When Play Looks Like Clay: Discover PS4’s Frantics!
Here at Allegorithmic, we’re always eager to discover stylish new art direction, so we were delighted to take a look at the latest outing from NapNok Games for PS4, Frantics. The unique visual design of the game gives the feeling of playing in a handmade clay stop-motion movie. Any guesses as to which texturing software they relied on to achieve this unique feeling? The best way to be sure is to ask the NapNok Games team themselves! And so we talked with Art Director Jacek Oczki, 3D Artist Casper Petersen and Associate Producer Anchel Labena.
Hey guys, thanks for taking the time to answer our questions! First of all, could you tell us more about the NapNok Games studio?
Jacek: NapNok is an independent game studio based in Copenhagen, Denmark. There are around 60 of us, spread across two countries. Our main focus is local multiplayer games, with unique social dynamics and game controllers. We enjoy pushing the limits of new technologies and have a lot of experience working with motion controls, VR, AR and other haptic devices.
Your latest game Frantics looks gorgeous, but before speaking about the visuals, can you tell us what is the game about, and what makes it unique?
Anchel: Frantics is a local multiplayer party game, designed for PlayLink for PlayStation 4, where you use your phone or mobile device as a controller.
Our game is hosted by the sly and scheming Fox. Fox drags your clueless “two brain-celled” animal avatar through a set of challenges. Players compete against their friends and family; they are encouraged to cheat and double-cross, in order to come out on top in the end!
Making a party game with phones and mobile devices, we try to use all the possibilities provided by the device to enhance the playfully competitive experience - even breaking the 4th wall and having Fox call up individual players from time to time with a secret message.
You managed to create a unique visual identity for your game, mixing cartoony shapes with extremely realistic materials and lighting, that could make the player think he is in the next Aardman production. Could you elaborate on these visual choices? What feeling is it intended to evoke in the audience?
Jacek: Our choices were highly governed by genre and the target audience. Frantics is a party game, and we’re targeting an audience of young adults and casual gamers. That set a lot of rules right there for what we could do visually. We had to go for something charming but still edgy, and we couldn't just fill the screen with a lot of high-frequency detail.
Considering the casual audience, we had to tightly control visual focus. We likened the style philosophy to what you see in good paintings, where some areas of the painting are highly detailed while others are rougher. When you look at a piece of art like that, your eyes have a tendency to be attracted to the detailed areas first. Together with color and composition, you can guide the viewer's eye through the painting.
That's what led us to this kind of "Dioramic" approach to how our world was built; we called it "white space". Not because it had to be white, but because it was an area absent of detail that separated the detailed elements. In that way, we could control where we wanted the players to focus their attention and not cause a detail overload for the casual player.
Regarding the overall handicraft clay style: It was a choice we made to visually support the elasticity and naiveness of our characters and to get a more adult look on top of the cartoony shapes. Again, the target audience took precedence here; we had to keep it interesting for young adults. We went through lots of references of clay, even doing our own clay experiments, and selected the type of details and polishing on clay that we felt would work in our universe. Not too rough and not too polished. Roughly treated clay has too much high-frequency detail, which makes it harder to control focus, and overly polished clay actually didn't look like clay anymore. Therein was our balancing act.
Finally, we added different materials to make our world more dynamic, and to more easily solve interactive challenges. Pulling and breaking clay apart is hard to do in 3D, so we added metal wires, wooden sticks and so on. All that together gives players a feeling of a micro-world that was unharmable. We could squash our characters flat, shoot them out of a cannon, or zap them with electricity and the character would be okay just a moment later.
What were the technical challenges of opting for this art direction?
Casper: Our main challenge was to make a stylized and appealing look that would work in a modern shading scenario while expanding the art team externally and remaining artistically coherent. So sharing pipeline, materials, and techniques with a team overseas was our main challenge.
You decided to use Substance Designer and Substance Painter to texture your game. Was it your first experience with our products? What led you to opt for them?
Casper: We picked up a license for Substance Designer after having watched a presentation at Unite 2012, and have been using it ever since. The last couple of games we made were small productions targeted at mobile and Wii U, so moving onto PS4 with a bigger production we wanted to have a PBR-friendly pipeline that would be easily scalable. After trying several different solutions, and with the push from our lead artist [Martin Guldbæk], we agreed that Substance Designer and Substance Painter would be the best software for Frantics.
What do you think Substance brought to your pipeline compared to previous approaches?
Casper: Managing a lot of textures and bakes through Photoshop swiftly gets to be quite time-consuming and painful. Substance neatly wraps this up in one easily organized package, which is quite valuable for a scatterbrain like myself, with the ability to work super-fast on all shader components. Throughout the process, we had to iterate many assets several times. A process that sometimes would have taken many hours could now be accomplished in just a few minutes.
Do you use Substance in any original ways, that might be truly unique to your pipeline?
Casper: Our approach was quite simple and standard, only using a few smart materials that we set up, as most things in the game are made from the same material. Usually, we would bake a high poly model with painted vertex colors for the color map and then apply our premade materials to it – that way, some assets went through Substance in a matter of minutes while others could be easily edited with just a bit of paint.
Do you have any tips to share in order to achieve this stylized yet believable look?
Casper: While most elements and characters are made to appear like a form of modeling clay, with all the happy accidents we could put into it, we did add other elements, so not everything appeared to be made of clay, such as metals and plastics. By creating believable things – shapes that are familiar to us, stuff like pinheads and rope – we mixed the familiar with the fantastic, which makes it easier for players to accept the world we made, allowing for suspension of disbelief.
While we initially cared a lot about having the right physical properties on these materials, we ended up focusing instead on what we thought looked cool and fun. We added emission to certain elements to make them appear flatter in color, or to fake subsurface scattering, or make a shader do crazy stuff. Don’t get too caught up in using correct values, play with it, have fun, go with what you find to be cool. PBR might be a better representation of reality than previous generations of real-time graphics, but it is still all smoke and plural specularity :)
How do you see Substance products evolving in your pipeline?
Casper: Being able to iterate quickly in a non-destructive workflow, while attempting to eliminate the need for external editing as much as possible, will enable us to move our art as coherently and rapidly as possible.