Friday, October 15, 2010

A Design Process I: Keeping it real

This is the first post in a series describing the creation of a MAD unit from concept to finished asset. I'll be more or less building the unit as I go, so it may take a few posts. Before we start getting tangled up in geometry and textures however, we need to develop ideas and form some basic strategy.

MAD vehicles are designed to be realistic within the limitations of engine functionality and construction methods, and this kind of result can require a little preparation and research. First step towards realism is always to understand as far as possible what it is that you want to create.

Design as defined by
–verb (used with object)
1 - to prepare the preliminary sketch or the plans for (a work to be executed), esp. to plan the form and structure of.
2 - to plan and fashion artistically or skillfully.
3 - to intend for a definite purpose.
4 - to form or conceive in the mind; contrive; plan.
5 - to assign in thought or intention; purpose.

It's useful to note at this point that while actually drawing stuff is mentioned, the design process as defined is much more about planning and purpose. This is particularly true when designing game assets, specifically alien or futuristic versions of identifiable current technologies that must function within a pre-defined game environment.

A tank is, well a tank. It has certain tank bits and a particular form that instantly identify it as a tank in our minds (assuming one has ever seen a tank before, and been informed at some point about its' intended function and generally fundamental tank-ness).

Like any other vehicle, a tank has some form of motive system distributed around an enclosed platform, which features a roughly horizontal place to sit (or some kind of local equivalent) for any crew. Unlike other vehicles however the tank tends to be larger because it features an additional, much larger horizontal place to put the big heavy guns and stuff you want it to carry around. That's pretty much it really - a cab, a place to put guns and engine stuff, and some viable method to move it to within range of whatever it needs to be shooting at.

A functional 3D game tank.

We'll be wanting more than that however. We got 10000 verts that exist to be used in interesting ways and we want a realistic tank cos we have buff next-gen GPU's that push polygons around so fast you can cook bacon on the heat sinks. The perception of realism in any visual artifact is tied intrinsically to the suspension of disbelief it can elicit in the viewer. And for these cool next gen games and tech savvy players, when talking geometry that's all about attention to detail.

However it moves, a tank needs to be all terrain. It must be able to effectively steer and still balance the load at speed. Because they are likely to encounter bad-guy tanks they are armoured, so usually bulky. We still have an engine to consider - this requires space for mounting and might need to be ventilated both ways and fueled, without being vulnerable.

The tank must usually have a way for crew to get inside, and then see out to navigate and aim once they are there. They may also require such little luxuries as, say clean air, and possibly water if they are planning any long trips. The weapons must be mounted where they will be functional and may or may not need ammunition and/or reloading, cooling, armour etc. If the crew plan to be driving at night it'll likely need lights or else high tech sensors. Most tanks belong to someone dangerous, so are covered in tags and warning signs and may be camoflaged in various ways. Often crew gear is stored on the outside of the tank so it's less cramped inside.

There is such a thing as greebles. Greebles are defined as "meaningless detail introduced in order to imply complexity" and are seen in such places as Death Stars. Greebles are to be avoided - mainly because if you have the right mindset you don't need them, especially for little stuff. The secret to making something like a tank that looks even vaguely realistic in form is about using contextually relevent details to create the illusion of realistic function.

The Best way to understand details like that without getting some formal engineering skills is to study and consider resources like this image and then start thinking about the other kinds of things that your future tank might need to be able to handle if it were real.

If you try and make your tank too alien (especially in arbitrary stylistic ways that are oblique to the nominal functionality and economy of a tank) then you run the risk of players being less and less able to visually relate to it. Futuristic or alien sci-fi vehicles with a pre-assumed level of technological advancement might use vastly different technologies to achieve something like a tank but the key functionality (ie: a big armour plated people mover with guns on top) remains more or less true throughout the known universe...

Next: Start your engines...

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