Guitar Hero Van Helen

Someone recently sent me this link and I was reminded of the gratifying experience of trying to figure out a style for our UI. It had to both feel like a Guitar Hero game and have a visual identity that was pure Van Halen. The tricky part was that VH doesn’t have much in the way of ‘brand’.  Me and two UI artists had a day of just floundering, throwing sketches at a wall with nothing really sticking. So we grabbed a bunch of VH swag, sat in a room, and started identifying elements that could be used for various UI roles. We chose iconography for moving bits, menu backgrounds, selection highlights, transition elements…it was a blast. Once we had these pieces we mocked up some screens to see if our thinking was sound, made a few tweaks to the plan, and bam! After maybe three days we had it. It was a good thing too because it was a very crunchy project.

Recent AD work

The last few years have been both exhilarating and frustrating; I was blessed with working with some of the most gifted people of my career on a project that I loved and had such great hopes for only to have it canceled. Below are some of the Visual Targets that we developed.

This was our first VT. At the time it was a city building game and I wanted to quickly illustrate the value and what a truly AAA integrated terrain/road/lot toolset would allow us to achieve. At the time I was also exploring the potential of creating visuals that relied less on texture and more on run-time AO using a system of vert colors modified by adjacent structures.

Here were some rough grey-block studies that were used to help us define our scales.

We created quite a few gray-block scenes simply to help visualize some of the aspects of the game that were under discussion.

At one point in pre-pro we were lucky enough to have a very talented and powerful tech artist/animator join our team (Kelly Riley), and were able to put together this video illustrating the ‘living world’ aspect of our game.

As the overall game design evolved, so to did the art to better support the evolving design goals.

The most interesting and rewarding aspect of this next Visual Target was figuring out how to deal with the atmosphere and horizon. Working with an incredibly talented Technical Art Director (TJ Holleran), we came up with nested skydomes, the inner one consisting of a gradient that gave us our horizon (important when the camera was at ground level), which faded as the camera pulled back away from the landmass. Super cool.


Another twist came when we decided that we would have our ‘sims’ carrying oversized resources (literally stacked cartoon style) from place to place, and buildings would have resource piles that needed be visible to the player.

A dependency that could have been catastrophic for the game visuals. This building is an example of how we solved the issue.

Another aspect of the game we needed to convey to the player was the state of any given building; sleeping sims and empty resources pile would convey some of this.

Lastly, a few shots of our final Visual Target.



Just a few models I sculpted in Zbrush for a Graphic Novel I’m working on. Not the most detailed models but enough for the intended purpose.

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The Sims 4

A little game that some people might have heard of. Art Directing on this was something I was definitely not prepared for. Too much to say on that topic. Here’s a few screens of the game when I was acting AD.

Probably the thing I’m most proud of is how far the Sims came from when I started to when we shipped:

And finally, just one of the many things I had to do in absence of a lead willing to do the job (another long story); a graphic that illustrated how I wanted our pants vs boot layering to work:

Sim City MatchIt

Another canceled Maxis game. This one hurt; we had an amazing, super functional team and fantastic leadership. Everyone was fully into what we were doing and friends and family were playing the game regularly just because it was fun. The premise was simple; make a match three game with a city building component combined with a strong meta-game, social, competitive , and collection features. This was probably my favorite Art Directing experiences.

When I first came on the project it didn’t look like much but was already fun and we had two amazing artists already on board. In a few short months the team grew and the game got close to looking really good. The art style was a dream; fun to look at while not being childish and fairly easy to create assets for. Here are a few shots from that project.

Recent sketches

Been playing around with some looser styles and doing a few ‘speed’ paintings. The image I like best is the swamp looking one mainly because it was a super quick 20 minute sketch before bed and I didn’t spend a moment second guessing what I was doing. Who knows, maybe I was just regurgitating something I’d seen somewhere else!

Sirens Graphin Novel

Here are a few panels from a graphic novel I’ve been working on in my spare time. The story started out at 60 pages and has now ballooned into 145 pages! If I don’t start editing the hell out of it I may never get it done! It’s also a good excuse to practice my digital painting skills.

Crytek engine exploration

The point of this project was to see what kind of fidelity was possible in the Crytek engine while shooting for a reasonable frame rate on a min spec machine of: 3.20 Ghz P4, 1G RAM, GeForce 6800.

The initial village took about a week to build then the tower in the last few shots took three days because once I’d finished it I decided that I wasn’t happy having all the UV’s be 1 to 1 as a walking player would never get close enough to the tower’s upper levels to see the lower fidelity maps. This way I could get a higher resolution down around the base of the tower where a player would be standing.

In this final shot you can see how I set up my occluders and audio volumes.

During the course of this project I delved into almost all aspects of level creation in the Crytek engine; modifying terrain and voxel volumes, adding terrain materials, creating VFX, adding SFX volumes, creating linked animations, playing with Cryteks wonderful (to me at least) system for defining which items show up at different system spec settings, visibility culling (occluders, cells, and portals), LOD’s (the tower has three), vegetation creation and painting, Time of Day, materials set-up, adding first and third person weapons (huge pain, but it always is), rivers and roads, editing some of the system spec cfg files, and lastly playing with the track view to set up in-game events.

All in all, this was pretty damn fun, and I’m now a big fan of this engine. I just wish lights weren’t such a big frame rate hit.

Stylized Medieval Village in a Week.

This started out as an exercise to re-familiarize myself with building modular terrain. I did a lot of this kind of work on the PS2 but the persistent problem was in trying to build urban landscapes that felt organic which is now fairly easy to do with modern engines where the level topology doesn’t all have to be welded.

Once I started building I wanted to also see how well I could achieve a cell shaded look with the Crytek engine. What you see here is about 32 hours of work. The cool thing (for me at least) is that with just a few parts (plus some landmarks to help navigation) I could quickly build a huge town.

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Steven A Ross
San Francisco, CA
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