Riana McKeith is an art director at Berlin based mobile games developer Wooga. She is one of the art directors in Wooga’s internal Puzzle Studio, that focuses on the development of mobile matching games. In her role she’s overseen the visual development of many projects and at the same time served as art lead for FUTURAMA: Game of Drones, a match 4 puzzler that launched earlier in 2016. At Casual Connect Europe 2017, Riana dove into story narration through art. Learn more about Riana and game art in our exclusive Q&A below.
Casual Connect: Tell us about the work you do at Wooga. How did you come to work there?
Riana McKeith: As an art director in Wooga’s puzzle studio, I manage about 15 artists across various game teams, making sure that every team has the resources they need in order to create the game. This can be in terms of staffing, people management, advice, organizing outsourcing partners, or even just bringing in cake sometimes! In Wooga we are strong believers in autonomous teams, giving them the freedom to make their own choices, so mostly my role is about giving guidance and support.
At the same time, I also work as an art lead on games in Wooga and just recently transitioned from working on a live game – FUTURAMA: Game of Drones – to developing the art style and vision for one of our unpublished games currently in production. Before joining Wooga in 2012 I worked for PopCap in Dublin on their famous titles Bejeweled and Plants vs. Zombies.
CC: What do you do in your free time? What are your hobbies?
Riana: Where to start? Well, obviously I draw all the time – I love creating art and working on my skills, particularly art that’s just for me or for my family. I’m the sort of artist that needs a brief and a deadline to really get the most out of my work, so I often create work for family occasions, birthdays, that sort of thing.
Other than that? I play games, all sorts of games, and as often as I can. Finding the time for something like The Witcher is tough, but I try to give myself permission to sit on the sofa all weekend! It’s all research right? At least, that’s what I tell myself!
I’m also a big fan of baking, trying out new recipes and bringing them into work to give to the team. It really relaxes me to make pastry or a sponge, and it’s incredibly satisfying to see it all come together and people enjoying what I’ve made.
CC: What is your favorite thing about your job?
Riana: To me, making games, making art, is not really a job, it’s my whole life. I think most of us in the game industry are here because it’s our vocation, it’s something we’ve dreamed of doing all our lives – so to boil that down into one favourite thing is almost impossible, or, at the least very, very difficult.
I love working on new ideas, building a game together, trying to find that special moment where it all clicks and starts becoming real in my mind. But I guess what really excites me is to hear that players liked what I helped bringing to life. When you’ve been working on a game for months, maybe years and have poured soul into it, realizing that other people love it as much as you do is just incredibly rewarding. I live for those first, few anxious hours, checking and rechecking to see if reviews have come in; it’s intense!
CC: Do you have any advice for someone interested in pursuing the same career?
Riana: For me, it’s the same advice I give to everyone. You have to really love what you do. Don’t try to fit yourself into some mould that seems “safe” or “secure”. All careers require effort, practice and dedication, and nothing comes for free – particularly in art. So if you try to create art you’re not passionate about, you’ll be up against all those who are. They really love it, they think about it every minute of every day, and they’ll probably end up being better at it than you.
So find out what you really love to draw and practice, practice, practice!
CC: In your younger years, was there anything that hinted at your future career path in gaming?
Riana: My mum is a computer scientist, and as far back as I can remember we always had a computer at our house. I would spend hours and hours playing Monkey Island, Populous, Lemmings and really any game I could get my hands on – this was still in the ms dos era of computers too! So computer games have always been a part of my life.
CC: What is your creative process like? Where do you begin?
Riana: Finding the vision for a piece of art, or the style of a game always begins the same way for me. I like to ask myself, what are the rules for this piece? What boundaries are there that have to be established that the artwork needs to support? Knowing what you can’t do is as important as what you can, and getting those clear in my head always helps focus my mind.
The next step for me is to really think of a story that complements those rules rather than fighting against it, getting to that sweet spot where art is able to support the game and its story. The rest then is defining the rough ideas, making choices, finding out what resonates and narrowing the focus.
CC: What is the most challenging part of game development for you? What is the most rewarding part?
Riana: With diverse game teams consisting of engineers, product managers, game designers as well as artists, you will naturally have many different views on the game vision that need to align somehow. Getting everyone on the same page is the most challenging part of game development.
The art of the game bridges that gap, right where all those disciplines connect and overlap, and in the end the art helps to define the vision that we want to make. Getting to the art vision for a game is incredibly challenging, but rewarding at the same time.
CC: What methods do you use to handle creative blocks? Do creative blocks occur frequently?
Riana: First of all, I think it’s important to internalize that creative blocks are normal; everyone gets them. It’s a natural part of the process as your brain tries to find the interesting story to tell. For me, the upside of creative blocks is that I can use them to practice. When I don’t know what to draw, I go back to life drawing or hand studies. I’m still learning and practicing, but I’m allowing myself to have a break from the more creative part.
Other ways I like to overcome creative blocks is by taking different approaches to the problem. If I’ve been thinking about the world of the game in one way, say inspired by a particular painting or artist and getting nowhere, then I would deliberately go as opposite as possible; really take another look at it. Maybe even do a random Wikipedia search to get various points of view to start from. It’s about building processes to get you through the tough block – finding what works for you.
CC: Why do you consider art so important in telling the story of the game?
Riana: In Free-to-Play, the art of the game is like your shop window. Imagine the player walking down the high street looking at all those windows with all these beautiful products in them. When strolling the app marketplaces, your art is the first thing a player sees before the decision to “come in” is made. Art speaks to the emotions of the player before they even get to test it out. Every artistic choice supports the overall experience and how the underlying story is perceived. Your game is nothing before the art is ready, and especially in Free-to-Play, where players normally don’t read through novel-long stories, it’s the mood, tone, shapes and colours that tell the story.
CC: Can art be the inspiration for the story or does the story always come first?
Riana: For me, the artwork I do nearly always has a purpose, otherwise I think of it more as a study than an art piece. So when I’m creating art, I always think of the story behind it; what does this image have to say? That obviously doesn’t mean you have to have a fifteen-pages long storyboard, but I find it very, very difficult to make choices when there’s no indication of where the story is leading. After all, art is pretty subjective; how can you say that option 1 is better or worse than option 2? Is the character large or small, intelligent or stupid, funny or serious? Having a framework for making those choices leads you towards a better result.
CC: What was a painful experience you found a way out of? How did you do it?
Riana: With one of the teams I’ve worked in, we maneuvered ourselves into a situation where we couldn’t align about art and the game design. So, exactly that sweet spot I talked about earlier. What really helped me in that situation was to disconnect my emotion and frustration from the conflict and allow outside views. Both helped tremendously to facilitate open conversations and build trust within the team again. Understanding that pushing or exchanging certain people within the team won’t do it, was key. We allowed ourselves the time to reassess and in the end we managed to exit this conflict as a much stronger and more collaborative team than before and created a much better game.
CC: What has been your proudest moment in your career so far? What led to this moment happening?
Riana: Oh, that’s an easy one: launching FUTURAMA: Game of Drones. Not only the fact that we launched the game globally, but seeing such strong artistic growth within the team truly made me proud. I really believe we raised the standard for licensed games, not only in the quality of the game overall, but also by how we included story into a puzzle game. The team itself became like a second family to me; we just loved working together and loved what we were making. So seeing all those pieces come together eventually was a very proud and emotional moment for me.
CC: What do you think will be the next big trend in the industry in the next three to five years? How are you incorporation this trend into your future plans?
Riana: With the mobile Free-to-Play market maturing rapidly, we also see audiences evolving fast. The players are expecting a much larger experience, which I believe will result in developers rather going for more niche experiences but at an incredibly high level of quality. And of course, story-driven experiences are becoming more and more popular – which I’m really glad of!
Catherine Quinton is a staff writer for www.gamesauce.org. Catherine loves her hobby farm, long walks in the country and reading great novels.