Most people know how movies and records are made ─ or have a good understanding. But that doesn’t always hold true for the design of video games.
One company, just north of Atlanta, is Hi-Rez Studios. They produce a free, online game called SMITE, which ─ at any one time ─ could have millions of people playing it simultaneously. We stopped by their studios to see how a video game comes together.
The game centers on mythology, with characters that are pretty familiar like Thor, Zeus or Apollo. You can play by yourself or with others over the Internet. The object is to capture the other team’s "temple."
The gods in SMITE are well-known among Western cultures; so to bring this game to the rest of the world, Hi-Rez worked to make it as appealing as possible.
"We decided to go beyond Greek and Norse, and go to some more obscure mythologies and pantheons, like Chinese and Mayan, because we wanted the game to have global appeal," Hi-Rez Studios Chief Operating Officer Todd Harris says.
"So it's a really nice theme, in that it gives something that Western players ... are familiar with, but something they can learn. Similarly, when the game launches in China later this year, we will have gods and goddesses very familiar to Chinese players, but they'll also have something new to discover," he says.
Harris likes to stress that games aren’t strictly entertainment. He cites Elon Musk ─ CEO of SpaceX and Tesla ─ who says he was inspired by video games.
"I think that would be the message I would send to people about the game development industry, is how healthy and relevant it is for us, culturally, because it helps inspire people to do great things with technology," Harris says.
For a game like SMITE, it starts with an idea, and from that idea they try to build a game. Early in the process, the concepts will go through a digital artist. So Harris took us to meet one.
Along the way, he stops at a large bulletin board, covered in illustrations of the gods from the game. He points out a few.
"Up on the bulletin board, you can see every character that has been added to the game to date," Harris says.
Among them are Ares, Greek god of war, and Xbalanque, one of the Mayan hero twins.
Many of the characters on this wall are gleaming in armor and holding an ominous weapon. They’re thoroughly researched as they’re developed, but as Harris explains, this doesn't always work out.
When Hi-Rez showed their first take of the character Sun Wukong, an ape-like superhuman, to their Chinese partners, the developers missed the mark of the modern Chinese interpretation.
The Chinese market is important to Hi-Rez. For example, Parker Kane, an associate project manager for the international branch, speaks Mandarin. His job is to make sure there are no translation issues with games like SMITE when delivered overseas.
Continuing our tour, we reach the desk of David Riddle. The path to his cubicle is blocked by a cardboard box. It's a brand-new 3D printer, which he will use to print his work.
Riddle is a concept artist, which is like a digital sculptor. His medium is polygons ─ digital geometry that make up the shapes and forms you would see in a 3D video game. Every character and object in SMITE is made of hundreds and thousands of these polygons.
There are many more artists in this department too. They work on aspects like landscapes and architecture.
From there a video game still needs to be brought to life. And that’s job of animators and riggers.
After the developers have made the digital sculptures, riggers add "bones" to them. These "bones" allow the sculptures to move. The animators then create movements, effectively turning sculptures into characters.
One of the more crucial points in video game design is consumer buy-in. No matter how solid the art, programming or animation, the public still has to support it. And word-of-mouth is not to be taken lightly, especially for a multiplayer online game.
The studios of Hi-Rez are packed with people, each playing a crucial role in the design of their games. This includes scenario writers, programmers and sound designers, among others.
What will be next though? Not just for Hi-Rez, but the future of video games. Harris notes games are moving away from screens and mobile devices to something more personal ─ virtual reality ─ but he says it’ll probably be a couple of years before we see it on the market.
Hi-Rez Studios is hosting an online tournament this weekend in Alpharetta. You can watch it online here.