The Block-out Phase

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I am sure everyone has heard of the block-out phase or grey boxing. It’s like storyboarding or sketching. Not only does it improve your creative output and final results. It is also used by the rest of the team to build and test the game early. For example, the programming team can already implement your block-outs. So designers can test their game designs.

So what is the block-out phase? See this as the sketching phase when drawing or painting. You are laying down the foundation and shapes of your art. You are searching for the composition, feel, and “if it works”. Let me use an example scene that I am currently working on.

While on a trip to Spain I was inspired by the old architecture of the streets and houses. And so I decided to create a small diorama scene. I took many pictures so I could dive into the details fast and make it look cool. But this would be a mistake since I would miss the most important part. The overall composition of the scene, shapes, and objects.

So instead I start with “blocking things out”. Building very rough shapes, like sketching. Using primitive objects and basic mesh adjustments. I started to create the entire scene. Looking at how these shapes feel in relationships between each other. Finding camera angles and a composition that feels good.

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Over time I am fine-tuning all these shapes, slowly adding things like windows or hallways. Moving things around if I don’t like it. Which is still easy to do since everything is still so low poly and rough. Here you can also see that I added the green sphere’s to represent foliage. See how rough and basic it all is?

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I decided to focus on a single camera angle for the main composition. It doesn’t mean I won’t add other camera angles. It means this main one will get most of the attention and will be used for composition.

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Once I am happy with the overall shape. I start adding more detail while still keeping everything rough and basic. You can see that I added separate stone shapes on the corner of the street. Small stairways, and eventually the details on the walls. Giving everything a green material to remind of what I retouched.

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Now you can see that I have finished the second detailing step. Everything is green, and so done. I am happy with the shapes and composition. I can see where the foliage will be. And I could if I wish to add early lighting. It might be hard to see on a small image, but I also rotated and moved small details around to break the perfection. For example, bricks hanging loose or walls having a small angle or curve.

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This is the current state of the project. So I cannot show you more. But you can imagine that by doing this block-out step. You gain way more control over the result. You can focus on the art and composition first. And the technical details such as sculpting, texturing and shaders later.

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All this also applies to characters, weapons, vehicles, or anything else you create in 3D. Let’s say you need to translate a 2D concept piece of a vehicle into 3D. Start with the rough shapes first. Find the shapes that match the concept piece. Find the same feeling as the concept piece. The feeling of a fast car is mostly found in its shapes. So if you don’t pay attention and lose these. Your vehicle ends up with a completely different feel. So always do the block-out phase before “committing” to the shape or trying to figure it our somewhere at the end.

I also mentioned that it helps other teams in game development like programmers or designers. Let’s continue using the vehicle as an example. How long does it take to create and finish a high-quality vehicle, 3 weeks if not more? That means the rest of the team needs to wait for art production before they can implement and test. That’s a big risk if it turns out that the vehicle “doesn’t feel right”. Or worse, “just doesn’t work”. You wasted weeks of work.

So instead, use your block-outs and get those implemented into the game as place holders. The rest of the team can then continue game development while you are making the final art. Of course, for this, you do need to upgrade your block-outs so they are technically solid. If you do it correctly, once your final art is complete. The only thing you have to do is replace (overwrite) your block-outs. So no need to bother a programmer for him to implement your art!

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So what should you keep into consideration when building your block-out placeholders? The biggest rule is to see them as final art so game developers can build the game with them. You will want to have the following consistent between your block-outs and finals:

Naming and hierarchy: If these changes, your implementation will break. Looking for things that might not exist anymore.

Pivot locations: If you change this then your mesh will have a different location.

Sizes and shapes: If your object turns out to be 30 cm longer. That could have consequences in your scene, collision, or other things.

Rigging & animation: This is difficult to get right in placeholder art since you often don’t know exactly what the final needs will be. But the closer you can get to the final, the better. At the very least have the same animation tracks and names.

Of course, in the end, a project is a project, things change. So get your placeholders as close as possible to the future finals. But you can already imagine and assume that part of them will change and so need to be re-implemented. This doesn’t mean you can get lazy when building your block-outs. They are the foundation of all your assets and art.

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High Priority - Game Art