The Modder Who Spends Hundreds of Hours Building Trees for 'Cities: Skylines'
The influence of Bob Ross knows no bounds.
Image courtesy of Dennis Beswick
Dennis Beswick had always loved science, nature, and painting. After being hypnotized by Bob Ross' instructional television program in the 80s—it taught him how to use different brushes—he made his first oil painting in sixth grade. The itch hasn't left since, but there's no way Beswick could have predicted Ross would not only influence his decision to become a visual artist, but the 46-year-old would spend his spare hours modding trees for the city simulation game Cities: Skylines.
From white willows to cherry blossoms, Beswick is careful, meticulous, and thorough in his approach to crafting the often ignored but crucial accessories for other people's city design. His work is largely quiet and invisible, meaning most players who download them will, most likely, never remember who made the mod in the first place. Beswick is fine with this. In fact, he relishes being a mystery.
When he publishes a new tree, Beswick doesn't just release the model and textures. He also tries to give people downloading the mod some details on the real tree they'll be downloading, the result of the research he does while building:
Introducing the 50th tree to my collection, Roystonea regia aka Royal Palm tree! it's native to south Florida and found in central America, the Caribbean and many other tropical places around the world. It's a great ornamental tree. This is a 2 piece set with large and small versions. More Info here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roystonea_regia
"I love all of the trees you have contributed to this game," said one user about the Royal Palm. "You have made my experience with this game 300% better."
Though Beswick is primarily a Cities: Skylines modder, as a player, it might not shock you to learn he's lost countless hours to the Civilization games, too. To learn more about what makes a tree modder tick, driving them to build dozens of tree for the game, I asked Beswick to answer some questions. Thankfully, he agreed.
(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Waypoint: Though you've done visual mods of other objects, including trains and storefronts, you've made a shit load of trees. Why trees?
Beswick: My love for city building games started with SimCity 2000 and 3000. Then, SimCity 4 was my main PC game. I've been a member at Simtropolis since 2003, and been through all the heartbreaks as we waited for a new city builder to fill some of the voids we were missing. Then came Cities: Skylines. It had many features SimCity 4 was missing (like more flexible road networks, dynamic water at any height full 3D, etc.), though not as aesthetic and deep in simulation.
But the fact they supported modding out the gate gave me a lot of optimism because I know this city builder crowd. They are some of the most creative geniuses in the gaming world, and have the tendency to dig into code and bring new features—some that were thought to be impossible—and make the game almost unrecognizable from its vanilla launch. We witnessed it happen to SimCity 4 over a decade.
The biggest word for me when it comes to city builders is "creativity." Not only can we create worlds, we can immerse ourselves in Cities: Skylines via a first-person camera mod, take rides within anything that moves, as well as get some awesome screenshots. I didn't make anything for SimCity 4, but the freedom of how many tools we can use for Cities: Skylines made it so easy for me to jump right in. There's always a player posting on Reddit, Facebook, Simtropolis and Paradox that raises the bar of realism, giving a lot of inspiration not only for gameplay, but for making new assets.
Why trees? Well, not only because I love nature, but the vanilla trees just didn't cut it for me. Most trees tower over small homes and dominate the landscape in real-life, and the tree section on Steam was very much lacking in quantity, until recently, to give us more choices. Realistic looking trees are harder to make than a building with straight walls, so not many 3D artists get into the organic modeling action. When I make trees, I feel like I'm painting with the game and pushing to get a more realistic looking landscape.
Also, I look at this fact: a building can be placed once, if it's unique, or [will be] constrained to certain districts. But a tree is like clouds. They can be placed everywhere. For example, I haven't seen my Colossal Mills factory, Regal Theater or VIMs Jeans and Sneakers in a screen shot in a very long time, but I get to see my trees every day in a very large percentage of screen shots.
Waypoint: I'm guessing you must have a tree that is a particular favorite?
Beswick: It's hard to say which tree is my favorite, but I would have to say the Live Oak tree is way up there. Not only does it fill space nicely, but it's one of my big trees with a low tri count. And it's so fluffy. To be honest, I didn't know if it was gonna look good or not while I was making it. All I knew is I wanted to make a big tree that stood out in the landscape.
The reaction when it was published surprised me, and the growing subscriptions to this day makes me feel good. When I was making the Live Oak, the Bald Cypress was my favorite because it's exotic. The Live Oak was more simple, like one of those dishes you cook when you don't have much but turned out better than when you have plenty.
Waypoint: Can you talk me through some of your process? How long does it take to build a single tree?
Beswick: Making trees is fun but sometimes very challenging. The most important thing to do is find good images for texture material, which is surprisingly difficult for some species, even coconut trees, [which] you would think is all over the internet.
I end up extracting bits and pieces from images and assembling leaves bit by bit in Photoshop for many trees—painful but worth it. At first I would use Xfrog [a 3D modelling program specifically for trees and plants] to make a simple branch/trunk, export into Blender [another 3D computer graphics program] and do clean up. Then, create the leaves/branches billboards from scratch, placing them one-by-one. It's slower, but very rewarding and gives more accuracy. Lately, I have been making trees from scratch right in Blender.
The biggest challenge is getting the closest look to the real-life reference. Pine trees are the hardest because of the shapes of the branches and needles. Realistic pines are also hard to keep low poly.
I'm mostly driven by what in-game projects I have planned. I'm currently building a huge botanic garden on one map and a tropical resort on another. That's the main thing that drives my decisions in what to make next. I do take requests that just feeds me ideas for new trees in my projects, anyway. Win win for all.
Waypoint: Do you remember the first tree you worked on? Anything notable about it? And what's changed since then?
Beswick: Before making trees for Cities: Skylines, my first trees were done for architectural renders, where they are in the tens of thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of polygons, with texture maps for each component and variation on the tree to look realistic.
My first tree for the game was my first game asset ever. So when I made it (the Willow Tree), it was a whole new way of 3D modeling for me, as I had to learn to do a tree super, super low poly while only using one texture map. I laugh at that tree now but it will always be my first. I have Matt Crux, a fellow modder, to thank for pushing me into the workshop and helping me with modeling techniques for the game. I hesitated to publish it, then he asked. "Are you gonna publish that?? It looks good."
Waypoint: When you release a mod, what's your next step? Do you track down people using it?
Beswick: When I release a tree or any asset, I have a drink, do my promos in various forums, think about the next project, and hope people will rate it up as they subscribe. I have a trophy folder for those that get featured.
I do watch Steam, but my biggest hunt is seeing the first screen shots from other players, which usually take a few days. I have a folder where I collect the first "spottings" of screen shots with my new trees. It's one thing to make stuff, but it's another to see what talented players do with them.