Character Artist, Bernardo Cristovao, and Concept Artist, Thomas Karlsson, talk to us about the creation of "Solak” and "Merethiel” from the latest update to Jagex's eternal classic, "RuneScape”…
3dtotal: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you, what do you do, and where are you located?
Hi there! I'm Bernardo Cristovao and I'm a Character Artist at Jagex
in Cambridge. I'm originally from Portugal, where I grew up and lived until I moved to the UK in early 2017 to work for Jagex's flagship title: RuneScape
. Back in Portugal I used to work as a freelance character artist for animation, games and miniatures projects.
Greetings! My name is Thomas Karlsson and I'm a Concept Artist at Jagex. My career started in Sweden where I grew up where I got my first gig in the industry at EA back in 2013, followed by a year and a half in Holland working in mobile games before heading over to the UK to join the team working on RuneScape
. Alongside my regular work, I also do some freelance illustration when time permits!
This is Solak's final sculpt and design. After going back and forth with the content developer and adapting the design with base on the game mechanics and community feedback, this was the design were happiest with
3dt: "Solak,” your update to RuneScape, is now available; could you give us a brief rundown of what it's about and how it fits into the game?
The tormented ‘Guardian of The Lost Grove,' Solak, has returned to the RuneScape
world of Gielinor after many millennia. The first new group boss to launch in RuneScape
since January 2017, Solak is a high-level, end-game character that can be fought against in a couple of ways, allowing either a challenging or accessible experience: a two-player mode and a group mode for between one and seven players.
Adventurers looking to take on the Guardian should ensure they gather together a strong team with high-level combat gear. Should Solak be released from the evil elf spirit that controls him (Erethdor, Merethiel's brother), players will be rewarded with new, powerful crossbows and access to new pets.
This is the final in game model of Solak, after its retopology in Maya and texturing in 3dCoat
3dt: Where do you start with a project like Solak? How long have you been working on it?
Solak started as a side project here at Jagex - something we would work on occasionally whenever we had free time. The content developer responsible for the project, Kyle Robson, was already working on the mechanics for a new group boss, but didn't have any graphics associated with this. In early July 2017 he approached me and asked if I would be interested in working with him on a new boss. Because it wasn't something official at the time, and I knew I was going to give hand of some of my free time to work on it, I told him I would only do it if the character could be some sort of big chunky ent / golem (haha!) Kyle agreed with this, and we came up with a bunch of ideas and a nice narrative right after that.
I started working on Solak in late July. At the time I was only working on it occasionally, but we did a lot of work on the project and had the chance to showcase some of it at Runefest 2017. The project was then made public and it got green-light to be made into a full time RuneScape
project. In January 2018 is when we started full gas on the project, and more artists came on board to help with the project - that's where Thomas comes in!
Here's small diorama that we released before the update came out. We thought would be fun to assemble a scene in Sketchfab that resembled the kind of mood we have in the fight, so players could open it up and experience it before the update
I sure did! I was brought into the project at this stage to design the other main character for the event, Merethiel. I was given a design brief and introduction to the project by Kyle and Bernardo who were already knee-deep in the project and it was a really exciting challenge to dig into and develop a new and important character to the franchise. During the initial design meeting Merethiel was pitched as this ancient elven ranger who needed help in defeating an evil force that was rising in the forest realm.
As I started the initial design sketch phase however, it became clear that to tell the story of such an ancient being it might not be in our best interest to turn her into this archer-type, but instead take a step back and go with a more druidic approach, a sage with otherworldly knowledge and immense power. A force of nature, if you will! A funny story about that actually, is that during that first design meeting, I was scribbling ideas in my sketchbook, and one of those designs were actually brought forward and approved to be taken to the next step of the process. You just never know when you might get a good idea, so always bring pen and paper!
During the design process of Merethiel, I worked closely with 3D and design to make sure that she was in line with the overall story arch, as well as fitting in with Solak himself, who was being brought to life in 3D at the same time by Bernardo.
Here's Merethiel's final highpoly sculpt based on Thomas's concept. I tried to keep the shapes simplified and clean - this helps not only when it comes to the retopology of the character, but also in achieving good in-game readability
3dt: How do the designs for Solak and Merethiel, and the process of designing, compared with other RuneScape characters?
Before I started designing Solak, Kyle and I gathered some nice reference boards and keywords that we really wanted to resemble in the character's design. Although there were some early sketches for Solak, it ended up being mostly designed in ZBrush
"on the go”, which is something I quite like to do. That gave us the ability to easily swap bits and pieces and test different designs to fit different mechanics. This was also good because we could compare his scale against the player's character and put him in game in a very early stage of production - this assured us that the character would perfectly fit its arena and didn't look "out of place.”
Design wise, I also tried to focus in making the character look appealing from every viewpoint; I wanted the focal points to be his chest (where the crystal is located) and his face. The character has some sort of triangular shape, so the design is kind of "flowing” to the top of the character - the triangular shapes plus his big arms and feet make it instantly recognizable against any other RuneScape
This is Merethiel's big book sculpt. Some elements here are simple blockout meshes that I later modelled in Maya - like the metal corners and the belt buckle
The triangular shaped design or "tapered” was also a solution I came up with to make sure that whenever players were fighting Solak with the game camera close to 90 degrees, they could still see the character's legs and feet, rather than have them being covered by Solak's chest.
I definitely think that going back and forth with the content developer in the design stage was something really beneficial for the project. We didn't settle with a design until we were absolutely happy with it, which, comparing with another RuneScape
NPCs or projects, we don't always have the chance to do.
It is interesting how different our processes can be as developers, and it goes to show that the tool is not the most important thing, but the end result. Bernardo is adept in the use of ZBrush, which I have only just begun to dabble with, but instead I like to use Photoshop
(or a sketchbook) to do my early iterations, and go from there!
What I found exciting about this particular project was that I got the chance to be a part of the birth of a new character right from the start, just as a few lines of text. My visual representations of the character along the process then informed new design features in turn that sparked new game play and animation ideas, making it an exciting collaborative effort right until the very end!
This is a close up of Merethiel's ZBrush highpoly sculpt
3dt: Tell us about the inspirations for these characters. What are some of the touchstones?
Well, I've always been a fantasy genre fanboy. I was nine years old when the Fellowship of the Ring
movie came out, and that a had huge impact in me and my creative imagination - I didn't know who Tolkien was at the time, but Lord of the Rings
summed up everything that as a kid I loved and dreamed about. Since then I've been an absolute fan of fantasy games, comics and books - I'm sure this has a big impact in every piece I create.
Awhile ago I read a comic book series called Lookouts
, the whole narrative sets place in a magical forest, and follows a group of boys that unveil its secrets and fight big and fantastic creatures. Each creature was either guarding a bridge or a passage, and all of them had an interesting purpose, and weren't completely a foe. Why would they?
Here you can see Merethiel's final lowpoly model, after being textured in 3dCoat
The idea of creating something within these boundaries always stuck with me, and was something I desired to work on even before I joined Jagex, so I'm really thankful I had the chance to somehow translate it to the RuneScape
world. There were obviously other strong references that had a great impact when it comes to color palette and design choices - Celtic mythology was definitely one of them, such as dense and beautiful green forests.
It is funny to think about how similar Bernardo and I are when it comes to visual taste. We share a lot of the same "heroes” in our fields, and so working together on a project like this is pretty straightforward. For myself, I have always had a weak spot for the forest-dwelling elf archetype in any fantasy setting. I grew up playing a lot of miniature board games including these types of characters, and they always appealed to me both visually with their gracefulness and attunement to their feral, druidic energies, but equally by the otherworldly nature of elves working in symbiosis with nature to fend off invaders who wants to cut down their precious little trees!
Here's the final piece of Concept Art that was approved and sent off to be modelled
3dt: What tools were used to design and create Solak and Merethiel?
As a Concept Artist at Jagex, 2D artwork in Photoshop is usually where things go down throughout any design process. For Merethiel, I started out sketching out a variety of options for what she might look like and the type of personality she might have. I explored a variety of headdresses, weapons and outfits, and shared these regularly during our design meetups to get feedback from the rest of the team. What you will quickly learn about this industry is that you cannot be too precious about your work. Sometimes you might have a great design, but that might clash in some regards with the overall picture, and it must give way to other solutions. Usually the first idea you put down on paper is not the best one, so you just have to keep at it until you strike gold! Once a design is approved, it goes through the pipeline to the 3D artist.
To create Solak and Merethiel I used: ZBrush for high-poly sculpting, Maya
for retopology, unwraps and high-poly renders (using Arnold
) and 3dCoat
and Photoshop for texturing. I would say that both ZBrush and 3dCoat are the software that has the biggest impact on my pipeline.
ZBrush is great not only for sculpting but for playing around with your low-poly mesh too - you can very easily tweak proportions and adjust your character's silhouette in a very natural way. 3dCoat it's simply amazing when it comes to hand-painted textures and the way it works with Photoshop is just… perfect.
I tried out a few different alternatives for headdresses, but ultimately we felt she didn't need one
3dt: What were some of the artistic challenges with this project? How did you overcome them?
I think my biggest challenge in this project was definitely Merethiel. I never had the chance of working in many female characters. Some artists seem to do it so effortlessly! I knew I was going struggle with it, but I was mentally prepared! I think the way I overcame this was just, keeping calm and accept that I was probably going to tweak her along the way - which I did a couple times in the texturing stage. Also, I asked people for feedback, there were some bits in Thomas's concepts that I wasn't sure how to translate into 3d or how they would work animated, so I made sure to have him on my side to come up with the best solutions to make the concept work in 3d.
I think working on female characters is always a tricky but a fun challenge to take on! There are a lot of projects out there nowadays that use attractive female characters as a major selling point, but I do not think that is a route that RuneScape
should take, nor does it have to! Our game is all about a mix of quirky humor and rich fantastical settings, which is the perfect sandbox for an endless stream of great ideas to take form.
I am a firm believer that there a lot of things you can do to bring interest to a character to make them come alive, such as a rich narrative background, strong memorable shapes to the outfit and, if you are fortunate enough like us, some great voice acting to go with it!
Merethiel - Here's some of the earliest sketches of Merethiel, alongside the final approved line art sketch
3dt: How has the community reacted to the characters and the designs?
From what I can tell, the players seem to enjoy these characters and the event itself. During the first few hours of the event going live, I had a great time watching streamers get beaten over and over by the punishing game mechanics trying to figure out their strategies.
On social media, Merethiel seems to have been appreciated by the community as well! I have received a lot of positive comments about her design and I even saw some awesome cosplay being made of her, which is truly one of the greatest things you can experience as a designer! Seeing months of hard work being used by others in their own art form warms my heart every time!
I think both characters were very well received, but when it comes to social media, I think players absolutely loved Merethiel! There were tons of positive comments, features in online games websites and like Thomas mentioned, people making cosplays of her - that truly is a great experience.
The update's release day was absolutely mind blowing too - RuneScape
made it to the top games being streamed on Twitch, there were literally thousands of people watching streamers facing Solak for the first time. Seeing how each streamer was approaching each stage of the fight, and how they're actually enjoying it (even though they got beaten so many times) was incredible!
I had a lot of fun exploring different ideas for Merethiel's outfit and Wisp companion
3dt: What has been the most enjoyable part of creating this update and these characters?
Honestly for me the best part of this project, and any project in the studio really, is just the collaborative effort of the team and to see these things come to life. I am honored to work with these people every day and it's not hard to get out of bed on a rainy Monday morning to get working on new and exciting content for the game.
The most enjoyable part of working in this update was definitely working in a team where everyone was equally passionate about the project. Seeing Solak's first animations being made by Victor Gil and Hing Chan was quite memorable for me too, we spent some time testing Solak in game with a static model, so when we plugged the first animations and saw him actually "alive” and walking towards the players felt really good!
It is important for a game like RuneScape to nail the correct level of detail to make the design readable so I looked into multiple directions for the outfit
3dt: When can user play the update? What can we expect to see from you and RuneScape next?
The Solak content is already out and ready to be enjoyed by those who dare face the challenge! As a Concept Artist, you are always at the forefront of any given project along with content designers and design, so we tend to work ahead of most of the team in that regard, although we keep being involved in any given project throughout, resulting in us often finding ourselves working on multiple projects at the same time!
My most recent involvement in released content would be RuneScape's
new "Elite Dungeon feature,” where the players venture through various challenges, facing off against powerful bosses as they head towards the treasures that await them! What I am currently working on will be revealed when the time is right!
At the moment I'm working in update for RuneScape
called "Mining & Smithing rework,” which I can't speak about or show much yet, but expect a lot of armor sets and weapons from my side! I might already be involved in another big project, so definitely expect more character art within the quality of Solak and Merethiel soon!
Check out Bernardo Cristovao's portfolio for more of his fantastic RuneScape renders
If you want a closer look at Bernardo's models then head over to his Sketchfab page
See more of Thomas Karlsson's awesome RuneScape concept art and more in his portfolio
Creating Stylized Characters is a brilliant resource for anyone interested in refining their character designs