Neural Parasite Concept and Model Creation
Here’s a challenge. How do you take something from a show where it only gets a few seconds of screen time and make an entire collection of different creatures that players can simultaneously fight and be entertained by?
Hello, I’m Steven Ekholm, and I am a Senior Character Artist on Star Trek Online. In this case, I was also the concept artist, which means I drew up many of the original sketches. I started my career as a concept guy a million years ago, so it’s nice to be able to play that role again from time to time, and when you are also the modeler and texture artist it has the extra benefit of being able to yell at myself when something is unclear or stupid.
One thing we wanted to maintain throughout the process was that the parasites had to have some ties to the original alien from TNG’s “Conspiracy.” Aside from spilling some goo right before getting phasered in the face (spoiler), they did not move all that much and there was not a lot of reference as to how these guys get around or even what their bodies might look like. So we had to make it up. That, by the way, is my favorite thing to do.
Enter creative license. As the head of the parasite was the one thing we knew, this seemed like a good place to keep things similar. Certainly, there are the cute little purple Pincer bugs that crawled into the mouths of Starfleet officers … creatures which we tried to faithfully represent visually (I believe they are also grape flavored). But I think you might agree that for the big fights these guys were not as intimidating as the scenario warrants. We did try a few other face options, but came to the conclusion to keep the head relatively the same.
So then we focused our attention on the Goo chest blob monster. When I came in to the fold, some designers and artists and animators had already bounced a lot of ideas around, so I took their ideas and tried to make them into something more tangible that we could see and discuss for iteration, also adding some of my own thoughts. One of the great things about working with a team of dedicated artists and designers is that you get tons of great ideas to add to ones you already have.
We went back and forth as to whether they should have more of a “Sea” feel, or a “bug” feel. In the end we went with something in between, I think, because neither fully encapsulated the alien shape we wanted to target. So we took some elements we liked from life, and some design cues from the show.
Often we will make a proxy, or white box, of the creature to test its size and overall visual impact while playing. These models are very simple with no texture work, and they allow for agile change before too much time is invested. This helps us tweak the experience before committing, and it works very well.
Making the model can be complicated. In an MMO, often there are practical reasons to optimize the assets you create … to get the most out of what you have time to make and to best use the resources you have available. There are limitations to the rig, to the textures and the materials … so we make alterations to the initial concept to ensure a certain modularity to the creature, giving us options to present them in a variety of forms but still have the quality and unique aspects we desire.
Once we are happy with the design, we start sculpting the creature in Zbrush. This part is the most fun for me. We make certain positions to accommodate the animators’ wishes, to be able to get the results they want, and the textures are greatly enhanced later in the process, but this is the starting point. We are all pretty happy with our take on the neural parasites, and we hope you have as much fun shooting at them as we did making them.