Aidy Burrows
Aidy Burrows

Interview: Aidy Burrows on Blender in AAA Games

Before joining the team at CG Masters, Aidy Burrows worked on several games of the Legos series at TT games, which is part of Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment. in this interview, he talks about using Blender at his former workplace.

BD: Aidy, just introduce yourself!

AB: I'm Aidy Burrows and work as a tutor for CG Before that I was an environment artist at TT Fusion, which is part of TT Games, which is also part of Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment and they are known for the Lego series of games. Lego Marvel, the Lego Movie games, both handheld and the next-gen stuff.

BD: You are no longer working for them but you worked on quite a lot of titles. Do you have a list of well-known titles where you used Blender?

AB: There is Lego City Undercover that was on the Wii U but there was a separate handheld game on the Nintendo 3DS where I also used Blender on. There is Lego Marvel where I used a lot of Blender on and there is actually quite a list of games I cannot really talk about where I used Blender on. But there are also quite a few artists at TT now who are using Blender at some point in their pipeline.

BD: Did you teach them?

AB: Yeah! Basically you would have artists come over asking „How are you doing that?“. Or they would just talk about the workflow and say things like „I cannot really do it by two o'clock today because of this and that workflow issue“ and I'd be like „Well, if you can give it to me, I'd put it into Blender and get it straight back to you and it'll be done“. Like for example layered painting in Blender is so much more nice and often faster to work with than in Maya or Zbrush and what artists would usually be using.
You have several texture images on the model for different channels and you can still have access to those layers like in Photoshop or Gimp and you can paint individually on those layers. Like you can paint highlights which you later can erase.  
Recently the user interface has been streamlined so the process is both faster and simpler now. Say you would start with a base color or a stone texture and then you would add another layer on top, like for example moss, where you paint moss just in the areas where you want it. If you don't like the moss anymore later on you can just turn it off or fade it out if it is too strong. Then you can add another layer for little highlights just with white or some bright textures and once again you can fade it and add all those small details on top like another layer for shadows.
You cannot do that as effectively in Zbrush. Some of the ways I wish to work are easier to do in Blender to be honest.

BD: You also used Blender for modeling?

AB: Yeah, one of the workflows I did not discuss in detail at the conference is the workflow with the subdivision modifier. That is the main difference between Blender and Maya and the reason why I was using it so much – because it is non-destructive. You can subdivide a mesh quite a lot, make all the changes you need to it, then crease the edges in a particular way and export it back out and then sculpt on it from that point. Sometimes you get some nicer effects from Blender. Every application seems to deal with subdivision and edges slightly differently and sometimes you get a nicer effect from one or another. It just turned out that out of the effects we were trying at that time, I'm talking about a project that is not announced yet, but on that particular style we were looking for, Blender was the way to go. So in terms of modifiers, that is where Blender got a real strength and is very handy for modelers.

BD: You were allowed to use Blender at the studio?

AB: One good thing is that you don't need to install Blender, you can simply launch it from a stick and have it somewhere in a shared directory so we did not need to ask any admins if we wanted to use it. TT were quite laid back about that. As an artist you were given a lot of freedom in regards of the tools you wanted to use. If you had a tool you were willing to pay for, you were allowed to bring it in. Fortunately Blender is very affordable.

BD: So they did not have a BYOD policy but BYOT – bring your own tool.

AB: Yeah exactly. It was ok, they were totally fine with whatever you wanted to use. In fact we used Gimp for a few days when there were issues with the photoshop licensing. So for a week or so I was using Gimp. I was lucky I had all those other tools. Sometimes it's just handy if you know this stuff.
Handy for designers as well. Usually the designer would create a sketch, then a 3D artist would block it out, send it back to the designer, some changes are made based on feedback and things go back and forth. But the designer could do the blocking himself right inside a 3D application, and that is where I have an urge to recommend Blender. And they are about to make that switch – if they find enough people who know something about it. Because that is more or less the only option available if you don't want to throw money away and don't want uncertain license issues with your application in the future. The more and more you see of Blender the more you realize it has a good vision. I guess sometimes people might feel like “Oh, I don't really understand it, how are they making any money, there must be some kind of corruption to it”.  Well, it's not, it's really a very trusted and powerful tool and it's mindblowing when you first find it because how can this be free? That's something that might be the sticking point for some people – we cannot use it because it does not make any sense – why is this so good and it is free?
I would encourage any studio to bring it into the pipeline because it is not that hard to learn. If you are an artist and have learned an application and you try to get into another one it really does not take that long. That's what I have found from the modeling point of view. I learned on Max and then went to work for a studio that used Maya and then I learned Blender for personal projects. It did not really take any time at all, really.

BD: At the moment FBX seems to be the biggest stumbling block for studios to adopt Blender in their workflow.

AB: I asked some managers I know in the gaming industry – in particular games – and in most cases OBJ and FBX are used as interchange format. FBX is the sticking point at the moment. I have not used it very much in Blender yet. For example, I have not tried to send across animation files in FBX. From what I have heard it is basically working but the developers said it is quite hard to do. It is an ongoing effort.

BD: Funny thing – there was this one studio which had trouble with FBX and I told them that they should hire a developer to fix it. They were not interested. Which is strange – one Max or Maya license translates to one man-month of development time, 12 licenses translate into a whole year. Buying 12 stock copies of a piece of software appears to be more attractive than getting dedicated custom solutions.

AB: Yeah, that is strange – I think there just has to be a mindset change. Blender has in some ways just become very very serious. The 2.6 series onwards where you had all the full-on modeling tools like n-gons and now things like being able to manipulate normals, which is still a work-in-progress. For the most parts it also depends on the type of game you develop. If you create some very illustrative stuff, you probably will not run into any problems but if you are developing something geared towards photorealism that is also animation-heavy like the current high-end games, then you are probably going to run into some difficulties. But they are not insurmountable. When you have a young studio that has been growing up with Blender and which is able to do that kind of stuff, they are probably more in the mindset to hire a couple of guys instead of buying 50 grand of software licenses.
As any new idea comes up it takes a few mavericks to come in. Like you go to a gamedev meeting and say that you did not have to spend any money on software licenses to create a game. Then someone else wants your advice because they are still paying back investors due to license fees. There are venture capitalist firms which were hooked into the open source scene as it is. They have an entire open source workflow that they suggest. Blender should be incorporated into that workflow for creative media projects like games or animation. The Blender Institute proves that this can be done, but they have developers on site.

This interview was first released in German for the magazine Digital Production. BlenderDiplom is now presenting the interview in its original, non-translated form.

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