Industry-Wide Asset Bank

As an indie developer I’ve been pondering an idea of a game-industry-wide asset bank. Granted, its use would be somewhat limited, but it would serve games as an art form. Let me explain.

Consider something like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It has got a massive amount of assets tied to it due to its immense game world. Still, many of those assets soon grow repetitive. PC users aren’t tied to the vanilla assets, but the quality of fan-made mods can vary drastically. What if there was an industry-wide asset bank with thousands of models, parts, and animations that any company buying the subscription could access? It might sound like an asset store at first, but read further.

Where are those assets coming from, then? From these very companies. They would be required to submit any specific type of content (human models, textures, animations) from their published games to this bank.

Now, I can already hear you coming up with a ton of questions undermining the usefulness of this idea, so let me beat you to the punch and answer few of the most obvious ones.

How would different companies be able to use the same animations?

Naturally, this would require some sort of standardization. However, there are already some generally accepted best practices when it comes to 3D human models and rigs. It might take a while, but if everyone really saw the value in a service like this, they would work towards making this work. Creating a unique rig doesn’t really have much value to the end user.

Wouldn’t every game look the same?

Does every movie look the same? Putting aside animations, all movies draw their visual styles from the real world. Of course, this sort of bank would mainly benefit games going for the realistic look, but I for one imagine that their number is only going to increase in the coming years.

Still, wouldn’t the players get sick of seeing the same Skyrim animations in every game?

That’s the beauty of it. You wouldn’t just have Skyrim animations in every game. You would have them combined with hundreds or thousands of other animations. If you consider the idea that only the extra characters in every game would get their animations from this bank and the animators could then allocate all of their time creating interesting motion for the main characters (which then would be added to the bank), this soon starts to make more sense.

Every side character might have 50 different idle animations that it could randomly choose one from. This would make every game feel more alive. And when the artists aren’t working on less important things, they can really make the best parts of their title shine.

All of the modern shooters could start by having the same shooting animations as a base and then start developing more animations to give their unique twist to the game they’re creating. Remember, we’re imitating real life here. People don’t run, shoot, or jump in that many different ways. And if in some animator’s opinion they do, they would then have more time to create those unique animations.

Is it just for animations?

I don’t know if this sort of tool would be useful for modern games. Maybe the time for an asset bank like this is still ahead of us.

However, for years and years now people have been saying that there will come a point when we can’t make graphics any higher fidelity anymore. When you make a game model of a human being, then that’s it. Maybe if those models too follow some sort of formula, someone might make a tool that can alter their physique like the character creation tools of modern role-playing games do. Then artists would simply keep creating things that would make those base models appear more unique. Just like people do in real life with their clothes, hairstyle, and other accessories.

What about more stylish games?

This is not a solution for everything. I wouldn’t suggest anyone to use this bank if they wanted to make a game about a cartoon fox flying through space. Realistic-looking games are still a huge market and I think it will only get bigger. Think about a company creating something like The Fugitive and all the artists spending all their time making the two main characters look and behave just the way the director wants.

Things like Unity asset store already exist. Why make another asset store?

I’m not talking about a single person doing generic models and selling them online. I’m talking about everything in the industry being interconnected. When I might see 2K games using animations by Blizzard, EA, Square Enix, Bethesda, and Eidos, then we’re talking about the same thing.

Asset stores mostly offer self-contained packages of models, textures, and animations. Other artists don’t really use them as a base to create more assets for that same pack. This might have happened, but there’s not a system in place that encourages everyone to put all their work towards a mutual goal.

Additionally, there are no style guidelines in asset stores. If you want to create a realistic looking shooter, you can’t really just download a hundred different realistic game characters and expect them to be stylistically coherent. Some standards might be forming over time as people realize that certain types of assets get purchased more, but the process is very slow. Also, there’s the matter of collaboration that is never addressed.

What’s so special about collaboration?

Let’s go back to the asset store comparison. Say that there is a company with two hundred employees that is concentrated on just making assets for the Unreal Engine Marketplace. The models, textures, animations, and sounds might all be top notch quality. I don’t know if companies like this exist yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me. The problem there is that it’s still just 200 people. Combine two companies like Eidos Montreal and EA Dice and you’ve probably got more artist right there. And that’s just two companies.

How many big game companies use assets bought from asset stores? I really don’t have an answer to this, but the answer doesn’t really matter much. There isn’t a sense of collaboration towards a conjoint goal. What is the goal? To make realistic-looking games look as realistic as they can be.

Consider a perfectly made asset store human model with a hundred different animations, one that can be plucked into any project without even a warning message. Then consider that a thousand industry veterans took that model, started to work it in ways that would make it perfect for their games, and then shared whatever they made with everyone else. Sure, you might not need a mortar reload animation in a game like Skyrim, but think about all the nuanced little tweaks that make the game world around the player look more detailed and alive.

So, you just like realistic-looking games? What about something like Legend of Zelda?

Hey, if I had it my way, every movie in the theaters would be animated. The thing with realistic style is that it’s a lot easier to do for movies compared to the amount of work you have to put to something like Wall-E or Zootopia (not that they don’t come with their own benefits).

Realistic is a lot harder to create with games and it’s the players who pay the price. Not everyone wants to make realistic-looking games and that is perfectly fine. Often the reason why people go for a more stylistic visuals is because creating a realistic look for the game simply isn’t viable. And when the developers don’t realize this, you end up with something like The Slaughtering Grounds.

I believe that we as an industry need to be working together in order to achieving high enough quality for realistic graphics. The other half of it are the game engines, but they can’t save a bad animation loop. The assets need to be top notch, which requires more time than any one company can afford to put in their game projects. This sort of collaboration benefits the games and, in turn, the player.

Wouldn’t big companies just start to churn out uninspired clones after another? Wouldn’t it benefit games as an art form more to have them try their hardest to be better than the rest?

If we dodge the topic of whether many modern games already are just clones of eachother (wouldn’t want to open that can of worms) I think people working in the game industry are very passionate when it comes to their craft. Handing these people an asset bank like this wouldn’t make them put any less effort in their work. They would still be very much trying to be better than everyone else. The starting point would simply be a lot higher for everyone.

Is that all?

This bank could have models, textures, sound assets, and more. Think about it. Having a growing library of rocks and trees with different textures at your fingertips. Just use them as a base for your game and then send the artists to the field to scan more rocks and trees. Think about the gun models. AK-47 is AK-47 in every game. If you want to give it an original touch, then you’re in luck! You don’t have to start creating the base model from scratch. (Of course AK-47 is just a very simple example. Use your imagination.) Same goes for sound effects.

I think that pretty soon big companies would start communicating with eachother to create more standards so that every game can be the highest fidelity imaginable. Some assets would in time be deprecated as more dynamic things rolled into the bank.

The important thing to remember is that this is all to benefit games as an art form. Less time wasted on creating the most basic assets, more time to concentrate on what really makes your game shine. Game developers love games and want to see them to reach their highest potential. An asset bank like this would benefit everyone.

It would take a lot of money and work for this to become reality. Is it even possible?

I think it is possible, but of course this concept is still in the idea stage. Maybe this isn’t even the best way to do this, but that’s why it’s important to start the discussion now. I believe that if game developers can see the value this sort of tool would bring to their craft, they are going to make it happen. They just need to know about this. Communication is the first step.