An interview with Robert Hodri, Senior 3D Artist at id Software

Posted 8 April, 2020

Robert Hodri is a Senior 3D Artist at id Software. His resume includes the likes of Doom: Eternal, Doom (2016), Wolfenstein: The New Colossus and more. Of course I’m envious.

I put that seething envy to one side and recently contacted Robert to congratulate him on the release of Doom: Eternal. I remembered his work from the Doom 3 modding days of 2004. It’s always amazing to see just how far people’s talent can take them.

I thought his experience of the games industry might be of interest to students and colleagues alike. He kindly agreed to an interview, covering everything from learning to build games in the mod scene, to moving abroad and his views on the future for games artists.

Onwards!

Story continues below...

Robert worked on the BFG10k in this scene. Definitely not capable of shooting a hole into Mars.

Robert worked on the BFG10k in this scene. Definitely not capable of shooting a hole into Mars.

ED: Hey Robert, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview.

Between releasing Doom: Eternal, the general chaos of life amidst Covid-19 and my website attracting on average barely three people per month (thanks mom), I’m sure there are plenty of other things you’d rather be sinking your time and attention into.

That you’re willing to share some of your personal experiences and reflections as someone who has come from the mod scene to work for one of the studios largely responsible for this industry existing, means a lot and I hope will benefit the games art students at the University I work at (Staffordshire University, before someone whinges at me for not plugging them/us).

I’ve followed your work like a creepy stalker, since Genetic, a single player mod for Doom 3 and one of many id Software game maps you released around that time. Where did you learn the skills required to produce this work and how did it prepare you for the games industry?

RH: That mod must be about 15 years old by now if I’m not mistaken and was my first attempt in making something single player focused. Learning the Doom 3 editor Radiant was more of a learning by doing process. There were online community forums like doom3world/doom3maps etc. where you could share resources and information or ask any 3D and editor related questions. Most of them are shut down or barely have any active users anymore.

ED: It’s a shame that legacy might become lost. There was a lot of talent and creativity on show in small projects that never saw the light of day. Was that the key for you, those personal interactions?

RH: Personally I would learn quite a lot by joining mod teams and connecting with other people that tried to learn the editor. Worldbuilding with BSP, creating new textures and writing material shaders in txt files, trigger systems and scripting cinematics wasn’t really something that was documented. Luckily the modding community was quite open and you could always reach out to a person who could help you with an issue you had.

Doom 3 Genetic mod
Doom 3 Genetic mod

Most mod teams I worked with were quite organized, even though those mods never got released. We would have daily chats on IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and show each other’s progress on what we’re working on. For most people it was more of a hobby when they were young, for others it’s more of something they wanted to do as a full time job and make a career out of it. So they would have a way more professional attitude and put in more effort.

For me it was also more of a fun thing to do the first couple of years, not thinking that I would end up doing this for a living one day.

I just enjoyed playing Quake3 so much and the Doom3 engine and tech was something that impressed me a lot back then. That’s why I wanted to learn as much as possible so I could create my own content.

During my studies in university I was thinking more and more about what to do for a living. I thought I could take my chances and see if I could get a job as a level designer. I built an online portfolio, which was quite an undertaking because I had to learn some basic programming and the the program Dreamweaver to create a website. Nowadays you have online portfolio websites like ArtStation where you simply drag and drop your work in there, makes it so much easier. Once I had a basic website with lots of pictures and download links to all my levels, I started applying to a few openings and sent my portfolio link around. With the help of some friends on a game art website I then ended up having my first job.

Doom 3 Genetic mod
Doom 3 Genetic mod

ED: These were obviously positive aspects for you, but were there any drawbacks? Were there any bad habits you picked up or incorrect assumptions you had about your discipline, that stemmed from working in the mod community?

RH: I think I worked on three Doom 3 mod projects that each had a small team with their own website. The most successful one probably the “Doom3 Genetic” one where we had a web admin, story writer, animator, level designers etc. But even that one was going nowhere after a year or so, mainly because the scope of the whole thing was too big.

If you’re a small and unexperienced team it’s not the greatest idea to make something too big.

That’s why I basically decided to leave there and make my own single player campaign with the levels I created for it.

I always wanted to finish what I started.

ED: Yeah, a lot of mods start with big ideas but lack the conviction to see them through. I think that’s vital to a successful mentality. I know all of our lecturers are keen on emphasising that, too.

RH: Yes, I think that’s quite important for everyone who wants to make a career out of what they’re doing.

Later I would switch to Quake 4 and Prey modding and moving more towards environment scenes with focus on art and less on design.

'Lost City' mod for Prey
'Lost City' mod for Prey

Back then I thought professional game developers and companies were so much more organized then mod teams. I was lucky enough though to have worked for companies that were mostly stable and professional with amazing talented people. But the longer you’re in the industry, the more weird stories you hear.

I was also surprised to learn that once a game developer revealed a demo to the public, it doesn’t mean that they’re almost done with the game.

ED: For sure. I was surprised to hear Hugo Martin talk about the Quakecon 2018 reveal of Doom: Eternal and just how much changed since then. Of course things change, but the extent is sometimes surprising.

Regarding changes, 2004 was a time of technical transition for games artists and designers. Per pixel shading for example, had a huge impact not only on presentation, but development pipelines. I remember Doom 3 being the first time I could, or indeed needed to generate normal maps from high poly meshes. Since entering the industry, have you experienced such a significant evolution in the creation of art assets since then? If so, what form did this evolution take? Was it slowly introduced over time or was it more like an overnight change which you needed to adapt to?

RH: I remember that time as well with all the technical changes. I was learning my way around the Quake 3 editor when suddenly I saw a presentation of Doom 3, which looked like a cg movie at that time. Trying to understand what normal maps are and that you had to create high poly models now and bake them down was something that took a while for me to comprehend.

ED: Exactly. For movie artists it may have come naturally, but for games it was a completely new way of thinking. It must’ve been a lot to take in.

RH: It can be sometimes overwhelming and frustrating to always have to relearn what you’re doing, especially when you have already established your whole pipeline and workflow. But it’s definitely also exciting to push tech and visuals always more and more, especially when you’re a game artist who wants to make art always look as stunning as possible.

PRB, Global illumination, raytracing, custom vertex normal, blend shading techniques, overlaying alpha textures for decals instead of baking assets, photogrammetry etc. The list goes on and on. Consoles also getting more powerful, allowing for more polygons or textures per scene. Every developer having their own inhouse tools and engine, therefore having a different pipeline and workflow. You always have to adapt and learn new things. New software packages are getting released constantly to make your life easier.

Like Substance Painter which allows to paint on your 3D mesh in real time instead like years ago where you had to do it all in Photoshop and constantly export textures to see it in the engine.

ED: So you feel these changes have been more iterative? New engine capabilities aren’t as difficult to learn as they used to be?

RH: No, engines don’t have that huge new learning curve like back then I’d say. Most of them get updated with new tools and features that makes game developers life easier. It’s more production focused now than inventing the newest rendering tech. Companies just can’t afford to work way too many years on games anymore, that’s why they also invest in better tools to speed up the development process.

Download Genetic for Doom 3

Robert's 'Genetic' single player mod for Doom 3, is still available for download from File Planet.

Download mod

ED: We’re sixteen years later since then and the world of games is a different place. Between online materials and Universities such as ours offering courses for people who wish to pursue careers in the industry, I now wonder if modding has become more of a recreational activity for those who are not, but still enjoy making their own games. Do you think that’s accurate, or do you think modding still has an important place in developing future professionals? Are many of the people you work with now from the modding community?

RH: Modding was a thing back then mainly because there weren’t lots of game art courses or universities. At least where I lived. The few ones that existed were private schools and crazy expensive. You had free source codes for engines, the SDK with all the tools available that allowed you to publish free content for many games.

Games still come with editors though, just more limited but also way more user friendly. People that enjoy a game they currently play will always also want to create content for it. Just look at all the Skyrim, Fallout, Halo, Far Cry mods. There are even whole games that are basically mod tools to create your own mini games with new environments, characters, combat etc.

And they are so user friendly that you can control everything just with a gamepad.

Unreal Engine scene
Unreal Engine scene lighting
Unreal Engine scene props
Unreal Engine scene props with wireframes
Unreal Engine scene props
Unreal Engine scene props with wireframes

Modding will always be an important step to become a professional game developer. I’m not that experienced with game art classes and schools but I’ve seen lots of great mods coming out of those universities. But of course there are also gamers that already have a job in whatever area and just see it as a hobby to create something for fun. It’s super easy, they don’t have to learn 3D software tools.

Older co workers I know are self taught and have a background in modding communities, mainly from first person shooters. But the younger ones mostly studied game art/animation in university. It doesn’t matter much if or what kind of degree you have when you want to enter the game industry. It’s mostly about your portfolio.

But I think universities are a great way to connect with likeminded and learn from each other.

ED: In regards to University, I understand that you studied in a non game art related field. I am the last person to comment on unconventional career paths, but these aren’t subjects one would typically associate with games. How does your education relate to becoming a 3D artist and did the experience in some way prepare you for the industry, despite not being strictly related?

RH: I was in the middle of my studies when I decided to become a 3D artist. Back then the university system was different in Germany and there weren’t any bachelor or master degrees. Bachelor means that you could finish university after 2-3 years and have a degree. There was only the thing called “Diplom” which is basically a master’s degree, meaning I had to go through the whole 5+ years program or quit early with the end result of not having a degree at all.

Hell rocks from Doom (2016). Robert worked on the concepts, both high and low poly models.

Hell rocks from Doom (2016). Robert worked on the concepts, both high and low poly models.

Diplomas are important for various reasons, especially when you want to work overseas. Work visas often require you to have a form of degree or education. Also for certain departments like programming it can be a huge plus if you can show a diploma in your field.

Not saying you should study something just for the sake of it. If you’re determined you want to enter the game industry, there are many ways. Especially for designers, artists, animation.

ED: For those people, how important do you believe core artistic skills (such as colour theory, observation, composition etc) are compared to specific software knowledge? Can you offer any examples where a company you’ve worked for, has demonstrated a preference for someone who is stronger in one than the other? Why did they have this preference?

RH: For a 3d artist, it’s of course mandatory to know the ins and outs of a 3d program like Max/Maya/Modo. Some are more familiar with texture creation, sculpting, lighting or whatsoever. But it also depends on your role and years of experience or what position a company is looking for. Nobody expects a junior artist to know everything about colour theory, composition or design language. That’s why you have leads/directors and other senior artists giving them feedback and telling them what to do.

Also most companies have different pipelines.

Sometimes for an environment artist it is required to do lighting passes, blockout levels, do some scripting, create props and textures. Sometimes environment artists only have one specific task. Bigger companies tend to fill out more specific roles like hard surface artists, lighting artists, prop artists etc.

Sometimes when there’s an open job position for a 3d/environment artist and a company has several equal experienced candidates, it can often happen they prefer someone with specific skills. Could be they’re looking more for someone with technical experience, texture creation, hard surface/organic modeling focused. Especially for intern/junior positions it helps a lot being close to the company you apply to.

"The Lost Island" DLC for Crysis 3. Robert was required to recreate many of the art assets, including models and materials.

ED: In respect of formal education, I oversee laser scanning and some close range photogrammetry at our University, both of which (the latter especially) are seeing increased prevalence in games development practices. We have a huge, huge cohort of games and visual effects students, many of whom regularly ask (when they can tolerate my presence for long enough) whether these are worth learning, so that they’re ‘prepared for the future’. What is your opinion on this? Have you used these technologies, or assets created with them on any of the games you have worked on and what are your thoughts on their place in future pipelines?

RH: I’ve never tried it, so my knowledge about photogrammetry is based on what other people told me or what I read online. You definitely see it used more and more in games, especially bigger AAA productions. It really depends on the kind of game you want to make I think.

Stoney terrain or foliage heavy scenes look quite impressive. Just looking at Death Stranding or SW Battlefront. You have to spend quite some time in pre-production and create a library of photos and meshes that have to get optimized and cleaned up later on. For games that are more stylized I’m not sure if it’s worth to go through that whole process and buy all the equipment.

I might be wrong about the whole process but I heard it basically creates a new texture for every mesh you have. Seems to me like you can run into texture memory issues quite easily.

Cancelled Project (2014) - Prototype screenshot. Robert worked on asset placement, composition and lighting.

Cancelled Project (2014) - Prototype screenshot. Robert worked on asset placement, composition and lighting.

I’m not sure if it’s that important for students to have photogrammetry stuff in their portfolios. At least I’ve barely seen any student portfolios with it. But if the school offers classes where you can learn more about it, I’d say it’s definitely worth getting into it. It also shows that you’re going with the time and learn about new workflows.

It’s hard to predict future pipelines and techniques. I’m sure it’ll be used more and more since cameras, software and all that gets better and easier to use. I’m guessing you’ll spend less time optimizing and cleaning up meshes.

But I also heard couple years ago that voxel engines are the future and I don’t see this happening anytime soon or at all.

ED: Following on from that, I think some people maybe concerned over being replaced by fast advancing hardware and software. When DICE announced that the use of photogrammetry halved production time on some of their assets, it’s easy to empathise with this concern. What do you see the role of an artist being in a time where technologies such as these and AI can do many jobs for them?

RH: I don’t think we’ll have a press the magic art button solution anytime soon. It’s nothing I’d worry about. It worked pretty well for DICE and the kind of game they were making. Production time was faster for them but I’m sure they also had to spend more time during pre-production to try out techniques and see different results until they were happy with it. It also can take some time to collect all the materials and resources you need for your project.

ED: Right, so it’s really a question of the right tool for the job and recognising that there may still be large resources needed, just in a different area?

RH: I think so. Again, I’m not too familiar with the whole process of photogrammetry. But it seems also you’ll need some time to clean up all the meshes and your game editor needs a decent terrain editor built into the engine to use it the best way possible.

Cancelled Project (2014) - Prototype screenshot. Robert worked on asset placement, composition and lighting.

Cancelled Project (2014) - Prototype screenshot. Robert worked on asset placement, composition and lighting.

I’ve also seen an AI software that places props within a room or creates layouts for a scene. I’m sure this can be a huge time saver for some projects. But to me the most visually stunning games are the ones where artists would hand craft most parts. Nothing beats the visual understanding of an experienced artist than an AI creating random things. Although it could be a great base to have a generated scene and then rearrange assets to your needs. Hard to say, I never worked like that.

As for the concerns of students new to the industry. When you’re new you won’t create the greatest visual piece of the game you’re working on. You’ll always have to do some of the less exciting and tedious tasks like optimization or clean up work. Good thing though that most LODs these days are auto generated.

Polycount Forum- Escape Contest (2013) - Winning Entry. Robert worked on the environment art in this scene.

Polycount Forum- Escape Contest (2013) - Winning Entry. Robert worked on the environment art in this scene.

ED: How would you best advise prospective game artists prepare for that future?

RH: Keep working on stuff, every day. Get into a game engine and master a 3d software but also look into new software and workflows. I’d probably use UnrealEngine because the community is massive and you’ll find lots of help and online tutorials. There are many videos where you can learn from, GDC talks of companies showcasing their pipeline. Connect with likeminded in online groups and channels. Get your work out on ArtStation and be noticeable.

Try to stand out from the thousand other students, by showing something different in your portfolio than crates and barrels.

Be persistent, don’t let yourself be demoralized when applying for jobs and not getting responses. Sometimes you just have to be lucky and the right person at the right time to land your first job.

A Quake 4 environmental scene
A Quake 4 environmental scene

ED: Onto the games you’ve worked on. Your first role was with Crytek as an intern 3D artist, before progressing to a Junior around twelve months later. I remember Crytek’s level editor being very different to id Software’s. Was it a difficult adjustment moving between these packages and what was it like adapting to the studio environment?

RH: Learning the CryEngine level editor was quite easy and exciting because the tech and game Crysis 2 I worked on was pretty impressive. Sure, I had other artists showing me which buttons to press and how everything works. So far I’ve been working with idTech, UnrealEngine and CryEngine and they all have things I like and dislike.

The studio environment was great. I started right when they were in full production for Crysis 2. I’ve never worked with so many talented individuals before, so the learning curve was quite high.

ED: You must’ve impressed someone, because within two years you’d become a fully-fledged 3D artist. What games did you work on during this time, what were your contributions and what were the main lessons you learned from each?

RH: During my time at Crytek I was fortunate to work on some amazing AAA games. They were always critically acclaimed for their visuals pushing tech and graphics to a next level, which is always great for any game artist.

It’s important for every studio to function as a team. Game/level design, tech, engine, tools, art. They all have to be equally important. You can’t focus just on great tech and visuals and neglect other areas. At least when you make a high budget AAA game.

Environment work from Crysis 2. Robert was responsible for modeling, texturing and composition.

Environment work from Crysis 2. Robert was responsible for modeling, texturing and composition.

ED: You then joined id Software in 2014. It’s been widely reported how difficult id Software’s transition into what it is today was, though in another interview with Noclip, Hugo Martin said it was a great time to join. What was that like for you, coming in completely fresh? Does it ‘feel’ like you expected it would and did this teach you much as a professional?

RH: By the time I joined it was basically a new team and new people would join on a weekly basis. I didn’t experience any of the trouble they had during the development before. Not saying that everything went 100% smooth. Working with a new team and new tech always creates challenges.

One of the biggest challenges for me were of course moving to a new country and settling in. But also learning new tools like Modo which took me 1-2 months to get comfortable in modeling again. It was also different to work in an office environment with most of the coworkers being from the US. Back at Crytek it was half Germans and half people from all over the world. So I had to adapt to the US mentality and studio environment a bit.

German work mentality can be way more direct.

ED: I understand this. There is considerable German in my heritage. Not that you would ever guess from my own lack of efficiency/productivity.

Doom (2016) ResOps building which Robert modeled, textures and composed.

Doom (2016) ResOps building which Robert modeled, textures and composed.

ED: 3D Artist used to mean juggling lots of tasks, but now there are specialists for everything. What are your general, day to day responsibilities and have these changed much since the early days? Do job roles largely entail what they did when you entered the industry and do you think there will be even more areas of specialisation? If so, what would you predict?

RH: For me personally I’m still doing environment work most of the time. I’m blocking out layouts, do initial lighting passes, work on composition. I basically take areas from a level design BSP blockout to final art. Of course my tasks and responsibilities changed over the years with every promotion. Senior artists have to tackle bigger and more important tasks then any new juniors from university.

In the early days level designers would also be responsible for doing art. Now you have individual art departments for lighting, tech, layout, beautification, textures, shaders etc.

Games are getting bigger which requires more and more people in each department. I’m seeing specialized shader artists, groomers which only work on character hair. You just have to look at the movie industry and how many different people work there on blockbuster films. Like an animator taking care of characters eye animations. Or 3d artists doing previz scenes.

Doom (2016) ResOps Building which Robert worked on.

ED: Doom 2016 was a revelation and Doom: Eternal is currently swallowing my free time. Both are exceptional works, technically and conceptually. How would you describe the experience of working on these games and what was your contribution?

RH: Doom 2016 was amazing to work on because there hadn’t been a new Doom game for so long and I’m a big fan of the franchise. You normally know if you’re working on a great game and it was exciting to see everyone’s reaction. Doom: Eternal was of course the same. You listen to reactions and feedback from gamers and try to improve on those areas.

I worked on quite a few different things from the Heavy Assault Rifle weapon, the BFG 10k, some giant mechs and various environment work for single player and multi player.

One of the badass environments featured in Doom: Eternal.

One of the badass environments featured in Doom: Eternal.

ED: The BFG 10k is indeed glorious. What about the technology you use? I’ve only seen a few videos of id Studio, but it looks like a far cry from id Tech 4’s .mtr files and heavy use of console commands. Is any of the work you did in the modding community still relevant and do you think the barrier to entry for creating game content, is higher or lower than it used to be?

RH: The basic layout of the editor hasn’t changed that much at first glimpse. But of course there are tons of tool improvements and new editors.

Creating game content will always be difficult and frustrating for every beginner.

It was the same 20 years ago as it is now.

As long as you’re really passionate about it you’ll enjoy learning all the tools. Also the resources you have now makes it lots easier and faster than being self taught and figuring out everything on your own.

Software packages are also getting more artist friendly, so you don’t need to get into programming to understand shader creation.

Prop artwork for the second Wolftenstein

ED: You clearly take a great deal of pride and invest a lot of care into your work. Many creators are the same and I (almost) include myself in that. But you need a thick skin and a capacity for removing your sense of identity or self worth, from the work you do.

At the end of the day, you’re in a studio to do a job and if your execution of a task isn’t consistent with, or to the standard demanded by the overall vision, then “But I like it” isn’t going to get you as far as an ability to adapt. Did you suffer from any of this yourself, in terms of accepting and building on criticism? What would your advice be to people who struggle to accept criticism?

More importantly, what would your advice be to people on how to voice their criticisms?

RH: When working on a game you have to follow the art style of that project. Listen to the feedback you’ll get from your lead or director is critical because they have the vision how they want the game to look like. You’ve got to accept that. Of course you can try to give your own input which works fine as long as it fits the style.

If you’re not able to accept criticism you’ll have a very hard time in a studio.

Especially when you’re new to the industry it’s key to listen to what other people tell you. The higher your position is the more you can argue and defend your point of view I guess.

Robert Hodri environment art for Doom 2016
Robert Hodri environment art for Doom 2016
Robert Hodri environment art for Doom 2016
Robert Hodri environment art for Doom 2016

ED: And what about game reviews? I can understand a studio or company mandating a certain level of decorum in how criticism is voiced, or how debates on the correct course of action are handled. But neither games journalists nor the consumer are under any obligation to worry about the creator’s feelings. Do you respond to these criticisms differently to those of your team mates? Can you give me an example of a good and bad review of any game you’ve worked on and how that personally made you feel regarding your own progression?

RH: Whenever a game gets released that I worked on I’ll watch some video reviews. I’m not active in online communities or forums anymore. I don’t really read much about people’s opinion there.

You can never please everyone.

Some will love your game other’s will hate it. It’s the same with movies, music, books or any kind of entertainment.

Of course I listen to my co workers criticism and look at my work with a different perspective then.

ED: It must be strange as well when critic response is inconsistent with user response. I remember when Warface was released, reviews weren’t especially favourable but that game went on to be huge in Eastern Europe.

RH: Yes, Warface was a free to play online first person shooter I worked on. It was funny to see for me. If you look at the press critics for it, they are so different than the user critics. It didn’t receive that many great reviews from what I’ve seen but the game is super popular and successful in Russia apparently. I guess everyone likes to see the game they worked on being popular and successful.

Warface environment art by Robert Hodri
Warface environment art by Robert Hodri
Warface environment art by Robert Hodri
Warface environment art by Robert Hodri

ED: Do those reviews recontextualise the arguments or discussions you had while developing the game? For example, has a feature or artistic decision ever been made that you disagreed with, but was then met with a positive response by the audience? Does this make you reconsider your own views on things when it comes to future projects?

RH: I’m not exactly in a decision making position. Sometimes when working on something I’ll look at my older work just to make sure I’m not doing the same thing all over again and come up with a new look. Just trying to improve my art stuff I guess.

At some point in your career you’ve been in the industry long enough and create lots of similar things.

I’ve worked on quite a lot of “security checkpoint” areas but always try the newest one I work on look better than the previous one.

ED: You’ve got a great list of titles to your name now, having worked for highly credible companies both sides of the pond.

RH: Yeah, I can’t complain about it. All games I’ve worked on where amazing experiences, even the ones that never got released. I’ve worked mostly on fps shooters they all had different art styles which helps to keep things exciting.

ED: What is the most important thing you’d advise our students who will be looking to break into the industry over the next three years?

RH: Just focus on what you enjoy most and then decide to do it as a job. I’ve seen quite a lot of students asking me what they should focus on in their portfolios. The want to get into games but they don’t know what to do there and if they should focus on characters, environments, props or something else.

Don’t have characters, concepts, environments, particles etc. all in your portfolio. Find out what you enjoy most and get good at that. Later on you can still try out new things.

Be persistent, work on stuff every day, connect with other artists.

DOOM Resource Operations, Server Area.

DOOM Resource Operations, Server Area.

ED: I think that’s an excellent message to end on. Before I let you escape, I’m not sure if you have the power, but could you please ask Hugo Martin to work his magic on Quake? The original, specifically.

RH: A new Quake game? There’s Quake Champions 😉

ED: Yeah… I’m thinking more Shamblers and Death Knights than heroes and loot boxes.

RH: I’d love to work on sp Quake game with the style of the original one.

ED: Robert – make it happen! Anything else you’d like to add?

RH: Thanks for the interview!

Robert Hodri, Senior 3D Artist

Thank you to Robert for taking the time to do this interview. Hopefully this will be of use and interest to students and future game designers/artists. If you'd like to see more of Robert's work, please follow the link below.

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