Janet Hetherington talks to Chris Wise about his virtual vehicle designs and why he enjoys seeing the classy cars he creates get wrecked in videogames.
Guys and cars. Guys and videogames. It's an obvious fit, and for Chris Wise, founder and president of Virtual Mechanix -- a company that specializes in creating 3D cars for video games and simulations -- it's also a passion and a calling.
"I've always been interested in art and once 3D became available on the PC, it quickly got my attention," says Wise. "Combining this medium with my love of cars, I found the perfect outlet to get my creative juices flowing. Around this time there was some great racing titles starting to appear on the PC and I knew that I had to be a part of it. It's really grown from there."
Wise adds that the dream 3D car that he would like to design "would have to be some kind of road-going F1 car... one where the driver is a part of the car." In real life, Wise drives a Mazda MX5 and a Honda Civic Type-R. "I love small go-kart-like cars that handle well," he insists.
Wise first began modeling cars as a professional at Torus Games, where he created cars for a racing-combat game called Carmageddon TDR 2000. A short time later, he started freelancing and founded Australia-based Virtual Mechanix.
As the name suggests, Virtual Mechanix specializes in crafting completely realistic 3D representations of vehicles for racing car videogames, such as Atari/Milestone Studios' Racing Evoluzione (a.k.a. Apex in the U.S.), Microsoft Game Studios/Bizarre Creations' Project Gotham Racing 2, 3 and 4, and SEGA Racing Studio's SEGA Rally Revo. After Wise began to freelance, Bizarre Creations noticed his skill with SOFTIMAGE|XSI (Wise's software of choice) and asked him to produce cars for its then-upcoming game, Project Gotham Racing 2.
As demand for his 3D car-designing skills continued to accelerate, Wise realized that he could not continue to do all of the modeling on his own. Wise turned to the global marketplace to find other modelers with game experience, knowledge of SOFTIMAGE|XSI and a passion for cars. He recruited colleagues and XSI artists with whom he had networked through other jobs, and he also turned to contacts that he had made at industry trade shows such as SIGGRAPH, GDC and fmx. Wise connected with professionals through XSI Base.com as well.
While Virtual Mechanix is based in Australia, it can be described as a virtual garage -- and a virtual studio.
"I guess you could us a virtual studio," agrees Wise. "The number of artists working at any given time can vary due to our workload. We generally have around 15 artists working full-time, four to five of whom are based here in Australia, and the rest are located in various parts of the world, including the UK, the US, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Germany and China."
James De Colling, who worked for Atari Melbourne House in Australia and now resides in Japan, is one such member of the team. "I can work whatever times I want, which gives me flexibility to do things with my family whenever we choose," De Colling comments in company material. "Also, the fact that Virtual Mechanix is centered on cars brings together very like-minded people."
Still, with many Virtual Mechanix artists scattered around the globe, a key challenge for Wise is to maintain uniformity in the output. Wise says that he no longer personally designs cars; instead, he spends his time supervising and coordinating the work of his team.
"Uniformity is extremely important when operating in a virtual studio environment, so we have guidelines that we must adhere to in order to maintain uniformity and consistency," Wise continues. "First and foremost is working with artists who are not only capable of producing the quality of work we expect, but who are self disciplined, know how to organize themselves and possess a high level of maturity. Good communication and sharing of information and techniques is vital."
On average, the Virtual Mechanix team produces 50 to 100 cars per game title. To minimize the complexity that that volume of work can create, Wise tries to ensure that each project starts with detailed information from the client. This usually consists of a game design document, a list of cars to produce for the game, deadlines for producing each car and the platform constraints to which each model must adhere. In addition, each car comes with digital reference material, such as photos, CAD models and blueprints.
"Internet access is obviously the most important aspect of this type of business, for both communication and delivery of art assets," Wise notes. "The car-building process is pretty straight-forward, in that our clients supply us with all the reference material we require."
Matt Clark, an ex-lead artist from Argonaut Games and Particle Systems in the UK who is a Virtual Mechanix team member, remarks, "There is a detailed and clearly laid-out brief so everybody knows exactly what to do. Plus, the reference material for the vehicles is excellent."
While Virtual Mechanix generally works on PC console-type videogames, the company has been working on cars and trucks for a mobile game, with each vehicle taking about three to five days to design. (A 3D car model for a PC game can take six weeks to create.)
"There will be about a half-dozen cars for the mobile game, and it's being designed so it won't take up too much memory," Wise suggests. "It's meant to be downloaded fast and played fast... a quick thrill."
Virtual Mechanix has earned a reputation for modeling cars, but Wise says the company has also designed motorcycles. "We did about 30 motorbikes for Project Gotham Racing 4," Wise adds. That game features both older and newer models of motorcycles, and they compete against cars in the race.
For that project, each two-wheeled vehicle took just as much time -- and care -- to create as each four-wheeled racer. "Making a motorcycle model took about the same amount of time as for making a car, and the budget was the same as for a car," Wise offers.
As for other vehicles, Wise notes, "We would gladly build planes, helicopters, boats, etc. if we were given the opportunity to do so. We just haven't had any call for those types of vehicles yet."
The company is branching out, however, by working on its own game and co-producing a racing simulation with a Formula 1 team based in Europe.
Wise says that being based in Australia has posed few problems for his company. "I think it can be looked at as an advantage in that we are an English-speaking country with a long history in game development," Wise comments. "Plus, we're generally conceived to have great pool of talent, along with competitive pricing."
Wise finds his clients in the same places that he finds his artists -- all over the world. "I get leads from a number of ways, from reading game news articles and announcements, word of mouth, and by constant researching of the industry," he says. Wise observes that the UK, in particular, produces the majority of racing car games and plays host to 90% of the Formula 1 teams.
During a typical videogame assignment, once the background and reference information has been provided, the team must turn it into tricked-out car models that look great and work well on the game platform. The cars being modeled can range from Ferraris to Porsches to Lamborghinis -- including super-cars that reflect a cross between makes -- as well as other less exotic car classes.
Wise comments that designing 3D videogame-model cars is different from designing 3D still model cars because "videogames are active, so there are rules that you have to follow." Wise says, "It's all performance-based."
Wise and his artists have no direct communication with the automobile manufacturers as the designers replicate the look of the cars. Instead, the client (the videogame developer or publisher) acts as liaison with the manufacturers and passes the information to Virtual Mechanix.
The cars are usually based on existing models. "We've never had any call to design vehicles from scratch," Wise says, "although we would cherish the opportunity to do so. We have had to build what we refer to as 'generic' vehicles, which are vehicles designed to look 'similar' to actual production models.
"Car manufacturers usually have limitations on what you can do with their products in a game environment," Wise continues, "and if you want to go outside those boundaries, you often have to substitute an actual car for an 'approximation'... something that will give the player an idea of what type of car they are driving, yet not close enough that it will infringe on the actual car's design/copyright IP. So it can be a fine line when designing 'generic' vehicles."
Even for "generic" cars, there is special attention paid to authenticity and detail. "Typically with next-gen vehicle models for games, the rule of thumb is 'if you can see it on the real vehicle, it needs to be included on the virtual vehicle'," Wise says. "We usually have to include every fine detail no matter how small, if there is a chance of it being seen in-game."
When assignments are handed out, a specific car becomes the design responsibility of an individual artist. "Each car artist works on a single vehicle at a time," Wise explains. "All of our sub-contract artists use XSI software, and the hardware they run it on is entirely up to them, providing it is up to the task at hand."
Having an entire team of XSI users tends to minimize the technical challenges that can result from working remotely. Files are easier to transfer and to work with since no conversions from one 3D package to another are necessary. In addition, clients can provide one set of reference files and be confident that the Virtual Mechanix team can work with them.
"I converted to SOFTIMAGE|XSI from LightWave 3D after Softimage launched its 3-Democracy campaign," says Clark. "What I liked about XSI from the start was the solid feel of the working environment, the accessibility of everything within a scene and the ease in which it handles larger, more complicated projects. The precise feel of the modeling tools suit the technical nature of this kind of work very well, and the addition of the Tweak tool has made smoothing out car bodywork a breeze."
Interestingly enough, that bodywork may include elements of a wrecked vehicle. "Sometimes we model damage into a model and its textures as separate components (that switch with the non-damaged components during an impact) if the developer chooses to use predetermined damage," Wise says. "Other times, we set a vehicle up to work with a realtime damage system which usually doesn't require us to model any damage components. Both systems have their pros and cons.
Race to the Finish
"Once finished, I check it [the model] over, and when I'm happy that it conforms to the requirements, it's submitted to the client for approval," Wise says. "We play no part in determining how a vehicle will react once it's in a game; that job lies with the game programmers." Virtual Mechanix's clients also generally supply the driver models for their videogames.
Wise comments that once completed, each car model must be exported to a format that is compatible with the game engine so it can then be loaded into the environment. Those environments often reflect real cities, and the game developers must obtain permission to depict those street and city scenarios.
However, the real fun is in seeing the finished car designs in action -- racing and even getting smashed up.
"Seeing cars get wrecked in a game is often an integral part of the overall experience," Wise says. "If the damage looks realistic and we had some part in achieving this, then it makes us happy."
Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada, with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi. She drives a champagne beige Honda Civic Special Edition.