We’ve all thought about visiting the American Northeast in the fall, but only Arkane’s Redfall lets you do it while monster hunting with your friends.
Redfall is the new open-word cooperative shooter from Arkane Austin, makers of Prey. The game takes place in the fictional Massachusetts town of Redfall, which is overrun by vampires created in a failed scientific experiment. A diverse group of heroes with unique abilities and weapons must team up to save the day.
Arkane’s games have always featured memorable locations – think of Dishonored‘s Dunwall or Prey‘s Talos I – but the open world of Redfall marks new ground for the studio with a stylised recreation of the American North-East that evokes the work of Stephen King and Peter Benchley.
In a talk at this year’s GDC, senior environment artist Ehsan Ebrahimzadeh explained how the studio’s process of combining hand-crafted art with procedural and non-destructive methods brings Redfall – and its trees, specifically – to life.
“Redfall is one of Arkane’s most ambitious games,” Ebrahimzadeh says. “It’s definitely the biggest game Arkane has ever made, but there was always this fear that was the world going to look empty, and how much detail we can add to the world and make it lively and make it compare to other Arkane games in terms of storytelling and environmental storytelling. So that was very huge for us.”
Redfall‘s cooperative gameplay is one of its core features, allowing up to four players to band together, but it can also be played solo. This meant a careful balancing of artistic expression and performance for the design and art teams.
“We have a relatively small team compared to a lot of AAA games,” Ebrahimzadeh says. “And specifically, talking about an open-world game, we’re just seven people in the environment team. We have to be very smart with our decisions. For the foliage, I was the only one responsible, and it was about 50 percent of my tasks.”
An additional obstacle was the move to a new game engine. Prey was developed in CryEngine, but Redfall marks the studio’s move to Unreal.
“That brought a lot of challenges, just to switch between two engines, which made us work on new pipelines and new workflows,” Ebrahimzadeh says. “And also, the signature art style was really tough to get working in the beginning.”
Visually, Redfall is a recognisably Arkane game. The assets and environmental design couldn’t be more different than Prey‘s memorable space station, however.
“Very limited foliage was needed, and most of the foliage made for the game was basically an indoor type of foliage,” Ebrahimzadeh recalls, of Prey. “And the pipeline was basically the same as if the team was making a desk or a chair.”
Although Redfall is not striving to be photorealistic, it features large amounts of foliage and is peppered with recognisable, real-world tree species. The region is world-famous for its autumnal colours, and replicating that tone and feel of the ‘spooky season’ was key.
“In order to get the most out of our settings – and after some Googling and stuff – we decided to have a trip,” says Ebrahimzadeh.
“These types of trips can get very expensive and overwhelming but I have done it throughout my career, from when I was working as a solo developer, through indie, and now that I am working on AAA. But if you’re planning to do one of those trips, you don’t really need to do expensive stuff. You don’t need expensive equipment or anything like that. Just using your camera and getting there and experiencing the mod and environment just adds a lot to your experience and will help when you are developing your ideas.”
Ebrahimzadeh explains that a field trip can offer multiple benefits, from taking in the overall feel of the environment to understanding how it changes at different times of day and in various weather conditions.
“Focus both on micro and macro detail, not only a leaf or bark texture. Focus also on the whole silhouette of what’s going on in your environment,” he says.
And if you can’t get into the great outdoors, traditional internet and book research is always useful, even for something like foliage that generally sits at the edge of a player’s experience,
“Just having an overall idea was helpful,” Ebrahimzadeh says. “And talking to our level designers and our architects who are responsible for a scene, it was really helpful for them. It was like, ‘hey, if you have elevation you probably want to go with these species. And if you’re near a river, go with these’.”
Many Arkane games also have a distinct aesthetic, and the intention was no different for Redfall.
“What are we going to do about art style? And what does art style mean for our game?” asks Ebrahimzadeh. “Now, different studios have their own interpretation of this style, and it’s all valid, but in our case – on a micro and macro level – we decided to choose bonsai trees. Bonsai trees look amazing, and they already look stylised, but they are realistic and detailed.”
With the approach defined, Ebrahimzadeh also had to develop a pipeline to create assets quickly.
“On the micro level of leaves and stem, we decided to sculpt and hand paint, which took a bunch of time. The trunks are either SpeedTree or, for some special missions, I sculpted the trunks. Most of our other assets are also sculpted so we wanted to match that same quality for the foliage. So we decided to sculpt and hand-paint, but it was taking a lot of time.”
Some of the work was outsourced to speed up the process, something Ebrahimzadeh says is rare for foliage because of the number of iterations the assets usually go through.
“They helped me with the leaves and they can help me with the texturing, so that’s exactly what we did. I made files helping them with the colour palettes and some example reference photo, and sometimes, a quick sketch of how the branches and leaves should look like. The results came in really nice from our amazing outsource team.”
The stylised but familiar look of Redfall‘s trees also plays a role in the game’s moment-to-moment action.
“Another very important thing when we talk about the art style and the look is gameplay considerations,” explains Ebrahimzadeh. “Arkane is very design-oriented, so design speaks last and first. We wanted to comply with all the design needs of the game. We wanted to make sure the player could easily understand if they could cover behind a tree or not, and not be surprised. Our characters have special powers – some of them can jump really high – and it was important to make sure they don’t bump their head on a branch or something.”
Ebrahimzadeh says he was pleased with the basics of tree shape, detail, and colour but needed to improve the workflow of getting the assets into the game, making revisions, and reviewing the results.
“The first thing that came to my mind was how many times the team – from direction to design – asked me to change something on that one tree. So, a lot of iterations. Of course, with an immersive sim game, you know how iterative they can get, so I wanted to make a workflow that was as non-destructive as possible. The idea was that if I have a tree in the game, I could go back and change a little sculpt or add something to the paint and – in very little time – see the change in the game.”
From the start of the process to the end, Ebrahimzadeh says everything had to be fast.
“The general idea was that I’d take the leaves, sculpted and polypainted in Zbrush,” he explains. “I brought everything to Substance Designer to add extra details to the texture. I used SpeedTree for branch clusters, take it back to Substance Designer to make a [texture] atlas, then back to SpeedTree for making the whole tree, and then, finally, render it in Unreal Engine. In any part of the process, I could go back and change something and reload my process and see the result in Unreal Engine.”
“We also had fully sculpted trees,” Ebrahimzadeh says, referring to a tree in his slide deck. “This is a boss mission tree for one of the boss fights. It’s totally sculpted in ZBrush, but then I did the canopies and the upper branches, [they] are [generated] procedurally in SpeedTree.”
The pipeline and processes used by Arkane allowed Redfall to blossom, despite the challenges of having a small team and using a new game engine. The most impressive outcome of the approach is said, almost as an aside, by Ebrahimzadeh.
“During the last five years I’ve worked at Arkane we have done zero overtime work. So the game was done without any crunch.”
It’s not a boast but a quiet acknowledgement from Ebrahimzadeh that careful planning and creative solutions mean that the studio’s workers have time to lose themselves in the real outdoors as well as in the digital worlds they create.