In Evil Genius, you'll get to play as, well, an evil genius out to take over the world. This upcoming strategy game from Britain's Elixir Studios promises to mix the base-building gameplay of Dungeon Keeper with the inspired humor of the Austin Powers movies. While you operate a tropical island resort as a cover operation, you'll be hard at work in your underground secret base, training minions and henchmen to take over the world while defending yourself from secret agents and commandos. But what does evil look like? In this game, that job came down to the visual director, Siku, and the character artist, Matt Clark. For this edition of our Designer Diaries, Siku and Matt recount their efforts to make the characters in the game.
One of the clay sculptures used to nail down the characters in the game.
Shaping EvilBy Siku and Matt Clark
Visual director/Character artist, Elixir Studios
The best ideas are simple, elegant, and leave people asking, "Why didn't anyone think of that before?" Or, "I wish I worked on that." At the very least, we can lay claim to the latter. It has been a privilege working on such an ingenious idea with the certifiable Sandy Sammarco (and his criminal distribution of chocolates) as lead designer. His special brand of humor exhibited in the game was not creative design solutions but a mirror image of the madness within.
Lead artist Brian Gillies' requirements required a novel approach, so I adopted principles of three-dimensional cubism/art deco, utilizing sweeping and resolved lines. My comic book experience was very useful in the creation of characters, many of which were created without briefing. Elias Barracuda is one example; the idea is to characterize form. That is, you know what a character is and does by looking at them.
As usual, the problem with art concepts for games is working within a determined polygon count. How one interprets a line or a curve in a game determines how true to the concept a model is. It requires a skilled 3D artist with a perceptive and anticipatory eye. Matt Clark thinks he fits the bill and I must reluctantly accept that he pulled it off somewhat miraculously. He even managed to make a habit of it, too. However, with original styling like this it is difficult to see every angle, and even I couldn't understand some of the nuances and character of the compound curves in 3D space, so I decided to build a sculpture out of clay. Sculpting our agent template was a revelation, and I subsequently improved the design of all characters. In collaboration with Matt, we finally resolved all of the unanswered questions and achieved clarity, meaning that Matt could no longer rely on his now-familiar repertoire of excuses.
With the environment made up of brushed steel and polished surfaces built by Brian and the other artists, texturing the characters had to be experimental. How do you texture cloth and skin in a manner not unlike metal? Traditional texturing methods would not be adequate; the geometry styling would not support it visually. After a couple of weeks, I had developed a solution and template with some help from Matt, who had been busy trying to find the fastest and easiest way to do his job.
I had carefully and painstakingly prescribed shadow and gradient characteristics, which could be adapted by any artist with an understanding of our rules. Matt, however, had a bright idea (which coincidentally reduced his workload by 80 percent), and that was to use automated light maps (based on our parameters) from high-poly (tessellated) models. He subsequently built and textured a model a day by the means of several plug-ins and scripts and devices, which I personally consider shameful.
A close-up of the sculpture.
Sometimes, original solutions look odd to an onlooker, and a creative person should be aware but not dissuaded by this fact; for if the viewer looks long enough to acquire familiarization, the strange becomes the acquired. Every character was designed with motion in mind; therefore, the full realization of its visual attributes could not be fully appreciated until animations were added. It has been great fun working on the project, even if I got stuck with "The Matt Clark" in the process. What do they say? No pain, no gain?
Evil, But Not Too Evil
In the unlikely event that some of you have managed to get this far without asking yourself, "What is this guy on about?" then let me tell you how it really happened.
I moved onto the team a couple of months into development. The art style of the game was already established, mock-up environments were being built, and Siku was scrawling away with his character concepts. He cleverly chose to mix the stylized sculpted forms of Constantin Brancusi with his own comic style, meaning that even the basest characters like the minions were visually interesting. My first job was to really insist on getting basic body shapes pinned down. Many characters would need to share animations, so we settled on four basic body types ranging from midget to freak (two meters high and nearly as wide).
Next up was time to actually make some test characters for the early builds of the game, so Maximilian (one of the evil geniuses) and a basic minion were chosen, and I got to work. The first few revisions of these characters were a struggle, as we felt they were losing something in translation from paper to polygons. One of the problems was that the sculpted forms Siku had drawn did not lend themselves well to in-game poly counts. It was also difficult to visualize some of the forms he was drawing in three dimensions, so as Siku mentioned, he made a clay figure which proved to be most valuable at the 3D-modeling stage.
The other problem with the characters at this stage was in the texturing. The concepts had a very comic book style, but I think many people were worried about going too cartoony, and I was steered away from this by the powers that be. (I recall doing a cel-shaded mock-up and being thrashed within an inch of my life.) I had a bit of a battle on my hands trying to find a way of texturing and rendering the characters so they wouldn't look out of place with the environments. I also needed to convey the character and humor of the concepts in a way that wasn't considered "too cartoony."
Eventually, I came up with a system where baking shadows onto relatively flat-shaded characters would give the impression of detail without overcomplicating and detracting from the simple style of the game. This system is what Siku calls "cheating." Before long, it was second nature and we could get from concept to game in very little time, and eventually it got to the point where I felt comfortable enough to make additional characters without concepts. The other major contributors to the characters are, of course, our animators, Weles Busset and Grant Senior. Together they've amassed a vast library of often-hilarious animations that really breathe life into the characters and supply much of the in-game humor.
As always, in reflection, there'd be things I'd do differently now, but I'm pleased with how the characters of Evil Genius have worked out, and I think we've made a game that genuinely looks unique.