My name is ALEX and I'm a Senior Character Artist on Back 4 Blood. We haven't posted any dev diaries in a while and I thought since we had two new Cleaners join the team in our first expansion, Tunnels of Terror, that'd I'd write a little something up!
I was responsible for creating the new Cleaner, Sharice, and all of the currently available skins for her in the Supply Lines.
LET'S MAKE A CLEANER!
The team knew we really wanted to add a Black woman to the cast, and there was a bit of exploration in the beginning for what her backstory could be. Originally we played around with her being law enforcement, but we eventually chose a firefighter archetype instead because it fit with the idea of her being a protector more and I absolutely love where we landed.
CHARACTER BACKGROUND INFORMS DESIGN
I can briefly touch on character development and Sharice’s background, but Narrative is usually the driving force behind this and the Character team only really chimes in once in a while.
Fleshing out a character’s story before the Collapse is usually where development starts from having a basic outline. I find this very important to have when I start modeling a character because it will inform you on any personality traits, attitude, and help us artists nail down a character’s look.
Sharice moved to Evansburgh when she was fairly young after a fire started in their building and her family lost everything, including her father. He taught her the importance of community and the value of helping neighbors, words he lived and died by having tragically died trying to save others. And so to honor his legacy, Sharice graduated from the local fire academy with top marks, and joined Evansburgh’s most prestigious force, Engine 12. Entering a male dominated service as a woman, especially a woman of color, was difficult at first. Hard work and grit earned her the respect of her colleagues and eventually she was promoted to Lieutenant. After The Collapse, she and her crew fought the Ridden until only she was left alive. Now, she’s joined a new crew, The Cleaners, and pledges to fight the Ridden til every last one of them is snuffed out.
With this I basically determined that she’s a natural born leader, which would require her to be stern and demanding with a strong mental toughness. She’s gonna call you on your shit, but she won’t give up on you. Personality traits are something I like to try to express in the shape of a model, and especially a character’s face.
We wanted her to also be in her early thirties and physically fit from her profession, but not a lean fit, more stocky. And for her main outfit to be a mix of firefighter gear mixed with civilian clothing.
Cool story bro, now what?
Usually there is a lot of exploration involved in creating Cleaners that can take weeks, but our Character Concept Artist at the time nailed the design brief immediately and everyone at the studio was onboard.
So I was given that concept, and also what we call a “callout sheet” which usually includes reference images for gear and things on the concept that may not be as clear in the drawing. I also personally did a lot of research on firefighter gear to make sure the design choice was based in reality and respectful of the people in that profession.
We did have a bit of a curveball in Sharice's development though when our Concept Artist left, but it happens sometimes and luckily like I said above they nailed the brief before leaving. Usually there would be more pieces with a close up of the face with different angles or exploring using other gear or hairstyles, so these images are really all I have to share. I honestly didn’t have a problem with it in development though since it gave me more creative license with Sharice than I might not regularly have because people weren’t already married to a concept of the character.
So now that Sharice has an approved concept by the Art Director, where do you start actually making the thing?! The answer is ZBrush, which is the industry standard application for digital sculpting.
We have base meshes we use on Back 4 Blood that were created by J HILL, my Lead Character Artist, that we start with that are the general proportions for the male and female characters. This saves us time and then we also don’t have to worry about the character not fitting on a rig later on in the pipeline.
I will say that making a game character like Sharice on average is about two months of work from the time you begin sculpting to when you submit the final assets. That timeline is just for a normal human though since we have base meshes to start from and they don’t have extra limbs or have crazy designs like some of the zombies in B4B.
The high poly sculpting in Zbrush is usually about the entire first month of working on a Cleaner. And you end up with a character model that’s millions of polygons (a measurement we use to determine a model’s “cost”), but damn it looks good as shit in a render ;)
Something I spent a lot of time iterating on was her physique because it was really important to me to make sure she was jacked, but in a believable way that didn’t look cartoony.
I was also interested in adding some personal flair, and so I went to our Head Writer at the time and asked for some more tidbits about Sharice and I learned she’d grown close to Karlee. And so I put the same band logo that Karlee has on her shirt onto a pin on Sharice’s backpack. I enjoy the little things sometimes and I like to think maybe Karlee gave her the pin.
Once the high poly is done and approved I have to make the low poly model, which is the actual model that is used in the game. Video games use real-time rendering, and the model created in Zbrush is just too big to work in the game and let people still get decent performance while playing, and so we make a less expensive model for this. It’s this model that I then texture and create materials for in the game engine.
In B4B our Cleaners have different kinds of skins that you can unlock from playing the game; we have the full body Outfits, and then we have Item Sets which are divided into the regions for the head, torso, and legs so players can customize the look of their character. Usually Outfits are planned and concepted since they tend to be more involved, but Item Set pieces are open to more freedom and are the result of the Character team’s creativity the majority of the time.
I created and came up with all the Item Sets that Sharice launched with in the expansion. My only real goals were to do something sleeveless that showed off her smokin’ guns, and I wanted at least one option for more casual clothes that weren't firefighter gear.
Something else the team and I were very aware of was Sharice’s hair. Natural, realistic Black hair in video games is honestly not very common because it is generally more complex which makes it more time consuming to make and expensive (performance-wise in the game engine). But that’s really no excuse, and knowing that going into making Sharice, I wanted to make sure we got it right and pushed for her to only have natural hair at launch. My mom is a hair stylist so I have some hair knowledge, and I knew that I wanted Sharice to have a 3C curl to her hair and we worked with a vendor to make it happen. I’d be very interested in exploring some more styles in the future that’s for sure, and not all of them being natural Black hair.
I also wanted to take a moment since we’re talking about character skins to mention that the two new Cleaners, Heng and Sharice, are getting ZWAT skins. They are being made and you can follow progress on our community TRELLO board.
Side Note: We are tracking ZWAT progress on Heng and Sharice, so if you complete every Nightmare or No Hope map with them you will be retroactively awarded the skin once they are added to the game!
A more subtle detail that not many pick up on is that each Cleaner in our game also has their own unique knife they use. You can see this if you play the Combat Knife card in the game or are carrying an objective item like the boxes in certain levels. While this detail isn’t anything big, I just love that little touch of personalization.
And so for Sharice we decided to go with an EMT knife since we felt it would have been something she kept from her life pre-Collapse. Sean Keegan (who is one of the original L4D devs) is one of our Weapon Artists, and he created her personal knife as well as the fire axe model I used in all of my portfolio renders for the character. I snatched a couple renders he did to show you guys the awesomeness :)
And that’s it folks! I think I’ve geeked out enough about Sharice and making Cleaners for Back 4 Blood by this point and it’s time for me to get back to making cool shit for our upcoming expansions.
I'm pretty active in our studio Discord Server if you ever wanna have a chat or talk about characters. Or if you just want to tell me how good I am because I'm very humble...