Get the full interview below.
Part 1: Aiming for Perfection from All Angles
Did you catch “Granblue TV Channel! Festival Edition” on December 12th? During this online live stream, Cygames announced both the release window and development details of Granblue Fantasy: Relink (hereinafter “Relink”). For all you readers who are keen to learn more, we have interviewed the development team about Relink’s graphics as part of the Cyskill project.
The interview will be released in two parts. In part one, we will be discussing the developers’ progress over the past year, their strategies in turning 2D illustrations into 3D models, and how working from home due to COVID-19 has affected production.
■ A more in-depth look at the game’s content and what the Relink devs wanted to show.
During the live stream, what kind of message did you want to bring across to your viewers?
In all of our announcements up to Granblue Fantasy Fes 2019, we had focused on showing general gameplay such as a primal beast fight and multiplayer mode. For this year’s live stream, we wanted to show everyone that development is coming along smoothly by featuring the work we’ve done on more specific gameplay mechanics and menu screens. By demoing a new stage and navigating the user interface, we hope viewers get a real sense of what the actual game will be like.
Yes, there were more game-design details this time, weren’t there? I’m sure the fans can’t wait to get to play it.
It is worth mentioning that one of our main intentions for last year’s announcement was to assuage concerns regarding the major switch from a third-party developer to being developed entirely in-house. We heard lots of fan feedback about the quality of Relink due to our limited experience in developing console titles, so our top priority was to reassure them otherwise. To achieve this, we announced the Dragon Knights as playable characters as well as showed off real-time gameplay of multiplayer mode during the live stream. Thanks to this, I think we were able to get a positive reaction from our fans.
■ The world of Granblue Fantasy in 3D! Aiming for high graphical quality in Relink.
So let’s take a deep dive into Relink. What were your goals in creating the graphics for this game?
One of the biggest selling points of the original mobile game Granblue Fantasy (hereinafter “Granblue”) is its beautiful and unique illustrations. For Relink, the graphics team’s main aim was trying to translate these 2D illustrations into 3D models. During every step of the process we made sure that the feel of Granblue wasn’t lost.
What were the particular hurdles in carrying out this process?
Illustrations are by nature designed only to be seen from one angle and so there are inherently certain areas which are not true to life in this 2D form. Translating these 2D illustrations into 3D models inevitably creates discrepancies. Say we were to take the front and side illustrations of a certain character and base their 3D model off the front illustration. Although this would be faithful to the front illustration, the model viewed from the side is inevitably going to be different from the side illustration. Elements such as the facial features would appear off. This may go without saying, but an illustration is inherently designed to look the best it can be from a predetermined perspective, yet in the case of a 3D model it must look its best from all angles—this was one of the most difficult parts of the process.
It’s easy to say what needs to be done but quite difficult to put into practice. How did you approach this challenge?
The illustrations of Granblue follow their unique laws of physics. How the features look on the characters’ faces, the way the shadows and light fall as well, there are many elements that only work within the world of Granblue. We analyzed each of these elements one by one and thought about how to represent them in 3D.
That sounds interesting. How did you work out what these unique rules were?
We pored over every inch of the original illustrations, analyzed them, and then put our observations into words. It’s easier to think of strategies once we’ve done so, and we can decide to change the lighting to accentuate shadows, or use certain techniques to lighten other areas. Our art team for Relink has a really keen eye for noticing these rules and putting them into words the rest of us can understand. Thanks to them we can change what was essentially an artistic choice into a rule that will help reflect the illustrator’s artistic style in the world of the game.
—From the Relink wiki page for internal use. The team works on analyzing what makes the characters unique.
Then, we create the 3D models following these rules we’ve created. Afterwards, we compare the product to the original illustrations and fix up the places that are different. We repeat this process until we’re finally happy that the models have that Granblue essence to them from every angle.
What aspects of this editing work have changed since last year?
We’ve been working on finer elements to draw out the Granblue feel, such as the side-on lighting and shadows on the characters’ noses, the quality of their hair, and so on. In addition, I think we’ve been able to bring out the individual expressions of each character much more successfully.
–In-development image of Gran. Fine edits are being done on the wrinkles around the eyes.
For example, I think it’s clear how much Io has improved since we showed her in 2018. We paid particular attention in getting her facial structure and features just right. Her model was first created from the same angle as her front-on illustration, and we then rotated the camera to make sure her features were still in-line with this illustration. Whereas shading and coloring are usually the most important aspects when working with cel shading, in order to capture the look of the Granblue illustration, we needed to do a lot of work on the polygon mesh so that her features and silhouette would look just right.
Because you’re working from illustrations, I would have presumed the method of creation to be similar to cel shading work, but this sounds far more intricate.
Yes. Another thing that has improved since last year is the facial elements. Whereas we only worked on the face as a whole, now we have been able to work on the neck and more. We realized that when the model is viewed from bottom up, the shape of the face wouldn’t come across very well without editing the neck as well. The neck and face are intrinsically linked, so we needed to make sure the jaw had movement to it as well. In doing so, we managed to bring the models even closer to the original illustrations.
It must have been difficult creating cohesion between all these different angles.
It really was. These elements really stand out during cutscenes or in promotional stills. A well-known strategy that we used was to change the camera angle or facial angle so that the model’s joints alter the character’s silhouette.
For example, even if a face model looks great from the front or the side, when viewed at another angle, their cheeks may look too puffed up. In these cases, we move their joints so that the model looks as good as it can from that angle, and so that the outline of these stills are as close to their original illustration.
—Io from Relink (left) and her original illustration (right). The team worked together to make sure the smallest details, such as the positioning of her eyelashes when viewed from the side, were as close to the original illustration as possible.
I didn’t realize so much attention to detail was required.
The appeal of Granblue illustrations are in the real intricate details, such as the nuance of each individual line, or how colors are added, and if we don’t put in the same amount of care, then this appeal will be lost. If even a single line is one millimeter off, then it can leave a totally different impression. In order to realize this intricacy, many small parts need to work together.
The original Granblue illustration team is helping us on Relink, which makes it the ideal work environment.
I can imagine it is really heartening to have cooperation across different projects. Everyone’s trying their best to make something really good.
Exactly. The art style for Relink isn’t a cel-shaded or photorealistic approach—it’s the difficult task of recreating Granblue’s precise illustrations in 3D. I think it’s a rather unique process that you don’t really see elsewhere in the game development world.
■ Working during the COVID-19 pandemic and continuing development while working from home.
I’d like to ask about the development process during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the whole company moving to working from home, was it a smooth transition for the Relink team too?
From the end of last year to the start of this year, we had worked on the character and enemy types, number of stages, length of the story, and were finishing up on confirming the scope of the game. We were beginning to move into the main production and were swiftly heading toward the final stages of development. It was around this time that the Japanese government announced a state of emergency.
Although the announcement and change was completely unexpected, thanks to the hard work of our back office and IT staff, we were able to make the move to remote work without too many problems. I remember being worried, but in the end it wasn’t as much as an issue as I’d thought.
Honestly, because working on a console game requires rather high-spec PCs and monitors, I thought that the move would be rather difficult—after all, we needed to deliver all the large equipment to each staff member’s home and hope they had space for all that stuff.
In the end, it all went really smoothly thanks to the joint efforts of the back office staff, who coordinated deliveries, and the development team. We were able to do the move quickly and efficiently, and I’m really grateful for all their help.
I’m sure there must be a lot of differences in development compared to what you’re used to. Could you tell me about your experiences in regard to this?
A lot of small things have become a lot more difficult. One simple example I can give pertains to data. As all the staff are working from home, everyone has to access various company servers. However, in the majority of cases their home internet connections are a lot slower than those in the office. Developing console games involves huge amounts of data, so there has been a drop in efficiency due to increased upload and download times.
To deal with this, we scheduled times for data to be uploaded and downloaded across the day to improve efficiency. In the case of meetings, we make sure everyone downloads the data an hour beforehand so that they will run smoothly.
Yes, internet speeds can really affect the pace of work. Changing how you work seems a much more practical solution than trying to increase data speeds.
It was the most logical solution, yes. Another issue which slowed down our workflow was the fact that we were no longer in the same office. Whereas we could easily ask for help or show things in person, the inherent lag of screen sharing during online meetings means that you can’t grasp how the gameplay actually feels in real time. Not being able to do such simple things was very taxing.
Working from home even changes how you need to communicate with one another, doesn’t it?
Indeed. We decided to cope with this by relaying information both in text communications and online meetings. We would use Slack to give announcements and then during our daily meetings gather our group leaders together for a live chat to verify things were being communicated properly. Our group leaders would then check up on staff verbally to make sure nothing had slipped through the cracks.
I see. Have there been any merits to working from home?
There have, yes. For meetings with a large group of people, instead of having to find a meeting room and gather everyone there, we can do it easily through Zoom or Slack. Working from home has made us realize that some of the ways we did things before could be improved upon.
Our development team works from two offices—a large portion of the staff for Relink are based in Osaka with a smaller number based in Tokyo. Before COVID-19, we had the Tokyo staff join meetings remotely or travel all the way to Osaka. This provided its own difficulties and time waste, but with everyone working remotely, the removal of this disparity has been a good thing.
—Online meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Finally, I think there has been an improvement in the communication between the team members of various different projects. As development from home is completely new for everyone, we’re all trying our best to find the most efficient ways of doing things, no matter the project. We have learned a lot, and this sharing of advice has improved lateral communication.
The spread of COVID-19 has been very unpredictable over the past year. What are your thoughts on development going forward?
Throughout this remote working period, we have grown familiar with this new work style and have realized the benefits that come with it.
We have been able to improve our efficiency in working from home and have learned that progress can be made from anywhere. When this all settles down, I think we will be utilizing this new knowledge regardless of whether we continue working from home or return to the office.
Part 2: Capturing the Granblue Spirit in Motion
We are happy to share with you the second part of this two-part interview with the development team for Granblue Fantasy: Relink (hereinafter “Relink”). One of the major selling points of Relink is its beautiful graphics, and the development team will tell us how they worked to capture the intricate, illustrated world of Granblue Fantasy (hereinafter “Granblue”) in moving 3D.
■ Maintaining the essence of the original illustrations while capturing the movement of the characters in 3D.
In part one, you explained how to capture the essence of Granblue characters when viewed from any angle. Were there are any other difficulties in rendering the world of Granblue in 3D?
Our biggest challenge was making sure the characters didn’t lose their Granblue spirit when we added movement to the images. It was really tough making the characters move in a way that appears natural.
As illustrations are by nature a still image, how did you decide on these movements?
The original illustrations may be static, but they were still our biggest reference point for working out the characters’ movements. Looking at the illustrations, there is still a sense of movement to them. These are represented by hatching, line weight, rippling fabric, and more. However, even if we just take and render these elements as they are, the movements will still differ too much unless we analyze what movements the illustrator wished to represent and decide how best to render this in 3D.
So you try to visualize how a still image would move… Sounds really tough.
Yes, it’s difficult to express in words. One example of this process was lighting—how the light falls upon a character’s nose or how rim lighting crafts their silhouette. Essentially this overall shape provides a huge part of the feel of the characters in Granblue, and this is influenced by the direction the face is facing. In Relink, shaders can control these conditions depending on where the characters face or where the camera is pointing.
I assume this is related to what you mentioned in the first part of this interview, when you mentioned recreating the unique laws of physics present in the world of Granblue?
Yes, it is. When we were looking at the illustrations, we noticed that there were many cases where rim lighting shouldn’t be present judging from the light source in the image. However, we had to concede that this made sense in the world of Granblue’s illustrations, and so we needed to consider how these rules would work in the game.
If we took a photorealistic approach, then Granblue’s characteristic rim lighting just wouldn’t work. Rather than abandon it, we instead needed to work out how to change and process the materials, filters, and post processing in order to draw out the essence of Granblue in the game.
Do you reference the illustration’s original intent while working?
We do. We lay out the illustrations for everyone to see and discuss them together. For example, for one of the characters there is this granular lighting effect around their head, and we wondered why there would be a highlight there—maybe the artist wanted to draw out a sense of depth; maybe it was to accentuate the roundness of the character’s hair. We then worked out possible solutions, like maybe placing the light so that there will be a real sense of depth when looking at the character face on. It was a lot of fun to discuss possible solutions together, and in doing so we were able to think of ideas that everyone was on board with.
So by putting your ideas into words and rules, you’re able to ask the engineers to implement these ideas?
Exactly. However, rather than write up what we want to do, it is usually easier and faster to show them an image, and so we often get the art team to draw up reference data using DCC tools (tools for digital content creation). We then show these to the engineers so that they can see what methods we want to use to get certain effects, and from there they work on creating the final product.
■ Breaking down expectations for 3D games and the importance of motion in Relink.
The original illustrations make use of a wide range of expressions due to their 2D art style. I imagine rendering this in a moving 3D model is rather difficult?
In all honesty, it’s impossible (laughs). But still we aimed to recreate the illustrations of Granblue in 3D and create a style of game that hasn’t been made before. In order to achieve this, we got our best members of staff together and remade the game engine and started from scratch with our graphics tools. I think if you’ve watched the stream you can probably see how close we managed to get to these original illustrations.
Yes, the illustrations of Granblue are not really designed to be put into 3D, are they? What aspects of this process were the hardest?
What stands out the most are objects with a lot of movement to them—capes, belts, long hair, accessories. Not only that, these items tend to be multilayered as well. At any rate, we had to deal with a lot of these items. If an idea for a new 3D game were announced, with character designs coming afterward, I am sure illustrators would avoid including so many moving parts.
With Relink, the 2D character illustrations already existed. But you are right, all these rippling elements are really representative of Granblue’s art style. It must have been really hard to make these elements react naturally to the character’s own movement.
It isn’t that difficult to make a lot of elements that can move on their own, however the problem lies in making them move smoothly within the game itself. A lot of moving parts increases the data load and can inevitably cause lag. One method we used to reduce this load was by reducing the number of joints.
—Working out the joints for Rosetta’s hair.
—Image of Rosetta in-game.
On the other hand, if you reduce the amount of joints too much, then the clothes start to clip through the character’s body. To avoid this we needed to carefully work out the collision detection, and to make this easier we actually reprogrammed the moving object creation tool. After all, we have a constant drive to keep the essence of Granblue and maintain the game’s high quality.
Rosetta, who was shown in the demo this year, was a walking example of moving elements, from her long hair down to her skirt. It was amazing seeing all those parts flowing naturally. Considering the effort you guys put in, I almost feel that it should be toned down a bit (laughs).
Obviously clothes are a big sticking point for developers, but we also hate when these 3D characters have long hair (laughs). It needs to move and sway naturally in the game, and this is why a lot of protagonists in 3D action games have short hair.
Despite all this, we actually wanted to increase the amount of free-flowing effects in Relink—after all, the original illustrations are full of them. We want to aim for a level of quality to make people wonder if they’re in fact looking at an illustration not a 3D model.
But that’s a lot to create, isn’t it?
Yes, it is. Taking our production schedule into consideration, we rebuilt the system that deals with these moving elements so that they would be easier to work with. Their settings in the demo we presented last year were overly complicated, so we streamlined and simplified it. Once we implemented it, the development team were able to get their heads around it really quickly.
■ Implementing a variety of strategies to create high quality clouds!
Clouds are a real important part of the Granblue experience, aren’t they?
The world of Granblue takes place on islands that float in the sky, and of all the background art, the clouds were the area in which we put the most effort. A lot of it was trial and error, but by the end, we were able to create a variety of clouds that will be used depending on the feel we want for each scene. As of this point, we have five different varieties of cloud.
—Some of the clouds used in-game.
The stage which took place upon an airship soaring through the clouds was a real highlight of this year’s demo footage. I was really impressed both by the weight the clouds have when viewed from the distance, as well as their more gaseous state when up close.
That stage is designed to make it feel like you’re gradually getting closer to distant clouds before plunging into them. We actually used multiple varieties of cloud to simulate this feeling. We gradually change from far-away clouds to mid-range clouds and then to close-up clouds to make it seem like a seamless transition. Also, since cloud distance differs for each stage, we have picked the right varieties of cloud to suit each location.
For example, we may want clouds to have a certain weight to them on some stages, so we implement clouds that have a firmer outline—it goes without saying, these are 3D models, not 2D drawings. On other stages we have clouds whose shapes we can change freely to give them the image of floating by. Then in other stages where the characters have to progress through the gaseous clouds you mentioned earlier, the clouds are rendered in real time so as not to look odd even when they overlap with the character. Another thing we were able to achieve thanks to our technological improvements is creating a donut hole effect when a character drops through a cloud—it’s rather high level stuff, if I may say so myself.
In the aerial stage there were impact effects when some cannon fire was directed at the clouds.
We actually decided on implementing that idea after seeing it being used in ’90s anime. Clouds don’t really “splash” in real life when something collides with them, but we wanted to hearken back to this stylistic choice. The stage we showed during the live stream had battles among the clouds, with warships floating in and out of them, and I think it was a good way for everyone to see what we’ve been working on.
■ Producing high quality assets, with enough content for two games?
I can imagine creating all the resources for not only the characters but also for the backgrounds must have been very time consuming. Can you tell us about Relink’s current state of development?
The core content and gameplay of the game has essentially all been decided, and now we just need to put it all together. We want the multiplayer quests and boss battles to be really fun, so I hope you look forward to the range of bosses that will be waiting for you.
—Gallanza, a boss that appeared during the live stream.
As we’ve discussed, you’ve developed a lot of assets for this game. Can we expect a similar amount of content, too?
One of the key points of the original Granblue is how much story-related content it has to offer. Not only that, it has a lot for gamers to sink their teeth into with raid battles and the other modes available. For most console games, the developers tend to focus on either the story or on gameplay, because if you focus on both, the game could get bloated.
However, for Relink, we wanted both of these areas to be equally important. As a result, the game will have a lot of content, focusing on both the dramatic spectacle of the cutscenes in the story mode, while also having lots of fun multiplayer quests to play. Not only that, in this genre of action games there are usually only two or three playable characters, but we have managed to hit double digits on the amount of playable characters available. If that wasn’t enough, we’ve worked hard on the stages so that you’ll barely see the same terrain and backdrop twice. Honestly, I can’t believe we decided to go through with this (laughs). There are two games worth of content here, I think.
It sounds like it will be real fun to play when it’s out.
Yes, we want to please both the players who are looking forward to the story and those who can’t wait to play the multiplayer battles. We really want our players to go, “Wow, Cygames did an awesome job.”
■ Future developments are yet to come. Cygames is hiring!
Will the Relink development team be growing from here on out?
We hadn’t intended on really increasing our staff by that much, but we are open to hiring anyone who really, really wants to work on Relink or who wants to make a special game.
What kind of person are you envisioning?
Someone who craves the highest quality and who has a strong will to not give up. After all, as we’ve discussed today, the Relink development team has an abnormal obsession with quality. Honestly, anyone who has a single-minded desire to really show what they’re made of would be a good fit, I think. Oh, and of course, someone who’s a fan of Granblue.
In regard to talent, we would love for someone who has honed their technical skills to give Relink the care it needs to take it to the next level. Someone like this could really show off their skills as part of the Relink team, and it is a good environment for those who are real sticklers for quality. We always welcome new ideas, so being able to help improve quality and performance is a real asset.
So you’re on the lookout for the talented and ambitious.
Of course we would welcome any ambitious young talent, too. Even though Cygames is a relatively young company, to suddenly undertake a huge console title presents a unique opportunity in Japan. Development is tough, yes, but the experience is also very rewarding.
Cygames Osaka is an even newer organization, so there are still many ways for the company to grow. I think being able to both do game development and establish company culture is a really valuable experience. So, we also welcome the management-minded as well.
We would like someone who really wants to create a console game that will be enjoyed by players around the world.
On a final note, do you have a message for the eagerly awaiting fans?
Yes, I would first like to apologize for keeping you all waiting for Relink. We spoke about the reasons why things have taken as long as they are during the live stream, so please watch the footage there for more details. We really want to be able to present to you the best version this game can be. I am happy that we’ve reached this point where we can share our development details as much as we have today. We are on track for our release date in 2022, so please wait just a little bit longer. We are sure you’ll enjoy this high-quality console game that captures everything about Granblue.