Here’s a sneak peek at what combat in The Banner Saga will look like and a quick overview of how we got here.
Right off the bat I want to mention that this combat board is for our tutorial combat, where the player is learning how the mechanics work. It’s a tiny combat board. It is in no way indicative of the average size of the combat boards in the game. Different battles will vary in size, but I don’t think we have any others this small.
We know we want the game to look and sound like an animated movie and along with that we also want the game to be rooted in reality to some degree. I begin every concept by gathering reference to get ideas that I throw into the pot of sketches and roughs. In this phase I begin by blocking in the correct scale of the environment. This particular scene takes place in the building at the top of the hill in the City of Strand that we showed last week. Now, viking great halls were rarely this large, but we need enough room to back the camera out far enough for players to actually see enough of the game board so I used some creative license and on top of that we might as well make it look as cool as we can. After getting the basic size of the area down I start sketching in ideas from the story that Alex has laid down for the particular combat space. Here we have a feast going on with the governor of the City of Strand at the main table. I play with color and lighting and materials until I feel that my brain is a good place to understand what it is we’re after. How many guests are at the feast? Were vikings sloppy eaters? Should there be a polar bear chained to the wall? Questions like these are nailed down in this stage.
The rough pass:
Once the rough is complete I show the other guys at Stoic and we do a feedback pass, change some lighting and basically just agree on a direction before I take the time to finish it.
The next step is to break out all the assets I sketched in and paint them tightly. Nothing in The Banner Saga is painted flat, it’s all bits and pieces so that we can move them against each other to give the illusion of movement (sometimes we jokingly call the game The Parallax Saga). We also get a lot of mileage out of the assets by recombining them in different positions to build new areas and environments. I have huge Photoshop files that I need to keep open on my screen to drag the completed art pieces over from the main asset file into the new compiled image I’m working on. One file may have as many as 160 layers of different objects and I sometimes need to have 3 files open at a time. Every screen is designed at 2731x1536 pixels to support a widescreen retina display format...rather large textures for a game. I use a 3.4ghz iMac with 32gigs of ram to move it all and sometimes it struggles to keep up.
Here’s a sample of what some of the objects look like before I drag them over into a final scene.
Once all the bits and pieces are pulled over it doesn’t quite yet work as an art piece. Often times when game art is built in this way it can come across as mechanical and lacking any emotion. It still doesn’t look like a living breathing real place that someone would build or live in and this is where the final touches are needed, little things that give it a subtle sense of place, like the City of Strand emblem on the pillar. Since we control which layers are actually parallaxing (moving against each other) we can bake in lighting and shadows and basically whatever else is possible in Photoshop. Our engine doesn’t add lighting to a scene, we have to paint it all by hand...waahhhh....wa-wait what? That’s awesome! We can make our game look exactly how we want, there are no restrictions on the mood of The Banner Saga. We’ll soon be applying tech that automatically breaks up and re-compiles large, full screen images like this to account for technical limitations on low-end computers and tablets.
There’s a real compelling story regarding this combat environment, but that’s an update for a different day, suffice to say the whole story is taken into account when designing it. I can say that the bear has no story, it just seemed like he needed to be in the scene. While drawing him though I started wondering if the Governor has been wrestling him since he was a little boy and still does so from time to time to amuse his guests. People like to throw him scraps of meat from their tables. What’s his name?
The final pass:
We’ve got plenty more combat scenes like this to work on, and we’ve already gotten a huge number of assets we’ll be using to build them while we continue to make new assets.
But the scene isn't completely done! Before we can call it finished, Alex will be adding in the final particles- flickering torches, glowing embers, smoke and snow crawling across the screen, and of course, the parallaxing will really make everything sing. Can't wait for you to see it in the final game!