Making a Monster: The Necrofex Colossus

Total War: WARHAMMER II

Ella McConnell
November 22 2019

One of the most recognisable parts of the Total War: WARHAMMER games is their truly magnificent monsters.

We chatted with Baj Singh, lead character artist for Total War: WARHAMMER at Creative Assembly, about how he got into art in the video games industry, working with Games Workshop to create a creature from the concept art up, and the ingredients for making a really messed up monster.

Click to enlarge

CA: First of all, could you please introduce yourself?

Baj Singh: I’m Baj Singh and I’m the lead character artist on the Total War: WARHAMMER franchise.

CA: How did you first get into gaming?

Baj Singh: My first platform was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and the first ever video game I played was Bubble Bobble. Back then, you had to connect a cassette player to the system in order to load up tapes. After that, I got a Super Nintendo (SNES) with a copy of Super Mario World and I never looked back!

CA: And how did you first get into art?

Baj Singh: I didn’t actually get into art until I was in my early twenties. Initially I did a degree in software engineering, but then realised that it just wasn’t for me – so I decided to give art a go and I stuck with it ever since.

CA: How did you get into the video games industry? How did you career start?

Baj Singh: I started back in 2008 at a company called Jagex working on a sci-fi game called Stellar Dawn. Unfortunately, after working on this for a few years it was cancelled, and then I worked on another long running project called Runescape. After five years there, I joined Creative Assembly in 2013 to work on the Total War Battles franchise before joining the WARHAMMER team a year later.

CA: What does a typical workday look like for you?

Baj Singh: As a lead, a lot of my day involves managing and art directing the 2D and 3D character teams. It does involve me jumping around quite a lot, checking emails, and going to meetings while providing feedback to my team and delegating some of the responsibilities that I just don’t have time for – I only have one pair of hands.

CA: How is working on a Total War game different than other games?

Baj Singh: From a character art point of view, I would say there are many more similarities as a lot of the processes are ubiquitous across the industry. Major differences would perhaps be the team dynamic and how we shift from project to project. A lot of teams will generally stop working for some time between projects while the next one is being decided. However, we generally organise our projects in advance (and have a number of them in production at any one time) so team members can “relay” between projects swiftly and efficiently.

CA: What unique challenges does working on Total War: WARHAMMER II specifically present?

Baj Singh: One of the major things we have to consider is the fidelity of our characters. Not only are our characters seen at a distance within the battles but they can also be seen close up in cinematic trailers and screenshots. We have to ensure that there is enough detail in our characters so they look impressive close up while also readable against the environment at great distances.

CA: What is the Necrofex Colossus in a nutshell?

Baj Singh: The Necrofex Colossus is basically the remains of dozens of shipwrecks, resurrected along with hundreds of headless corpses (which are also woven into the design).

CA: The Necrofex Colossus doesn’t have an official miniature – how does this alter the design process when compared with units that do?

Baj Singh: So whenever a miniature doesn’t exist, we collaborate between the Total War in-house artists and Games Workshop to come up with a design that satisfies the lore that they have outlined. This usually involves a thumbnail design from us (a rudimentary sketch that outlines the proportions and silhouette of the character/creature). Once that is approved, we create a much more fleshed out design (a concept) that highlights the major features in more detail.

CA: What sort of things do you have to consider when bringing a new unit to life?

Baj Singh: So apart from ensuring that we respect the lore that’s outlined by Games Workshop, we also have to work with other teams within the department (in particular the animation team who take ownership over the asset once the artist has finished creating it). They really want to bring the characters to life within the game with bespoke and exciting animations, so they may request features on the model that they have more control over (in the case of the Necrofex Colossus, rotation on the cannon arm and skeletons that can swing from the masts).

CA: What were the unique challenges of creating the Necrofex Colossus?

Baj Singh: Primarily the scale and detail of the creature. I think we severely underestimated how much detail we would need to add to this character in order to make it stand out at its size in game. We also had to figure out how this creature would move, especially around its joints – so for areas such as elbows and knees do we link the joints together with ropes or do we have a hinge joint that is strategically placed for animation reasons (but not made completely obvious at first glance).

Generally on our characters, we make the skeleton (the skeleton is literally an animation skeleton that we use to move and pose the character) symmetrical to make it easier for the animators to repurpose certain animations for similarly sized units. In this case, though, we wanted one of the legs to be slightly shorter than the other one so we could really get a unique walk and animation set that stood out from everything else.

CA: Can you describe the process of making the Necrofex Colossus step by step?

Baj Singh: Yep! So I’ll try to keep this fairly general as it can get quite complicated:

  • The concept art team will develop a thumbnail (generally developing a set of thumbnails for the entire race). This allows us to develop the entire look for a race without immediately jumping into detailed concepts. Here, we can quickly identify a design style for the units (including things such as what types of materials would be used across the race in general).
  • Once these have been approved by Games Workshop, we develop a more intricate concept that the 3D artist can work from. This includes breakdowns of complicated elements and reference to materials (such as specific types of wood or metal) that should be used on the character.
  • The final concept then gets sent over to Games Workshop for approval. At this stage, we create a proxy mesh for the animators (the proxy mesh is an incredibly simple model with no textures applied that the animator can start animating on while the 3D artist is working on the actual game asset).
  • The character artist will start making the final asset. In this case, the asset time was around 50 days (while the animator works with the proxy so they aren’t held up waiting for the final asset to be completed). The character modelling side is quite complex and can be broken down into three major stages:
    • High poly (sculpting the high-detail version within zBrush)
    • Low poly (creating the mesh which can be animated and used be used in the game)
    • Texturing (adding colours and materials to the final game mesh)
  • Once the character is finished, we hand it off to the animators for a final animation pass before it gets plugged into the game.

CA: What is your favourite thing about the Necrofex Colossus?

Baj Singh: Definitely the amount of freedom that we had with the design on the final asset. Games Workshop were very good in giving us the freedom to really push the design to an almost outrageous level of detail. They were incredibly accommodating, and we collaborated well to ensure that the final asset achieved a fantastic level of quality.

CA: Who is your favourite Total War character from an artistic perspective [so far] and why?

Baj Singh: Artistically I would like to favour a race rather than an individual character, namely the Vampire Coast. The reason for this is that we had a lot of flexibility from Games Workshop regarding the artistic implementation of all of the units here, which really allowed us to play with unique designs and features while sticking true to the defined lore behind those characters.

CA: Aside from Total War: WARHAMMER II, what is your favourite Total War game?

Baj Singh: Definitely Total War: SHOGUN 2, mainly because I’m a big fan of that era in history (and the Japanese unit and architecture designs are wonderful!).

CA: What advice would you give those wanting to get into video game art?

Baj Singh: Okay, so what I would recommend initially is find a few making of videos for games or search YouTube for “GDC videos” (Games Developer Conference). A lot of the time when I speak to students who want to join the industry, a large majority of them aren’t really sure which career path they want to pursue – definitely do your research here.

From there, spend a little time tinkering within a couple of the fields that you like the look of. Figure out which one might be something you would enjoy in the long run. This is the hardest part of your personal development – everything else is just process. Once you know the role you want to pursue and the type of game you want to work on, study and work hard to develop your skills in that area. Find as many online resources as you can and just keep learning – you can only get better from there. But don’t feel as though you have to rush into a job or position – it will take time and extreme amounts of patience.

CA: Thank you for your time! Any parting words?

Baj Singh: We have a ton of new works in the pipeline so look forward to seeing more awesome art from the team!

Take a look at some of our other Total War interviews here!