Monday, June 23, 2014

XCOM: Enemy Within Concept Art

I am finally able to post some of the work I did for the XCOM franchise, both for the DLC (known as Slingshot) and the expansion (known as XCOM: Enemy Within). They were really fun projects to work on; we now had the chance to refine and add onto what we had created so far, also giving us time to explore certain aspects XCOM fans had been requesting :)
I was tasked with tackling a bit of everything, from environments to props to characters and enemy units. The final result was a fantastic, universally acclaimed expansion and DLC (don't take my word for it, play them and you'll see!). It was a behemoth effort that came together very well, and further solidified Firaxis' prestige as a top-notch game studio.

The first project I worked on after finishing XCOM: Enemy Unknown (the original 2012 game) was its DLC, Slingshot. It involves a mission in China with a rogue Triad agent that betrays his organization to join XCOM as an elite soldier, in order to prevent an all-out alien onslaught by attempting to take down one of their battleships.

A mood painting for a cutscene's establishing shot. The location was not pinned down when we began, which is why this looks a bit more like Tokyo than Shanghai.
The Triad defector awaits the XCOM squad at a cemetery.

Mood concept for the train mission in the DLC
For the first time, we were taking on making fixed characters. That is, characters that were not randomly generated or customizable, which was the norm in XCOM so far. From an artistic perspective this was exciting, because it meant we could develop the character's backstory and narrative, and have it reflect on their appearance, which is always fun. 
The first was Shaojie Zhang, who, as mentioned before, was a Triad defector, willing to risk it all by providing valuable intel against the aliens in exchange for joining XCOM. He had to look rough but not grunt-like; somebody with dirty money who was clearly a criminal but was also loyal to humanity (oddly enough). He wasn't a higher-up, but wasn't new to the business; a seasoned gangster who was willing to turn the page to fight the aliens. 

Zhang's concepting process begun with head explorations. Since the game's limitations wouldn't allow for different body types, we knew we'd get the most bang for our buck figuring out the face first - especially considering the close-ups in the cinematics. 

It turned out to be a quick decision from our Art Director David Black. He pointed at the head in the bottom center and said "yep, that's him." Then it was just a matter of dressing him up, which was really quick since Dave had a pretty good idea of what he wanted, and a whole bunch of reference to go with it.

For the next set of missions there was going to be another character. This one was a little different from Zhang. Her name was Annette, and she was a much harder nut to crack. It took a significantly larger amount of iterations and back and forth with the Art Director to get her right at the concept stage. She was a much more subtle character; a young captive with psionic powers that she'd only begun to grasp. This made for a conflicted personality and made figuring out her looks quite challenging. I explored many options, from age to hairstyle to fashion choices, all while being constrained by the game's body type limitations. 

Again, we focused most of our energy on getting the face right, since the cutscenes would focus on it quite a bit. To facilitate the transition from concept to model I sculpted the faces in ZBrush, so that the modelers and animators would have an actual 3D model to work from once the Art Director approved it.

The first version we thought could work is on the far right (above). Annette had the youthful look of a teenager-- slightly edgy but also vulnerable, reflecting her conflicted personality. 

After letting the concept sit for a while, we decided to explore the "captive" side of her: a less casual, more "institutionalized" look, as if she had come from some sort of facility, but without giving her a straitjacket.
The clothing was right, but she looked too aggressive and the head scarring was too obvious, so we opted for a more subtle look. After a couple more face variations, our AD Dave Black went in to paint over some final changes (second image above), and Annette was done! It was a very difficult balance to achieve between youthfulness, maturity, inner conflict and newfound power. It was a great tag team effort between Dave, myself, and all others involved in the team. I enjoyed every minute of it!

Another aspect that made XCOM: Enemy Within such a great expansion was that there was now a rival human faction that wanted to destroy you; an anti-XCOM, pro-alien organization called EXALT. Initially they were supposed to be more simple mercenaries, but they soon evolved conceptually to something more intricate.
We toyed around in the early sketches with more distinctly different looks for the units. Regular, almost merc-like EXALT grunts, and more menacing genetically modified units. As we tested these ideas within the game's context, we realized that having your XCOM soldiers shooting other humans just didn't feel right -- it felt like a line was being crossed. Thus, we revised the look of the EXALT faction and went for an "unnatural" look, as if they had started to undergo an alien-inspired transformation. This made sense conceptually as well, since EXALT are alien sympathizers who want to rule the world once the aliens complete their plans. It was also a smart idea from the production standpoint, because by covering most of their facial features, as if hiding something, it then allowed us to save plenty of development time by using one model with swappable class-based attachments.

Below is XCOM's answer to the EXALT menace -- a covert agent force that is sent to scout out possible EXALT strongholds, allowing the player to not only respond to attacks but possibly pre-empt them.

So another fun element to the game were the genetic modifications to your soldiers, or "Genemods". I was tasked with illustrating the images that would be embedded into the UI on the Genemod screen. These were really fun to do, and a nice change of pace from the other work I was doing. They represent each Genemod available in the game, with a couple of extra variations I liked.

In order for the Genemods to work, there was a new substance called "Meld". It was supposed to be a newly discovered, finite alien resource that would bridge the gap between your soldiers' molecular biology and the Genemod and M.E.C. elements (the Mechs). This would effectively allow your units to "evolve" into the next stage. But for that you had to acquire the Meld from the maps, and there was only a finite amount of time to do so before it expired. 
Below are some explorations of the Meld containers found on the map, as well as a visualization of what the Meld molecules themselves would look like when under a microscope. The latter was also used as a concept for the actual Meld cinematics.

A "Flying Spider Shark" I believe the Seeker has been called. The Seeker is a unit that we had conceptually thrown around ideas for during development for XCOM Enemy Unknown (before the expansion). Back then it didn't make the cut, but it was now being resurrected as a new enemy unit. The Seeker is a floating, mostly invisible enemy that seeks out your soldiers to incapacitate them and drain their life away. It only becomes visible once it attaches to your unit. Creepy. 
Below are some explorations, as well as the final design. I used ZBrush to help me visualize his form, which also facilitated the concept-to-model process.

The following are sketches for the Venomorph, an enemy unit that we explored, but which didn't materialize into a final idea. Sometimes things needed to be thrown out to give way to higher priorities, and this guy was one of those cases. Many compared him to the Snakeman from the original 90's X-Com, and I don't disagree! The Venomorph's modus operandi was to "occupy" some poor civilian's body, then operate it as its own until he matured, not unlike the Chryssalid. The difference was that the person acted fairly normal, and not like a moaning green zombie about to burst from the inside (like with a Chryssalid).

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