This week we would like to show you how our character pipeline has evolved over this past month.
With more than a dozen villagers, 4 fellow travellers, and one mysterious figure, Outer Wilds has always been full of interesting characters.
Our focus until recently was to polish their dialog. Kelsey, our writer, has iterated on their dialog so many times we have honestly lost count on the number of rewrites. It was vital to us for villagers to not only provide important “tutorial” information, but also to ground your character and your species, the Hearthians, into the world.
We also expanded the role of the travellers even more significantly, so they might serve as guides to the different planets as well as experts in their particular fields of astrophysics, archaeology, philosophy, and being a bad-ass pilot.
But now that we had such rich characters, it was time for us to update their visuals and appearance.
Where We Started
Our first iteration of the characters’ visuals had been done quickly soon after our Fig campaign concluded. We felt alright about the result at the time, but with the environment going through various visual upgrades, the characters started to clash vividly with our enhanced aesthetic.
With a couple of very rough poses and animations, a few of the characters were able to communicate their basic role: the miner would be swinging his pickaxe at the 0g cave, the fisherman would be holding his fishing pole over the water among other things, and so on. However, most of the characters were confined to rigid standing poses.
But all of that has been changing since November!
For those of you who don’t know, the process to integrate an animated 3D character into a game can be divided into four separate steps: Modelling, Rigging, Skinning and animation.
The most straightforward step is modelling, and involves sculpting the characters in 3D in a standard T-pose.
Rigging is a little more complex to understand but can be described as creating a “skeleton” with “joints” for the character. The more advanced the rig, the more precise constraints these joints have, allowing the skeleton to move naturally.
Skinning combines the sculpt of the character to this skeleton rig, defining which part of the model moves with each joint.
Once this is all done, the character can now be animated! His arm can now be moved around by simply dragging the hand around and the whole sculpt of the character will deform adequately to follow.
Now the whole process can be quite time-expensive, so we came up with a few shortcuts that wouldn’t compromise quality.
One of these shortcuts involved simplifying the sculpting of the villagers by creating a full wardrobe of Hearthian clothing first. We then made each character by combining the corresponding set of attire and polishing the result with a few details. These include modifying their face to express age, adding a few distinctive features like scars and finally giving them their own set of props.
Another time-saver was determining which poses and animations each character needs. This way are simplifying the skinning of the character to be precise only in certain areas. No need to carefully polish the legs of a character who stays sitting on the ground the whole time or get a character’s shoulders to match perfectly if he keep his arms crossed.
Finally, we reduced the number of rigs to a few archetypes. For example, we have a “tall and lanky Hearthian” rig that we use both for Gabbro (one of the travellers) and four villagers. We also have the “average Hearthian”, “short Hearthian”, and “child Hearthian” rigs. This way we still have a variety of character bodies we can make with a reduced amount of work.
Where We Are Now
The month of November saw us figure out the entire character pipeline from start to finish. We now have a sense of how quickly we can get a character from concept art to 3D animated model in the game.
We also finished the sculpting for all the villagers and we’re really excited to finally get these characters we have spent so much time with set up in game.
Lastly, we were able to integrate the player character with his final suit into the game! First person animations are another challenge altogether, but we will be iterating on them a lot until they feel perfect. But despite that, just being able to play the whole game with these new animations has had a huge impact on playtesters feeling so much more immersed in their environment.
We’ll be back next time with more development updates and backer information. Have a great weekend!