Dana McDonald works as an environment artist at ArenaNet, the company that makes Guild Wars. He and his wife also craft custom terrain for miniature war gamers, which they sell through their company, Custom Kingdoms.
I met Dana at ConQuest NW in January. Through email, we’ve been discussing the art of terrain sculpting. Below is an editing version of that conversation:
EPH: Tell me a little bit about yourself, your business and what you do in broad strokes.
DMD: I have been building terrain since I was in 6th or 7th grade, and started building a lot more complicated pieces when I started playing Warhammer in high school. I am a big believer in turning hobbies into careers, and so I came up with a modular system of building houses so that I could produce them quickly and keep a high level of quality. We use plastic resin to make the houses, which picks up fine detail well and is very durable. With this system I am able to make many different houses, and it allows me to rotate new designs in often. I also do custom orders, if my customers want large castles or entire villages built with different houses and walls, etc… I do the house building and my wife does most of the painting and keeps the houses on eBay and our website.
EPH: What scale do you usually produce in? Do you produce terrain in different scales, or are they all the same? If you have a default size, do you produce different scales for custom orders?
DMD: I build my houses for the 28-30mm scale and I haven’t branched out to other scales yet. As far as custom orders go, I normally stick to whatever I can build with my modular pieces which keeps the scale the same, but it does make the custom orders much more affordable, while still allowing them to be unique. I would be willing to do custom orders in different scales, but because I would have to sculpt new pieces and make new molds the turn around time would be much longer and the price much higher than my standard scale. Normally, I charge only a little more for a custom order house than I do for a standard house of the same size.
EPH: So what’s the process for a custom order? What do you need to know from a potential customer and how do they go about asking you to make something for them?
DMD: The process for a custom order is as simple as emailing me with a request or idea of what is wanted. I don’t have any formal method for custom orders large or small.
Some custom orders I receive are large orders of 15-20 houses, where the customer ordered multiple of the same house, and all they need is for me to swap out a few pieces and change some colors on the roofs so that all of their houses are unique. Those custom orders are easy to take care of, especially because usually the customer is more concerned with variety than they are with specific designs.
Sometimes the custom orders are very specific and I need a description and drawing. Or something I have done recently, when I need to get a more specific design approved, is have them download Google Sketchup, which is a 3d modeling program for the computer, and I do a prototype model and send them the file. The prototype model doesn’t have any color or detail, but it is the exact shape that the final model would be in 3D, and it allows them to turn it around and view it in perspective from all sides. Or if they don’t want to do that I can send a movie file of a turnaround of the design. This process enables me to get a very clear idea of what they want and prevents any real miscommunications.
EPH: So you use 3D modeling in your design. How has your experience in the video game industry helped make your terrain modeling work better?
DMD: I would have to say that in the beginning it was more the other way around, and my experience with building terrain influenced my choice of career and my ability to do it well. And now I am able to take my ability with 3D modeling and use that as a tool to prototype ideas and figure out appealing designs quickly. It works very well to be able to build 3D models in just a few minutes and be able to get a feel for how it will look when it is done with my pieces, and that helps me be more creative with the end product.
EPH: If I want to build my own models (real world, not virtual), what skills do I need to have? What skills would it be helpful to have?
DMD: I believe a couple of the most important aspects of building good terrain are less about skill and more about craftsmanship and attention to detail. No terrain you build will end up looking good if you used a cardboard base and it warps up around all of the edges so you have a half-inch gap between the base and the board. Always use a good base. You need to take measurements and make straight cuts with sharp X-acto knives and rulers. You also usually need to use putty or plaster to cover joints and make clean transitions between different elements on your terrain. Basically if you want to make good terrain, the most important thing you can do is take the time to do it well, and good terrain always takes a lot of time to build. On top of building the terrain well, attention to detail is then what makes it shine. Take the time to make little rivet heads for where you need bolts. Use jewelry chains or make your own miniature chains (tiny chains are almost as good for making something look like a cool detailed miniature as skulls and spikes are for making something look evil!). When you have the transition from an object, like a rock or a house, to the base, don’t just run your turf straight up to it. Use tiny rocks and other materials to make it look like there is gravel, dirt, or weeds. When you are done with the main aspect of whatever piece of terrain you are building, take half again as much time, or more, to add the little things that will bring it to life. The great thing about building terrain is that while it is an art, it doesn’t take any particularly special skills or talents to build pretty good terrain. You just need to get good instructions (like how to build terrain books or articles) and then pay attention to the advice above.
Being able to sculpt with clay is probably the most important extra skill for making terrain. One of the turning points in my terrain building is when I went from trying to find real world items that had the right shape and texture for what I needed, to sculpting my own out of clay (usually sculpey). I used to spend hours wandering around in craft stores and hardware stores looking for just the right pieces and parts for my projects, and now I just sculpt exactly what I need, and if I need lots of the same thing, I make a mold and reproduce it.
In my opinion it ruins the effect of terrain if an observer can figure out what materials you made it out of. You shouldn’t be able to tell if something is made of Styrofoam or cardboard, or be able to figure out what objects you just grabbed and painted for the details. That is where being able to sculpt with clay, or use other raw materials to get the effect you need, really sets the best terrain apart.
What would really help my work is having the necessary equipment to make more complex molds and cast the miniatures. Right now it is a little bit too expensive to justify the cost for me, but it will open up a world of possibilities when I get it. The other thing I would love to have, but it will probably be a long time before I get it, is a 3D printer so that I can sculpt my original pieces on the computer and print them out. I will still have to make the molds, because even if you have your own printer 3D printing is still too costly for production, but it will make everything else much easier.
EPH: I’m sure you use your terrain in your own games. What do you play?