Blizzard talks Starcraft II art design

A panel of the Irvine, CA-based studio's top artists discusses the art design and environments in the newly announced Starcraft II.

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SEOUL, South Korea--At the 2007 Worldwide Invitational event, Blizzard Entertainment is offering tournament play for its hardcore fans and open panel discussions for its inquisitive ones. The company's senior artists, including senior 3D artist Dave Berggren, senior 3D artist Allen Dilling, senior 3D artist Trevor Jacobs, lead technical artist Rob McNaughton, and senior art director Samwise Didier, sit on a panel to discuss how the studio creates art "the Blizzard way."

Didier explains that within the core philosophies of Blizzard art design, "nothing is subtle--every character is over the top; every environment is either beautiful or battle scarred." According to the art director, Blizzard's characters come to life by means of strong silhouettes, exaggerated proportions, distinctive animations, and "bold, saturated colors" so that they not only look memorable, but are easy to distinguish at a glance as well--an important quality for real-time strategy units that must often be viewed from a zoomed-out view. Didier adds that at Blizzard, art is something that "isn't finished until the game is shipped"--artists typically work on continued passes right until games are complete.

Technical artist McNaughton then takes the stage and explains how the studio uses a handful of primary art tools to create its games; there is Adobe Photoshop for texture art, 3D Studio Max for its low-polygon models, and Mudbox for its high-polygon models, as well as its own proprietary toolsets, such as "Startools," to create in-game objects such as trees and other "doodads," and "Scumedit," the updated map editor. McNaughton also points out that Startools and Scumedit will be part of the map- and mod-making tools that will ship with the game. McNaughton explains that Starcraft II's graphics will be based off of the DirectX 9.0 API and fully support Pixel Shader 2.0, including support for conventional DirectX 9.0 effects such as normal mapping and high dynamic range lighting and bloom. While the game will be playable on both Windows XP and Vista, Starcraft II does not support DirectX 10 in its current state. The artist tempers his description of the advanced graphical effects by explaining that although the game will feature advanced graphical effects, it will scale, to some extent, downward to still allow players who don't own cutting-edge PC hardware to play the game.

3D artist Jacobs then discussed the process of how Blizzard starts with 2D concept art and eventually arrives at finished models, using the Protoss Immortal tank as an example to go from hand drawing to rough modeling (adjusted to make sure the model looks good from the traditional RTS overhead view) to texturing to polishing, and 3D artist Dilling reiterates the importance of creating distinctive animations for units. As an example, Dilling shows the Starcraft II flying mutalisk and tiny, doglike zerglings in action, both alone and in large crowds.

Starcraft II's units will have multiple "move cycle" animations so they don't all move in unison with the exact same frames of animation; the crowd of zerglings looks especially creepy because none of them seem to be running in the same way or in the same direction, like a swarm of hyperactive fire ants. Dilling explains that because Starcraft II is being developed with professional competition in mind, the sequel's special effects will be "tight, fast, and quick" such that they don't obscure the action or slow down your computer. However, "landmark events" like the summoning of the top-level Protoss mothership unit will be accompanied by sufficient graphical fanfare to point out their importance.

The panel winds down with a brief presentation on environments from 3D artist Dave Berggren, who suggests that Starcraft II will take place both in new worlds and in worlds that had appeared in the original game. Berggren shows concepts for the Protoss world of Bel'Shir, a lush, jungle planet that had once served as a religious retreat for the race before it was sacked by the Zerg. The planet has since become covered in ruined temples. Berggren also introduces Braxis Alpha, the Terran settlement that appeared in yesterday's video presentation. Braxis Alpha will be a combination of industrial wasteland and mountainous regions, covered in craggy rock formations and factory-like debris, such as loose gears and turbines that jut out from mountain faces. Finally, Berggren shows concept art of the Zerg world of Char (where Kerrigan, the Terran-ghost-unit-turned-Zerg-commander holds court), which will, like in the previous games, be a craggy, volcanic planet covered in lava floes. Berggren points out that although Blizzard's art team is taking advantage of modern texturing approaches to environments by mapping terrains and overlaying photorealistic textures, the art team will also make final passes to tweak environmental areas by hand.

The Blizzard Worldwide Invitational 2007 event winds down today in Seoul, South Korea. For more information about the biggest news of the show--the Starcraft II announcement--see our previous coverage.

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