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How Autodesk’s 3ds Max helped create a zombie army and major growth

 

Flix Interactive is a game development studio with specialist expertise and is commonly associated with co-developing with other major studios across all platforms.

 

Most recently they have been kept very busy on titles like Sea Of Thieves, Zombie Army 4, Hell Let Loose and Worms Rumble. In addition to co-developing projects, Flix also produces its own IP -  including Eden Star. Since starting out in a small house in 2012, Flix has gone from strength to strength and fully expects to reach the 100-people mark soon.

Flix recently committed to a 3 year subscription licenses of 3ds Max and Maya; this will ensure that the studio has all the cutting-edge tools they need at their fingertips as they continue to expand and take on more projects. We sat down with Tom Whaley, Lead Designer and Art Lead Joe Hill to hear what life is like at Flix, how they got into the industry, and how much they love using Autodesk software.

 

Driven by passion

As Lead Designer, Tom describes his job as being all about feel and player experience, more concerned with things like how the AI feels to fight against, whether the right stories are being told in cutscenes and understanding player psychology, rather than detailing every aspect of the system, or sweating over a single player interaction. There’s another Lead Designer on the team who focuses more on the technical and systems side of the development.

As Art Lead, Joe is focused on creative and art direction, but has found himself moving into a more design-centric role, addressing how games feel to play. This is something both agree is very hard to nail down and to teach, and instead comes from years of experience as a gamer initially, then often a modder and finally a developer.

“Like a lot of people in the industry, I started out making mods,” says Joe. “Making new levels and things like that has always been really interesting to me, particularly when people actually engage with the thing that you’re making. I think making something that looks great is one thing, and you can be taught that at university, but without all of that experience of going away and trying to make playable game content, making something that feels great can be a different kettle of fish.”

Tom agrees: “With modders, it’s not about getting paid, it’s purely about passion. You’re setting out to learn these tools, with no help apart from a forum here and there, and it’s just your sheer willpower that sees you through. You’re also getting really brutal feedback on your stuff too. I remember the first few things I posted just got ripped apart. And that shows the need modders have to just go and make it, even though you’ve got everything against you. In my experience when it comes to designers and artists, the strongest candidates are those who’ve gone out, and even before university just played with the tools and experimented because they’ve got that innate need to do it.”

 

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Growing during a pandemic

Many of those strong candidates now work with Tom and Joe at Flix, which has tripled in size over the last few years.

“A lot of that growth has happened during the pandemic,” says Joe, “and we haven’t met a lot of these people face to face. But there’s been a massive benefit to the situation too, we’ve been able to talk to talent across a much wider geographical area now. Perhaps before they wouldn’t be able to travel here, or were priced out of the area. But now we work with people across the other side of the world, and it’s easy because we built up that kind of infrastructure during the pandemic.”

“Physically we couldn’t all fit into the studio now, even if we wanted to,” he continues. “We’ve got a very good IT support network that helped us through that remote-working process, that initial teething stage.”

Tom takes up the story: “It’s been an interesting one. I’m the only one left in the office due to COVID. It’s actually nice for me [to keep coming to the office] because I have trouble separating work and my home life. If I had everything set up at home with a VPN etc, I’d just be squirrelled away working endlessly. This way I get some separation. Having the dog here helps too. By 5 o’clock he’s looking at me saying ‘come on!’”

Pre-pandemic, with everyone sitting and working closely together in the studio, the Flix culture was naturally collaborative, with lively conversations, suggestions and group problem-solving an important part of everyday life. Joe believes that this way of working comes from Flix’s early days, when it was just a handful of people taking on everything the studio produced. With this enforced separation of the team, as Leads, Tom and Joe have taken steps to continue this close-knit, collaborative working, seeing it as an essential part of the Flix experience.

Tom: “I’ve visited many studios where people are sitting in silence, and we didn’t want that for Flix. So even now, with the teams Joe and I have under us, we’re actively encouraging people to sit in Zoom or Teams calls – so they’re essentially together all day – to prompt those ongoing conversations where someone might mention an issue they’re having with their level, and someone else will hear that – even if it’s not said directly to them – and knows the answer instantly and can help out.”

“Part of that came out of COVID, and the re-evaluation of our communication pipelines, but even before then, we were a really talkative office environment. Very much a working with friends kind of thing.”

 

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Behind the curtain

Tom’s first realisation that real people actually made the games he loved came in around 2006, when the first Gears Of War came out on PC. It came with a mod tool and he also saw an interview with one of the designers online. “Before that, my 10-year-old mind just thought that all these games and films just magically appeared in this mythical shop that I used to get my parents to take me to.”

Joe’s take is slightly different: “I assumed somebody made it, but just by pressing a few buttons and maybe with very limited programming. But I never really understood it was someone’s job to make that stuff. My Mum and Dad used to buy me notepads and pencils, and I just used to fill them with level designs. I didn’t know that was level design, I was just thinking ‘I’m making a computer game’, and then I discovered things like Game Maker for the PC, and then modding tools for Counter Strike and Half Life, and I realised this was a job that people do, and it’s fun.”

“For all its faults,” agrees Tom, “that’s why I’m glad Twitter exists, so you can see the person who led the design on a game you like. It makes game design so much more accessible for young people today. I remember finding the email of a designer on the Epic Games forum, and sending him a message. I didn’t even know if it was really him. Now it’s just so much easier to slide into someone’s DM and let someone know you’re a big fan of their work.”

After modest modding beginnings, both found themselves at Staffordshire University, at different times and on different courses. Tom took what he describes as a fairly generic game design course, but one which taught him Autodesk Maya & 3ds Max, and a lot of animation. He knew he wanted to make games, but didn’t know which avenue he should go down. Looking back he thinks this generalisation helps him at Flix. It means he has the knowledge to be able to suggest solutions to animators if there’s a problem, whilst at the same time being aware of the limits of what’s possible in his own designs. He cites gun reload animations and swapping things between hands as examples.

Joe did a Concept Art course at Staffordshire, which acted as a stepping stone and foundation for his craft. When he then discovered a passion for 3D game art and environmental design he knew that hands-on game dev was something he wanted to pursue. Now with hindsight, he knows that those 2D foundations

helped him tremendously, with composition, colour and lighting - all essential elements of game art, and all concepts he first grasped during his studies. “I wouldn’t say I’m a specialist at any one thing,” he says, “but I have a strong overview of how everything fits into the art pipeline.”

As a whole, the creative team at Flix is made up of around 70% primarily Maya users (mainly the artists) and 30% 3ds Max users (mainly the level artists), although most people tend to use both depending on the needs of the task. Many of the studios they work with have plug-ins for both 3ds Max and Maya, and it helps that Unreal supports plug-ins straight out of the box, so the artists and designers are most often free to use whichever tool they prefer.

“Because we all have backgrounds in 3D modelling, we know the principles and can just apply them to whichever one we’re using,” says Joe. “A lot of times it comes down to which interface you prefer and the way you think. I find 3ds Max very logical, and there’s a very specific order to the way it operates. Maya I find to be a bit more freeform and better for animation.”

“For Zombie Army 4 I used 3ds Max very heavily,” explains Tom. “There are these things called ‘containers’ in the game – they’re essentially animated objects which might for example have a lever that switches positions when you interact with it. Using 3dsMax I could give it a proper ease in and ease out animation, without having to use an animator’s time. It meant it lifted it from being just a placeholder design to something that can be in the game. As a designer it freed me up to work quickly and efficiently.”

“I also use 3ds Max a lot for assembling variants. So in Zombie Army 4, I could create armoured variants, or swap out the grenades on a grenade zombie for electric variants. It’s very useful for taking those modular bits and swapping them out, or putting a skins wrap on them. The skin wrap modifier is a huge time saver. I can just take a character and give it a new helmet easily. You can be almost there in just a couple of button clicks.”

“If we’d gone through the full character creation pipeline, with a new rig etc, we probably would have shifted to Maya and given the animators control because they are more familiar with that set.”

Joe takes up the story: “For me, working on Zombie Army 4 was a bit of a dream project. We were working on a game that was nearly out, with a full campaign, code complete, and it had a huge library of amazing assets that we could use, and we [were given the freedom] to make our own thing, which is a very rare opportunity.”

“It took me back to the modding scene. We were working with limited scope, but within this big library that other people had created, and that forces you to get very creative.

“I quite like constraints,” Tom agrees. “I feel they help you create the most interesting solutions. So we could take Zombie Army 4, play through it and then say ‘how do we make something even cooler?’ And quite often we found that the feedback from Rebellion was ‘Yes, this is a cool idea… but can we go even wilder and weirder with it? We had a lot of freedom to go completely nuts.”

Flix worked on Zombie Army 4 for around two years, bringing new seasons of content to the franchise. That included overarching storylines, missions, cutscenes, level design, animations and even loading screen posters. The only part of the game they weren’t involved in were the cosmetics, like weapon skins. It was this freedom and encouragement from Rebellion which saw a dambusters mission and a zombie zeppelin feature heavily in the game.

 

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Max impact

With 3ds Max being the go-to tool for Tom and Joe, what are the things they find themselves coming back to time and time again? Both agree that 3ds Max is very accessible. “It’s easy to write scripts, custom plug-ins and tools,” says Tom. “If you have a very specific problem, it’s easy to Google. And most times, somebody has already written a script to do that. Or at least something you can start from. ScriptSpot has been great for that.”

“On the 3D art side of things, face weighted normals is something I’d flag up. I think on the latest versions of 3ds Max they’ve been built in by default, but earlier on people had written fun scripts which helped you get those next-gen, really polished-looking chamfers.”

“We use third-party plugins like Quad Remesher all the time” adds Joe. “A lot of our team jumped onto that. For me, the modifier stack is the thing. I love being able to add stuff, take stuff away, edit it, disable it and reorder things, and I haven’t really found any other 3D software that does a non-destructive workflow that well. Often you find that you download someone’s plug-in, and it’s just a modifier stack with really interesting properties. There’s no weird programming in the back end, it’s just that they’ve ordered it for you in a new way. And that’s very powerful.”

“The scary thing about 3ds Max and Maya,” says Tom, “is that you have all the areas that you’re used to, and then you’ll see someone open a window that you never knew existed and it’ll have a hundred other buttons and you don’t know what a single one of those new buttons does. There’s so much in there.”

 

Support from Escape Technology

During this intense period of growth for Flix Interactive, Escape Technology has been providing vital support, ensuring that the studio has access to all the tools it needs to continue working effectively with all the different studios it partners with. “We might need a specific version of Maya or 3ds Max,” Joe explains, “say 3ds Max 2018 service pack 2, because we’re working with a studio team that’s using a bespoke engine we’ve never seen before. Just being able to have that flexibility has been really helpful.”

With more growth on the horizon for Flix, what does the future hold for Tom and Joe? They both immediately mention Eden Star, the studio’s own IP. This is a passion project which had an early access Steam release in 2015 and is something that they’ve never stopped working on since then behind the scenes. They describe it as the sort of game they all wanted to play, but that just didn’t exist. Tom’s dream is to walk down the street and pass someone wearing an Eden Star t-shirt. Joe looks forward to when they begin releasing updates to the game again and he can interact and get feedback from the public on what he’s doing. “I just love having that dialogue,” he says.

And as for that studio dog, he would just like a walk.

 

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