Procedural Workflow in Video Games Art
“Proceduralism” is a term that I like to use in describing the idea of generating art content on the fly. This is usually done through a procedural tool. The artist sets parameters and rules for the tool to follow. The tool will then generate something based on the limitations and rules set by the artist. Think of it as an artist describing the mood or tone they want their artwork to convey and having the canvas magically come up with a painting based on that description.
It can be argued that having an artist creating the assets would mean better control over the artistic and creative components that a procedural tool will not be able to comprehend. A tool will not be able to add their own “artistic touch” like a human artist would be able to.
However, recent advancements in video games hardware means that video games will get bigger and hence, the demand for a workflow that could scale well along with it. This is where a procedural workflow comes in.
Houdini is a program developed by SideFX and has been widely associated with VFX in movies. What some people do not realise is that it is a very powerful tool widely used in the games industry as well. If you have seen a movie with a flashy CG shot or played a game that has a huge map size, there is a high chance that you’ve just seen an example of Houdini in those mediums.
Houdini is capable of doing more than just FX. In video games, Houdini is also heavily used in procedural modelling. This is the automated process of creating game art assets quickly.
Let me give you an example:
We want to build a city very quickly. We could manually model each individual building.
But what if we want each building to be unique?
It could still work if we are talking about 10–20 variations. Now imagine scaling that up to about 100 variations. That will be a lot of work for the artists.
However, with Houdini, we can have the artists focus on creating the basic components of each building. This means, doors and windows etc.
The technical artist will then create a tool that uses algorithms to determine how these components will be assembled into a building. In this example, I have created a tool which we can run multiple times and it will always generate a unique variation of the building based off the components we provided.
The next step is to apply this to an entire city. And just like that, you have a simple city filled with the buildings you generated.
Another advantage to this workflow is that should the artist decide that they want the city to be shorter or to swap certain components out, they could do so without having to go through all 100 variations individually like they would if they hadn’t adopted a procedural workflow.
This is just a small demonstration of this workflow, but imagine the potential if applied on a larger scale.
The Human Touch
While the potential of proceduralism is potentially limitless, it does come with its own set of risks and problems. The number one issue being the lack of human touch. While the technical artist does indeed determine the set of rules for the tool to abide by, in the end, it is still being generated by a machine who does not understand what looks good and what doesn’t. This is why hero pieces are usually still done manually as they require special artistic supervision despite the other contents in the game being procedurally created.
If you have the means to include a procedural tool like Houdini into your pipeline, do it. It can save you a lot of time and manpower in the long run. However, like any art workflow, a procedural workflow should be something to be considered on a case to case basis as it may not be worth the time for a small project. If you are going for a minimalist art style in your works where there will be about 5 different types of model, you might as well just model them manually instead.
In my upcoming posts, I’ll be exploring a bit more of such procedural tools or workflows as well as Houdini in general.