DEVELOPMENT BLOG
Abbie

January 2022 / The Art Direction of Season

Hello fellow travellers!

Welcome back to our monthly blog posts, where we’ll be looking more in-depth into Season – and peek behind the curtain to see what inspires our team. We’ll be using this space to tell you more about our world, our characters, and to tell you more about the talented team of individuals working on the game.

In this month’s installment – we’re taking a look at the art direction of Season. We’ll be deconstructing the “how” and “why” we’ve made Season look the way it looks, and talk about the art and visuals that influenced us. We hope this gives you some inspiration of your own!

It has been our hope to make Season look like the concept art we originally conceived for it. Using custom shaders and other tools within the Unreal Engine, we’ve worked to make every frame of Season look like it belongs in a frame on a wall. We wanted it to feel grounded in its detail, but larger than life when looking at the bigger picture. Let’s explain what we did…

Caption: Season concept art

The Art Direction of Season

Season’s art direction is inspired by great illustrators, painters, and natural light cinematographers. It has been specially developed to suit the unique world we are building. The light rendering is somewhat flat, but the mood, tone and environments we depict still feels real. It is a minimalist approach to realism, inspired by the early Japanese woodblock print artists, as well as the poster artists, like Norman Wilkinson, from the early and mid-20th century. This simplification mindset, getting rid of rather than adding details, set the guidelines we kept in mind while developing the overall look for the game.

Caption: Norman Wilkinson (1878-1971)

In Season, we are building and iterating on our own custom shaders. We don’t want our game to rely on the usual cel-shaded or “cartoon-esque” methods, despite them having their own beauty and purpose. From the beginning we wanted Season to feel familiar, but unique. The main problem we had with the traditional toon-shading methods is that it gets rid of many details, but you don’t have control over which details you get rid of. Everything gets simplified uniformingly, giving a “toy-like” feel to every asset.

We call the style we are developing for Season, ”Stylized Realism.” This style is a balance between an illustrative approach, and a more grounded approach. It is a realistic method to modeling (making sure the asset, its level of details and scale relationship with other assets feel real) and lighting, while also making sure the texture work is highly stylized, illustrative and graphic. In addition, having a smaller scope for the overall game also allows us to push the quality everywhere while keeping the handcrafted feeling intact. These are the strengths we have as an indie studio: quality over quantity.

Caption: Hiroshi Yoshida (1876-1950)

AAA games are highly skilled at creating assets and lighting faithful to reality, while a lot of indie games have become masters at handcrafted painted texture and unique visuals. We try to combine both of these strengths, with an illustrative and painterly approach to texture paired with details and realistic assets. These strengths and weaknesses can be separated into two categories: the scale relationship between the assets and the overall lighting.

Scale Relationship

Most illustrative and artsy games have a stylistic approach to scale; a blade of grass is as big as a character’s leg, a single leaf is bigger than a head, mountains are blocky and larger than life, etc. The scale rendered in this style gives an overall fun and floaty feeling of ”big toys.” Everything has exaggerated proportions to provide unique and colorful visuals.

In the AAA style of video-game realism, the games usually portray a more accurate feeling of scale: the grass and leaves have proper height and size, and they want to convey a world that feels “real.” The scenes are made up of numerous high quality textures that go for a “wow factor,” but usually leave out any strong stylistic elements or fantastical elements.

Caption: Season concept art

In Season, we wanted to strike a balance between both approaches. We concentrate on having a properly scaled relationship between every asset while keeping a cohesive hierarchy and balance of details.  When looking at our initial reference of Norman Wilkinson, there is a voluntary approach to simplicity; the pictures aren’t overly busy, the vegetation is merged together, focusing on its silhouette rather than trying to depict every individual leaf or blade of grass. The images are easily readable, elegant in their simplicity, and harmonized.

We do this to ground our world but also not lose the sense of whimsy. It is a world that is familiar but strange, and also maintains a strong feeling of believability. A place you could, and would want to, visit or even live in.

Lighting

The second pillar of Season art direction is the lighting.

While our game is influenced heavily by illustration and concept art, we wanted the lighting in Season to depict a certain realism in its mood. Some other artsy and illustrative games have become masters at creating fantasy worlds, playing with unusual, whimsical color combinations, depicting universes that can only live in our imagination.

In Season, we wanted to stay within the range of reality in our depiction of lighting. We were heavily influenced by contemporary plein air painters and modern cinematographers who are experts at balancing real life lighting scenarios with artistic intent. While we knew Season would be set in an imaginary world, we wanted it to feel grounded by bringing believability to its different moods and time of day.

In Season, the artists focus on how local colors are used in traditional paintings. To achieve this look, a custom shader was made for Season that focuses on using the albedo (or local colours) and shadow tint in the way that they are done in illustrations. Focusing on these two aspects results in an illusion of color and shadow that recreate the depth and texture of illustrative works.

Because everything is individually editable though, using global lighting to unify areas proved difficult. Since each object has its own shadow tint, it is hard to maintain consistency over different lighting conditions. A golden early morning, or a cool mid-day would mean each object would have to be edited to properly reflect the scenario. We wound up using PBR (physics based rendering) with our own tweaks to alleviate these issues. The happy medium between the realistic and the illustrative.

We also turned to sky lighting and sub-surface scattering to make the world of Season feel even more familiar for our players. By shifting the tone of the sky to plunge the world into the warm tones of a sunset, or by using sub-surface scattering (which allows for objects to absorb or bounce light) to allow for the greenery of a scene to absorb a summer’s sun, we can better immerse the player into the world we have created.

The style we are creating for Season is completely unique:  having a game that has the lighting of plein-air paintings, a believable and relatable mood, all while maintaining bold, artistic and illustrative qualities. It is a balance of two beautiful approaches, the artistic and the realistic. The game doesn’t feel traditional; it feels like a distant, fading memory.

Caption: Season concept art


Thank you for taking the time to read our update! We’d love to hear your thoughts over on our Discord where you can talk to the developers, share your own inspirations, and learn more about Season.

As always, you can add Season to your Steam wishlist now!

Don’t forget that we also have a newsletter that will share some different information you won’t get in our blog posts! In our next missive, we’ll be breaking down our latest Alpha test and some of our takeaways from it.

Be safe in your journeys, and never forget.

With love,

December 2021 / A Mixture of Media

Hello fellow travellers!

Welcome back to our monthly blog posts, where we’ll be looking more in-depth into Season – and peek behind the curtain to see what inspires our team. We’ll be using this space to tell you more about our world, our characters, and to tell you more about the talented team of individuals working on the game.

In this month’s installment – we’ll be exploring a mixture of media that inspired Season from its halcyon days of youth. A book, a film, an essay, a poem, a game, and a song.

As 2021 draws to a close, we reflect on where we’ve been and we are going.  So we thought we’d start with the inspirations that started us on this path, and share them with you in the hopes that you might learn more about yourself, and more about what we’re hoping to accomplish  with Season.

A Mixture of Media – Season Influences

“The greatest hope for originality is to take the smallest unit of influence from as many places as possible.” 

Mark Hollis, of the band Talk Talk, said something like this.

Imagine someone in wool pants and a wool shirt walking through a dense forest. When they emerge into a clearing, picture how they would be covered in burs and sticks and leaves – a collection of what stuck to them. That image is how I see absorbing influences to become a collection. Here’s a swath of influences on our project Season, each from a different medium of art.

Some of these pieces inspired us with a strong, unique tone or mood. Others gave us ideas with their original fantasy world building. And there are also pieces here that reflect on the themes of collecting and existence, a theme that leans itself to the foundation of our game. 

Octavia Butler – “The Parable of the Sower”

Butler builds a world that is so recognizable and so strange at the same time. It feels rooted in a different set of assumptions about the world than any other sci-fi fantasy  world I’d encountered. The way a dream is built out of our experiences, projections, encounters…  a fantasy world is the same. It’s an extension of what we think, what we know, what we believe; but it’s also a floating speculation. These concepts influenced the way we tried to build the world of Season and led to us using a wide range of sources (historical, personal, political) that we tried to incorporate within the worldbuilding.

Bi-Gan- “Kaili Blues”

The sense of place in this film is so strong. It’s like a poem, a moment in time, a magic trick. The center piece is an inspiring 40+ minute continuous shot around a village by motorbike/boat/foot. We took influence from the mundane yet surreal feeling of life in “Kaili Blues,” and the way moving through space feels. Bi-Gan is a genius. I would love to collaborate with him.

Ursula K. Le Guin – “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”

A short essay by another great science fiction writer.

We think of influence as being cause and effect but sometimes it feels nonlinear. I read this essay very late in the process of writing Season, our composer sent it to me, but it resonated super strongly and feels like an influence anyway. 

Walt Whitman – “The Sleepers” POEM

I wander all night in my vision,

Stepping with light feet, swiftly and noiselessly stepping and stopping,

Bending with open eyes over the shut eyes of sleepers,

Wandering and confused, lost to myself, ill-assorted, contradictory,

Pausing, gazing, bending, and stopping.”

Whitman’ poetic character was a collector as well, creating a sprawling inventory of life, trying to embrace a fractured and violent country into a bear hug, into the expanse of his person. There’s a lot of “Song of Myself” and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in Season as well, but the surreal-yet-real very tender feeling of the opening passages of this poem also reverberate throughout Season.

Shigesato Itoi – Mother 2/Earthbound

The psychedelic barely-controlled tone of this series is awe inspiring. There is an existential horror that creeps in. This scene in particular was an influence, the way it violently calls attention to the senses. It’s quite a jarring shift in tone. Season has some shifts in tone, although none as extreme as this. 

Shigesato Itoi’s letter to fans of the series for the 20th anniversary is a beautiful piece of writing that was also very inspiring. I used to quote part of it in the pitch for Season. Nintendo took it down sadly but here’s a link to it on a message board.

Oh Yoko – Seashore (DJ Sprinkles’ Ambient Ballroom)

A remix of this, from Terre Thaemlitz (aka DJ Sprinkles)

It sounds like the past, like the texture of a warm memory, but it also feels like the future. It feels heavy, it feels light. It’s a tone of admirable complexity.  Another influence on Season appears as a sample inside of this track. We hear a voice speaking a monologue written by David Milch, from the TV show NYPD Blue. (He’s best known as the writer of Deadwood.)  

A lot of Season’s better pieces of writing come in monologue form, and it’s a challenge to try to write as directly as possible, which Milch does wonderfully. 


    This is just an assortment of media that has helped inspire Season. There is much more still for us to share – both about what helped us create Season, and about what Season is itself. We want you to know that these bits of memory, our collections of items that hold significance, are an essential part of the game’s experience, and we invite you to imagine what things are caught up in yourself, like nostalgic flotsam, that inspire you.

     

    • The Writer

    Thank you for taking the time to read our update! We’d love to hear your thoughts over on our Discord where you can talk to the developers, share your own inspirations, and learn more about Season.

    We also have a newsletter which will share some different information you won’t get in our blog posts! (Sign-up is in the site footer, right below this!) We’ll have a year end missive in your inboxes very soon.

    Be safe in your journeys, and never forget.

    With love,

    Behind the scenes : COVID-19 Playtest

    Today, we wanted to talk to you more about what goes on behind the scenes of running playtests for our indie studio. As Scavengers studio is focused on creating new IP, it is part of our culture to get feedback about our games as soon as we can in the development process for two main reasons.

    1. As devs, we usually get very attached to the game we build. We put so much time and energy into it, that we tend to develop a “tunnel vision” of the product we are building. Sometimes, we even have this unique feeling like we are slowly becoming the game ourselves; we dream of it, we think of it in the shower and we work on it. It becomes 100% of our life. Getting fresh and external eyes helps us to see what we cannot see anymore being so involved in it. 
    2. We love validating key features or content that we are unsure about to eventually make informed decisions that will then improve the player experience. Our main goal is to create a game that will resonate with the player’s values and wishes.  

    Step 1: choosing our playtesters target audience

    Megan, our dear community manager, coordinated everything. To find our playtesters, we decided to turn to our wonderful community. A newsletter sent, a post on Steam and Discord, and an article in the Alpha Beta Gamer (thanks!) allowed us to collect more than 3600 applications. Wow! We were so happy and surprised by your enthusiasm. Of these, we had to choose only 30 people for our first playtest. It was some tough choices.

    Step 2: schedules and moderators

    Then, Megan coordinated schedules with the availability of moderators and managed to find playtesters from all around the world. Almost half of the Season dev team moderate the playtests. As a team, it was something incredible to see someone in front of us playing a game that we have been working on for almost 5 years. We were very happy to meet you and finally be able to present our project to the world… well a few people.

    Step 3: playtests sessions

    It has been a busy week for the whole team. Our playtests sessions were booked for four hours at a time. Even if most of our playtests sessions did not take that long, some of them looked at every little detail. It’s funny, because when all the moderators got together at the end of the day, we spoke together and realized that some behaviours are very similar through the gamers and some are totally different! We thought it was fascinating to have the chance of seeing that in action. It helped us a lot to understand the player behaviours better than we ever did before with Season. We also have learned that the most subtle reactions are usually giving us the most important feedback; someone who is closing their eyes, a smile or some frowning eyebrows gives us a huge hint about the course of action.

    PS: Our longest playtest was five hours long! As you can imagine, bathroom breaks were needed.

    Step 4: result analysis – looking for general trends

    After the playstest sessions, we analyzed the results. For this time, our playtests were more focused on the mood and tone of the game. As we said, our goal was to provide new information to the developers so they could make informed decisions to improve the quality of the game. As we can see here, our development team even created a map where we could track people’s movements and actions through the game. Player moments are so precise that to understand what they are doing on a micro scale, we divide the map into smaller areas. To find general trends, the team analyzes playtest through: data tracking, recordings, moderators notes and playtest questionnaire. Analyzing all the results took three members of the team a whole week!

    Step 5: learn from the results to build next steps

    After the results were presented to the whole team, we couldn’t wait to improve the game to make it even better for you and obviously closer to your expectation. The one thing that was reinforced for us, test after test, was the focus on the game’s affective impact on the player. After the tests, we saw that this “moment of a tear falling down your cheek”, the strong emotional response we are looking for, was missing at the moment. Also, people felt a little bit lost, in a world that felt a little bit too empty. We are improving it as you are reading these lines. Overall, the results from this first playtest are very positive, not only because people have enjoyed it, but also because a lot of topics mentioned by the playtesters, to make the game better, were already planned as our next steps. 

    PS: If you have not been selected for these playtests or if you are interested in contributing, more playtest sessions are planned over the next few months. You can still register here.

    – Season Team

    A glimpse of sunshine

    Summer is slowly coming to us in Quebec, letting a glimmer of happiness and light shine through the entire Season team. The winter has been particularly difficult here, not only with the sanitary measures in place, but also because of everything we’ve been through as a team.

    Our vision for Season is stronger than ever; beautiful, soft and luminous, as reflected in these magnificent images taken by a member of our creative team, Mathieu Leroux. In our hearts, inspiration is always present. Sometimes it even seems like we have too many great ideas to show you.

    Recently, we had a few playtesters try the game out and it was so motivating to see them playing this game that we worked so hard on. We were happy to meet you and share with you a small part of our creation. We are currently taking your feedback to improve the gaming experience and make this moment enjoyable, as we promised you.

    The beautiful season is slowly coming to us.

    – Season Team