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The Making of an “Alien Warrior”

Posted by on in Tutorials

 As an artist who wants to start a career in game industry, it has long been my dream to make my own character and bring it into a game world. That was my inspiration for my thesis project, “After Us”. I worked with my programming partner Zheng Qu to turn the “After Us” concept into a 3rd person shooter prototype. Detailed below is my concept design process for the main character, an alien warrior and a brief description of how we brought the character into the game world.


Visual development


Good concept art must have designs that are both aesthetically pleasing and functional. It must quickly convey to the audience what is the function of the design.


So before I start drawing, I create a background story to give my character context.


For Alien Warrior, he belonged to an alien race that grew up on a foreign planet. His race had previously suffered a catastrophic disaster. Soon after, a group of human settlers found the survivors, saved them using human medical technology, and enlightened them with their culture. Through advancements in technology, interstellar travel was accessible to most of civilization. This is when our story takes place. The Alien Warrior is aboard a battleship that is invaded by enemies.



  • “What’s even more fun than working on the design of a new fictional world? Taking our first steps into it and looking around.”
    - Casey Hudson


The background story and the surrounding elements give my character context. I have a strong idea of who my character is, the world he lives in, and his role in society. With this extremely valuable information established, I then start thumbnailing ideas for the Alien Warrior to bring him to life on paper. I explore as many visual ideas as possible.


I create new thumbnails, rework old thumbnails from previous concepts and explore different technical processes looking for something unique. I change my thumbnailing process often because sometimes different processes will lead to unexpected results that can prove to be very useful. It's best to begin without any preconceived visual notions. I want a wide range of ideas to choose from; some conservative, some wildly crazy and borderline impractical. Having a nice variety to choose from lets me pick and choose the features I like most. I just want to get an original design that visually represents the character I have created.





From these thumbnails, I go with thumbnail 6. His face has great potential to break the human-like feeling, and he well represents visually my character from the story.  Since my character will be created in 3D, I start to consider technical logistics like rigging, animation, and in-game visual attributes.


More exploration


After I choose a thumbnail, I begin designing the costume. Before me lies a new challenge, for the first time I really want to build a costume based on the Alien Warriors unique biological attributes. Using my chosen thumbnail, I begin to ideate the form-fitting costumes that can be built around his body.


Knowing where I want to take my design next, I flesh out the details of the first thumbnail. I draw a lot of inspiration from crabs and reptiles. Real life references are very important in my process for real life creatures are, by design, both aesthetically and functionally extremely well designed. I use this information as the infrastructure for creating my own design. 


The important biological features: 

1. Mouth is located on his stomach.

2. 4 x compound eyes.

3. A combination of crustacean and vertebrate.





But I ran into a design problem. If his mouth is on his stomach, there could be unpleasant implications as he contorts his body while moving. I moved the mouth from the stomach to the chest. The joint designs were a cross between crabs and reptiles. He has 8 breathing orifices on his face, which are attached to 8 subsequent vocal cords, allowing him to speak still from his face but in a unique manner.


Running into design problems is very much a part of the process. They set up unique problems that must be solved, and often solving these problems helps determine the features of the design. At this point, I begin working in ZBrush. ZBrush is very efficient for building organic shapes.










After the body is set I start design his costume, which is a complex Exo suit. The suit is used mostly for everyday life, so I made it look slightly non-aggressive, but, since he is a warrior, I made some aggressive shape designs to show that very little preparation is needed to be ready for battle.


I created attachment sockets for combat armor to visually help show that he is a warrior always prepared for combat.





Next, I design the combat armor pieces for the suit. I begin again with thumbnails. Thumbnail 11 had the aggressive and unique feel that I was looking for, so I proceeded with that thumbnail in moving forward.  


The default armor doesn’t have to be too specialized, because I need to keep some space for players to attach future upgrades, which is also a gameplay mechanic to motivate our player to keep moving forward and exploring the world.





For this project, the combat armor is the main costume. 


At this stage, I want to keep one element in mind, the camera angle. Dead Space was a large inspiration for this design approach. This game has some amazing design that integrates the 3rd person shooter UI design with the character design. It is a nice touch that immerses the player even more into the game world. By considering  the camera during the design process, I could make my concept design more effective.


Thus I spent a lot of energy on the back right view, as I know that’s where most of the player’s attention will be during gameplay. This integration of armor UI, and function was a great emphasis throughout this design process.I also have to make sure there is enough space around joints for movement.





Bring the Alien to life


My knowledge of modeling, texturing, rigging, and animation has made my concept design process much more efficient and practical. Knowing what information others will gather from my concepts further down the pipeline, I make sure that that information is readily available and easily accessible. And it is also not too bad to learn something new.


With the  2D concept art done, I went back to ZBrush to block out whole new character. I then retopologized the low-res model, imported it into Maya to fix the model and make the polycount more efficient.




  • Always keep the camera angle in mind.



After I finished UVing the model, I learned how to rig. I learned how to rig by following the Epic’s UDK 2014 official tutorials step by step.


The benefit of using UDK’s skeleton system is that I can use all those character animations from UDK’s animation library. And my partner Zheng Qu made all those programs, codes and VFX work well.





I did not polish all the textures because I only needed some basic color for testing the character in the game to see if the colors were helping the design as I had intended.


Refine design


When I was modeling I realized from the camera angle the energy bar could not be seen all the time. His body will leaned to left side around 30 degree in order to hold weapon. I figured out I could use an alternative design to solve the problem. I made an alternative energy bar behind his right shoulder. Even though it may not be the most efficient solution, I got some experience from solving this problem. There is always new information to learn on each project.





Finally the alien warrior is alive and steps into this new world. All the hard work spent designing the character and the suit payed off, for the concepts translated well into the game.  Nothing made feel better than this moment!


Everything I had tried worked out. At the end of this whole process, I learned some very important things. 

First, always keep the camera angle in mind. No matter how good the concept design is, without it being seen from the camera in the game, it is not an efficient design.

Second, avoid creating a lot of geometry on moving parts like on joints, this could lead to trouble for the animators.

Third, keep learning and understand other teammate’s concerns. That is a way to make my concept artworks more effective and become a better concept artist. 


I also want to thank my Director Pryce Jones, who gave me a lot suggestion during the development process. And thank for Stephen Todd, who helped me to do the proofreading. With your help, I gained the knowledge of concept development and are now able to share that with other people.



Fan Zhang

As an artist who wants to start a career in game industry, it has long been my dream to make my own character and bring it into a game world. That was my inspiration for my thesis project, “After Us”. I worked with my programmer partner Zheng Qu to turn the “After Us” concept into a 3rd person shooter prototype. Detailed below is my concept design process for the main character, an alien warrior and a brief description of how we brought the character into the game world.
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