We’re all rested up from our holiday break. We’re starting the year with a new Wushu Roundtable segment – this time with our incredibly talented Lead Artist Lucy Anna Lowe. Having worked on multiple projects big and small, she specialises in Environment Art and has been entrenched in game development for the last six years. And we have to say, this was quite the enlightening chat!
Hey Lucy! Thank you for joining us.
Hey, thanks for having me!
How’s the holiday season been treating you so far?
This is just the best time of year. I get really excited wondering what the new year’s going to bring and what I’m going to achieve. I’ve opted in for RED (Run Every Day) January this year too. I’m 13 days in and not yet dead so I currently have everything going for me!
Health is important! That’s great. So you studied game development during your academic years. What made you want to pursue video games?
You know, I never actually knew “video games” was a viable career path until two weeks before I started University. A lot of entertainment industries seemed so impossible to me and the idea of working in a creative digital industry couldn’t be further from what I considered a “job”. I was actually all set to do an English Literature degree, when two weeks before the course was due to start, I had a crisis of identity and decided to jump feet first into a course so aptly named “Computer and Video Games”. I’ve been a gamer my whole life. Ecco the Dolphin and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 were two of the earliest games I remember playing on our Mega Drive (which I still have!).
And what made me want to pursue this career? Well, that’s got to be the joy of creating worlds and stories and spaces for players to completely immerse themselves in. To get lost within and fill themselves with wonder and awe and fuel their own imaginations. It’s impossible to forget the feeling of escapism and wonder that video games offer and I want to be a part of helping people find that feeling.
Your first role in the industry was as an Environment Artist at Evolution Studios. How would you best describe that role to someone outside of games?
Typically, an Environment Artist is someone who is responsible for a lot of the world building within the game. This is quite a broad title because it can differ from company to company – even within a company itself. Environment Art can encompass landscapes, vegetation, buildings, infrastructure and props. This could be organic work or hard surface. Environment Artists can be particularly specialised – more so within larger companies – or they can be very generalised. As an artist, you may also find that your work isn’t exclusive to modelling either, you may have to generate your own material suites and shaders.
Has there been anything in game development that’s taken you by surprise or differed from what you envisioned before starting?
When you start working on your first title, you can become extremely dedicated to your project. Being in quite a secretive industry, you’re not allowed to share much about what you do with your family or friends. It can create quite a private feeling of attachment to your project. What surprised me was the feeling of pride I’d get from seeing my name roll up the credits screen and seeing positive reviews and comments from fans with praise or fan art. I guess I wasn’t quite prepared for the feeling of “I did that, I made that thing and now I feel proud”.
“Environment Art” covers a broad range of tools and disciplines. It’s not just building a polygonal model and calling it a day is it?
Environment Art can be a really complex, multi-faceted field. While polygonal modelling may be a large chunk of it, there’s many other creative and technical elements to it. Depending on what’s required from the asset you’re building, you may need to sculpt high-resolution meshes or create intricate material suites to capture micro details.
One of the key components to video game art is capturing the essence and quality of the object you’re trying to create, all while being able to run on target hardware. We do this by creating high fidelity meshes and baking them onto a more optimised version which is then displayed in-game. Art can be a lot about coming up with clever solutions to making our games look astonishing while never dropping frames.
You worked on a number of projects since becoming an artist, including the God sim “Tethered” for PlayStation VR. How was creating art in VR different from the traditional sense?
VR really turned game development on its head for me. The purse strings are really tightened when it comes to optimisation budgets. Every single polygon adds to that budget, so you really need to make them count. Often I’d be challenged with having to find much cheaper, more clever ways to make something look good while also having to run smoothly.
I particularly remember being tasked with making a snapdragon with less than 200 polygons and no alpha. This is a beautifully intricate plant with upwards of 20 flowers on it. My saving grace was that we were working on an incredibly stylised game so some artistic impression was allowed.
One of the most important elements to creating VR games was to always, always make sure the user is comfortable. I have quite a delicate stomach when it comes to these kind of things, so if you made some flashy shader or effect or an asset with unexpected behaviour, you could very quickly start to make the user uncomfortable. Comfort is your number one priority when making VR games.
Do you do a lot of traditional art in your spare time? How does that compare to digital art? Do you have a preference?
I do a lot of drawing in my spare time, though these are mostly doodles and these are usually always either birds or toads. I prefer to draw in inked pens or just plain old byro. While I don’t have a preference, I just like to make art. I do sometimes wish traditional drawing came with a Ctrl+Z key!
What’s the most difficult or time consuming aspect of Environment Art to you?
For me, the most time consuming aspect of Environment Art is usually the modelling. Most people will generally say UV mapping or LODs (but I secretly enjoy those things, so time flies, ha!). The modelling, however, can be quite precise at times, requiring you to work to exact measurements and shapes. It’s those types of assets where I like to make sure everything is technically correct.
And the most fun?
Sculpting. Hands down my favourite thing to do.
What are some things you hope to learn or achieve in the near future art wise?
I’ve been wanting to pick up ceramics and working with physical clay for a long time now. I have been on a very long waiting list for a ceramics workshop in Liverpool for a fair while now. If nothing comes of that, then I’ll have to dig out my old FIMO.
Let’s end it on a fun note! With this decade now at a close, are there any games that had an impact on you as a creator? Whether out of love, inspiration or other terms?
Yes! I’m going to be momentarily corny and say that almost every game I’ve ever played has influenced me in some small way – brought me joy, laughter, a place to escape to and actual fond memories (unless it was Alien: Isolation – then all that brought me was actual poop in my pants).
I was 6 years old when we first got a home computer and it came with a LucasArts collection containing: Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle and Sam and Max: Hit the Road. I played those games through and through, found all their secrets and easter eggs (and this was a time before our household had any internet) and they set me up for a lifetime of being a huge point-and-click fan. You know what’s funny? I’ve since played the remaster of both Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle and couldn’t get through either of them without Googling some of the answers. 6 year old me was clearly the better gamer…
Thanks so much for your time Lucy!
The pleasure is mine. Ciao!