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.


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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.
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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