New civilizations also mean… new buildings! And we were presented with a big plate of fresh challenges. Looking back at the new architecture sets introduced in Age of Empires II HD: The Forgotten, we knew we had to step up our game. The Italian set was masterfully photoshopped from the Middle Eastern set (with some exceptions) but we wanted to go the extra mile for the African set. Time to brush off our 3D modelling software!
References & Concept Art
The first task is to find pictures of existing African buildings, we gathered hundreds of pictures of Northern African architecture. However, here we met our first challenge: we’re not making a set just for the Malians, we’re having them share their set with another African civ. So we had to make a “generic African” set, which is not something that exists. Time for concept art! We started with the market as our first building. The reason for this was two-folded. First of all, the market is a building that changes in all ages, so we can use its style and texture as a base for the rest of the buildings. Secondly, it’s a big building with a lot of variety, which helps us define that proper style.
Time to turn this pencil & paper artwork into digital models. We jumped into our modelling software and came up with the following models:
However, we made a big mistake, which we didn’t notice right away. All buildings in Age of Empires II have their characteristic shapes and sizes. Although the market was “roughly” following the proportions of the existing markets, it wasn’t close enough, and it felt like the buildings stood out too much. Back to the drawing boards, where we analyzed the existing sets to turn all buildings into basic blocks. Playing with LEGO as it were.
Now we had the basic shapes, we could start modelling again. This time we focused hard on the Feudal Age set. A lot of improvements were made as you can see on the images below. Feudal Market V1 shows the market prior to our block-building analysis and V2 shows the revamped version with proper AoE2 proportions.
However, we weren’t happy yet. The shape was right, but the building looked a lot more simple than the buildings currently in the game. This was due to two reasons: firstly, African feudal architecture was mainly mud-based, which has functionality over aesthetics, but secondly is because we made it look simple. It’s not because it’s simple, that we can’t make it look more special, time to step up our game!
So we began experimenting, which eventually led to all the images below. First we tried with some more complicated textures. Then we started to change the shape of the building, which eventually led to V3, which we nicknamed “Flintstone-melted potato with a tennis sweatband”-style. Needless to say, we ditched that one in the end.
Many iterations later, we ended up with the final Feudal Market, which is the one you will see in the game.
Rendering & post-processing
Now, what was the reason we got the market to fit in with the other buildings in the end? Once again, two important reasons. The first one is because of the way Ensemble Studios created their buildings. In the 90s, 3D modelling wasn’t as evolved as it is today. Each and every object was created individually, down to every brick in a wall. Which is exactly what we did. The straws in the thatch roofs on the Feudal market are all modeled individually. Which you can also see in this detail of the Imperial market.
Now comes the most difficult part: we’ve seen the models in high-quality 32-bit renders this whole time. But for Age of Empires II, they need to be converted to 8-bit images, which means from 24 million colors to just 256! Luckily we can use Photoshop to help us in that conversion so that not too many color-ranges get lost, but it’s still a shocking difference to see sometimes.
Last but not least, we add eye candy! The last step in post-processing to make the buildings fit with the rest of the game. We copy some barrels, items and little plants that can be found on other buildings and paste them on our new models.
It’s been a month-long journey, and at the time of writing, we’re not at the end yet, but I would already like to thank our lead artist Jorgito, for all the hard work he has done and still maintaining his sanity over it 😉
To top it all off, a small teaser screenshot of a Feudal Age Malian village!