Dev Diary #1 DESIGNING AVA
This is all about our process of designing Ava, CYGNI's player protagonist. Through conversations with Nareg Kalenderian, Game Director, and Helen Sauoma, Art Director, we hope you will learn more about our unique approach to game dev as well as Ava herself. Enjoy!
What inspired Ava’s design?
The first thing we looked at was her outfit. We were especially interested in the fighter pilots and their flight suits from the Cold War era – these were less techy, and they had more exposed wires, more gadgets. A lot of the instruments back then had a lot of personality; the old NASA instruments, the cockpit mechanics… Everything looked bulkier with these elements. This style matches our game design – it’s all analogue. We wanted to blend this style with a bright, flashy feel.
When it came to the overall aesthetics of the character, we knew we wanted a sporty physique, she is a pilot after all. We went for the 90s Japanese anime proportions for the body. But for the details, such as the face and the hands, the inspiration came from French comic books. They have this very simplistic look where everything is subtle, and features are not exaggerated but accentuated.
What about the name “Ava”?
It’s interesting because a character’s name is the last thing we think of when creating them. So, the name Ava was suggested to us by our wonderful Discord community, and we really liked it. They also wanted Ava to have a call sign, and after a few suggestions we settled on “Kite”, as in the bird of prey. It’s a nice looking and fast bird, so we thought this fit beautifully.
Sometimes when you are so engaged in the art and development process you rarely think of names or call signs for your characters, especially in the early stages of production. So, it’s incredible how the community has been so supportive and engaged!
We still don’t have a surname for Ava, but this is something we’ll be polling soon in the community too.
What was your starting point or goal when it came to designing a protagonist?
Usually designing a protagonist depends on what their purpose is. Are they used as a placeholder which looks cool, or are they a story-based protagonist?
In the very beginning, Ava started as a placeholder, there was just a pilot with a helmet and no face. But as the development progressed, we quickly realised that this pilot needed personality, to fit in a world that has lots of it. So, we removed the helmet and gave her a face.
Ava also had to be physically fit as she’s a pilot, and we put extra care when designing her eyes and expressions to fully convey her character. It was important that Ava be seen as a pilot, but also a daughter and a dreamer - someone very relatable.
We then debated having two characters – a male and female with different personalities that the player could choose from. This would have taken the personal sides of the story in varying directions. Ava was sensitive and kind, the second protagonist was brash and confident. We even had some initial designs too. But due to budget, team, and time constraints, we decided to focus all our efforts on Ava.
What were the big challenges when designing Ava?
The challenge wasn’t all character aesthetics. When CYGNI was just a rough prototype and barely more than a concept, we had little intention of adding character depth to the story. The story was supposed to be action packed from beginning to end with little regard to who the pilots were. But after we designed the pilots, especially Ava, the little personality traits, and backstory we gave her took a life of its own. We couldn’t not build on that.
The challenge was then how to build her story and have it fit into an indie game, on an indie budget, and not compromise too much. Thankfully, very little has been trimmed down. We found a style that we believe works well to fully flesh out the character, whether in subtle details or full-on art.
From a technical standpoint, designing characters for video games always has its own limitations and specific points to watch out for, from hair to number of layered clothing, to animation and rigging. We always need to be mindful of this when things are put to paper, which is unlike the film industry.
Back in the 90’s and early 2000’s this process was truly harsh, especially when you had just a few polygons to represent anything on the body. We can only imagine the frustration the artists had to go through to make sure things looked just believable enough to sell the illusion. Nowadays we are lucky we don’t have to kill ourselves over this, but we still have to be wary of that upper limit, taking into account all the potential and most unpredictable issues that come with game development.
There were other technical challenges also, for example lighting. The way we are doing the lighting and shading is different from the “standard workflow”. You know those instances in video games where suddenly the shadow disappears, or flickers on the face? We have completely bypassed that, so there will never be a moment where Ava doesn’t have shadows – even on a low-end machine. Since we come from film/VFX and animation backgrounds we are very meticulous about these well-known issues that pop up in video games, but we understand that many companies wouldn’t go down this road as it comes with extra overheads, more cost. Also, CYGNI is not an open world game, it has one specific camera with almost the same angle every time, so that also helps. Another reason we’ve chosen to do this is for visual longevity – to ensure CYGNI looks great years down the line. Regardless, we wouldn’t have been happy with the final product if we didn’t take this approach – that’s the honest answer.
How did the team’s past experiences inform the design of Ava?
We have designed and created 3D characters for clients and for our personal work prior to this. So, a few points were clear to us from the beginning: don't dwell on anything for too long, leave the final polish of key areas for the final sculpting process, make sure the sketches first work on paper and that the personality comes out there before moving to 3D.
However, one thing to always watch out for is to have a design that would work well when translated into 3D, as you can cheat a lot in 2D form. For instance, the nose can be drawn ten different ways in various angles to make it look just right for that particular shot, but you can’t afford to do this in 3D, the nose has to look just right on all angles and in most lighting conditions. This is why we leave many such tests during work in progress sculpting phases and understand things could change there. Sometimes we say that if a face looks good in a three-quarter angle in 3D then it is on the right track.
However, there have been more technical challenges than we expected. The first six months learning game development were eye opening for the limitations of the hardware and technology. The simplest things, which we took for granted in the animation film industry, are almost impossible for game dev.
With that experience, we decided to create our own tools, which we’re now using for CYGNI. We’ve seen a lot of companies start up and have been part of a few ourselves, so we know where the pitfalls happen. The most important thing is that we’ve learned from these experiences and invested months on R&D creating those tools, looking at what we need to fill the gaps in the software we are currently using.
How have the art team’s skillsets and backgrounds complimented each other? How does the team work together?
Each of us brings something unique to the table. We started with just two of us in the art, creative and technical departments. We had to learn programming and Unreal Engine 4, which helped us have in-depth and hands-on knowledge of most of the game development process. The team has grown more since then. And we are grateful and lucky to have a team that has great chemistry and works so well as it is a rare thing.
When hiring and building our team, we focused on skill and personality. Sometimes, and as long as the key skills are in place, personality and attitude becomes more important to us and it’s been one of the key factors as to why we have such good chemistry in the team.
We have tried to balance the remote work and core work. Sadly, we can’t afford to have everybody in one place at the moment, as well as considering the COVID situation, so some remote work is the way to go, at least for now.
The big difference for us was having a talented programmer on board. We always had questions - “how do we accomplish this? Is this possible?” Things that took us days to think about would take them hours to accomplish.
Most of the team are working on multiple tasks, as we’re still very small and can’t afford having very specialised roles. Someone’s doing texture today, modelling tomorrow. We have some people doing three or four categories that would be taken on by different individuals in a larger studio.
You use 3Ds Max instead of Maya, which isn't the usual modelling software for games. Is there any particular reason for this?
3Ds Max used to be the primary tool for game development not too long ago, nowadays it’s hard to tell major differences between 3D software. For instance, Blender being a free tool has come a long way and is now very widely used in the indie scene. Maya gained more popularity in animation early on but arguably the gap is now much narrower in all aspects of software, and it really boils down to what the artists and Technical Directors are comfortable using. In our case it's been 3Ds Max since we started in the field, it’s our comfort zone, but we still use other software where needed and build our own tools when things are missing or not readily available on the market.
If you were to start completely from scratch tomorrow, would you change anything about your character design approach?
We’ve gone through many iterations and planning to convince ourselves that this is the right design for us, so in that sense, no, we wouldn’t change much of anything at this stage.
What more can you tell us about Ava, what sort of person is she?
Ava is a 23-year-old pilot, whose father and mother separated when she was still a teenager. She stayed with her dad, as her mom desired to live off-world – on another planet! Her father did his best to raise her. He is a flight engineer on Carrier 13 and is obsessed with flying machines. That obsession heavily influenced Ava’s choice of career. She also inherited her love for all things retro from him.
Ava graduated 2nd top of her class and was added to the roster of pilots attached to the Leviathan (Carrier 41) just a couple of months before the sudden attack on Cygni Prime started.
Overall, she is perky, slightly shy, likes old and retro things and is obsessed with flying. She worries about her dad as he lives alone and on occasion tends to eat a lot more than he should.
Will we learn more about Ava in-game?
The storytelling of CYGNI is split in two – there’s the gameplay, which is all action-packed play as the ship, survive at all costs, it doesn’t matter who you’re shooting at, accomplish the mission. You enjoy the big boss fights, surviving the onslaughts and waves of enemies. And you go through the main story by finishing the various levels.
Carrier 41 a.k.a. "Leviathan" Then there’s Ava’s story. The idea is that once you have finished the level, you then see a cutscene that will show you Ava’s perspective on things, and through that perspective you will learn about the world and what’s unfolding around her. It’s important to say that the cutscenes only happen between levels, so gameplay will never be interrupted by them! Do you have any words of advice for aspiring video game artists? During pre-production, don’t be afraid to scrap everything and start over again. If it’s not working, it is not working. No matter how much you think you can patch it up, it will show in the final product. We scrap things all the time. That’s what pre-production exists for, to experiment and drill these designs and see if they hold up and if they work. Design with purpose in mind. Don’t create something then try to fit it in. Video games are very complex. Understanding the technical process of making video games is very important if you want to become an excellent video game artist. Similar advice also goes to programmers - understand the artist’s processes as well. Having people of different disciplines become aware of each area’s expectations, terminology and limitations can help create better communication between the team. It makes solving problems much easier. It’s never simple. Specialise in something, get good at it in case you do not enjoy doing a bit of everything, but regardless it’s valuable to gain an understanding of the overall picture so you can make something that fits the bigger picture. Also, hardware limitations are a real thing. Working around them is an art form in itself!