You asked him questions and he answered! Here are the answers to the questions you and your fellow players posted to Senior Artist Kevin Lydy.
What zone are you most proud of having worked on?
I suppose I'm at least a little bit proud of all the things I've worked on and for different reasons. Most of them had features or qualities that I wasn't sure were possible for technical or performance reasons. Don't get me wrong -- that isn't to say that I don't look back on each and every one and wish I'd done something a little differently or had a little more time or whatever. I tend to be my own worst critic. At least, I hope that's the case!
As I think back over the multitude of expansions I've worked on, several zones come to mind as personal favorites.
The re-imagined Freeport was quite a challenge, given the scope and time allotted. As you know, there's just a ton of stuff going on in there. I still remember working on that one. I kept this giant list of "things" on my whiteboard. Every night, while enjoying dinner at my desk, I'd cross off things that were done during the day. I honestly didn't think I'd ever reach the end of that list.
Corathus, from Depths of Darkhollow, is a particular favorite of mine. The fungi walls were instrumental in the concept. But they were very long, contiguous sections that afforded very few breaks in the textures. Given the organic shape of the walls, and the complex, organic texture set involved, there was a lot of "giggling" things into position. That, along with the airy, overgrown sections with the mushroom canopy, turned out pretty much as intended.
I'm also quite fond of Morell's Castle. That was really fun to work on. Each section was conceived a bit like being in a dream – there's an unexpected surprise around every corner. There were also components that had never been tried and I had no idea how to execute them -- also part of the fun. I think the architecture turned out pretty well. That side view of the castle visible from the open, out door area turned out pretty well, given the limitations. The "wall transition" exiting the castle and entering the outdoors area turned out okay. Of course, everyone gets a kick out of the Candyland section. I think the water room was the biggest surprise. I was afraid that would be one of the weaker sections, with none of us having tried anything like that before but I'm quite entertained by that area and relatively pleased with how it turned out.
In this expansion, I'm pleased by the way West and East Sepulcher turned out. There were SO many different sections to cover and I hope the flavor of each little area is effectively communicated - as well as fun to play. Sprawling Arelis has some high-points as well.
I could go on like this for hours…
Who came up with Candyland and all the bunnies in Hot?
Candyland was conceived by our top-notch designers in a design document draft for Morell's Castle. The Castle is comprised of dream-like segments. As such, I wanted to give each section a certain uniqueness and tried to give it a surprise-around-every-corner quality. That's why it's tucked away in a blind corner. You pass this big tree, make a left, and suddenly you're surrounded by a world of tasty treats. Hopefully, much like what might happen in a dream sequence where one thing suddenly becomes another.
The first pass of that area was much smaller. I wanted it to feel like you were getting lost in a dream-like field of candy canes and gum drops. So the whole area was more than doubled in size.
Originally, it was much more dense. But performance concerns required paring it back just a little. And it couldn't be surrounded by just any wall. It's surrounded by a wall of chocolate bars. I was always a little hungry while working on that section!
Are there artists who have a particular style and work better with certain concepts or are you all generalists?
It's human nature to get good at things that interest you. So yeah, I think the facets we enjoy doing, ultimately, become our strengths. Exactly what those strengths are perceived to be is often subjective and open to personal interpretation. If you look at something and like it, that's frequently perceived to be someone's strength.
Personally, I prefer the term "well-rounded" over "generalist." To me, generalist implies a minimum competency in more than one discipline (it's all semantics). Conversely, a well-rounded artist is capable of being effective in a number of facets.
To digress briefly… able commercial artists in any discipline have historically been relied on for a variety of tasks. Up until the past 15 years or so, the games industry was very much like that.
Back when I first started making coin-op games, the artist on the project handled every aspect of the product. Not only did he or she produce the in game images and animation, was also responsible for the cabinet graphics, advertising pieces, brochures, manuals, and any other print work. It was fun and fostered a certain continuity by having the same hand on all aspects of the game. Being well-rounded was a necessity.
Today, most games, EQ for example, are assembled from a variety of different components. Each has very, very specific requirements. These components require not only aesthetic considerations, but employ specific technical and construction considerations. The knowledge base it demands somewhat requires a certain specialization in remaining timely and effective. So, while style doesn't always play a big role, the technicality of it funnels into areas of specialization. That's in addition to the wide overlap of common core competencies.
"Style…" Yeah, I suppose we all have sensitivities towards different things that make us more effective in certain areas than in others. Maybe that harkens back to the get-good-at-what-interests-you theory. Unlike traditional illustration or fine art, an artist might try and accomplish a signature style with a specific approach to lighting. Another might rely on their color maps. Yet another might employ a vertex coloring technique. But, in the end, I really believe that working in concert with the actual graphics engine is the most determining factor. I know that's probably an oversimplification and differing opinions could be debated, but I'd have to answer yes, sort of, sometimes.
What's it like working on a more limited graphics engine?
(chuckle…) To be perfectly honest, I have a hard time thinking of the EQ engine as being "limited." That's probably because I've worked on so many really weak, horrible engines over the years that couldn't have even dreamed of using one as good as we have in EverQuest.
Sure, this engine has been around for some time. But it's mature, stable, well-understood and there aren't a whole lot of surprises with it. For my money, it's still very capable of creating a solid, entertaining experience for players. As with all engines, it has strengths and weaknesses. We have the benefit of intimate knowledge of both. It's of tremendous value in playing to its strengths. Even after all these years, I'm still surprised by what the artists come up with every day. I see things and think, "Geeze – I wish I'd done that!"
What is your favorite effect/rendering that you've created that really pushed the limits of the system?
Huh… That's a really good question. I guess I never really thought about that one before. I suppose I feel like we're always trying to push the limits of the engine. For me, that usually involves performance. In other words, framerate. There's just a myriad of things that affect performance and, the majority, are tied to aesthetics.
The first battle involves sheer scope of visibility – how much stuff is displayed at any given time. We spend a lot of time and effort trying to maximize things like vistas. Great care is taken in the layout of such areas, employing LODs, natural features or believable design components and engine features that channel the field of view or obscure complex sections as light-handedly as possible. I think most artists would agree that this is the most common dance with the engine and the most frequently challenged or "pushed" limit.
Candyland is a pretty good example of this. When you first enter that section, you're presented with a comprehensive view. The view was necessary for enhancing the surprise. As you walked through the candy canes, I'd hoped for it to be dense enough that you would almost feel lost – sorta like a dream of walking through corn fields and being consumed by it. But there just wasn't the performance to fully realize that goal. So a number of iterative tests were done to determine where the balance point was. How much could you see? How dense could it be? How was the performance affected? That sort of thing is a pretty common challenge.
The other one I often wrestle with, which is primarily performance related as well, involves the use of overlay maps. Overlay maps, sometimes referred to as "dirt maps," are overlaid on terrain or object color maps as an additive pixel effect. They are useful for communicating things like age, traffic patterns, grittiness and help "break up" large sections of tiled components that would otherwise appear repetitive. But they're not cheap, in terms of performance. I'm always spending a lot of time consolidating and re-imagining the mapping strategy to maximize this effect, while all the while maintaining good frame rate.
The temple interiors in West and East Sepulcher are good examples. With all the various color maps and effects going in those areas, and given their possible locations for raid sites, the overlay and the UV strategy had to be just right. Not only was performance at stake, but aesthetic continuity needed to be maintained in delivering the intended sense of place.
Several favorites come to mind. The water rooms in Morell's Castle turned out pretty well, considering that I wasn't sure the engine was capable of doing what needed to be done. The smoke stack effects in Pellucid were a pleasant surprise. The lighting in the West and East Sepulcher temple interiors turned out okay. The canopy section of Corathus worked out well. And there are others. I guess I'd be hard pressed to pick one. I always see the positives and the negatives in unusual areas that haven't really been approached previously. Maybe that's why they're always the ones I remember.
How do developers and artists share work on the visual aspects of the zone?
We're really fortunate to have a very collaborative, highly communicative team on EQ. We all share and influence one another on a daily basis.
Generally speaking, Design will develop the functionality, setting and lore that supports a place or thing. And then, the artists set about meeting that functionality and developing visuals that enhance and describe that person, place, thing or experience. But the whole process is very collaborative and takes many forms.
Do developers have the ability to make parts of the zone interactive, or do they usually call on an art employee to help them out on it?
Yes. Design has the ability to add existing components, interactive components to a zone. But every bit of it, to the best of my knowledge, is created by one of the artists.
In what expansion would we have started to see your artistic influence affecting the design/look of zones?
The first expansion I worked on after moving over from EQII was Omens of War. But I came along mid-production and didn't do much of consequence, other than some caves and lighting. On the next expansion, Dragons of Norrath, I really got to roll up my sleeves and dive in. The first zone I did from scratch was either Stillmoon or the new Lavastorm, I can't quite recall. Lavastorm was an excellent education on the engine and I learned many a lesson, good and bad, during its creation.
You mentioned you dabbled in character animation... is there anything in particular you worked on animation wise that people might be familiar with?
I've done a lot of 2D and 3D animation, character and otherwise, over the years. Everything from an animated TV show, to game cinematics, to real-time in-game stuff. The most expansive character stuff that people may remember was the cinematics for Jet Moto 2 while I was at SCEA. I don't recall the collective runtime. But we kept a large render farm busy for months. There was a ton of it!
On EQ, I've done bits and pieces along the way. Last expansion, I did some work on the Beefeater, Erudites and the Satyr. This expansion I worked on animating a crystal relic, the Alarans, and just recently I finished re-animating all the Drakkin male and Drakkin female attack animations. Hopefully, they're more entertaining and expressive than the previous set.