Seeing the wood for the trees

It’s been a while since our EGX Rezzed unveil in March, so there’s been ample time to digest your reaction and ‘chew the fat’ over the community’s key questions and concerns.

And during this time one question has boomed loudly over all others, an inquiry with both strong relevance and great consequence to the future of our game. Today, we’re not going to answer that question, but we will introduce you to the man who makes Project Ukulele’s trees.

Leave it off!

Steven Hurst, Playtonic’s chief environment artist, makes a lot more than foliage of course (he does rocks too) and if you rummage through his work history you’ll see that he has a suspicious track record for ‘shapes of a certain kind’ turning up in his levels.

Currently head down working on the environments you’ll get to glimpse when our Kickstarter launches in May, we managed to tempt Mr. Hurst away from his crayon box long enough to answer a few questions…

Go on then, talk us through it: what’s the step-by-step process of building a game world?

Steven Hurst. Probably looking for somewhere to doodle a todger.
Steven Hurst. Probably looking for somewhere to doodle a todger.

Well, first of all I`ll get a very rough idea from the designer about what should be in the level and where. From there it`s a matter of producing a very simple `block out` that can be played and refined until everybody`s happy that it`s the right size and `feels right`.

Then the magic begins! Now I can start to flesh out the world and model all the details so that it looks more natural and organic, as well as adding textures and setting up the lighting. I also like this stage because it`s when you can add the little extras and secret stuff that players can explore and unearth.

Like penises, right?

I assume you`re referring to the infamous `landmass` in Banjo Tooie`s Terrydactyland? I lay the blame for that one at the feet of the designer (in this case Gregg ‘brother of Steve’ Mayles) I can honestly say I`ve never knowingly inserted a phallus anywhere where it didn`t belong!

Absolutely don’t believe that. So the world concept (ice, desert etc) usually comes before layout ideas?

Usually, however you do sometimes get the situation where somebody will come up with a really cool design mechanic and in that case you have to come up with some weird and wacky theme to try and fit it in!

What are you doing differently for Project Ukulele compared to your previous games?

Give me more! Bigger! Can you fit this in! – all phrases that regularly get uttered in the Playtonic offices! In previous games, levels would all be specially built `bespoke` models, but because now we want to be able to expand levels and the detail in those worlds needs to be much greater, levels are often built using more modular pieces that you can reuse around the level.

In some ways this is easier than it used to be and means that making any changes to the world (when Gavin invariably changes his mind about something) is much easier. We also have less restrictions now about what we can do with the worlds – previously you`d always have one eye on the limitations of the hardware, but now things have advanced so much (physics, real time lighting, etc) that we can do anything we like!

That said, I`m always going to try and `challenge the framerate` – it wouldn`t be true to our past games unless it comes complete with the odd bit of crippling slowdown! [Editor’s note: this is a joke. Mostly.]

Are you finding the challenge of ‘expandable’ worlds exciting, or bloody terrifying?

Gav thought he could scare me with that one – I think it`s just an excuse so that he can change stuff around and add more stuff at the last minute as is the want of every designer. I say bring it on! I`m always up for a challenge.

Right, the important question: Do you ever get bored of drawing trees and shrubbery all day?

Doesn`t everybody just use SpeedTree now? Seriously though, trees and bushes are probably the most challenging things to do and I think I`ve probably spent half my working life working on the things! I still enjoy the challenge of creating `good looking` ones though!

And finally, what’s your favourite foliage creation?

That’s easy! The ones I love the most are the `constructed` ones on the Nutty Acres level of Banjo Nuts & Bolts. They took me lots of iterations to get right and there`s nothing better than knocking them over and causing mayhem on the level!

Rocks. The environment artist’s greatest nemesis.
Rocks. The environment artist’s greatest nemesis.