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Meet Sledgehammer Games’ Associate Art Director Sandy Lin-Chiang, a Call of Duty vet who has been with the studio since 2009. She discusses art direction, visual research, and the unique work-from-home challenges of developing a AAA game.
As Call of Duty: Vanguard finally releases to the public, the developers at Sledgehammer Games and the other studios that supported Vanguard, can breathe a collective sigh of relief: they did it! Game development is complex in the best of times, and when you factor in the variables in a Work from Home environment, it takes a special team to navigate the uncertainties and deliver a premium game.
With the leadership and long-standing experience of employees like Associate Art Director Sandy Lin-Chiang, however, the studio managed not only to overcome those challenges, but in doing so they’ve created a meaningful and ambitious new title in the Call of Duty catalogue. Read on as she discusses the artistic vision and research for Vanguard, as well as the challenges and opportunities in developing a AAA game from home.
Sledgehammer Games’ Associate Art Director Sandy Lin-Chiang
“It’s been a difficult time,” Lin-Chiang says, “just as it has been for everyone. Within the pandemic, we had to figure out how to develop a game when everybody is apart. It was tough, but this is also a game that is very memorable for me.”
Sandy Lin-Chiang first joined Sledgehammer Games in 2009 as Lead Visual Effects (VFX) Artist, working in that role to ship Modern Warfare 3 and Advanced Warfare before becoming Associate Art Director on World War II (WWII) and now Vanguard. That deep experience, along with her team’s shared history, played a crucial role in developing Vanguard.
Let’s start with the game’s ambitious art direction. “Early on, we knew that we wanted to present an international, globe-trotting experience for our players,” she says. “We knew we wanted to go to Stalingrad, which we’d considered in WWII, but it didn’t fit story-wise. We also wanted to touch on the Pacific Theater, Africa, and Normandy, so we started developing those areas and venturing out.”
She stresses the importance of the characters to the art direction, as well. In Vanguard, players see World War II and the birth of Special Forces through the eyes of team leader Sergeant Arthur Kingsley, expert marksman Lieutenant Polina Petrova, demolitionist Private Lucas Riggs, ace pilot Lieutenant 1st Class Wade Jackson, and Kingsley’s right-hand man, Sergeant Richard Webb.
“Vanguard is really focused on the different characters and their journeys to becoming heroes,” she says. “They all have their own persona and flavor, which helped inform the art direction. For example, when Wade Jackson, who is blunt and vocal, flies over the Pacific, it’s more vibrant and colorful. We’re trying to celebrate the journey of our characters, so it’s more stylistic.”
Pvt. Lucas Riggs, The Battle of El Alamein – 1942
Lt. Wade Jackson, The Battle of Midway – 1942
Train to Hamburg – 1945
The Bombing of Stalingrad – 1942
Sgt. Arthur Kingsley, Merville (One Day to D-Day) – 1944
Stalingrad, Winter Offensive – 1943
For the studio’s previous title, Call of Duty: WWII, members of the development team traveled to Normandy to visit the European battle sites that would be depicted in the game. With the pandemic, that option wasn’t available, so the team became resourceful in other ways.
“It wasn’t easy at first,” she says. “Luckily, our studio art director was one of those who went to Normandy for WWII, so he still had memories of that visit, and we were able to look over the archival photos he’d taken. We also used online maps to try and get a feel for how expansive Normandy is and dug through all the historical photos we could find.”
Stalingrad offered its own challenges. “Stalingrad doesn’t exist anymore,” says Lin-Chiang. “We compared maps with historical photos to accurately depict the topography and the placement of buildings and plazas as they were. We looked at archives of historical imagery of Stalingrad before and after it was bombed, for our research.”
Photogrammetry Lead Gerardo Garza brings Stalingrad to life.
Photogrammetry provides the environment team life-like structural details.
The rooftops of Stalingrad.
Photogrammetry, a tool which measures and interprets 3D geometry via photographic images, opened another avenue for building realistic environments. “We had some outside help collecting data from photogrammetry, which we did a lot of for this game,” says Lin-Chiang. “So, for the African desert, we could just scan the rocks, and in Stalingrad we could scan architectural buildings. We’d compare that with black and white photos and then determine the color of each building and its wear and tear. That team was very resourceful.”
Lin-Chiang’s former experience as the Lead VFX Artist gives her a deeper appreciation for the impact of next-gen technology on art direction. “I was an effects artist for a long time, so I was really happy that we were able to get the next-gen rendering features. We can display 10,000, sometimes up to 50,000 particles at once.” She adds, “It helps to create more atmosphere and ambient movement from moment-to-moment and frame-to-frame.”
“It’s definitely more sophisticated than before,” she says. In her role as Associate Art Director, however, she’s quick to remind us that “it’s all in service to the impact of the visuals on the player experience.”
“I always try to present an overarching art direction for the entire game, but we also must have a cohesive art direction for the different modes.” Creating and finding agreement on the vision is a collaborative, iterative process. “There were a lot of conversations between us and other teams. We had to sync up with the creative director to see what game design is doing, what cinematics is doing, and so on.”
Toward the end of development, her focus is on bringing everything together. “We’re pretty agile at the beginning, as each person tries out their own craft and vision for certain parts of the game. But then toward the end it’s all about pulling everybody together and putting all the various elements in place for the final picture.”
One of the big challenges in developing Vanguard was finding ways to maintain a collaborative culture while working remotely. According to Lin-Chiang, “Prior to working remotely, I was able to walk the floor to see what everybody was working on. It might not be an official review, but I could ask what the artists were thinking or what I could do to help them. It was easy to sync up with each other, and we could have department conversations.”
Working apart introduced another issue: ensuring that everyone was operating with the most up-to-date information. “Since we’re not sitting next to each other at the office anymore, we had to be more effective in ensuring that there was focus and alignment across different teams and tasks. At Sledgehammer Games, we rely on each other a lot, so we were able to navigate this quite effectively.”
When asked where she sees art direction headed, she considers her own team’s experience at Sledgehammer Games. “I’m hoping to see the continued teamwork of art and design. We try to give everyone space for their creativity, so the team can provide something that’s both fun and realistic that they feel ownership for as content creators. Everyone feels connected with whatever they’re creating, and that’s something I’m always open to.”
Reflecting on what advice she would give to young artists aspiring to a fruitful career in the games industry, she’s clear about what’s important. “I mentor some students at University of California in Berkeley for Women in Gaming, and I tell them to never give up.” She adds, “If you’re really into this, always try different things and try to get your work seen, either before you get into the industry or after. There are always better ways of making things. In our own creation we can get tunnel vision, so be open minded and always try to represent your work.”
And now that Vanguard is out, she can celebrate. “I’m so excited. It’s a sense of relief, and I’m very proud of what I have achieved. Proud of what I’ve achieved as an art director, but also being a mom working at home and trying to juggle everything when the world seems so chaotic. But we figured it out and I’m very proud of myself and very proud of what the team has done.”
Thanks for reading.