The sole 3D artist on Campo Santo’s breakout hit Firewatch, Jane Ng led a highly technical talk at GDC 2016 in which she talked the audience through the pipeline of creating a art-heavy game with a small indie team.
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Firewatch was created by a team that averaged less than twelve people, largely based in San Francisco, and their aim was to create a world that looked “aesthetically stylised” that also “felt real.” Ng referenced the game’s photo-taking aspects, describing how their aims had been met in that players had been taking photos of the world that felt like real ’80s snapshots.
One of the most important parts of Firewatch is the trees, with Ng admitting: “trees probably take up more than half of the screen during most of the game.”
She discussed that with trees being such a huge part of the game, they explored different ways to streamline the process, such as Unity’s in-built tree creator. “I think you can make really nice trees with it,” she said, “but I can’t.”
As a result, they made the decision to simply create twenty three trees, carefully and individually designed—nine of which were used only in certain segments in the game, with a mere fourteen trees being the “stars” of the game.
“We made a tally, and we have about 4,600 trees in the game, not counting all the billboards [flat bitmaps] used for faraway vistas,” she said. “So there was a lot of copy-pasting in Firewatch.”
However, they still played some clever tricks to ensure that Firewatch still had an aesthetic, with designer Olly Moss requesting trees not only get less detailed but “more stylised” the further they were in the distance.
“It’s better to have ten really well made models that you can duplicate 20 times,” Ng said, “rather than hundreds of a lower quality. Think modular: it’s not just for dungeons.”
Ng also revealed that due to the design of Firewatch, “greyboxing” (creating a basic, art-free world to test interactions and play) “didn’t work” for them.
“The game is supposed to be about walking in a beautiful space while talking to someone,” she said, adding that no matter how good the conversation was, walking in a greybox for a couple of minutes would be “the most boring two minutes of your life.”
As a result, the team built a vertical slice (a fully featured part of the game) consisting of Firewatch’s entire first day, which took the small team at Campo Santo 15 months.
“It was the first time we had something we were confident with,” Ng said, revealing that the demo that they showed at GDC 2015 was actually all of the work they had done by that point—and that they built the entire rest of the game in the last 10 months.
Her closing advice? “It always feels like nothing is working… until one day, magically, it just does.”