Brink, Rage leads share vision for visual direction

QuakeCon 2010: Art directors from Splash Damage, id, Bethesda, and Arkane use many pictures' worth of words to talk about their evolving role in game design.

Who was there:A quartet of art directors consisting of Bethesda Game Studios' Matt Carofano, Splash Damage's Olivier Leonardi, id Software's Stephan Martiniere, and Viktor Antonov from newly minted Bethesda substudio Arkane.

What they talked about:The "Art of the Game" panel kicked off with a brief explanation of the art director's duties. Leonardi said the position has evolved a lot since he entered the industry 17 years ago. For one thing, there's not much creation of art involved anymore. With bigger teams now (The crew he worked on Rainbow Six: Vegas with was 200 people), Leonardi said he winds up doing more supervision and direction than anything else.

Carofano worked on nearly everything in Morrowind, but on his current unannounced project, he just makes sure other people's work is headed in the right direction. Antonov said it's the art director's job to make sure that the game has an identity, while Martiniere said the technology in the industry has moved so fast that the role of art director changes company-by-company and day-by-day.

Splash Damage's Olivier Leonardi enjoyed creating the new IP Brink because it was a blank canvas for his artistic vision.

Leonardi said the job changes based on the project as well. On sequels, he said that the franchise usually has an identity and the art director is forced to work within those constraints. However, for Brink he was given a blank canvas because it's a new intellectual property. While that gave him more say in how the game should look, it wasn't without its own challenges.

"Sometimes freedom is a bit scary because there are so many possibilities you could get lost," Leonardi said.

It's not just about making a game look pretty because the art is also tied directly into the gameplay. For Brink, Leonardi stressed how important it was to give each faction its own distinct look despite the customizability options because players need to be able to readily distinguish friend from foe in a competitive multiplayer environment.

Carofano said in some ways, the art is more important than the story, especially in open-world games where the player has the option to follow the plot or go off on their own. As a result, he said defining the location is a key first step in the process. Sometimes the art team members know the main story when they start their work, but it's a two-way street. Designers have also drawn on the concept art and taken inspiration from that back into the stories.

Antonov said the first thing he does at the beginning of a project is draw upon his own favorite source material to give the game's setting its own character with a focus on elements like light, color, and shapes. He creates a place with his own logic, something that evokes emotions within him, and then he works with the rest of the development team to dial back the personal aspect and make it more accessible to players. The setting is the meat of a first-person shooter, Antonov said. Players are rushing through the environments constantly, while enemies have more of a shooting gallery aspect to them.

Martiniere said his job is about trying to create a visual that's going to reinforce the experience for the player. Like Antonov, he uses the language of light, color, and shape to create moods and emotions, from anxiety to happiness. The kind of shape determines a soft attitude or an edgy one, and it's up to an art director to match those aspects to where the story of a game is going. He said he needs to absorb the style of the game and then try to push it forward with art design.

While it helps to know what the story is and how the rest of the game is going to play out, Martiniere said his role requires him to be flexible.

"The struggle is linked to the design because you never know what these guys are going to do until the end," Martiniere said. "Design tends to do things forever, and then when they test it, they might decide to throw it away."

Leonardi said the multiplayer focus of Brink forces them to work differently, with the level design being more or less complete early on. The art team gets a multiplayer level that is already balanced and tweaked to be fun. Then they sit next to the level designers, going back and forth to polish things up without impacting the balance of the gameplay.

Leonardi went to art school but learned many of the 2D and 3D tools only after he landed a job at a developer. Carofano said he had always been into art, and in college married his love of drawing and creation with a technology fascination. Then he played The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall and decided that was what he wanted to do with his life.

Antonov was an industrial designer with a love of science fiction in the mid-'90s and noticed that gaming was a wild west when it came to art. Instead of spending a year designing a rear-view mirror or pens, he could build entire cities in games. He started with Redneck Rampage and Kingpin and has been building his cities ever since (including Half-Life 2's City 17).

Martiniere had actually sought a career in comics and had a contract to do a graphic novel after art school and animation school. Games were always in the background, but he just played them for fun and didn't find them visually interesting. Then he saw Cyan World's Riven, which changed everything for him. As an artist, he was taken with games because he didn't just get to see his art but also interact with it and walk through his own worlds.

As for the future of the job, Leonardi said it depends on the company. At Ubisoft, there was no need for outsourcing because there were so many artists on staff at the various locations. But at small companies, outsourcing can be a necessity. Unfortunately, managing outsourcing is a difficult process, and juggling deliverables from 12 different outsourcers is "way, way harder than just talking to the artist sitting at a desk 12 feet from you."

Carofano said outsourcing is ultimately great and essential, especially with the increasing complexity of art in games. There just isn't enough time to handle everything otherwise, he said. Antonov called outsourcing a trade-off, but one that can work if the original preproduction work is done well. He tries to have a clean and strongly established design theme because that helps other teams to create art that will fit the character of the established world. For example, in Half-Life 2, he insisted that every piece of Combine technology be asymmetrical and vertical, guidelines that helped ensure that outsourced art work would fit in well with the gameworld.

When asked about their own favorite games from other creators, Carofano jumped at the chance to praise Rage and its mega-textures. Leonardi pointed to Mirror's Edge specifically because it proved all games didn't have to look like Gears of War, a sentiment Antonov backed him on. Antonov also name-checked Little Big Planet, while Martiniere referenced Limbo as another visually striking title.

The panel also addressed the issue of whether or not their worlds need to be realistic. Carofano said that if a game's look is heavily stylized, it doesn't matter if a character's outfit has belt buckles that don't logically work or fit together. However, he still generally wants his worlds to be realistic and believable. Antonov likened it to the Ridley Scott movie The Duelists, which included shots of two characters talking, each of them with the sun depicted in the background. Despite the apparent presence of two suns in that world, Antonov said people didn't care because the shots worked and they made the characters look more menacing.

"If it's cool, it should stay," Martiniere added.

Takeaway: The job of the art director in games is one in flux. It changes depending on the company, the game being made, the technology available, and the size of the team. On top of juggling all that, they're responsible for creating the look of the gameworld, giving them character, and conveying that to players in often ingenious and subtle ways.

Quote: "The beauty is just to keep pushing the envelope. I'm thinking about the tools we don't even have right now."--Martiniere, who gets plenty of support on the tools front from id chief technical officer John Carmack.

"The only way of storytelling is not voice-overs because they suck. It's visual storytelling through the environments and lights and colors and characters…Giving notes and information in voice-overs is cheating. You should communicate everything through visuals."--Antonov

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Discussion

32 comments
Pete5506
Pete5506

Both are looking great, looking forward to both games

tobelight
tobelight

Brink looks awesome, Rages downfall will be not adding any RPG elements .

gbrading
gbrading moderator

Another interesting article. Visual design has evolved considerably of the past few years.

TheAcejoel99
TheAcejoel99

Both high-quality looking games :) can't wait to waste yet more of my life playing them.

BulletsnOctane
BulletsnOctane

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

BulletsnOctane
BulletsnOctane

@SoCkPuPP3t687: L.A. Noire isn't even finished yet. Besides, L.A. Noire's style is inspired by a certain period, a period that actually existed. Though the detail, the scale, the authenticity of Noire is probably extremely difficult to replicate, it's not to say that the next game out after L.A. Noire isn't going to trump it. You said "ever." All this coming from someone who has L.A. Noire at the top of their wantlist. The tech that they're trying to use in that game sounds phenomenal. But just because you prefer that particular look--and it looks very good--doesn't mean that it's the best there ever will be. The only people that care about the best-looking graphics are the graphic whores. That's not to say that we don't enjoy purty visuals, it just means that we look for something deeper, richer during gameplay. L.A. Noire will draw you in with it's authenticity, not it's visuals (though, they're are nice, in my opinion, too). Rockstar offers a certain art style with every game they make, but they aren't ever really the best out there. They definitely work within their environment, though. That's what I like most about Rockstar.

Echowave1337
Echowave1337

Having a diffrent art style is what seperates one game from the rest, so having the same visual style is a bad sign.

NiteX
NiteX

Brink looks fairly mediocre, but Rage looks epic.

red-ray
red-ray

Rage is absolutely nice but I'm more into Brink.

hsmgaye
hsmgaye

I think brink is nice in multiplayer.

SoCkPuPP3t687
SoCkPuPP3t687

both games look awesome but no visuals will ever beat L.A.Noire's

Hevon_V48
Hevon_V48

im looking for booth. RAGE will be awesome!

Pirikato
Pirikato

Rage looks like a mix of cell shaded and cartoon graphs, my opinion though

emperorzhang66
emperorzhang66

Rage looks awesome and brink. I don't get the massive hype about Rage's graphics though, i personally think its more because of the artistic style.

cyclonebw
cyclonebw

Brink looks more like my type of game. Rage looks boring.

Pirikato
Pirikato

TBH... rage graphics are frankly boring...

RYPER
RYPER

I read these comments and I see people choosing a game over another, first...it is completely and utterly stupid to chose a game over another for it's graphical superiority, like most of the people who shared their thoughts chose Rage because "it looks better." As a response to all of you who picked Rage because it "looks better"; have you ever been to E3 to play the game, as in physically see the graphics for your self, get a feel of the controls, experience the thrills? If you did, you wouldn't be picking any of the two games mentioned above due to the simple reason that both are great looking games designed to be targeted at different audiences...nuff said!

lightwarrior179
lightwarrior179

Looking forward to Rage. Couldn't care much less about the generic-looking Brink.

CTR360
CTR360

i cant wait for both games but rage looks better

biokrysty
biokrysty

I think it's worth all the work they're doing , these 2 game will ROCK

johny300
johny300

Im waiting for rage because the visuals are very empressive.

Kleeyook
Kleeyook

I don't actually care about Brink. Maybe I'm too fed up with that kind of games already. But Rage is what I'm waiting for, with the new engine. We have enough of Unreal engine.

Coolyfett
Coolyfett

Seems prett interesting. Coolyfett really enjoys some of the ideas they have going on in this article.

blueliquidplus
blueliquidplus

I've been interested in Brink for awhile, sadly if it follows the launch schedule of Rage a lot can happen between now August 14th 2010 and September 13 2011. We shall see, I'll still get Brink when it comes out, but I hope it gets a big turn out when it launches as it has great potential.

badtaker
badtaker

brink is looking more visually awesome then Rage can't wait for Brink

hahnasty
hahnasty

Both of these games will be interesting to follow in the coming year. I think both have a lot of promise, hopefully they turn out well.

Matrix
Matrix

Sept 13, 2011 may seem far away but at least we know they aren't rushing it and ruining it like most games are these days.

ichc1000x
ichc1000x

Brink is turning out to look like a cool game.

QtrArt
QtrArt

Ow is so bad in spt 13 , 2011 really really bad