Shrapnel Behind the Scenes Part I: Environment Concept Art

Every year we see a bunch of new games step into the arena, but not every as ambitious and promising as Shrapnel, the brainchild of Neon Studio. These Seattle-based visionaries teamed up with developers from all over the world to create a new blockchain-related FPS that made waves in the game development community. Fresh off the heels of a demo version showcased at GDC, they’re already racking up some seriously good reviews.

According to the lore of the game, Shrapnel isn’t just debris — it is a priceless fragment of the Moon scattered on Earth. Different factions, militaries, organizations, and even governments are going bonkers trying to get their hands on it, and they are ready to start a massacre! 

Recreating this chaotic battleground with a destroyed Moon isn’t a piece of cake. So, Neon Studio collaborated with Room 8 Studio, a seasoned team of professionals who could express full-scale creativity to help the Neon team build an immersive futuristic experience. Room 8 Studio’s involvement in the Shrapnel was so extensive that we split our Case Study into two parts: concept art creation and 3D rendering. So today, we’re going to talk with the team about how they got a chance to contribute to such an extraordinary project and how they crafted concept art for this sci-fi environment. Get ready — here’s the first part of our exploration of Shrapnel!

Approaching Shrapnel

Let this ball roll from the start! How did Room 8 Studio get involved in the development of Shrapnel, and how did your role change from the early days to the end of the project?

Maria Boyarskaya, Art Producer: Well, it all started when our producers, Egor Sandakov and Georgiy Artemenko, made a deal with Neon Studio to help create Shrapnel, and I took the reins of this project in March 2022.

Initially, we had only an Environment Concept Art team [ECA] with about four to five talented artists. We quickly jumped on the project and immediately started to work. Our mission was to align with the client and create the first concepts for the main idea and mood references. These references Neon Studio lately used on Twitter and Discord for all the world to see.

We spent all of Spring and Summer on such a pipeline when Neon Studio offered to pump up our team, adding Photoreal Environment, 3D Animation, and Hard Surface teams to our previous ECA crew. So, our team suddenly grew from 5 to a whopping 20 artists. I think Neon’s faith in us was a sign that our work was top-notch.

Wow, it definitely looked like this! So, after the ramp-up, what came next? What were your teams in charge of, and what were their responsibilities?

Maria Boyarskaya: For ECA, the main mission was to whip up 2D concept art for the environment and props, based on which the Photoreal Environment team created the entire map from scratch: level art, terrain, lighting, and props. The Hard Surface team, at the same time, brought drones, cars, and forklifts to life. 

That’s a whole bunch of work! How did you guys keep in touch with Neon Studio during development? And spill the beans on how you built pipelines and relationships with the client.

Maria Boyarskaya: They were totally upfront with us, and we made sure to keep the communication lines wide open, which turned out to be key to building an awesome relationship. Neon Studio had faith in us and let us take the reins in setting up pipelines. Roma Grishaev and Dmytro Danylenko established them for the 3D Photoreal and 3D Hard Surface teams, respectively, while Adrian Torres continued it for the 3D Photoreal Environment team.

We had weekly meetings with the Neon team, where they dish out feedback. Sometimes, the Neon team allowed us to take the initiative and just solve problems ourselves. They appreciated our attitude and knew they could count on us. They also were pleased to use our guidelines on how to keep the lighting settings and textures of our hard surface assets.

Still, the project nature was pretty fluid, and it was a normal situation when briefs were changed entirely during development. But we took it all in stride, rolling with the punches and tweaking our previous work as needed. We always remained flexible.

Albert Serra Santos, Art Producer: Oh, yes, being flexible was a total game-changer in this project. I picked up the Animation and Concept Art teams in the middle of the project and we started by setting priorities and carefully addressing all the issues, taking it slow and steady. We also avoided idling by balancing on a clearing backlog and tackling the bottlenecks head-on. 

In the middle of this mind-blowing development, instead of battling the chaos, Dmitry Spasibozhko, Head of Animation & VFX Division at Room 8 Studio, said: “Okay, you guys will have to deal with all this craziness, so at least let’s make it fun”. So we started to keep our morale high with the jokes.

The Neon Studio team was pleased by our approach. We felt very close with them, like we are not just a vendor but a part of their in-house team.

As far as I know, the toolset is crucial to the speed and quality of performance. What tools have you found most useful for such a large project?

Maria Boyarskaya: Maybe our team leads and artists would probably answer this question better than me. However, I know that Unreal Engine 5 has helped our artists a lot. It’s like a dream tool, user-friendly, giving us a lot of creative freedom. Even if we had some obstacles with it, we could find loads of guidelines online to help us. Plus, they got this legal marketplace where the Neon team scored some assets.

Sometimes our passionate artists got so carried away with this tool that they created insanely cool textures the FPS couldn’t keep up with, so we had to dial down the quality.

It’s all about balance, right? Any other project management or external collaboration hurdles you and the team had to tackle? 

Maria Boyarskaya: Shrapnel was like the ultimate test to level up skills and prove your worth. We needed to be pros at prioritizing tasks under the pressure of time and lack of crew for such a big-scale project. Now we know how important it is to thoroughly investigate the art direction, technical support, and how many teams we need before diving into a new project. Also, clear and direct communication always saves time and money.

Now that our collaboration with Neon Studio is finished and only the environment concept artists continued participating in Shrapnel, I can say that it was a great project with a great experience. Neon Studio also put on an amazing demo at GDC that I’m proud to be a part of.

Albert Serra Santos: After the release of this GDC demo, the Neon team rethink their approach to Shrapnel. They soaked up a ton of lessons during the production, so they decided to cut down all the big collaborations, except for our Environment Concept Art team, and start over again.

We also learned a lot on that project. Maria Boyarskaya, Art Producer, nailed it when she said that we need to detect unclear things in the pre-production stage and provide solutions as soon as possible. I have to step up my game when it comes to talking to the client about these planning gaps. We have to pave the way in front of our artists and make things smoother.

Yet we can be proud of the resilience of our artists who worked under such circumstances for so long and still keep up with a good sense of humor and are eager to keep working and show the best results possible.

Still, let me tell you, working with Neon was a great pleasure for me. We forged tight bonds, and I’m super happy to share with them such a fruitful experience! But much better is that they are as stoked about our collaboration and the quality of our work as we are! It’s a win-win situation here!

Creating an Environment 

So, let’s start with environment creation. Can you tell me the references and inputs for us to understand the lore of the game?

Nikolay Karelin, ECA Project Lead: Well, among the general briefs that Neon Studio gave us for the Shrapnel lore, they gave us the first input: “It’s a futuristic world, but not a sci-fi”. The main references from movies were Elysium, Oblivion, and Edge of Tomorrow, and in architecture, we had to recreate grunge style. For us, it was a chance to burst our creativity.

We needed to create the fundament of the game, which the client could rely on. As we are an experienced team, we suggested solutions, and the client chose what fit their vision. It was almost teamwork with the client.

Actually, about teamwork, what was the strategy when you assigned specialists to this project?

Nikolay Karelin: We knew that Shrapnel is a big deal, so we assigned the most talented, top-notch artists from our team, considering how experienced they were and what they specialize in. For the environment concept team, we rolled with a crew of senior and middle artists only, aiming to whip up the best outcome possible.

Impressive squad you got there! How did you approach project planning, assigning tasks, and setting up the technical processes with such a bunch of pros? Could you also tell me more about how your team contributed to Neon Studio’s art direction?

Nikolay Karelin: Well, working with this super creative pro crew is always a pleasure! Here is how we usually kicked things off: we’d start with a minimal brief, break it down in-house, and figure out who’s gonna do what and how. Then, we defined the technical pipelines. Even in the earliest brainstorming sessions, we had a high dropout rate: we gathered only the best references in-house, so the client always got only the best options to choose from. 

We pretty much supported the Neon Studio’s art direction with our expertise, and we were all in this together, like co-developers, not just some run-of-the-mill vendors. Sometimes we decide if we’re gonna go 3D first, or maybe 2D, or even mix both. Additionally, I want to say that implementing Unreal Engine 5 into our pipelines was the best decision ever. Still, about this tool, you better ask our teammates from the Photoreal or Hard Surface departments.

I will surely do that! I heard Neon Studio gave you a lot of creative freedom. Is it stressful for the artists, or, conversely, a chance to open up creatively and exceed all the expectations?

Nikolay Karelin: Honestly, I appreciate this creative freedom Neon Studio gave us. It’s like they knew our skills and let us do our thing, turning us into legit partners. It was like they didn’t want to touch us because we had already overcome every issue on our own.

A true-blue concept artist needs to master both approaches: performing tasks and creating art from scratch. And our team could roll with both: with a strict brief or wing it from scratch. We can prove it by the case when our artists whipped up a whole car model relying only on the general input for vehicles and hard surfaces. And they did it perfectly, as well as other unexpected solutions that were so great that the client implemented them into the final game.

Unexpected solutions? Are you talking about some specific cases? 

Nikolay Karelin: Yes, I mean several cases. For example, one of our artists created a big red bridge and rebuilt it into a full-blown dam. But the thing is that the Neon Studio team went nuts about that idea. They turned this dam into the epic Wall and made it into a trailer! It is the best example of how early concepts affect a project.

Another cool moment was related to the Valdacha building. We took the layout of the building and improved it in our own way. When the Neon team saw the result, they immediately agreed that our solution was much better than the original version. Also, seeing the Garage location in playtests matching our concept work, just on a smaller scale, was pure joy.

But I need to tell you that our powerhouse move was on the main map. It was the most time-consuming and challenging task on that project.

Tell us about that main map in more detail. 

Nikolay Karelin: This map is actually an abandoned military base that looks like a square with a giant hologram of a soldier standing tall. Here’s how we got it going: We started with the client’s ideas, nailed down the overall vibe, and then kicked in the level design. After the approval of the client, we pumped up the creativity and filled the map with our assets and design solutions. 

We decided where there are function zones, road markings, and sidewalks, and we strived to make them both real and functional. It was a total challenge to crack that design, especially in creating the road markings and the architecture. Luckily for me, I had some experience with level design and art, so I knew how to make it all flow in the game.

We went through three rounds of feedback on that map, and in the end, based on our model, we whipped up an atmospheric still for the client just to show off the vibes.

It feels like Shrapnel was the ultimate playground for your team. Were you able to improve your knowledge?

Nikolay Karelin: Shrapnel was a real banger where we could flex our true talents, indeed. The Neon team wanted the best quality possible, but we also set the bar sky-high ourselves. Despite these high standards, we managed to impress the client with the results truly. The concepts we made were so awesome that Neon Studio used them as marketing material!

And yes, I could say that we leveled up in art direction and co-development. We scored major trust points from the client and kicked the concept creation up a notch in quality and speed. We could create an entire batch in one week with a team of three artists! Our artists upgraded their skills in architecture and procedure modeling, and one of our specialists mapped out the Paris concept using this procedure modeling. It’s a straight-up showcase of their expertise!

In the next chapter of this remarkable journey, we’ll look at 3D, Lighting, and Hard Surface creation of Shrapnel. While you wait, learn more about our other environment concept art masterpieces and stay tuned for more news!

Shrapnel team:

Art Producers
Albert Serra Santos
Georgiy Artemenko
Maria Boyarskaya
Natalia Krokos
Nina Khomenko

Management (all services)
Inna Pendyur
Elena Natsvlishvili
Aleksandra Gapich
Oleksandr Popovych
Maksim Makovsky
Mara Coca
Sergey Bondarenko
Olha Zhurba
Diana Yemets
Alevtyna Shkliarevych
Anastasiya Lavrenteva
Oleksii Lytvyn
Dmitriy Spasibozhko
Olha Burtseva

Anatolii Hryshchenko (Lead)
Maksim Trofimov (Lead)
Nikolay Karelin (Lead)
Oleksii Perian (Lead)
Denys Klimashonak (Lead)
Alex Polgar
Anastasiia Paskevska
Anna Kulakovskaia
Anton Valiukonis
Kateryna Korol
Mikhail Delov
Oleksandr Plekhanov
Oleksiy Yurevych
Pedro Veloso
Riccardo Di Dino
Ruslan Safiullin
Serhii Bilievtsov

3D Photoreal Environment
Adrian Torres (Lead)
Roman Grishaev (Lead)
Andrii Oliinyk
Guillermo Moreno
Jose Perez
Liudmyla Ramul
Luis Fabregas
Radu-Georgian Carstean
Roman Agieiev
Vladyslav Pedchenko
Evren Kirac

3D Photoreal Environment (Lighting)
Aitor Castella
Berkcan Akca

3D HardSurface
Dmytro Danylenko (Lead)
Aleksandra Sokolova
Andrii Chernukh
Jan Kasperczyk
Mykyta Rybak
Yevheniia Berezovska

3D Animation
Olha Tatur (Lead)
Eduardo Bomant Garrido (Lead)
Alejandro Santamarina
Frederic Garcia
Serhii Leonenko

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