It’s always hard to emulate someone else’s art work and style, regardless what industry or product you’re working on. We all play different games and hardly ever stop to think about the amount of work, ideas and processes that went into creating the look and feel of a game.
I have to admit that when I heard we got the Halo IP for our first console RTS, I had never played Halo or Halo2. Mainly because I never owned the original XBOX and my 360, that Microsoft handed me for free, was still in the box! Now, I had nothing against consoles, but when you’re married and you only have one TV, not many wives want to watch their husbands play games, so I was stuck with playing on my PC. Turns out many of our artists had not played either, so we had a lot of catching up to do with those games.
First thing we always do is start gathering as much reference material as we can find; downloading screenshots from the internet, getting marketing material from Microsoft, and the most obvious one, asking Bungie for all their art files. That last one seems like a no brainer right? After all we are both part of Microsoft and they own everything, right? Nope. As it turns out it’s really hard to get in contact with someone at another studio to provide assistance, when that company was behind schedule on their latest installment of Halo AND we had no idea about the negotiations they were having with Microsoft about becoming an independent studio again. It didn’t take long to realize that our concept department would be on their own in figuring out this art style.
So the big question was: What makes Halo, Halo? Well you have to start making mistakes to learn from and it didn’t take me long. I got the concept for the Covenant DropShip, modeled it, textured it, and got it in game, but since I still had not played any of the Halo games yet, I had this thing flying in the wrong direction! Yeap, I had my home 360 setup with Halo2 that night.
We had a lot of iterations early on trying to nail down the look of our models and materials, but with time we put some simple guidelines in place that kept all our artists following a consistent process. In fact most of our iterations on the art came more from design changes than style flaws.
The UNSC and Forerunner had to maintain the same geometry angles throughout their structures and vehicles while the Covenant had to maintain the same curvy organic look in theirs. The UNSC vehicles and Spartan armor all had a similar green metallic look that we tried to emulate with our materials. Using a similar Army green with a broad, gold, specular highlight worked really well for our camera distance and sun angle.
To get the Covenant right, we broke down the look of the alien armor by creating a purple base color, with a tighter, orange specular highlight that included a honeycomb pattern and then added a blue, inverted honeycomb pattern for the reflective property. We then added the trademark tiny, blue lights and that was pretty much it.
As we finished models and exported them into the game we always had to ask the question: Does this unit look like it belongs with all our other units? We had scenarios saved which contained every single UNSC/Covenant building and unit, so it was fairly easy to spot the units that needed more work to get the look correct. Most of the problems we had were more related to our memory limitations verse what the concept actually looked like on paper.
One thing we did that worked out extremely well was the decision to define and limit each races player color. I think this mainly came about because it just didn’t seem right to play the Covenant as the green player, because everyone knows that color belongs to Master Chief.
So to get back to the question, what makes something Halo? I believe the answer applies to any IP someone would try to recreate; break things down to the smallest details, derive a process to keep those small details throughout, and always keep comparing your current progress with progress already completed.
Paul Slusser, Artist