Ubisoft Da Nang officially opened its doors around one year ago, and since then has been steadily building its team and producing the Ubisoft Nano collection of Instant Party games such as Rabbids Wild Race, TrackMania Blitz, and Hungry Shark Arena. These are social multiplayer experiences based on big Ubisoft brands, and feature simple controls, colorful graphics, and strong replayability, all stuffed into a small amount of memory and playable on mobile devices, tablets, and desktop computers.
We spoke to Technical Artist Joel Deligne about his his work, how he landed his role at Ubisoft Da Nang, and the tool he developed to convert 3D animations from some of Ubisoft’s biggest brands into 2D animations that can be used in the team’s new titles.
What is your background, and what is your current role?
Joel Deligne: So, my background is totally not in video games. Originally, I had a photography degree and I was working in different jobs in different areas. Maybe seven years ago, I started to learn 3D modelling by myself, and then about three years ago I took a degree in programming. I wanted to know how to dig deeper into videogames and how they work, and use my background in 3D. I started looking for some relevant roles, and I found a position here in Vietnam for a 3D artist at Gameloft. I sent an application, but they saw I had a degree in programming and asked if I would like to join as a technical artist. I accepted that, and soon after, I met the managing director of Ubisoft Da Nang, Aurelien Palasse, who offered me a position here as a technical artist.
Can you describe what a technical artist does?
JD: Technical artists can cover a range of specializations, like animations, visual effects, or tools, for example. Mainly it involves acting as a bridge between art and technology, and as technical artists we need to keep both sides in mind – how to create assets with a consideration towards how to implement them, and finding optimized solutions for adding them to a project. My personal role is less about creating art or programming directly, but I do both of those things occasionally, as well as helping to create visual effects. Much of what I do is creating tools and scripts that help our artists implement their assets into our game engine. This lets me work with both the art and technical teams, so I’m always jumping around to synchronize with everyone.
What is the usual process to create 2D animations?
JD: We have three kinds of 2D animations that we work with here. The first are shaders, and that’s mainly coding and procedural animation techniques; we often use that for things like water animations, for example. The next is using a timeline editor inside the game engine to create animations by moving objects around the screen or scaling and rotating them. It’s quite basic and used mainly for user interface objects like menus or text. Finally, we also use software called Spine, which is a bones-based animation tool. It’s similar to how a lot of 3D animation tools work, but in this case it works in 2D. You create a kind of skeleton from a series of bones, which we call a “rig,” and attach the object you want to animate to it. Then you move the bones inside the rig, and this in turn moves the object or character attached to it. It’s 3D logic but in a 2D animation, and this is the process we were using before, and what people might think of when they think of animation.
How does the tool you have developed simplify the process? How does it work?
JD: When we make an animation in Spine from scratch, the animators just need to think in two dimensions – the x- and y-axes – whereas in 3D animation you have a third z-axis to think about. Here at Ubisoft Da Nang, we are currently making games in HTML5, and we release games in seasons; that is, we release up to three games that were developed simultaneously within a couple of months. This puts a lot of pressure on the game teams to find efficient solutions on areas that require a lot of manual work, like animation and 2D drawing. For our first season of games (2020), we were creating assets, rigging them, and manually creating animations by ourselves. For our second season, though, we developed the three new games – Assassin’s Creed Freerunners, Ubisoft All-Star Blast, and Rabbids Volcano Panic – much faster.
We were given access to 3D assets with models and animations that were already created, but as we work in 2D, we thought we couldn’t use the content. Then we realized making a tool that could create 2D animations from 3D assets could be really useful, and that’s how my tool Max2Spine was born. It’s developed in the Python programming language, and what it does is look through a virtual camera in a 3D space within 3DSMAX, the 3D modelling and animation software some of our teams use. The artists select the bones they want to “bake,” or record, and select the animation that they want to convert. It then automatically exports a file that is readable in our 2D software, and we end up with a set of 2D bones from the same perspective as the camera in the 3D space, but converted into 2D.
What are the challenges of “flattening” a 3D animation into a 2D one?
JD: The main challenge is making the two pieces of software communicate with each other. Spine and 3DSMAX are not related in any way, so we have to export something readable for the 2D software. Basically, this is done using math; using the perspective of the 3D camera, I can project the position of each bone in the rig onto a 2D plane, and then convert those points into a format that is readable by the 2D software. It’s like shining a light on a figurine and then drawing where each of the bones is on the shadow on the wall behind it, then moving the figure and repeating the process.
I can then recreate the 3D bones in 2D using the saved points and positions from each frame, recreating the rotation and translation of those bones during the animation. We use a lot of trigonometry to do all this, and it’s quite funny, because when I was in school, I didn’t like math and I didn’t understand trigonometry all that well; I thought it was pointless. But today, I have the proof that I was wrong, and I really like how it changed for me despite how I saw it at school.
Are tools like this a replacement for traditional animators and animating techniques?
JD: Not at all. We still need a human pass to polish up inconsistencies that come from the tool. It does save a tremendous amount of time, though, and the more animations you have in 3D that you want to convert to 2D, the more time you save. Roughly speaking, you can squeeze what would have taken 50 days of man-hours into only three days. Talking about just one animation with the rigging technique, we can now do in about one hour what could take an artist one or two days. Then you multiply this out to, say, 50 animations you want to convert, and the time savings become even greater.
But we still need animators to clean things up and polish, because we lose the z-axis and the depth in this process, and we still need people to go in and make tweaks or changes to give it the final quality we want. We always need animators, but they spend less time working on each animation.
Why has the team chosen to focus on HTML5 content for the titles you’re working on?
JD: HTML5, or H5, is part of Ubisoft’s quest to reach one billion players, since it allows our games to run everywhere. People often think of H5 as something that runs on web browsers, but this isn’t the only platform. It can be used for phone applications, social networks, subscription services, and even on airplane screens. The challenge is to design games that are accessible to everyone on any size of screen, which H5 allows us to do more easily. With the rise of different subscription services and platforms, it’s a really promising segment for reaching large numbers of people.
It comes with its own challenges, such as the size we have to work with. It’s a balance between keeping the quality of a Ubisoft game in a package no larger than eight megabytes, which is the biggest challenge, in my opinion. You don’t need to download these games, because they stream directly from a website or server, but just like when you stream a video, there is still a bit of data that needs to be downloaded to play or watch. The 10-megabyte limit we have is there to make sure we can offer people those fast download speeds, so they can get straight to playing.
Multi-platform support is another challenge, with games having to be playable not just on a desktop PC, but also a mobile device with just one thumb. H5 really allows us to design and create games that fit into these limits, and are still fun, high-quality experiences. We have already reached five million players, mostly on web, but we aim to support many other platforms, too.
Can you tell us a bit more about the Assassin’s Creed project you’re developing?
JD: Yes, we are very lucky to be working with different brand teams within Ubisoft, and have already created titles like Hungry Shark Arena, Rabbids Wild Race, and Trackmania Blitz. Assassin’s Creed Freerunners is coming as part of our second season of Instant Party games available on nano.ubisoft.com, and it’s a multiplayer arcade runner based in the Assassin’s Creed universe. Players from all over the world will be able to join an eight-player obstacle race with their favorite Assassins and compete on global leaderboards. The game is filled with references to the universe fans know and love, and there will be more content to unlock once it goes live. It’s a lot of fun to work on a game like this; everyone can play, but it also offers a challenge to most competitive players.
Are there any other projects you’re working on that you can tell us about?
JD: We are also working on Ubisoft All-Star Blast and Rabbids Volcano Panic for our second season. Ubisoft Nano games are a growing collection, and we aim to release 10 new titles per year. I can’t reveal anything about the third season yet, but it will feature some more major Ubisoft brands, too. Ubisoft All-Star Blast is a top-down strategy multiplayer game where up to 100 players will be able to simultaneously compete in both classic and exclusive arcade minigames, while Rabbids Volcano Panic is a multiplayer survival game in which players can use tactics and agility to survive as long as possible on crumbling floors. We’ll have more details about those coming up in the future.
How long have you been living in Da Nang, and what made you want to join the Da Nang team?
JD: I’ve lived in Da Nang for about a year and a half. When I started, we were just a small team, and we began in a co-working space before the offices were officially open. I had always really wanted to work for Ubisoft, and I’ve been a fan for years, so I didn’t think twice when I got the offer. Vietnam is a friendly place, with great culture and great food, and it’s just a really lovely country to live in. Da Nang is very relaxed, with the beach and the mountain just a few minutes from our studio, and we have a great view of the river and the Dragon Bridge nearby, which is a famous local landmark. There is a big, beautiful statue on the Sơn Trà peninsula called the Quan Thế Âm Bồ Tát, also known as Lady Buddha, and it’s stunning to see Da Nang, the beach, and the sea from this really peaceful location.
As someone who started in a career outside of games and re-trained to do what you do now, what would you say to others who might want to join the industry but don’t have the experience?
JD: I can say that, for artists, experience is less important than determination; what you really want to show is a solid portfolio. I doubt that many people have experience in some of the tools we are using, for example, but if someone has good soft skills, a good portfolio, and a passion for the work, then that’s really the master key for getting into the industry. Many people start without experience, and some positions need more experienced people, but you can get your foot in the door without needing experience, and it’s completely worth it.
To get more information about Ubisoft Nano and try out the three new Season 2 games, head over to nano.ubisoft.com and set your high score on the global leaderboards of Rabbids Wild Race, TrackMania Blitz, Hungry Shark Arena, Assassin’s Creed Freerunners, Rabbids Volcano Panic, and Ubisoft All-Star Blast. For more updates on Ubisoft teams, tools, and people, check out Inside Ubisoft, and stay tuned to the Ubisoft News Hub.