Careers in Esports: Ben Knapp, Art Director for Smite

Ben Knapp joins us for this edition of Careers in Esports to talk about 3D character modeling and environmental art. Ben has 12 years of experience in 3D character art, but has been a concept artist, environmental artist, and has some training in animation. His role as Art Director for Smite means he works with a wide variety of disciplines from concept to implementation.

He gives us his own insights into the most critical skills for each, what programs to focus on, and what to do when you’re looking to enter the industry.  

Can you give me a brief overview of what you do at Hi-Rez Studios?

My background is in a lot of different disciplines in art. FX is the only area I haven’t done a lot in. What I do is navigate going from the concept side of the characters in-game, like a god or a skin, and try to get the art looking good and working well with the design.

I’ll interact with all the art disciplines and make sure we have a vision that we’re aiming for that doesn’t betray the gameplay.

Okay, now what is 3D character modeling/art, since you have extensive experience in that?

Character modeling is a couple of things. There’s a couple of slices to the art pipeline so I’ll do a quick overview of that. 

One, you have a concept that gives you a brief of what you’re going for, whether it’s a god or an outfit. The concept artist will illustrate that, and once you get that created in a conceptual phase you have the blueprints—imagine going to Ikea and you buy a table. This is the manual on how to build the table.

The 3D modeling is the people actually building the table. You would then take those blueprints and build the actual model from a high poly sculpt, using tools like ZBrush and Mudbox, and then you’d make a low poly model that will be the in-game mesh because games have to run at a certain speed.

High poly models are usually millions of polygons, they’re super dense with a lot of detail packed in there. You have to translate that to a low poly model that will allow it to run in-game in real-time much faster.

Once you have the low poly created, you then have to create a UV map. Think of a can of Campbell’s Soup that has a wrapper around it. It’s a cylindrical shape, but if you take the wrapper off it is a flat image that is wrapped around a cylindrical shape.

You have to take every single piece of the character and flatten it out into a 2D image. From the 2D image, you project your details of the high poly model onto the low poly model. Then you start texturing. Once that’s done, you make materials and at that point you have it done from the modeling side. 

After that, it gets rigged by the rigging team. They put bones and stuff in there and make sure it deforms properly. The animation team will go in and animate any new features the character needs to have. The FX teams will go in after that and add any cool effects. Tech art wraps it up making sure it goes in the game with all the proper animation trees.

Character art was a slice of that, but it’s a big chunk of it.

You mentioned ZBrush and Mudbox, what are some of the most common programs people should look at?

The main program is ZBrush, hands down. It’s so well known to the community and the features are so good workflow wise. Some other companies might use Mudbox, it’s a lot more esoteric these days. ZBrush is just so strong and ubiquitous throughout the industry that I would say it’s the one to learn.

What about Blender?

Blender is good! Blender is a great option because it’s free and open source. You’re seeing a lot of people flock to Blender because a lot of programmers are using Blender as their place to make stuff. It’s a way for them to build out their own skills portfolios.

Because of that, you have all these tools that are either free or really cheap. People can build the tool the way they want to build it. Many other leading programs don’t make as many new useful features as they should. They’re pretty happy with just giving you updates.

The competition isn’t there to make them creative, but Blender wants to be the competition so you’re seeing them come up with tons of new and creative features.

Blender is good, but I would see Blender being used as more of a low poly tool and ZBrush as your high poly tool, but that’s not to say you couldn’t do it in Blender.

With Smite, you work with gods that are well established in the world and mythology. What are some of the challenges of doing character modeling around characters that have specific looks and lore?

Absolutely, you have a lot of characters that are still being worshipped like the Yoruba pantheon. There are certain gods in the Hindu religion that we just can’t touch because they are so actively worshipped. We did get Ganesha, but there was still the big question of if we should do it? We did it in a way that was tasteful, and it didn’t get a bad reception.

We definitely look at the lore and what abilities are missing from the game. We ask how we marry that into a fresh new god. We always try to respect lore, but we try to make it our own version so it’s appealing.

You take a god like Zeus, he’s wearing a toga, that’s pretty boring. So we add some armor to give it a bit more personality and make it ours.

You also have some experience in environmental art. What makes environmental art different from something like character art?

It’s night and day. Take the environment in a MOBA game. You’re making a battle arena that people can play in. You have the designers work with you to figure out where you can fight and what are the paths and objectives. You have the environment teamwork with them to create and cultivate those environments, to tell a story, and help gameplay flow. 

It could be something like making sure things are blocked off when you’re fighting in the jungle. In Smite, it’s all camera-based, so your line of sight is important. Knowing line of sight things when you’re an environmental artist is important because you’ll want to make sure things are or aren’t visible based on design.

When it comes to characters, you have to understand aesthetics for the most part, and you have to understand how it will function when it animates. When you’re doing environment art, you don’t have to worry too much about animation. You just have to make sure it works for gameplay.

You talked about that in terms of MOBAs, does that change a lot for something like an RPG?

Absolutely. The core of it is still the same, but you’ll have these things called ‘Hero props’ that are big focal points in the game.

These are just as important as the character. You may have to have specific lighting in order to draw a player a certain way. If you’re going down a hallway and there are two paths, the environment and/or lighting artist will do something to draw your attention to where you’re supposed to go. 

As you’re building the level in single-player games, you want to find things that create interest or subconsciously lead the eye to certain areas. You have to learn those subconscious tricks like adding more detail to a certain area that will draw a player there.

Another point, when you’re doing character art you’re working with a team of artists that is different from who you would work with as an environment artist. As an environment artist, you’re working with concept and design and lightning artist. So it’s a different slice of people and it is much more gameplay driven whereas a character concept artist is about making players want to play that character. 

For both these areas, what are the most critical skills for prospective candidates to have?

The main things for a character artist, really for all these digital art disciplines where you’re doing modeling, you need to know a high poly package, a low poly package, how to UV map, texturing, and materials. 

Those are the fundamentals for both disciplines, but what separates characters is going to be design aesthetics. Anatomy is king. Knowing anatomy for characters and creatures is so important.

Understanding how to do material reads at a distance. Having plastic next to leather next to a shirt that is matte is really important for these material separation reads. Good topology to allow a rigging artist to go in and have things deform properly. Those are the main things for character artists.

Then it gets deeper. All that was the first layer (laughs). Then it’s about what makes good design, rhythm, gesture, flow, leading the eye, balance, and 70/30 ratio. There are so many things that go into it. Understanding cloth is another big thing.

For environment, the core discipline things we talked about earlier, but also things like architecture. Having a wide range of materials. Look at nature so you know how to make things like trees and rocks. Look at the anatomy of how a city is made or how nature is formed.

When students look to apply, what should they have in their portfolio?

That will depend on where they want to go. If you want to work on Rock Band, you’ll want to have stylized characters that look like they belong in a music video. If I want to work on God of War, you need to have very realistic characters and dress them properly. For Smite, I’ll look for a wide range of things because we have such a diversity of characters and skins in the game.

Also, just make sure you have a sense of taste. If someone has their portfolio and it doesn’t have a good appeal to it, it tells me they don’t have a good sense of taste. You can train that, but things that will stand out to me in a potential candidate are good looking characters that can compete with things on ArtStation. Compare yourself to other artists in the field you’re looking for.

Make sure nothing stands out as wrong and it has appeal. That is something I would look for in a character artist for Smite.

Racing games you’d just make cars, so you don’t need characters for that. Call of Duty you can be a weapons artist who makes guns. So tailor your portfolio to where you want to go and what you want to do. 

Final advice for those looking to work for a major studio?

There’s a sense of entitlement I see in the younger generation where they think they deserve a job because they went to school or because they came to us with a portfolio. I find that is an offensive thing to a lot of older artists because there weren’t a lot of resources available to them back in the day and they had to work so much harder.

Having a good attitude is so important. Being a team player. Those are important things going into this industry. So is problem solving. Your first bit of learning is going to be on the job. Before that is just learning your fundamentals. Once you get in there it’s all problem solving. You have to figure out how to creatively find that solution that still fits the requirements and doesn’t break anything else along the way.

As far as art, keep at it. I’ve been doing this for around 16 years now and I’ve been using 3D max since I was in high school. Before that, I was doing design stuff in 2D, which is terrible in retrospect, but those fundamental skills were being built up.

You’re going to look at ArtStation and be overwhelmed, and that’s okay. Keep studying, don’t quit, and figure out what makes their pieces so successful and break it down and learn from that.

Have a portfolio that highlights what you’re good at, but also work on the things you’re not good at. Showing growth is important. If someone hits me up with the same assets they showed me a year ago, that’s a red flag that tells me they aren’t hungry and aren’t trying to grow. 

Be a good person, be a good team player, don’t have an ego, and be passionate. Be a person you would want to work with.

All photos courtesy of Ben Knapp and Smite