Interview Elise Rochefort

Elise Rochefort: Senior Level Artist at Larian Studios

Today we’re delighted to welcome Elise Rochefort, Senior Level Artist at Larian Studio, for an exclusive interview. From her pioneering beginnings in Quebec City in the 2000s, to her current role creating levels for the highly acclaimed Baldur’s Gate 3, her career path is a real source of inspiration. In this interview, Elise shares with us her career path, her first steps into the world of video games after training in the fine arts, and her thoughts on the evolution of her profession. She also tells us about the challenges and rewards of her work at Larian, where passion and innovation are at the heart of every project. Find out how Elise has managed to blend artistic creativity with technical demands, and be inspired by her invaluable advice for aspiring Level Artists.

Point’n Think: Can you tell us about your career in the video games industry and how you became a Level Artist? We can see, for example, that you started out as an art student before branching out into video games. How did you come to do this?

Elise Rochefort: I began my career in the video game industry in January 2000. You could say that I’m one of the pioneering video game artists in Quebec and also one of the first women to work in this field. At the time, we must have represented only 5-6% of employees! I’ll tell you about it…

Since I was very young, I’ve always been captivated by video games. When I was 12, I got an Atari for my birthday, and later our family bought a Commodore 64 computer on which I could explore a whole range of video games. I loved it. My friends weren’t as enthusiastic about playing as I was. Which I didn’t really understand, because it was great fun for me.

Interview Elise Rochefort

During my studies, I would have liked to go into IT, because I wanted to work with computers, but opportunities in this field were limited at my school at the time. There were far fewer options than there are today! Being creative by nature, I naturally gravitated towards the arts and ended up at university with a BA in Fine Art Education.

Once I’d graduated, I decided that I’d still rather work on a computer and I couldn’t see myself teaching in schools for 25 years. I remember seeing full-page adverts in the newspapers advertising new courses in special effects for film. As I was trying to enrol, the person on the phone told me about a course that was in the development phase, which wasn’t mentioned in the newspaper: a course in video games!

I was thrilled by the idea! I didn’t even know it was possible to work on video games in Quebec! I jumped at the chance, signed up and went for the interview. It was only much later that someone told me that there had been over 500 applications for this ‘experimental’ course. At the time, I didn’t realise how lucky I’d been to have been selected. As far as I was concerned, all I had to do was apply, sit the interview and that was it!

So here I was, the only girl in a group of 30 students. We’d been installed in the basement of a video games company called Behaviour Interactive. We were a bit like guinea pigs, testing this new programme that some institutions were thinking of offering in their schools. This course, although it didn’t lead to any official diploma, offered us complete training, from the design to the production of a video game, supervised by a few Behaviour employees who took it in turns to descend into the basement to teach us their speciality. Official’ video game training courses appeared in schools a few years later.

In the end, I never finished my course. I was about to start my second session in January 2000, when Behaviour Interactive asked me to join them as a ‘texture artist’ for one of their three new projects that were soon to go into production. It has to be said that specialised staff to work in the video games industry were still very rare at the time. And so I found myself as the main texture artist on a game called ‘Bugs Bunny and Taz: Time Busters’. Three other artists from my group joined us a few months later after completing their course to come and work on the other projects in parallel.

PnT: If you’re wondering, what is a texturiser?

Elise: To define the role of a ‘texturer’, a position that has all but disappeared from video games today, we need to go back to the days when we were working on the PlayStation 1. Its memory and performance were much more limited than those of our current consoles. The texturer is the person who draws the 2D textures in Photoshop, representing the materials and colours required, which he then applies to the polygons of the 3D models to dress up the level, the characters and the objects. A little anecdote: unlike today, Photoshop only allowed one undo at the time, and we had to draw with the mouse, no tablet, no touch pen…!

Interview Elise Rochefort

The textures we drew were always square, mostly 64 pixels, which we then had to convert to 4-bit to save memory before importing them into the game. However, given that the conversion considerably reduced the graphic quality of the texture (4-bit reduced the texture to just 16 shades), we drew our textures in greyscale from the outset to preserve as much detail as possible. We then applied these textures one by one to each polygon of the 3D models, which were created exclusively by the modellers.

For the whole ‘hub’, the central place where the character kept returning to go from one mission to another, we only use around 500 polygons, and for the characters, around 30 to 50 polygons. We avoided triangles in the modelling as much as possible, because they distorted the ‘square’ textures. All the static scenery was merged into a single object. To colour and light our environments, we used ‘vertices’ to which we assigned colours. Dynamic lighting was reserved solely for animated characters and a few interactive, moving objects. At the time, I liked to joke with people that the world would be grey without me!

PnT: Can you tell us a bit more about your arrival at Larian?

Elise: I joined Larian on 1 June 2015. One of my colleagues had heard about this Belgian company that was setting up in Quebec and told me about it. Intrigued, I looked them up on the internet and saw that they had won awards for their games. It seemed to me to be a solid company with passionate people who aimed to make quality games. So I decided to apply.

Interview Elise Rochefort

However, my interview took place in the spring, 2 or 3 months before the official opening of the Quebec studio. At that time, Larian was not yet in the current building. They had rented a room nearby where they could interview candidates. It was a bit intimidating, as my interview was with the company’s top executives who were visiting Quebec City to prepare for the opening of the new studio. They included Swen, the founder of Larian, the artistic director and the studio director. What’s more, the interview was in English, a language in which I’m not very comfortable speaking. Fortunately, they were all very friendly and the interview went well. After two interviews and a few game level design tests, I was hired.

At the time, we were the fourth country in which Larian had opened a studio. And, when I joined, there were only 13 of us in Quebec and… I was the only woman in the group, still… Today, we have over 70 employees in Quebec and over 450 in 7 countries around the world. And there are several women in the company now. What’s special about Larian is that all the studios work simultaneously on the same game, which means that game production goes on 24 hours a day!

PnT: How would you define the work of a Level Designer?

Elise: The Level Designer is a bit like the spatial architect of the environments in a video game. In collaboration with the scriptwriters, they design the levels by integrating all the elements and game mechanics needed to serve the story. This includes the layout of locations, game elements, terrain relief, major obstacles, basic lighting, and so on. It must also take into account various constraints such as the collision system and camera behaviour. During this first stage, the levels are tested, modified and improved to ensure a good rhythm between the different situations and fluid, instinctive navigation for the player. Once the level is functional and its design has been approved, it goes into the hands of Level Artists like me for the dressing up, in other words, the decoration.

Interview Elise Rochefort

PnT: How do you differentiate between a Level Designer and an Environment Artist?

Elise: Although the division of tasks can vary from one role to another and even overlap a little, the Level Designer concentrates on the design and functionality of the levels, while the Environment Artist is the person who dresses up and decorates the level.

At Larian, 3D modellers are also placed in the ‘Environment Artist’ category, even though many of them never touch the levels. They create the objects and materials that enrich the library of objects that will be used to decorate the environments. Then there are two or three of us who concentrate exclusively on decorating the levels. We’re placed in the Level Artist category in the credits.

But it’s true that some people do 3D and decoration, others do decoration and a bit of level design like me. We often wear more than one hat. We often take advantage of slack periods at the start of a new project to develop something else that tempts us. That’s what I do. During heavy production, I don’t do much modelling, because level design keeps me busy full-time, but at the start of a project, when it’s quieter, I practise a bit more 3D modelling. I’m free to design little objects for the game to come and that’s how I created the famous ‘poutine’ that ended up in DOS2, but can also be found in BG3! This little element made players smile and it even caused a bit of a buzz in the media! It was mentioned in a couple of articles online! When I saw that, it made me laugh. I thought, well, this poutine is more famous than I am! But it all started with a joke I was doing with a colleague at the time. We thought, well, it would be funny if I made a poutine and put it in the game because it’s a typical Quebec dish. I wondered if it would go down well, but nobody objected! Obviously, I gave it a little medieval ‘look’ so that it would fit in well with the game!

PnT: What is the process and methodology for designing a level?

Elise: First, in collaboration with the authors, the design team decides which locations are needed to set the story. Each designer then creates a 3D map of their level in our game editor, positioning the main locations, setting up basic lighting, adjusting distances and trying to create an interesting and dynamic path that will instinctively lead the player to the different situations and gameplay elements. Often, there is an initial rough decoration to give relevant indications of each place in the level. This process is tested, modified and adjusted several times before approval by the design director, which leads to the next stage: decoration.

Interview Elise Rochefort

At the same time, the art department is carrying out research to define the style to be given to these levels. At the start of the project, artists are encouraged to take part in this visual research and to contribute any ideas they think might be of interest. A lot of research is done on the net and our illustrators are asked to come up with concepts in the style we’re looking for. Some artists start to create objects for the new project in progress and others carry out decoration tests for the environments.

Then, once the levels are functional and approved, the level artists can start decorating. At the very beginning, we go round the level with the level designer to get as many details as possible about what’s going on in it; the story, the gameplay needs, the combat areas, etc. We also talk to the art director about what’s going on in the level and how it’s going to work. We also talk to the art director to find out what his guidelines are, and then we put all that together and add our own ideas.

PnT: How do you work with the other members of the development team, such as the level designers, concept artists and programmers?

Elise: Before starting a level, I talk to the art director, who gives me his guidelines, and often I have visual references or drawings from our very talented concept artists to help me understand the direction it should take. Then I do the ‘guided tour’ with the level designer, because he knows all the details of what’s going on in his level and the story that unfolds there, and that helps me a lot to situate things and orientate what I’m going to do for the decor. I then talk to the scriptwriters to find out what they need to place their gameplay elements. It’s all done online, because most of the people I deal with are in other countries, but surprisingly we get on quite well despite the very different time zones. 

As for the programmers, our discussions with them are often about the bugs we need to fix when we’re working in the game editor, but also when we have requests for tools to add or requests for new elements we need to improve the aesthetics of the game, such as lighting or reflection effects or interesting game mechanics, etc. And, in the latter case, often the answer is no…. And, in the last case, the answer is often no… We can’t do that… Lol.

Interview Elise Rochefort

We joke about it a bit, but it’s often not their fault. The programmers work hard and have to use their ingenuity to work around many of the obstacles and constraints of the console to allow us to add incredible visual possibilities and ensure that everything continues to work perfectly at the end. Their lives are an endless trail of problems to solve! In any case, without the programmers, there would simply be no game. They work tirelessly from the beginning to the end of a project. Quite simply, they are the heart of the machine!

PnT: What artistic and technical skills are essential to excel as a Level Artist in the industry?

Elise: So when it comes to the artistic side of things, a background in art or graphic design is a great advantage. Because even if you’re working on video games, it’s important to understand the basic principles of visual language, such as guidelines, balance in composition, use of light, knowing how to harmonise colours and so on. Also, a good sense of observation of the world around us is necessary to create visually logical and credible environments, even if this often applies to fantasy worlds. Also, to hone your critical and artistic skills, I recommend looking at what other artists are doing elsewhere. Whether it’s video games, illustrations or 3D, the more we see, the more our critical faculties develop and the more we can feed our imaginations. There are so many incredible and inspiring things on the net, and we’re lucky today to have access to this infinite library of ideas, so make the most of it!

Interview Elise Rochefort

So you need to be creative and meticulous, but also methodical and enjoy a certain technical side. Because, once you’ve mastered the use of the game editor, you need to be able to create inspiring environments while respecting the technical constraints, performance limits, story, gameplay and game design. A good knowledge of 3D modelling is also generally required, as we often have to create, modify or adapt 3D objects ourselves to integrate them harmoniously into our levels.

PnT: Can you describe a typical day working as a Level Artist on Baldur’s Gate 3?

Elise: When I arrive, I update my data, because the game is in constant development. Then, in the morning, we have a video call with our team. In my case, it’s mainly with the designers and the other level artists. We call it ‘SCRUM’. Of course, we’re in different time zones, but we still manage to keep in sync! We discuss our daily tasks, give and receive important messages and discuss any problems or obstacles we come across, to try and remedy them as quickly as possible before moving on with our day’s work.

After that, I work on my level all day. I often have online exchanges along the way with the designers and scriptwriters when I need clarification or feedback on what I’ve put in place to make sure my level still meets everyone’s needs and constraints.

At the end of the day, each artist, whatever their speciality, posts images of the progress of their work in a ‘SCRUM’ channel that is visible to the whole company. This gives us an overview of what’s been achieved each day, and sometimes allows us to comment on it. But it also allows us to congratulate and encourage each other! A pat on the back from time to time does us good and keeps us motivated!

PnT: How did your experience as a Level Artist on other video game projects influence your approach to Baldur’s Gate 3? Were you familiar with the first two games and Larian’s other games?

Elise: No, personally, I’d never played any of the previous Baldur’s Gate or Larian games before I started with them. But having always worked on fantasy environments in my previous projects, I already had a lot of interest and affinity for this style. Also, having worked on DOS2, it gave me good practice to then work on BG3, which is in the same graphic genre.

Interview Elise Rochefort

What’s different about Larian, unlike other companies I’ve worked for before, is that we have a certain amount of freedom to create, develop and add our own ideas to our environments. We don’t just blindly execute what the DA wants, but everyone is invited to contribute their ideas and take part in the creative development process. So I have a certain amount of freedom to do my work. In the end, if my environment is beautiful, immersive and interesting to explore, it’s in the box! Put like that, it may sound easy, but to achieve a high level of quality, it can take weeks or even months to refine an environment, especially if it’s very large. Every element or detail is carefully placed by hand. I’d say that around 20% of the time is spent on the first skin of a level and 80% of the time on iterations and improvements.

PnT: Do you usually play role-playing games and, if so, does this experience help you in your work? And how does it inspire you?

Elise: I’ve played a lot of different kinds of games all my life. Not exclusively role-playing games, but all kinds. The more the merrier, don’t you think? So I’d say they’ve all contributed to my evolution and to keeping me on the lookout for new possibilities that can be exploited.

When I was little, I couldn’t understand how video games were ‘made’, and it fascinated me to no end. It was as mysterious as magic. But now, even though I know what goes on behind the scenes of a video game, the magic still works for me. Every year, new games come out that are breathtaking, really beautiful and interesting, and my passion is constantly renewed. And sometimes I still find myself saying, but wow, how did they do that! It’s a creative and exciting field that I don’t think I’ll ever tire of. As they say… “Find something you love to do, and you’ll never work a day in your life! “

PnT: What are the most rewarding aspects of your work as Level Artist on a project as ambitious as Baldur’s Gate 3?

Elise: The response to the release of a new Baldur’s Gate has been incredible! Even during the development phase, we could feel the excitement of the fans through their online comments. It was like we were setting the date for Christmas this year! So to know that players had fun exploring the environments I made in BG3 was very gratifying for me. And since its release, I’ve personally received messages from ‘fans’ thanking me or congratulating me on my work on BG3. It’s very pleasant and rewarding!

Interview Elise Rochefort

PnT: What explains the huge success of Baldur’s Gate 3?

Elise: To explain this success, I’d first say that at Larian, we’re passionate people who create games for other passionate people. Our boss, Swen, has always loved this kind of game and he’s always totally committed to the development of our projects. He founded the company because he wanted to make games that he would like to play himself, so his priority has always been to guarantee the best possible experience for players, and this has become the philosophy of our company. We think, if we’re going to put in so much effort, we might as well see it through to the end and go the extra mile that others often don’t. It’s too much effort for the money. It’s too much effort to give up in the end. Working so hard to end up releasing average or mediocre titles? No, that’s not for us.

At Larian, we take the liberty of postponing the release date of a game if the expected level of quality has not yet been achieved. I’ve never experienced this at any of the other companies I’ve worked for. Dead-lines elsewhere were always in concrete. And when the game came out, the critics were quick to point out what we already knew… And it was heartbreaking to have it thrown back in our faces. We told ourselves that we’d just needed that little extra expansion to sort things out… But we didn’t. As everyone knows, time is money and it wasn’t really up to us, the production team, to decide. Fortunately, at Larian, we can enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done. Production time is longer, it’s true, but in the end, it’s satisfying to get a result that everyone is proud of, and that makes the players happy too!

Interview Elise Rochefort

So releasing the game on Steam as ‘Early Access’ a few years before its final version proved to be a strategy that paid off. It allowed us to interact constantly with the gaming community, to keep our finger on the pulse, to gather their reactions, suggestions and criticisms, in order to improve every aspect of the game that required special attention. And it looks like we’ve done just that! With all the awards it has won, it’s safe to say that Baldur’s Gate 3 has met and exceeded fans’ expectations! The game offers a unique, unprecedented, personalised adventure experience, with endless possibilities, innovative ideas and surprises that have largely contributed to its phenomenal success. I’m very proud to have contributed to this project and can now boast that I’ve finally been able to work on the ‘Best Game of the Year’. It’s a great achievement for all of us!

PnT: What advice would you give to aspiring Level Artists who want to enter the video games industry?

Elise: If you’re a natural-born artist, creative and passionate, but you’re also at ease with the more technical and structured aspects, this is certainly a field that would appeal to you. It’s a bit like making an animated painting in 3 dimensions! But you also need to have certain personal skills, such as liking working in a team, being proactive, being critical, but also knowing how to accept criticism, adapting to changes and constraints, and so on. You also have to understand that, in the video game industry, it’s normal to have to redo your work several times for different reasons, and you have to accept that… So patience, humility and a desire to excel. C’est la game !

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