Artist Blog - Travis Doggett

What This Game Needs is Some GREEN POWER!
Putting the "Smoke" in "Smoke and Mirrors"

Being a blog-like treatise on the creation and implementation of Special Effects in Iron Lore's Titan Quest (available June, 2006).

Howdy, kittens! I'm here to talk about special effects, which are what I'm responsible for on Titan Quest. Most of the effect work I do is in the form of Particles. "Particles" and "particle systems" are what games use to create any number of effects, from water splashes and bonfires to magical spells and monster explosions. An effects-heavy game like Titan Quest has thousands upon thousands of particle effects, animated meshes, and other visual elements. They're a critical component of the gameplay experience and they're my jam.

Titan Quest has eight skill masteries the player can develop and each one has a distinctive look and feel. The "Spirit" mastery, for example, is rife with ghostly forms, eerie glows and creepy smoke. "Nature" is full of lush, green, leafy bursts and twisting vines. You get the idea. Furthermore, every damage type needs to have a distinct vocabulary associated with it. At any given moment, a player needs to be able to see that they're poisoned, causing Frost damage, and/or and leeching mana. That's a lot of information to provide at a glance, and that's only one of countless scenario possibilities! Finally, in addition to the look and feel, I have to make sure the particles don't slow down the game. Keeping the effects distinctive, visually interesting, and still within budget is all part of the job.

I work most of my sorcery within the Effects Editor, a powerful authoring tool developed in-house at Iron Lore. Most game dev houses write their own particle editors, and the quality of the tools I've worked with has fluctuated wildly. Thankfully, Iron Lore's editor is well written, powerful, and intuitive. Within a week of my arrival, I was comfortable with the program and cranking out the goods. Not many studios dedicate an artist to the task of special effects, although the practice is becoming more common. Iron Lore's decision to devote an artist to effects full-time was a progressive one, and the prudence of that decision will shine through in the myriad effects present in Titan Quest. Creating a convincing and practical effect for a game draws from an assortment of disciplines. Effects may require painting, modeling, animating, or crafty recycling of assets that are lying around. Thankfully, I've been able to wear a lot of hats in my career as a game artist, and all my past experience comes in handy with the effects work I do.

Ultimately, what I aim to make are Good Effects. Everyone's seen bad effects in a game, whether they've consciously recognized them or not. In many ways, bad video game effects are like bad effects in movies or television. When you're watching a Space Monster movie and you can see the strings holding the monster up, you're taken out of the fiction. When this happens, your disbelief is a little less suspended, and you're reminded that you're watching something, not participating in it. Good effects keep the player inside the fiction. If you just shot a fireball at a Satyr, you don't want to think about framerates, polys, or little square pictures of fire flying across your screen. You want to believe that a fireball has just been discharged. Most players will never think about the technical minutiae of a game. They don't care how effects are made, they just want them to look good. That's why effects are an important element of the gameplay experience. They're a valuable part of the "Smoke and Mirrors" that we developers utilize to keep the player believing in our world. Done correctly, they become an invisible part of a living environment.