Who´s this Klanger? An interview with Philip Unger, Senior Technical / VFX Artist

April 30, 2020

Tinkering with art between school and thanks to a dedicated online real time 3D scene, Philip was able to land his first industry job at the age of 20, soon moving to England to work for Rockstar Games on ‘GTA – Chinatown Wars DS’.
After relocating to Berlin, freelancing, teaching and studio work as an artist he started showing an affinity for programming and technical art. This led him to branch off into his current role while having contributed to studios like Wooga and King.

Philip, what kind of art did you tinker with between school?

Lots of random pencil drawings. Fanart for comics and animations. I would also draw concepts for my game ideas that then prompted me to start turning them into 3Dmodels.

Can you recall the moment you decided to specialize in VFX and become a technical artist? Has your interest always been related to games?

This happened organically with an underlying motivation to realise my own game ideas. After a while as a professional game artist I started looking at Unity and C#. With the help of good friends and many great online resources I learned programming fundamentals which I could utilize with a better sense of purpose and understanding. There is always a technical aspect to 3D art so taking it a step further by speeding up workflows and writing my own shaders seemed to fall into place more as a necessity. A lot of game art, especially effects, often interacts with different game states so this knowledge also came in quite handy.

When it comes to entertainment and a main creative outlet my interest has always mostly related to games. They consume so much time and are pretty complex. There’s much to learn and explore about them while they’re still constantly and rapidly evolving.

What was your first project or job in the industry?

My very first job was as an intern at ‘4Head studios’ in Hannover (Germany) after completing my year of social service. Sadly they don’t exist under that name anymore. We worked on ‘Die Gilde II’ but at the time they also started a line of ‘4Kids games’ on which I spent most of my time (half a year) there.

How did you come to Klang?

In a very unspectacular fashion. A recruiter friend of mine pointed out that Klang was looking for someone that I fit the profile for. I thought I was fairly aware of the different companies in Berlin but had never come across what would become a new home. I think it goes without much explanation that I was drawn in by the art style of SEED and after meeting the people was more than eager to join the team.

What do you find most fascinating about SEED in regard to your professional ambitions?

As an incredibly ambitious project I get to scratch most, if not all and previously unknown itches when it comes to the work I like and want to tackle. It’s rich in opportunity for growth in a professional and personal capacity. Every single person is extremely good at what they do and keen on pushing things forward and beyond their own high standards. This rubs off on you and really creates a satisfying baseline motivation.

What are the tools you work with mostly?

Houdini, Unity, 3dMax, Photoshop and the programming languages that can be used within them (Rider as main IDE).

Are you dealing with any specific challenges at the moment?

Setting up our procedural world generation pipeline is a mammoth task. It requires a lot of communication, exploration and iteration. We’re trying to build a very large and diverse world for players to inhabit and expand their settlements into so there are many ingredients to consider. I assume this task/challenge will also never end at least that’s what it feels like.

Where do you potentially find answers to your questions?

The internet is full of people who are dealing with the same or similar problems to the ones I encounter. My colleagues are also fountains of knowledge and know where to look, who to ask, what to consider etc. The boring answer also is reading through documentation, viewing examples and theory fundamentals to solve problems. Not trusting yourself to have done the right thing, revisiting past decisions and approaches also often helps.

How do you improve your skills?

I mostly improve them by having an idea and wanting to make it a reality or seeing something I want to understand or implement. It quickly becomes clear where there’s missing knowledge and what’s required to progress. After taking a few steps it’s easier to judge how much time further skill improvement or ‘goal reaching’ will take. By then I probably already know if I really want to keep it up or try something new. To me some things are just inherently hard and irritating to learn but knowing their value in combination with other knowledge sets makes it easier to persist. When I can I also try to revisit fundamentals on different subjects especially those that I haven’t used in a while.

Have you been working on any side-projects, talks or teaching?

I’m always starting side projects that never lead anywhere but I diligently gather the content of those that I keep revisiting, restarting and reimagining. I’ve recently started teaching again which I used to find very rewarding. The current pandemic has put that on hold though.

Can you give an example of collaborative work flow in the art team, on the way to an implementation of a concept or idea?

For example, world building brings multiple disciplines together. We talk about our ambitions, ideas and frame the main technical limitations in which they can unfold. Besides creating tooling for artists, input from the design department is crucial since it requires accessible and flexible avenues to tweak and adjust the values that drive the environmental factors of the game.

After/During that there’s more back and forth between concept art and constraints like tech, art direction and the time before the first prototypes spit out something more tangible for ingame use that we iterate upon. Without programmers (I’m thinking of one very dear to me) providing tools tying all the content together and providing in engine tools, designers and level artists would be pretty limited in their ability to iterate quickly and non destructively.

What features are you most excited about heading towards PIONEERS? What will need to be saved for later?

The AI is already very interesting and fascinating to me. You can see a strong sense of a complex life of a Seedling and their peers forming already. Our resource tree is also taking on a robust shape with the different tools applied to gathering, growing and distribution. Building your custom houses and combat will also be quite rewarding. More complex society management tools like laws and political systems will have to be saved for later.

Can you give some examples of (interdependent) gameplay factors that you find interesting?

Once again the AI is showing its strengths where characters for example are reacting with mood changes e.g. to the persistence of low quality of food they consume or the detrimental effect of them being overworked due to a lack of or rudimentary technological infrastructure. An element of scarcity and demands of growth drive the player to explore and interact with the world and nurture their Seedlings. Challenges like providing solutions for supplying power with the required technological expertise appear quite quickly.

As a future player of SEED, what will you be focused on building in that new world?

I’d be trying to provide as much sustainable technology as possible and create an anarcho syndicalist settlement.

What does the word simulation mean to you?

To make the answer pretentious and overblown, it means the illustration over time of a set of rules, systems and parameters holistically interacting with each other starting at a fixed point in time. In our case, allowing for external manipulation of simulation elements while it’s progressing. While near impossible to predict all outcomes and variations of it, it would still be inherently deterministic.

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