TyrAnt is an ant-based Real Time Strategy game. This post is all about how the Preloaded Art Team brought the world of leafcutter ants to life. Visit the TyrAnt Game page for more.

Finding the Art Direction

Now in it’s third major iteration, TyrAnt 3.0 has come a long way since it was first conceived. As with all our games we were keen to establish a strong art style that was appropriate for the subject material, style of gameplay and the 8-12 year old audience. Early Art Direction was stylised instead of hyper-realistic, using simple models, colourful textures and moody lighting to create a beautiful world that draws players in.

It was important the game art also served gameplay needs, so we listed a few visual priorities:

  • Resources need to stand out
  • Player ants and enemy ants should be easy to distinguish
  • Pheromone trails need clear states to denote strength
  • Distinct props would acts as landmarks, adding character to levels
  • Generic props would serve as blockers on the level map
  • TyrAnt focuses on Leafcutter ants and the resource collected are leaves

Having determined the look and colour of two key elements – player ants and resources – we were able to come up with coordinating colour palettes that were used to develop and iterate environment concept art.

Once an environment felt right we created concept art for appropriate props and features. Some act as gameplay blockers while others are more cosmetic elements. Below you can see concept art for a mesoamerican theme we explored (but moved away from because it didn’t quite suit the narrative of an expanding Leafcutter colony) followed by some of the props that successfully made the game.

The Multidisciplinary Road To 3D Art

With a confident art direction in place, the challenge was to realise this look in game.  We started by arranging some simple assets such as rocks and leaves around the scene (following the node layout our designer had created – more on TyrAnt game design in another post) This approach is useful because sometimes you find something does not work as expected. For example, our game designer discovered the 3D perspective of the environmental elements would at times obfuscate the nodes used for ant navigation; a case of art working against gameplay.

At a certain point it was touch and go as to whether we needed to remove 3D parallaxing from the game completely. Art, Design and Code teams worked very closely together to find a solution that wouldn’t overburden Code, whilst addressing the requirements from design without losing the visual impact of the 3D. After careful deliberation we settled on a reduced field of view with a more overhead camera. Happily this still looked great, and didn’t detract from the player’s experience.

This new viewpoint solved the issues within Code and Design but created a challenge for Art-  it was even more important to try and emphasise the 3D world, and the parallaxing feel from the levels, so not to lose the purpose of having 3D completely.

Through trial and error levels began to take shape, and it became clear that to achieve an ideal parallax within the levels you would need to create a forced perspective by scaling models to profound sizes. By placing large tall objects around the sides of the level you get a real sense of depth and distance, and also making you have an even greater sense of connection to the level, by almost boxing you in and making you feel like a giant of the Ant World.

A Workflow That Works

With the level aesthetic and 3D appearance down, we could move towards creating engaging and dynamic levels. Each level goes through different stages of design and art processes before it can be considered finished. The process begins with the designer, who creates a node layout using our TyrAnt Level Editor Tools. Next it goes to an artist that dresses the level using props. The props can be unique to each environment or generic. In some cases specific props are requested for a particular usage, such as the Cow Skull in the last Desert Road level.

With these elements and constraints in mind the artist lays out the props, considering different elements of gameplay as they go:

  • How best to convey a coherent level narrative 
  • Selecting the best props to block particular areas
  • Filling space around the game area, avoiding clutter but still creating something beautiful
  • How camera movement affects they way props look, move or overlap the game area as the player pans

Once props were in place this was followed by a Unity light-bake to get a more atmospheric look.Very quickly we began to realise this wasn’t going to be a working solution as the amount of light-bake textures Unity generated would have increased the file size with each additional level. Instead we looked at baking our lighting in Maya. We were able to generate some great looking ambient occlusion and light maps this way. Since we were able to custom author the UVs, we were able to cut down to a fraction of the size, whilst improving the quality from what we were getting in Unity.

This method worked great, but it was quite labour and time intensive. Design would need to be able to quickly modify the levels up until the end of production, so we needed to find a way to speed up the process. We achieved this by writing custom Maya and Photoshop scripts reducing the process to a 2 click process that would take no longer than 15mins to bake.

This automated process also enabled us to create 3 types of lighting setup that we placed into the Red, Green and Blue channels to give 3 different times of day. By varying colours and shadow strengths we were able to get some really nice variation in the game with minimal file size increases.

Having worked through three major iterations of TyrAnt we’ve now got the level creation process down to a fine art. Through a combination of strong concept art, clever game design, time saving tech art and delicate prop modelling and layout, each TyrAnt level is unique, characterful and exciting.

You could say that, just as in the world of the Leafcutter ant, when individuals with different specialities work together as a team, wonderful things can be achieved…too much? We’ll get back to making fANTastic art..

Art Team

This blog post was put together by members of the PRELOADED Art Team.