Materialising the magic: the Craft of Special Effects

Hi there! My name is Pierre and I am one of the VFX Artists currently working on Prodigy. Basically, my job is to create Visual Effects (VFX) for the game, like some people do in the movie industry, but in real-time. Because we’re using 3D engines to make video games, everything you create must be both pretty looking AND optimized for real-time rendering. So, for every abilities that a character uses, I must create a variety of different assets and combine them to create magic!

To show you some concrete example, I’ll mainly be using the same action that Alban did in his own article, that is to say Siren’s counter attack. But first, let’s talk about what my job encompasses and what tools I use.

No magic wand needed

Special effects (or VFX) in video games cover a wide array of things. They include everything that enhances animations or feedback, meaning lots of very different things. Though I can’t talk much about it yet, we contribute to the environments, for instance making leaves rustle and fall from the trees. We also create gameplay effects, like the spawn animation when you put a character on the board, for example.

We also help with the user interface, so as to give it a more lively, magical look. A few months ago, Marin showed you what he had done for the Arcana wheel with his inks. He then gave it to me and that’s what I turned it into!

This is what the Arcana wheel will look like in game. It’ll start blue and Harmonious, but will grow red the more you use Dissonance. A good indicator of when you should start to worry!

This is what the Arcana wheel will look like in game. It’ll start blue and Harmonious, but will grow red the more you use Dissonance. A good indicator of when you should start to worry!

Last but not least, we work on characters. Magical powers and the explosions that come with them of course, but also shock waves and speed effects. That’s what this article will be about!

Whether we’re talking about an explosion, a magical effect in the interface or snow falling across a map, it all comes down to two main tools : shaders and particles.

A shader is a mathematical formula that establishes what a pixel will look like and how it will behave. It’s what drives the effects of all materials, including particles. It can also work with vertices, which are the different points in 3D space that compose the polygonal mesh an object or a character is made of. So a shader is basically a tube of instructions set up to modify the final render of an object and/or it’s texture. You can define how it will react to light, what color it will have, based on different parameters. It can even change shape without any additional work from the animators!

On the other hand, the particle system allows us to generate a large number of small objects, establish what form they will take, how many they will be, how they will behave and react.

Combining these two tools creates an effect.

Here you can see a few of the particle systems I used for this counter.

Here you can see a few of the particle systems I used for this counter.

For instance, the explosion effect you can see above is made of a number of particles. To each particle is attached a small shader. The particle system allows me to tell them to move away from Siren’s hand in a spherical motion. Their shader is what makes them bright and kind of glittery. To sum it up, the particle system defines motion and physics, while the shader produces the final visible pixels on screen.

Now that we have covered the basics, let’s take a better look at how I work on the VFX attached to a particular animation!

The magic in action
Just like Alban talked about in his own article, the first step is always to discuss the intentions for a character with the rest of the team. What is the gameplay and the background of this character? Do they use magic? What type, and what should it look like? Most of our characters have some degree of magic to them, and it’s through our VFX that they shine. Even if they are pure melee fighters, like Elon, we still want them to look as cool as their magic-wielding allies and enemies. Moreover, we want our effects to be tailored to each character, so as to reflect perfectly their fighting style as well as their lineage.

Siren, for instance, is a Witch. It was therefore very important for her magic to reflect the lore and the witches’ ability to manipulate the threads of destiny. The result is totally different from Elae’s vibrant arrows or Orin’s shadowy thorns. Even if you could not see a character, you could totally tell who’s launching an attack based on the VFX.

Siren_Screenshots_Textures

Here are a few textures I’ve used for Siren’s effects. Textures can be used for a lot of things: masks, controlling movement, managing light… The red, green and blue is actually applied for different effects.

Once we’ve decided on the general feel of the character, the animators start working on how the character moves, while I or another VFX artist begins playing with textures, shaders and particles. It allows me to ask the animators if I need them to include some simple things that’ll help with my work (like the ribbon in Alban’s animation) ; it also means that when I receive the different animations of a character, I already have a global idea of what I want them to look like. It makes them more coherent, which is very important, but it also means that I might be able to reuse some textures in different effects, which makes it more efficient.

Once I receive a particular animation, I’ll study its movements and divide it in a number of sequences. That will allow me to determine how many particle systems will be necessary, what they’ll look like and what directions they will follow. They need to complement the gestures of the character and match their rhythms.

These are a few of the particles systems used for this counter in Cascade. Depending on the effect, you can need up to ten different emitters, sometimes up to twenty for really complex effects.

These are a few of the particle systems used for this counter in Cascade. Depending on the effect, you can need up to ten different emitters, sometimes up to twenty for really complex effects.

Speaking of that, the tempo is very important. Siren’s counter is a good example of the build-up that needs to precede any big effect so that it has a real impact. For that, I’ll use Matinee, that will allow me to set up when a VFX will set off, how long it will last, etc… It’s pretty much the last step, so I take advantage of it to review if everything works well : the different effects have to blend well with one another, the general movement has to be fluid and well-proportioned.

Each step of the way, once I’m satisfied with what I’ve been working on, I call Jean over. As creative director, it’s for him to decide if it’s coherent with the whole game or if I should tweak things a bit one way or another. I also make regular checks with Marin regarding camera placement and angles. We want the effects to be visible, but it shouldn’t hide the character either. But he’ll talk more about it next month, so for now you can take a look at what we have once Alban and I are done!

Devblog_SirenCounterP

That’s pretty much it for today! There’d be a lot more to say but I don’t want to get technical and boring. I hope you like what you saw and that next time you see an awesome VFX you have a small thought for its creator. Maybe we can do another article about another type of VFX sometime in the future too? We’ll see…

In the meantime, I’m gonna go back to work, Guardians are weirdly not the patient type. See you around!


What do you think of the visualisation of Siren’s powers? Can you imagine what the special effects will look like for other characters? Tell us all about it on our official forums!!