Gas Powered Games’ senior artist Kevin Pun and his colleagues recently experienced quite the rollercoaster ride when their studio went through a Kickstarter campaign, had to close in the middle of it and ended up being bought by free-to-play giant Wargaming. We sat down with him to look back at his career at Gas Powered Games and reflect on the ideas he and his team had for Wildman.
The Evolution of Concept Art at Gas Powered Games
Having started as an artist in the early 90’s, Pun has seen firsthand how concept art has changed dramatically. In the days of Total Annihilation and Dungeon Siege, the technology for polygon-based games was still in its early stages. “A typical unit in Total Annihilation might have 60 polygons, so designing units like that didn’t require much fidelity,” he recalls. “In fact, when I first started, all my initial designs had to be tossed because they were too detailed.”
The demand for concept art started to pick up a few years later when Pun started working on Dungeon Siege, where the polygon and texture budget was dramatically higher. The Action RPG genre was becoming increasingly popular and Pun saw the competition heating up.
“By the time Supreme Commander started, the need for quality concept art really hit home,” he says. “Not only were there 2D concepts created, but to properly visualize the concepts in all orthographic views, the team had to model out high-quality concepts for evaluation.” This also caused the the art team at Gas Powered Games to be inventive and resourceful in delivering high-quality concepts while meeting tight schedule demands for subsequent titles.
Lessons Learned from Total Annihilation, Dungeon Siege and Age of Empires Online
While the concept process has evolved, Pun still believes there are still a lot of lessons that he and his team could’ve applied to Wildman. In his time at Gas Powered Games, Pun points out the key aspect of all the Chris Taylor titles he has worked on in the past. “There is one common theme and that is epic-ness,” he says. “Chris loves to design big worlds, big battles, and tackle big themes,” Pun says. “Accordingly with our visuals, we strive to match his grand visions. For good or bad, our projects tended to jump wildly from fantasy in one title to sci-fi in the next and on to a stylized historic RTS. Artistically, the periodic change-ups were great for exploring new styles, but on the other hand, we don’t have a style to build upon.”
Pun proudly sees that as one of the main strengths of his team.”We are extremely flexible, and we are insanely passionate about making the best art possible without compromising design functionality,” he says.
Pun mentions the strategic zoom feature of Supreme Commander as one example of that; “The camera could zoom seamlessly from the ground to a wide satellite view showing the whole map while the player could still see all of their units. It was a major artistic and technical challenge that got even tougher by the camera’s ability to freely rotate on the horizontal axis on demand. In contrast to most of the RTS games of that time that did not have such a feature, all of the units, props and terrain features in Supreme Commander had to look good in all angles and all in zoom levels.” He says, “In Dungeon Siege, the most noted feature was the seamlessly streaming world. The player could walk from one end of the world to the other with underground explorations sprinkled throughout all without a single load screen. Creating this feature was a major undertaking that took years of long hours and sweat to pull through. To wrap up the examples, in Age of Empires Online, we tackled a completely new style for the studio by adopting a highly stylized cartoon look.”
Pun looks back at both Total Annihilation and Dungeon Siege to have good game cameras that sat above the action and were pulled back to see as much of the battlefield as possible.
“In a production design standpoint, the most important lessons are to make sure that we design each character or unit with a strong silhouette, good contrast, and a unique color scheme,” he says. “This goal is to help the player see his avatar easily against the background, and to understand what combatants are on the battlefield in a glance. This is extremely crucial for gameplay, especially with epic real-time combat seen in games like Supreme Commander. Since the camera in Wildman is similar to that of Dungeon Siege’s and the battles share much of that of RTS games, much of what we learned from those projects will directly apply.”
The Experience of Working on Wildman and the Kickstarter Campaign
Starting the Kickstarter campaign was a mysterious journey for the studio and for Pun. The first step was to develop an attractive style that would work well with the budget that we were shooting for. “We made educated guesses on what would have impact and what could convey the spirit of the game without words,” he recalls. “Visually, we all want to produce eye catching art that captures potential backers’ imagination.”
Working on Age of Empires Online had given the team a lot of experience in creating highly expressive worlds populated with quirky, but memorable characters. Pun reflects that when they approached Wildman, they quickly gravitated towards a grittier, modified version of that look because the knowledge could be leveraged to speed up the development process in Wildman.
“Adopting that style also made sense in multiple levels, production wise,” Pun says, “Foremost, it addressed a big concern of how to deal with the violent conflicts in the game. With the highly stylized look, the battles would remain energetic, but slightly comical so that they would be more acceptable and responsible in the public eye. Asset production would also be easier without compromising quality, and we could avoid the intense scrutiny accompanied by photo-realistic styles.”
Once the team agreed on the look, the flood gate for creating assets for the campaign busted wide open. “Our criteria for creating art and posting were to keep communicating with Chris on what he wanted and to keep checking the pulse of the online feedback.”
Ideally, the team wanted to show as many facets of the game as possible to immerse the player into this unique and unforgiving world. Explaining this intention, Pun tells us, “The core experience of the game is adventure and combat, so that was our highest priority. For the launch of the Kickstarter campaign, we created pieces that could convey the power of the Wildman, and the relentless battles that would be fought. After that was done, we focused on introducing Wildman‘s adversaries and their environments. As the campaign continued, we set out to further flesh out the vision of the game. In a nutshell, the jest of our strategy was to post updates regularly, but remain fluid enough so that we could dynamically react to deficiencies in our campaign.”
While promoting the game at Kickstarter was top priority, the studio was also working on the game itself. The art team was a skeleton crew at that moment, causing everyone to be laser-focused on their tasks. His main responsibility made him primarily in charge of the concept art effort while the team was cranking on prototype levels. Aside from cool paintings, creating art for a game of this scope is much more difficult than most people realize. There are a lot of technical hurdles such as pipelines and tools that the art team has to face before the game comes to life. “The reality of the situation was that we were playing a catch up game and needed to pull out all the stops. The Wildman Kickstarter was a huge learning experience for us, and I am sure that it will be an interesting case study for other developers who are thinking about a campaign of their own.”
Art Transforms While You’re Drawing It
In the last 15 years, Pun has seen the role, scope and expectations from art transform completely. The industry has seen a significant shift in how games are produced and distributed; big budgets are harder to secure, and the demand for quick turnaround is higher than ever. He marks that recognizing and adapting to change is really crucial for succeeding in the industry. “To cope as an artist, I had to constantly reinvent the way I work, learn new tools or techniques, and upgrade my style to keep up with changing tastes,” Pun says. “A big part of doing that is to keep a constant eye on the evolution of the industry, soak in as much as you can, and push yourself harder through what you’ve learned.” Pun also wants to mention that one aspect of the Wildman campaign that surprised him was the importance of social media. Reaching the fans through forums, Facebook, YouTube and live-video chats were immensely powerful, and it made a significant impact to the campaign’s pledges. Now that he and the team have some experience, he wishes they had jumped on these earlier.
When asked about any advice that he would like to pass on to other developers who want to pitch their ideas and works, Pun considers quality, not quantity is of the utmost importance. Of course, in general, this is true for not only pitching games, but other marketing as well. For example, Pun sees a parallel in the countless portfolios of artists getting into the industry that he’s had to look through. “A lot of portfolios that crossed my desk were bloated with everything, including the kitchen sink,” he says. “For a modeling job, artists felt compelled to add not only modeling samples, but rough animations from school or sub par character concept designs that ultimately undermined the overall effectiveness of their interview.” Pun reflects and advises, “The most successful portfolios were carefully edited to bring maximum impact. There was a young artist who came through with six pieces on his thumb drive. Normally, that would be crazy to bring into an interview, but by the time I saw the second piece, I wanted to hire him at the spot. The art was that good.”
”That might be an extreme case but the point is to be focused and put your best foot forward,” he adds.
Vlad Micu is managing editor of Gamesauce.org. He previously has been a freelance game industry professional for over five years and traveled around the world while running his company VGVisionary. Starting VGVisionary during college, Vlad was able to work independently as a pr & marketing consultant, event manager, industry journalist, speaker and game developer. He just returned from Bangkok, Thailand, where he pursued his dream of making video games as the game producer at arkavis, an up and coming casual game studio.