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Making Of The Cover: Gears of War 3

by Matt Miller on May 26, 2010 at 11:59 AM

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For many people, the first glimpse they had of Gears of War 3 was the beautiful cover image Epic supplied for our July issue. We loved the art so much that we chatted with Chris Perna, the art director at Epic Games, about the creation of the image, and learn a little more about the concepts behind this exciting image.

When creating a magazine cover or other piece of major game art, where and when does the process start? How much guidance are you given in terms of what the image should eventually be?

Most of the time I'll have a quick chat with Cliff (Bleszinski) and Rod (Fergusson), and we'll discuss important themes the cover might need to display so that the art can communicate to the readers at-a-glance any cool features or story elements from the game.

After I get a general idea of what we'd like to show, I'll start roughing something in using Unreal Engine 3. I've done most of the covers for magazines and comics that feature our franchises, and every one of them is created using Unreal Engine 3.

I'll usually start by building the background or "set" which is a small level or area. For example, for this cover I started with the backdrop. We knew we wanted to use a Lambent-themed location to introduce the threat of a third race. I started with rubble and destroyed buildings, then added Lambent Stalks that are basically the new Emergence Holes or delivery systems for the infected Lambent creatures. I made them look like they had burst through, damaged the architecture and just leveled the area that was once ripe with beautiful architecture.

After the backdrop is complete I start to rough in characters and placement. I do this all in Unreal Ed (the editor in Unreal Engine 3), and the characters are the same ones you'll be playing in the game. Once I get a composition I like, I'll run it by some of the artists for their trusted opinions and suggestions.

An alternate version

What guidance were you given on this piece in particular?

We discussed how one of the main themes of this game would be the new Lambent threat. The planet is becoming infected and has given birth to a new race of creatures. They have no alliance and mindlessly lay waste to anything in their path.

To show off this third race threat theme, I placed dead Locust at the feet of the Lambent creatures so that the viewer would hopefully "get" these aren't new Locust enemies; they are a real threat and are something much different.

Other things we wanted to get across at a glance are the new character armor and weapons. It's summer time on Sera and the idea is that the armor designs from Gears 1 and 2 were bulky and hot. The COG have disbanded in this third game and they've removed the outer shell, if you will, of armor plating so they'd be cooler and more mobile as the planet heats up for summer. If you look close at the lights on Marcus' shoulders they've changed from the 3 light strip. This is supposed to represent the inner workings of that light. What's under the outer armor after it is removed. There's also more leather padding and a grungy tattered tee shirt.

New weapons can also be seen. The Lancer, front and center, is always the iconic one, but now it looks beat up, tattered, and torn – reflecting the condition of the team. Dom is holding the new double-barrel sawed off shotgun. Cole has the One Shot, a massive cannon that can gib a Boomer. Baird is using a Pendulum-era Lancer which was the precursor to the standard issue Lancer of the modern COG.

There are also other subtle themes if you look closer. "We're all stranded now" comes across in the characters, Dom now has a beard, he's let himself go a bit after Gears 2. The unified COG have disbanded and Anya has taken up combat and is wearing battle gear.

A wireframe version

Do you complete the entire art piece from beginning to end, or are there other artists who participate in the creation along the way?

There are many artists involved in the creation of the piece. The guys who create the environment assets, the character modelers, the guys who texture the characters, animators, etc. Without them we couldn't do something like this – it would be much different. The covers we do here at Epic are essentially screenshots. Every one of them uses assets from the game so they really represent the titles well.

Getting back to the artists, after all my rough posing is done and I have a composition I like, I'll chat with one of my senior character artists, Chris Wells. Chris is excellent at capturing the poses I want very quickly. We'll iterate a few times to get them right, but for the main character shots I like to use him to get custom facial and body poses.

How much time goes into creating a detailed cover image like this one?

This image took about four days. That's with lots of other stuff going on. I could probably do one in six to eight hours if I had the idea nailed and didn't have any distractions.

What process do you use to create a piece of art like the one on our June issue of Game Informer?

It's just setting up the scene in Unreal Ed, taking the screen shot, and tweaking a few things here and there in Photoshop to get it just right as a cover image that will appear in print.

Are there multiple and clearly defined steps in the creation process, or does it all blur together into one big project?

It's pretty straight forward. Lighting is a big part in this as well. Without proper lighting you wouldn't have such a dynamic shot. Because Unreal Engine is a real-time renderer, all the lighting can be tweaked on the fly. So, as I'm placing lights and moving them around, all the lighting and shadowing is updating in real-time. This is amazing and saves a tremendous amount of time.

What feeling and emotions did you hope to convey in the image?

There were certain themes we definitely wanted to get across about the new content in the game, but there's also some subtle things we tried to bring through about loss and hardship, fear, and excitement. We see a weary band of brothers (and sister) about to engage a new threat.

I've read some comments online about how the guys on the cover aren't looking at the threat to their right. The reason for that is the image also needed to work as a magazine cover.

The cover, as you see it on the shelf, is folded. You don't get to see the threat on the back. I wanted Marcus to be engaging the reader, looking at them thinking "ah s---, here we go again..." Then you open up the spread and there's the threat that he's groaning about. To me, this is the moment before all hell breaks loose and they all turn their attention to the Lambent. It needed to work as a cover first and then a beautiful image second.

Dom, especially somber

Of the characters in this piece, which is your favorite to visualize and draw for an image?

I like Marcus, I think he's a great character. I'm also a huge monster fan, so the Lambent on the back are pretty cool too.

From a wider perspective, what stands out about the Gears of War 3 art style? What sets it apart from earlier games in the franchise?

I think you'll see a lot of new stuff going on with the visuals in the game. For one, we've added a new global illumination renderer which has enhanced the visuals. We've also unified the lighting system with dominant directional lighting so that the characters really feel grounded in the world. Shadows from trees and geometry will properly cast on characters as they move through the environments, something Gears 1 and 2 didn't have. Our light map resolution has been improved greatly and the world has more depth. Plus lots more graphical improvements. Color is another area we've been working with. This game will have a bit more while still keeping it in the "Gears" realm.

For additional alternate versions of the cover, as well as more in-process shots of its creation, be sure to check out the media gallery below. For more on Gears of War 3, explore our game hub.