Hello Internet! My name is Patrick Poage, and I’m an environment artist at Cryptic Studios working on Neverwinter. I’m writing this post to give you all some insight into how I made the environments for the new Portobello’s Campaign content. I’ll talk about my process and highlight the different challenges faced by real world artists vs. digital ones. I’ll include an interview with the creator of the real world PAX Prime props, Mat Smith! I can honestly say that this project was straight-out the most fun I’ve ever had working on a set of levels. =)
I’ve been playing D&D more or less non-stop since I was 13, and I’ve been gaming since I got my first Gameboy around 8, so this project was perfect for me. Combining a D&D video game with the actual D&D tabletop experience? Yeah, sign me up! To top it all off, we’d be referencing content from the live game from PAX Prime 2015. I even got to play a short adventure with Chris Perkins as my DM and have him kill my character. I love my job!
When we started work on Portobello’s Game, I knew that I really wanted to cater the art to fans of the live show and for me that meant two things:
First, I needed to recreate the awesome props that were onstage as best I could. I wanted people to instantly recognize the Burrow Dawn Inn and the surrounding environment. Second, I needed to make the environment around the table feel right from the perspective of you, the Neverwinter player (yes you, you’re awesome!). We had a great head start from the original Respen’s Game map, but redoing the lighting and rearranging some props made it feel more like a place people would play a game of D&D (if your Dungeon Master was like, crazy rich…or, you know, a wizard).
In order the accomplish Goal #1, I needed reference. Luckily, the original creator of the props, Mat Smith (aka CzarOfHappiness) had detailed the creation process on his webpage. Taking images from his site for reference, along with some helpful photos from the folks at Wizards of the Coast, I got to work. I think it turned out alright.
Being able to make a video game version of someone else’s artwork is a rare opportunity, so I reached out to Mat so that we could mutually geek out over each other’s work. I thought it would be cool to share some insight into each of our respective workflows and see what’s different about our styles, and what might be the same. I recruited some assistance, and sat down for an interview with Mr. Smith. What follows is an entirely accurate* transcript of this conversation.
Portobello DaVinci: Hi Patrick, Hello Mat. I’ll be serving as an interviewer of sorts for the purpose of this blog post.
Patrick: Wow, thanks. I thought you were just an imaginary character, Portobelly. Can I call you Portobelly?
Portobello DaVinci: No.
Mat: Well, this is weird…
Patrick: Just go with it, it’s easier for me to format your answers to my emailed questions as an interview we’re both in.
Portobello DaVinci: So, Mat, we’ll start with you, since you came up with the original design of the Burrow Dawn Inn. What was the biggest challenge you faced while working on this project?
Mat: The biggest challenge I had (a.k.a.: learning opportunity) was the lake—specifically: filling it with “water” and the pile of setbacks it caused.
The bulk of the diorama was constructed using polystyrene foam board (usually used as wall insulation.) It’s a great material for this kind of work, because it’s light, strong, and easy to work with. However, if you don’t seal it, stuff like spray paint or resin can cause it to melt.
But I’d already learned that lesson, so I was pretty confident there’d be no chemical reaction when I poured a gallon of resin into the well-sealed basin and left the shop so the vapors could dissipate and the resin would have time to cure.
When I came back a few hours later, I was reminded of a property of the resin I’d forgotten—the catalyzing process generates heat, which also melts foam. So I had a *lot* of patching, filling, and repair work to salvage the lake.
The upside was that I ended up with a strange and mysterious hole in the side of the lakebed that looked like a natural well that plunged into dark, unknown depths. And when life gives you a well, you make a tiny bucket.
Portobello DaVinci: What about you, Patrick?
Patrick: I think my biggest challenge was balancing my desire to replicate what Mat had made with the real-world demands of a video game production schedule that included 4 other maps of Portobello’s content. The whiteboard near my desk looked a bit like a madman’s ramblings, but it was good for me to have a schedule that I could interact with. Crossing things off the list and rearranging things on the fly allowed me to be flexible and (relatively) organized. I think the assets that I underestimated the most were those little rocks that are scattered about.
Portobello DaVinci: The rocks, really? What was so tough?
Patrick: Well, my first problem was trying to get the rocks’ polygonal shapes feeling right. I expected modeling polygonal shapes would be easy to do in a 3D package, but I had a few false starts. In the end, I sculpted them in zBrush and retopologized (made a complicated mesh simpler, with less triangles) the result in 3ds Max. The second tricky part was that I had to be a bit thrifty with how I textured the rocks. I ended up using a tiling texture combined with vertex colors to get the look I wanted. There are five rocks that make up the entire rock library for the Burrow Dawn Inn, and I probably could have gotten away with the original four (once I got on a roll, I had too much fun sculpting to stop at four). The whole process, including placing them around the level, took about a day and a half.
Portobello DaVinci: Now, Mat, what was your process for making the rocks? How long did it take you?
Mat: For me, the rocks were one of the more satisfyingly quick features of the diorama to make—I’d guess it took 3-4 hours to craft all of them. They’re made from polystyrene foam, which I cut into a pile of blocks of different sizes, which I then shaped on a belt sander to give them more hard edges and angles, so 1) they’d look like massive pieces of collapsed ceiling/broken floor and 2) they’d have flat surfaces for miniatures to stand on. To paint the rocks, I used the same technique I’d used to paint the bajillion little stones I made for Dragonspear Castle the year before—putting them in a container with a small amount of paint and shaking ‘em until they’re coated. I did that with a few different shades of the color(s), let them dry, then drybrushed the edges to give them more definition.
Portobello DaVinci: What about the large rock formations around the level. What was your approach to those pieces?
Mat: One of the key features I try to build into these dioramas is variety of terrain and elevation—so heroes and monsters have a lot of options for moving around the space. So, it was really important to build rock formations that provided ample surfaces for miniatures to rest upon. (And, of course, I also hafta allow easy access for the players/DM to reach in and the audience/cameras to see what’s going on.) I also needed formations on either side of the diorama that would provide places to anchor the suspension bridges and at least one or two places the Beholder Tank could fit.
Once I’d roughed in the basic forms and stacked them up like pyramidal layer cakes, I carved and sanded them to create an array of gentle slopes, carved ramps/walkways, and sheer cliffs. I added in a few gnome-sized mineshafts to give the DM some additional ways to introduce monsters, allies, or other surprises. When all of that work was done, I added stones, stalagmites, and mushrooms in places that would provide additional accessibility, cover, and visual interest.
Patrick: For me, I started in zBrush sculpting the general shapes that I saw in Mat’s work. In order to get the textures feeling right, I needed to blend three different tiling textures together. I made a material template that could do this based on where I painted different colors onto the vertices of the base geometry (which was a retopologized version of the sculpt, like the rocks). Green color was for crevices, red was edges, and blue was the smooth tops of things. I didn’t get as much unique detail as Mat was able to achieve, but in the end it’s a recognizable version of his work that still has high fidelity in-game.
Portobello DaVinci: Now for the pièce de résistance, The Burrow Dawn Inn itself. Why don’t we start with you this time Patrick?
Patrick: Ah, well. I started with a sculpt in zBrush to get the shapes and dimensions feeling right. Once I had the basics down, I started adding in details like the grooves in the spinal plates and the knobbly bits on the head. I textured most of the Inn in Photoshop, sampling from photos to get a start on the colors. I had to make the body of the purple worm symmetrical all the way down, in order to keep the texture resolution up, but I was able to break up that symmetry with the rocks around the base and with the teeth (of which there are really only three versions, stretched and rotated around to provide more variety). Really though, as proud as I am of recreating Mat’s model, a lot of the credit has to go to his original design. It’s just so frickin’ cool!
Mat: Thanks, Patrick! I’m still amazed at how detailed and accurate your digital version is—especially since you didn’t use some sort of 3D scanning technology. (I still think you got hold of whatever it was that zapped Flynn into the computer in Tron.)
Once we had the basic idea of having a bed & breakfast built into the carcass of a purple worm, I looked at a lot of art references and sketched up the design. Next, I did some rough sculpts of the basic form of the worm, so I could determine how its segmented body might’ve come to rest.
Because I was going to use Sculpey, the actual construction began with an armature that could withstand repeated baking. (Sculpey can be baked and re-baked, enabling you to “lock in” parts of a sculpture and continue working.) Between all the layers needed to cover and smooth over the armature, the body segments, belly plates, fins, and teeth, that Purple Worm was in my oven well over a dozen times before the sculpt was complete.
I had the detailed bits of wood: windows, door, and sign (as well as all of the planks used on the suspension bridges) cut/etched for me on a laser cutter, so they’d be extra sharp-looking. Once all of the bits and pieces were in place, I spent many, many hours painting—laying down primer coats, base coats, washes, and drybrushing. Then came all the finishing: installing the lights, adding a chimney, the observation deck, placing the front wall entrance in the mouth, and the texture and rocks on the base.
Portobello DaVinci: Excellent work Mat, the time was well spent! Last question, did either of you have one part of the project that really stood out? What was your favorite thing to work on?
Mat: My favorite part with projects like this is the point where I bring all the components together to assemble the almost-finished piece. That’s kind of the moment of truth, where I find out if my ideas, plans, and execution actually worked. With the Burrow Dawn Inn, that point was when I glued in the entrance wall—the painting was finished, the windows were in place, the lighting was working, and the observation deck and chimney fit exactly as they were supposed to. Once that wall was installed, there was no going back. So, when everything worked the way I’d envisioned, it was both exciting and a great relief.
Patrick: For me, it was probably all the Easter Eggs that I was able to hide in the game. I spent way too long getting the tiny golden chain wrapped around the spike that anchors the gem bucket by the lake. I also got to add in a few nods to an actual D&D game that I’m in right now. Sean McCann, one of the designers here, has been running Out of the Abyss for a few of us here at Cryptic. If you roll well enough on your perception checks, you can see our actual character sheets in game around the table. I play Tiberius Greymantle, mighty paladin of Helm. I also added a secret mushroom grave for the “Czar of Happiness” to give some props (props, get it?!) to Mat. The whole experience was super fun.
Portobello DaVinci: Well, I guess that about wraps it up. Thanks for your time gentlemen.
Patrick: Of course, Portobelly, anything for you.
Mat: You’re absolutely welcome—I’m always happy to help out the Myconid King. And thanks to you too, Patrick—I love my grave and look forward to visiting it.
Thanks again to Mat Smith for answering my questions, and for his original creation of the Burrow Dawn Inn. I hope that you players all have fun exploring the maps as minifigs. If you have anything close to as much fun playing it as I had making it, I’ll know that I did my job right!
*I didn’t actually get to interview Mat, we just sent a bunch of emails back and forth. I asked him some questions and turned them into an imaginary interview purely for fun and formatting reasons.