so there are some things you can't display in that format. All of that, designing and respecting those restrictions, I remember being kind of a hurdle. But it was fun.”
Some concept illustrations for Pillars of Eternity depicted characters in a tableau, such as Hristova’s beautiful illustration of a nature godlike in a sunlit forest, and Aruga’s painting of an orlan Cipher investigating a bloody dagger in a dingy alleyway. Other illustrations were portraits that would be displayed in the game’s paper-doll interface.
Little touches such as capes or cloaks swept back in a flourish could be next to impossible to add in due to tight resources. “We didn't get dynamic cloth for a long while, for example, so let's not do that because it will be broken, and we don't know one hundred percent that we're going to get that feature, so let's not rely on it,” said Berman.
Artists and narrative designers went back and forth until everyone signed off on a concept sketch. With artwork in hand, a character artist could build a character. Much of the iteration a character underwent centered on technical details. Animations may evolve or be scrapped and replaced. A character may look better due to the lighting in one environment but worse in another.
“Everything gets iterated on a million times. We'll put a character in our game, and from then on, I kind of take over, going back to polish and tweak, just so they'll look how everyone expects them to look,” Berman said.
To create gigabytes upon gigabytes of characters, the character artists needed a robust set of tools. Antonio Govela, technical director on the character art team, rose to the challenge. Half programmer, half artist, a technical artist concentrates on building tools that allow the art team to integrate their content into a game.
Govela’s area of expertise was writing scripts to extend Maya’s feature set. His scripts ran adjacent to Maya, like moons orbiting a planet. One of Govela’s most important scripts was DNA, or Design New Actor, a veritable toolbox that let artists export, stretch, and animate their creations. “He came up with a really cool system of scaling and rig deformation,” said Berman. “We have this complex Maya system that spits out all the other races and properly deforms their proportions, making them look different, and puts them into the game.”
Govela’s toolset streamlined the fundamentals of modeling characters regardless of the race or class that character artists needed to create. “Creating characters was a little more straightforward,” Nesler recalled. “There's really just one body. It's a human body, and it is scaled and distorted into all the other [race] bodies.”
Every godlike, for instance, has a humanoid head with huge growths that prevented them from wearing helmets. That decision was as much a technical one by Berman as it was a creative call by Josh Sawyer: They only had the budget to create a one-size-fits-all helm, so no resources could be spared to create custom head pieces that fit the godlike’s growths.
“From there, that opened us up to doing a lot of stuff with their heads, their faces, and the nature of the godlike. They didn't have to look human in every way,” Berman explained, referring to the scaly, scab-like growths that cover the faces of death godlike, and their shiny skin and glowing horns.
Instead of going all-out on a character model and whittling down details later, Berman started every model by pushing himself to use the fewest number of polygons. Once he had a better understanding of how far along the overall game was in development, he went back and added details, just as designers and programmers doubled back to add or revise mechanics.
Differentiation was important. Just because every character originated from the same base model did not mean players should be able to recognize those humanoid building blocks. Berman worked with a few of the designers to write up a scale sheet that detailed proportions and other physical attributes for every race. At first, elves stood taller than humans until Sawyer requested that humans be the second-tallest race, after the giant-like aumaua.
“That was the most important thing for me when starting Eternity 1: Nailing that stuff down,” Berman said. “When you had a town full of people, I really wanted for there to be a huge variety in terms of shapes and styles of everything you're seeing, so all the races felt more distinct.”
Once an artist finished a character, a narrative designer would take a look and give feedback. Character artists iterated from there. Iteration occurred throughout development. Early characters who had been modeled and animated when the team was still learning their way around Maya and their burgeoning toolset received extra attention later on. “Creatively, our process is the same, but because our tools change so much, and our engine changes and evolves as a game is made, you almost have to go back and check your early work to ask, ‘Does this hold up to what we're doing now?’ And if it doesn't, you have to revise it,” Berman explained.
The isometric camera remained a sticking point right up until Pillars of Eternity launched. “A lot of a character's form is completely lost [when viewed from above], so you have to do a lot of stuff so that players can recognize what a character is right away, but at the same time make them look really cool,” Berman said.
Artists had to restrain themselves at every stage of the character-creation process. Of the many sub-races for godlike that were created, the storm godlike were Berman’s favorite. Their skin was covered in gusts of air that swirled around like animated tattoos, and storms flashed in their eyes and played along their faces. They were also the first godlike to get cut. “What it came down to was making four sub-races that were completely different from each other, but make them using the same pipeline we used to make dwarves and elves, that kind of deal,” Berman said. “It had to be really feasible for us to make them. They can't be so unique that they're thirty percent of character work in the whole game, as cool as they would be.”
The developers shaved godlike from Berman’s initial list of twelve sub-types down to four: nature, moon, death, and fire. Some eliminated characters were repurposed into non-playable allies players meet along the way. Pallegina mes Rèi, an avian godlike sporting sharp eyes and a head of feathers instead of hair, became a fully animated companion written by Josh Sawyer.
Kaz Aruga was elated. There was going to be a Baldur’s Gate III, the sequel to the sequel of his favorite game. But there was a catch: According to his old college roommate, the game would not be called Baldur’s Gate III.
“My first roommate in the states was Adam Brennecke, along with a few other kids,” Aruga remembered. “We were going to the same school, DigiPen, up in Redwood, Washington.”
Brennecke found Aruga the new-fashioned way, through a roommate finder available to freshmen at DigiPen. They became fast friends. “He came directly from Japan, and he had nothing, really, in his room,” Brennecke said. “My family and I helped him get established in the United States. We went out and bought furniture. It was this interesting bonding experience, and we quickly became good friends during that time.”
Aruga and Brennecke collaborated on side projects. Both had played BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate series over and over, and pined for a third game. “I just loved, in Baldur’s Gate I, especially, sprawling wilderness maps,” Aruga said.
He and Brennecke teamed up with a couple of other amateur game designers to create levels for the classics. “We made up some stories,” Brennecke said. “We had wild imaginations back then on what we could and could not do. Kaz actually experimented with making Baldur’s Gate II levels in 3D Studio Max. It was a lot of fun during our freshman year.”
“I remember we were banging our heads trying to get art into the game and then trying to alter it in any way,” Aruga added. “We had to figure out how to modify icons. There was this guy, Sonic, a pseudo programmer, cracked that code and got icons working, and were like, 'Yeah!' We were super excited. But we could never figure out how to override the background art.”
While Brennecke thrived at DigiPen, Aruga struggled to keep up. “Eventually I dropped out of that program because the math was kicking my ass. I realized I wasn't in the right place,” Aruga said.
Aruga moved to San Francisco and got his groove back at the Art Institute of California. He would crash at Brennecke’s place over holidays, and, once he heard about Brennecke landing a job at Obsidian, ping him over AOL Instant Messenger to half-jokingly ask about word of a third Baldur’s Gate.
A week after Obsidian launched its Kickstarter for Pillars of Eternity, Aruga messaged Brennecke and asked for more info. “I kind of teased him: 'Dude, this is it. This is going to be Baldur’s Gate III right here. It's Baldur’s Gate III in spirit.' He got super excited,” Brennecke said. “He pledged money to the Kickstarter, one of the higher tiers. I think he did a thousand dollars.”
Aruga contributed more than funds. He painted a portrait of an orlan cipher playing detective in a dirty alley. Brennecke and Nesler liked his artwork so much that they moved money around to offer him a position on the team. “He was great in assisting with a lot of the areas where I needed some help: character creation and development, the portraits, and the UI. He took over a lot of that stuff,” Nesler said.
Brennecke and Aruga became roomies once again. “Something that really helps with game development is having people who fully understand the product,” Brennecke said. “He was working on UI and art for us, but since his sensibilities fit perfectly with Pillars 1, it was nice that he knew all of the challenges going into it. He was so familiar with Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II, so it was nice having someone else on the team that really had that full understanding.”
Aruga was a pro at drawing and painting concepts. He had left a stable job as an artist at Lucasfilm where he had worked on Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series. User interfaces were another matter. “UI was definitely the hardest part of my job for the first game,” he admitted.
Polina Hristova and Kaz Aruga shared duties on concept artwork, but Aruga became the sole proprietor of UI elements. Naturally, he started by turning to Baldur’s Gate for reference. BioWare’s RPG had used a horseshoe-style arrangement of icons around the play screen. He iterated by designing buttons and background artwork for the interface that needed to be an extension of Pillars of Eternity’s game world and feel.
Where Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale had displayed its UI against a stone backdrop, Kaz placed Pillars of Eternity’s icons on a wooden board. A second layer painted to depict parchment-like sheets was placed against the wooden backdrops, the same way Dungeons & Dragons players might place character sheets on a table as they play. “I would go back and forth on it. It kept evolving, only because as an artist I want to put a certain level of detail into the parchment: that crunchy, really tangible, delicious detail,” Aruga said. “You see it in the game in the context of text scrolling over it and it looks like garbage because I went overboard on textures.”
Even though Aruga had layers to work with—wooden paneling first, parchment second—finalizing UI pages was time consuming. “You walk this weird line between clarity and aesthetics when designing UI: it had to have this tangible, skeuomorphic, old-school feel,” he said.
Skeuomorphism is a style of graphical art that attempts to connect virtual interfaces to real-world counterparts, such as digital bookshelves in reading apps and bright-red, digital numbers for alarm clock programs. Pillars of Eternity’s UI was designed to evoke Baldur’s Gate pen-and-paper games. Aruga left the horseshoe-shaped rows of icons in the past and placed icons, character portraits, and other information such as descriptive text along the bottom of the screen. Not only did that centralize the UI, it freed up the bulk of the screen for the playing field: environments players were exploring, character movement and placement, and dialogue for speaking characters.
“One thing we always pay attention to in UI design is how much the player has to move and look around the screen,” Brennecke said. “That becomes even more difficult now because of widescreen monitors: You can't put a lot of stuff on the left and right sides of the screen, especially if it's combat related, because we don't want the player moving their head and line of sight from one side of the screen back to the middle where combat [takes place].”
The variety of monitors and screen resolutions proved a hurdle during the UI’s design process. “The UI is not a floaty, transparent set of panels,” Aruga explained. “Everything is anchored. That's a hard problem to solve because you have to accommodate all of these different screen ratios.”
“Also, there's a lot of stuff under the hood,” Brennecke added, “like how much time does it take to do actions? How far do you have to move the mouse between [selecting] actions? I don't know if we solved all of those issues, but it's something we've discussed.”
Designing the inventory screen was simple relative to other tasks because Sawyer laid out precisely how he wanted it to look: character portrait on the left, paper-doll model in the center, and a grid of squares and slots on the right where players stored and sorted through items. Other tasks gave Aruga headaches for months. “One thing that wasn't fun, and I'm still not quite happy with them to this day, was creating the selection circles in our game,” he said.
Selection circles are thin green tendrils that rotate around a character’s feet, a similar direction found in Infinity Engine games, and denote that a character has been selected and can be given commands. The last thing players want getting in their way while they’re fighting a horde of monsters is the user interface. “If the player just has time to take a quick glance at the party portraits, it has to be apparent [which character is] selected,” he said.
Aruga’s issues were twofold. First, the circles were difficult to render in terms of technical resources. “They have to scale well, so a rasterized approach was sort of difficult, meaning converting an outline image into pixels,” he said. “If I create a fancy mask to put on characters, or make a selection circle, what happens is the pixels scale beyond what is healthy for that art asset.”
The second problem was that green circles stuck out like sore thumbs against the game’s painterly environments and character art. Unfortunately, green was the one color that would not interfere with colors used in other UI elements, and it stood out well against the wooden-brown of panels. “I tend to always think about the art side. I want to make it look good, but oftentimes within the context of the game, things fall apart very quickly. Even though as an artist I don't want to make this thing highlight in this garish color, it might be necessary because there's so much else going on.”
Aruga ran himself ragged agonizing over every tiny UI element. In the end, he declared all the effort worthwhile. “It's weird because it feels like a simpler time, but I know it was crazy because I'd go home and just collapse. There was always a new and unique UI problem to solve.”
Within the first hour of Pillars of Eternity, players come across a gigantic machine set atop a stone altar, like a cement truck’s drum balanced on one end. The construct is colloquially known as a soul machine, and sucks up the souls of any who wander too close and harvest their power.
Players witness the machine’s power firsthand when it explodes into life, whirring and flashing. Tendrils of soul shoot out of the bodies of nearby characters and connect with the machine. As they scream in agony, their souls are sucked up like liquid through a bendy straw.
There are dozens more technically sophisticated cutscenes later in Pillars of Eternity, but that one is John Lewis’s favorite. “I did that whole cutscene, where the machine charges up, and the souls get pulled into the machine,” he said.
Much like the varied nature of particle effects in graphics, Lewis had followed a winding career path during his years at Obsidian. He taught himself digital art programs in college, then joined Obsidian as an intern on Fallout: New Vegas, painting and modeling environments in South Park: Stick of Truth, and then moved over to Pillars of Eternity to spearhead visual effects. “The way I transitioned to visual effects was, our visual effects artist was burdened with a lot of work to do, so I ended up taking some of that burden off him by doing a lot of my own environment effects. It immediately became something I was interested in, and I made that interest known, so they gave me an opportunity to start out as an effects artists on Pillars I.”
Players and critics love to draw comparisons between the game and film industries, but the role of a visual effects artist is drastically different across both mediums. “In the film industry, everything is effects. In games, it mostly has to do with particle effects,” said Lewis. “Things that animate and aren't necessarily characters. Anything from water, to fire, to weather, to spells and abilities. 'Anything sparkly' is what most visual effects artists will tell you.”
Lewis’s job was to work in conjunction with dynamic backgrounds and animations for spells and character movement to bring Pillars of Eternity to life. That meant manifesting effects in a way that communicated cause and effect, and then scrub those effects off the screen so players could concentrate on other visual elements such as their party’s formation during battles.
“A lightning bolt, for instance, is very long and narrow. It's not going to obscure a whole lot, so we can got a little wild with it,” Lewis said. “We can make it longer, brighter. For something like a fireball, a big sphere that encompasses a large part of the battlefield, you've got to get the bright fire effects out of the way quickly.”
The first effect Lewis designed was Fan of Flames, a spell that sprays fire in a cone formation. One of his earliest tasks was to build a library of effects such as fire and lightning. Some could be used individually. Others would be building blocks that could be paired with other assets to create more complex effects. “At the beginning of a project, it might take a few days or even a week to get that first effect done, but as your library grows over the course of the game, you have more textures you've created and particle effects you can reference for new ones, and the iteration process becomes substantially faster,” he said.
Lewis boiled visual effects down to a broad, two-step process. First, he implemented them. Then he had to hook them up to animations and ensure they played out according to prescribed timings. An attack that sets a character aflame, for example, involves animating fire that flares up and then fades. In that circumstance, Lewis waited until a character animation was available and then scrubbed through it, studying every frame to decide where he could stick fire effects to make the spell pop while also adhering to the animation’s timing from beginning to end.
Additionally, a spell for which he needed to create an effect may have other properties that he should consider while creating and hooking up an effect “We have to make sure that our effects match the parameters of the ability being used: radius, duration, any type of secondary effect an ability may have.”
Timing started as a trial-and-error process. By the time Pillars of Eternity’s development was nearly finished, he could fly through his procedure, only needing to make slight adjustments by on his final set of effects. Nevertheless, some obstacles remained constant. Obsidian’s tight resources gave artists only so many shaders, a program that draws triangles and adds postprocessing effects such as textures to 3D objects, to work with. There was no easy way to add lighting to effects, so he had to improvise.
“Let's say you have a meteor that impacts on the ground, and you see a big flash of orange light on impact. The smoke that comes out of it isn't lit. It's very basic, alpha-blended shader, but we can add color into it over the lifetime of the particle to make it look like it's being lit by an orange light, and time that with the actual lighting. We had a bunch of those sorts of technical limitations.”
Game space presented another challenge. Because Pillars of Eternity’s backgrounds started as 3D images that were smooshed down to pre-rendered backgrounds, there was no easy way to gauge the depth and spacing of effects such as candles, braziers, and torches. “On Pillars, there was a period of time where I was placing candle flames one by one, dragging them through the environment, trying to get them to interact with the scene so I would know exactly where they lived in 3D space,” he recalled.
Kaz Aruga remembered being blown away by tech created by Michael Edwards, Obsidian’s ace graphics programmer, that gave artists more control over lighting. “Part of the technology allowed us to drop a point of light in Unity in one space, and the engine can figure out, okay, where's that light in relation to this render? And it will relight the render based on certain information,” Aruga explained. “I knew that that was a render, and yet when you moved the point light, all these different facets—the rendered polygons—started lighting up, and lighting up correctly. I remember that boggling my mind, like, what is this sorcery?”
That tech came to the fore when Lewis came to Aruga and pointed out something that bugged him: Every candle, torch, brazier, and other fire-bearing object in the game exhibited flame of wildly different colors. “'Shouldn't fire just be, uh, fire?'” Aruga remembered Lewis asking.
Lewis worked with the other artists to standardize the color of lighting. His goal was to speed up any areas of game development where artists should be able to, in effect, copy-and-paste an effect rather than move objects by hand, as he had done with candles. Not everything was uniform. When he noticed that the bluish lighting of darkness at night was shifting the orange light of torches to a reddish-purple, he modified them so that one type of firelight worked for indoor environments and another was palatable for exteriors.
“There's a lot of little things to consider like that. I'm involved heavily in that process, and I go back and forth a lot with the level artists who do the lighting setups, making sure those things are consistent across the game as far as normal fires, and any other effects we're going to use.”
At the end of development, Aruga, Berman, Nesler, Lewis, and other artists hoped that fans would note and appreciate all the little details in characters and effects that transformed classic RPGs from old-school, 2D classics into vibrant worlds populated with realistic characters—even in cases when they were pressed for time and had to run with first drafts of their creations.
“Just the sort of unknown, the wild, wild west feeling of game development at Obsidian was fun,” Aruga reflected. “It's all sort of scary sometimes, like when your first draft is what ships because production is so fast-paced. Not because there's no polish that goes into it, but because there's so much game to cover that that's what ends up happening. You have to learn to live with that, but it keeps everything very fresh. You grow as an artist when you have to adapt, when your first draft has to be serviceable and has to work.”
“Every decision was practicality first, creativity next. We knew we couldn't do anything really wild,” Berman said.