Meet Gwen Frey, former AAA game developer turned founder and artist at The Molasses Flood game studio. Currently working on personal passion project, "Kine," Gwen's found herself a first-time character modeler. Here, she discusses her thoughts on the process and walks us through her technique.
HI. MY NAME IS GWEN
I'm a technical animator. I've been working in the games industry for about a decade now. When I first started out, I was working on an MMO (massively multi-player online) out in California. I was working first for John Romero on an unannounced MMO, and then for Dave Brevik on Marvel Heroes Online. I mostly worked entirely in Maya. I focused on rigging and pipeline tools– that's still my bread and butter.
It was then that I left California and moved to Boston to work for Irrational on a game called, BioShock Infinite. I was one of the senior technical animators.
"Kine is an indie 3D puzzle game that I’m solo developing...Working on this has been my outlet, my joy."
I focused a lot more on in-engine stuff, background characters, physics, and working with Nvidia on Apex cloth. For a while, there was an APEX tool in Maya that you would export and then bring it into Unreal and I was working on that to get cloth going for the characters, and in general just looking in different ways to push tech art and tech animation in the games field. I did that for some years until they shut down.
After that, I got together with several other people, and we founded a company called, The Molasses Flood. We Kickstarted a game, called The Flame in the Flood. We said we would need about two years to make a rogue-like game and we did. We took exactly two years. I did all the effects, the animation, and various tech art tasks there, as well. I'm happy to say that we launched, and the game is pretty successful. It's out on PC, Xbox, PS4, it's on the Switch now – basically everywhere. I’m proud of that.
THIS BRINGS US TO "KINE"
After The Flame in the Flood came out, I started working on different little projects at home. Kine, in particular, is one I fell in love with.
Kine is an indie 3D puzzle game that I’m solo developing. I announced it with a trailer at GDC this year, which was thrilling. Kine is my baby. It's going be a pretty short game, probably six to eight hours.
It took a long time to figure out exactly what it was I was going make. I loved puzzle games, but I had never worked on one. I adore the genre but thought I would never be able to work in because I am an animator, I specialize in making things look really, really good at AAA studios, and no AAA studio is going to invest a lot of money into building a truly gorgeous puzzle game. I knew I would never work on one unless I just did it myself.
And so, I started. And the more I worked on it, the more I fell in love with it. It's a cocktail of all the things I like; there’s jazz music, and it’s heavily inspired by La La Land, which came out at the time I was working on it and I just adored. I wanted this game to be light and happy, mainly because there’s so much negativity in social media and the world today, and it was a stressful time in my life, too. Working on this has been my outlet, my joy.
"I just glommed onto Maya immediately."
ME AND MAYA
I'm trying to think of a time before Maya, and it's actually difficult. I learned it in school before we had Python and back when the only way to script it was MEL and C++. I guess it’s been about 12 years.
I just clicked into Maya. I liked how extensible it was. The Python wrapper for Maya became a thing about halfway through college, and I was a huge fan of writing little scripts in Python and stuff. The second I knew there was Python in Maya, and I realized how powerful that was for writing tools and things. I also loved the rigging toolkit; it’s really powerful. I just glommed onto Maya immediately.
Kine © 2018. Image courtesy of Gwen Frey
"I’ve never had to be the character artist, so this was something new to me."
ABOUT MY CHARACTER DESIGN
A lot of my experience has been fixing up geometry, so I’m incredibly familiar with how to add edge loops and how to fix UVs in Maya. The part that was different was the actual designing of a character. I’ve never had to be the character artist, so this was something new to me.
I had a lot of ideas for vibes and feel, and I have a lot of constraints on precisely what the character needs to be able to do. For instance, because these characters tumble, they roll from one grid tile to another. I needed to have some bit of mesh that was on the edge that they would be pivoting over. I couldn't have, for example, a sphere. That would look weird for a sphere to tumble.
What I found particularly cool about developing these characters was that the development happened entirely in Maya. There was absolutely no trying to sketch it out in 2D. That would be pointless because the design constraints are so crucial for the character design, and the game is a 3D game where you definitely need to understand where your character is in 3D space. The character moves through 3D space in an unusual way. I didn't go through the usual process of sitting down, drawing out the character, bringing it in, trying to model it. If you were going to make Spiderman, you would sketch out Spiderman, you would bring it into Maya, you'd put up the planes, and you would build out to the model sheet and such. But there was nothing like that going on here. This was exploring shapes directly in the 3D software. It was pretty unusual, and it was a really fun challenge, especially for this game where everything was so loosely defined early on.
Gwen Frey has been working in the games industry as a tech artist and animator for over a decade. She is a co-founder of the indie studio The Molasses Flood where she was the sole animator and technical artist on their debut game "The Flame in The Flood." Previously, Gwen was a senior technical animator on "BioShock Infinite, the BioShock Infinite DLCs," and on "Marvel Heroes Online." She is passionate about both making games and sharing the development process with others. She regularly live streams game development on Twitch (@direGoldfish), co-hosts a podcast "The Dialog Box", and showcases tips & tricks videos on YouTube at GwenFreyTheTA.