Smoke and Mirrors. ’The source of the name is based on magicians’ illusions, where magicians make objects appear or disappear by extending or retracting mirrors amid a distracting burst of smoke’
Hmmm, that’s the first time I’ve looked the expression up on Wikipedia, and it is a surprisingly accurate description of the job we do in the world of FX (trying hard not to make this sound like the ‘Ladybird Book of Particle FX’ – not really working).
Ok so how do I even start explaining what an FX artist does? Well normally I don’t. Usually if I say I do FX in games, someone will ask “how long does it take you to make a sword in graphics?” or “is that like all that Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear kind of stuff?”, so I just nod. But basically we’re the team that nobody wants for the first half of a project, and the team that everybody wants for the second half. We highlight things people want to show you, and we hide the stuff people don’t. We add a spit, polish and shine to the world you play in. We’re essentially the ‘cleaners’ (in a cool, Harvey Keitel way, not hands and knees, scrubbing stains off a toilet way).
Picture a game where someone fires a gun, and you see no flash. A rock lands in some water, and there is no splash (halfway to some song lyrics here). A creature appears from thin air and you see no magic. Either you’ve just travelled back to 1992 or you’ve got no particle FX in your game. A lot of the work we do you might not even notice, but if it wasn’t there, you certainly would.
As I mentioned previously, the first half of a project is the time that nobody really wants much from the FX department. The odd leaf fall while they concept up a new forest, or some weapon trails or impact hits so the combat tests read correctly, but for the most part, it’s a time of experimentation and wonder. Then suddenly you wake up one day and everybody wants to be your friend…
“Help us! – The player’s not supposed to go down that path , can we cover it up with some mist…or…or…fire?”
“ok…where’d the fire come from?”
“erm…can you make it blue and it can be magic fire?”
“ok…where’d the magic fire come from?”
“I dunno…another realm or somewhere”
“ok…magic fire…add it to the list”
“we need it today, it breaks the game when someone goes up the path”
“sigh…ok – magic blue fire from another realm, we’re on it”
This is just an example of what COULD happen, not something that would happen with our talented bunch at Lionhead. Anyway, as I was saying, everyone wants to be your friend. Everyone, that is, except the optimisation guys.
“Hi…we’ve noticed the frame rate dipping near that path area”
“yeah we had to add some magic blue fire”
“Magic fire?… in a forest?”
“I know, I know…”
“doesn’t matter, we need you to take it out”
“but…the designers said…”
“just make it run faster or take it out”
So every day is a challenge, and every day we face something new, but it’s that test, that variety, that makes FX work so rewarding. I’ve worked in every art discipline, and FX is by far the most varied. One day you’re doing a magic barrel exploding in a shower of bright phosphorous, and the next you’re doing a guy pissing on a tree. Glamorous.
Working on ‘Fable: The Journey’ has been a new type of challenge. Up until now we’ve used FX tools that have been created in house by our own coders, but using the Unreal engine we’ve been able to do things with FX that were previously unimaginable. Being able to see FX right up in front of the screen, in first person, has provided us with new problems to solve, and new issues to overcome, but through those new trials I think we’ve managed to create something that’s both unique in the Fable universe, but at the same time, I hope, familiar to fans of the franchise. Kinect has given us FX artists a good platform to show off. To sit in front of a TV and wave your hand to see your spell burst into a ball of glowing energy is really satisfying, and allows for us to really go to town on the visuals.
I’ve been at Lionhead for a long time now, and worked on every Fable game we’ve released, so I’ve seen technology move on a lot since I started on what was then called ‘Project Ego’. I’ve gone from enthusiastic nipper, resting the drawing tablet on my lap because the desk was taken up by a CRT monitor the size of a bus, to grizzled old veteran, who smiles knowingly at new starters excitedly bounding about like labrador pups. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go, but the ethos that carries through from the start is the inherent desire for originality and creativity. A need to make games that nobody else is making, and it is as strong now as it was when my desk was being buckled by that giant CRT.
Anyway, reading back through this I think I’ve basically just done the word equivalent of putting up a magic fire, and then running away. So I’ll leave it now, but to any budding games artists out there, why not give FX a try. We’re the games equivalent of a giant panda – in short supply, and everyone wants one. (except the optimisation guys).