As an Art Lead at Microsoft, Floyd Bishop chronicled how to create expressive characters and their setup in Unity at Casual Connect USA 2018. He advised, “Use every part of the buffalo.” To learn more about how you can make this work for you, be sure to watch the video of the full session.
User Interface is the connection between the customer and your code. The CEO and Art Director of Owl Studio has a passion about what makes User Interface good or bad. In her lecture at Casual Connect Europe 2017 discussed this and how to build effective interfaces as well as how to direct the user’s attention to the right place at the right time. This presentation will help you whether you are an artist or not to design better layouts that help increase user engagement and retention.
One tip Vera shared was: “Passive and active colors for user interface UI needs a good balance, using gentle shades that won’t tire the eyes.” To learn more, see the full lecture and slides below.
Vera Velichko, CEO and Art Director of Owl Studio, has always been determined to have a company of her own, but for many years it seemed like a distant dream as she continued working as an employee. But finally, two years ago, the time was right. “I realized that there is no time like the present, and if I wanted to achieve my dream, I had to do it there and then.” So, with some friends, she began working on her first project, a visual novel called One Day in London. The company has developed into a team of twelve and they still work with this visual novel (an episodic project) as well as doing outsource artwork. During the past year they have completed seven projects together.
Doing Something that Really Matters
Today Vera firmly believes that the work she is doing means something; it really matters. This year Owl Studio’s online school for artists begins. Each day brings interesting tasks; each new project brings new challenges for Vera and the team. She revealed, “I can make something beautiful and teach my team to do it. It makes me happy every day.”
Almost all her life Vera has been working as an artist. While studying fine arts, she started accepting what it would be like to live on the salary a painter could make. But then Vera discovered that the game industry offered a brilliant opportunity to make real money doing what she loves. So she made a portfolio of her work and began doing freelance work as a game artist. At first she were working for almost nothing, but the work allowed them to continue improving the portfolio. And as the portfolio became better and better, the more opportunities it generated.
Building a Business
With the creation of Owl Studio, Vera entered a new stage of her career. Suddenly she must be involved in business development, networking, team building, setting up process, and many other aspects of building a business that she had never done before. Their motivation to succeed comes through seeing a goal and moving toward it. When she looks to the future and see there is something still needed, Vera just keeps moving on.
The biggest challenges she has faced recently is making decisions for the company. Vera reveals, “How can I find out that my decision is right? How can I be sure it doesn’t hurt my team?” She has realized that, although there is no way to be sure something is the right decision, it is still her responsibility as the leader. This continues to be the most complicated aspect of running the company.
Building the Team
For the members of the team Vera searches for those who can combine creative talent with responsibility, but it is a rare combination. This is because the art that Owl Studio makes is much more than a job or a way to make money. She explains, “We are trying to make a graphic with soul and spirit, that will take a user to a new world. It’s impossible without talent. And we work with customers and abide by deadlines, and this would not be possible without responsibility.”
The most difficult positions to fill are the team leads. This employee must have the very unusual ability to be a leader while also being a team player. And next most difficult to find are the UI designers.
Vera has discovered that there are no standard methods of how to work with the team members because everyone is unique; an individual approach is necessary. So she tries to find a way to connect with every employee, but recognize that is also important to know the moment to let them go.
Her commitment to team members is evident when Vera relates the proudest moment of her career. It was when she realized what an apprentice had accomplished, something more than Vera could do alone.
Developing and Testing a Visual Novel
When Owl Studio began working on their own project, they used play tests of their first demo to form the final vision of the project. They were testing UI, storytelling, sounds and perception of the image, and as a result of these tests they made changes and adjustments. As they tested this visual novel, the most interesting results came from seeing the differences in feedback from the different story lines. The choices the users made changed their perceptions of the entire story. It was a very important discovery.
Now there are no longer significant changes to the project mechanic from episode to episode, so Owl Studio is no longer doing play tests. However, they do get feedback from users on a daily basis and use this information to constantly improve the project.
The monetization method Owl Studio uses for One Day in London is premium. This is simply a result of the visual novel genre; there is no opportunity to monetize within it for using the free-to-play principle.
Vera has seen dynamic growth in mobile games, as well as hearing many colleagues talking about new trends in this sector of the game industry, and expects this to continue over the next few years. In response, she is teaching the team and students to understand the specifics of mobile art.
The Essential Skills and Attributes of Good Interface Design
There are two essential skills to the basis of good interface design. The first is understanding the features of the project and the target devices. The designer must be able to imagine how the user will use this. The second is understanding the topography and visual design. As Vera points out, not every artist can understand how to work with texts and infographics.
Vera describes the difference between UX and UI design this way: “UX design is the process of establishing the logic system that controls the application. UI design is the process of making this system beautiful.”
The software to design good graphical user interface will vary depending on the artist’s habits and preferences. Some possibilities include Photoshop, Illustrator or Animate. The only essential is providing a portable network graphics set.
For someone who is considering UI design as a career, Vera emphasizes the importance of playing games while thinking about how you do it. Also, study the topography design. These are the two most significant steps toward becoming a UI designer.
How did we get started?
We all love super heroines. But it’s been many years since we were introduced to Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Cat Woman, Elektra and even Lara Croft. David Burns, CEO of Eden Films, thought it was time we had a new super heroine for the big screen. But what sort of new heroine? There have been so many introduced over the years. Howabout a Fallen Angel and the need for her to save the world from evil. Enter Elizabeth Grey.
Creating a sequel can be tricky. As a game developer, you strive to have something true to the original but also fresh and new. During his talk at Casual Connect Tel Aviv, the co-founder of Upopa Games, Niv Toubol, spoke about the lessons they have learned from the creation of Hopeless 2. In his talk entitled Sequels: Dealing with Fan’s Expectations, Niv explained, “Understanding the challenges and preserving the original style and mechanics is crucial for successful sequel”. Since the conference, Niv is proud to announce that Hopeless 2 is featured on the App Store and at the moment they are ranked as #4 on the US App Store.
During at Casual Connect USA, art director for XMG Studio Lyndsey Gallant shared her role in the studio transforming from an unfocused and financially inefficient company to the innovative and sustainable studio that it is today. In fact, “concentrating on art as the main component of our games completely changed our company strategy”, confirmed Lyndsey. XMG Studio has transformed from a large licensing-focused studio with 50 employees to a much smaller six people team that now makes original IPs and art-driven projects. Join Lyndsey as she describes the best practices and insights on this transition.
From a contract game artist’s point of view, the next few years in the video game industry may look a little more interesting creatively — and a little lighter on the clones — than the previous decade.
“I think things are going to change a lot more in the next year or two than they did in the last three or four years. Even four years ago, mobile was still big,” said Jason Park, Concept Art House VP of operations, during a recent studio tour in San Francisco. “It feels actually exciting for the first time 10 years. It reminds me of the old days, where I actually want to be on the show floor.”
“My job is to throw out as many ideas as possible, and see which one sticks or if one will lead to another. If an idea doesn’t work, no problem, just move on and keep on searching.”
While this quote may seem like the philosophy of a business leader driven only by the bottom line, it is one of the many approaches to game design that Glen Schofield has developed as he evolved from being an artist to a co-founder and general manager of Sledgehammer Games. For those unfamiliar with Schofield, he has been in the videogame industry for over twenty years and after starting off as an art student from the Pratt Institute, he went from being an artist on cartoons and games, to a respected business leader in the videogame industry. As such, Schofield’s career provides an insight into how a traditionally trained artist was able to adapt to the creative and business demands of the videogame industry and eventually become a leading figure in it.
Life Before Gaming
Schofield always enjoyed art growing up. Remembering that he was drawing at the age four, he benefited from a family that actively supported his passion by taking him to art shows and encouraging him to enter competitions. Schofield was even inspired by some of the popular artists of the 20th century – some of these being Walt Disney, Charles Schulz (creator of Peanuts), Jack Davis (one of the founding cartoonists for Mad Magazine), and Norman Rockwell. As he got older, he became a fan of “Sci-fi artists like Michael Whelan, Ralph McQuarrie, John Berkey and many others,” John Berkey being one of the designers on the original Star Wars trilogy and the original Battlestar Galactica series.
The young artist’s passion for art would continue to grow and motivate him to attend the Pratt Institute for college. As a school committed to providing a traditional Liberal Arts experience, Schofield received an in depth education of art history – including learning about Rembrandt, Picasso, Turner, Caravaggio, da Vinci, and other great artists. During this time, Pratt not only engrained in him a general knowledge of art history, it also instilled in him an intellectual framework for how to develop a concept. As Schofield put it, the “Pratt Institute was great at reinforcing that the idea was the most important thing. Once you had an idea, then the illustration was easier and usually better. To this day, I use that philosophy in making games.”
Schofield also learned more than art theory from Pratt, he learned how to approach art as an industry. This meant not only learning how to accept rejection and build a strong portfolio, but to realistically value a concept. As he states, “since the creative process is full of rejections, I just let it bounce off me.” It is a skill that not only got him through art school, but it would continue to influence how he develops games. “It’s incredibly important in gaming where you come up with hundreds of ideas a week for so many different aspects of the game,” he says. “It’s a good week if five or six of them make it into a game.”
Though this sounds cynical, Schofield makes it clear that his “job is to throw out as many ideas as possible, and see which one sticks or if one will lead to another.” “If an idea doesn’t work, no problem, just move on and keep on searching,” he says. “It’s also incredibly important to be able to accept others ideas and be able to know when somebody has a gem.”
Early Career – Galaxy Rangers and Learning the Industry of Art Production
After graduating from Pratt with a B.F.A., Schofield was able to get a job working on the short-lived cartoon series, The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers. With only one season consisting of sixty-five episodes that aired during 1986, Galaxy Rangers provided him the opportunity to create nearly a hundred characters and storyboard direct twenty-one episodes. With each episode consisting of over four-hundred boards, this experience taught him how to both produce a large quantity of material and keep a standard appearance for each item. As Schofield said when thinking about this time, “each episode has over 400 boards and it’s your job to design each shot then direct about 10 artists to make it look good. The experience taught me how to direct artists, design and innovate with camera angles. I learned to lay out episodes and scenes and make them flow nicely.”
In addition to getting Schofield accustomed to the mass production requirements of working in entertainment, working on Galaxy Rangers still provided him with the opportunity to refine and improve his craft. “I was also surrounded by some of the best artists in NY at the time. It was like a four year education crammed into one year. I was drawing and designing every day. My work improved so much during this project. I became a much better artist and art director.” Overall, while Galaxy Rangers became a short-lived series, the professional experience Schofield gained from it would become foundational to his growth in the videogame industry.
Starting in Videogames – Absolute Entertainment, Licensed Games, and Early Struggles
Starting in the early 1990s, Schofield began working on videogames at the now-closed Absolute Entertainment. Some of his first games were Barbie: Barbie GameGirl, The Simpsons: Bartman Meets Radioactive Man, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York – all of which were released between 1991 and 1992. (You can find a list of Schofield’s credits here.) While computer hardware and software becoming quickly outdated is now a standard part of the gaming industry, his entrance into game development was at a time when computers still felt new. Looking back on this time, Schofield recalls that “Computers in the early 90’s were limited, but changing so fast you had to relearn everything every six months. I came to understand those limitations and loved the challenge.” One of the early limitations that he dealt with were the color options. “Back then, the software was pretty limited…but I loved it. I could make copies, change colors, [and] experiment,” he says. Though he found these platforms to be lacking at first, the technology eventually began to catch up with his imagination.
Overall, Schofield embraced the transition to digital art. Looking back at this time, Schofield states that “I picked it up pretty quickly and within a year of being hired, I was promoted to Art Director.” Another aspect of his early work was just how many games he produced – stating that in the year he got promoted to Art Director, he had a “hand in creating eleven games: I worked on three Game Boy games on my own, and worked on the animation for another eight games.”
During this time, Schofield also learned how to deal with situations that truly challenged his artistic abilities. As he began working on licensed properties, he found it difficult to animate the Walt Disney character Goofy, stating, “Goofy, definitely, was a huge challenge. Breaking down his animation was so difficult because each frame was so strange-looking on its own.” He handled this problem by hiring Milt Neil, an 80-year-old retired ex-Disney animator – who had previously worked on the films Dumbo, Fantasia, and other Disney classics – to pencil Goofy’s animations. He would then outline and color each of Neil’s drawings. In retrospect, Schofield believes that “this was a first in games,” and it lead him to start hiring dedicated animators for the games he worked on.
Another challenge Schofield encountered early on occurred when he was working Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors (1995) – a videogame featuring the comedy-magic duo Penn & Teller. He was struggling to get the animation for Penn and Teller right. So to get the visuals for the game as realistic as possible, he videotaped the duo against a blue sheet, selected key frames, and redrew over the frames in the program he was using. This proved to not only be an ingenious way of getting a game’s visuals right, but according to Schofield, “I think it’s one of the very first roto-scoped animations in the history of the videogame industry.”
A large portion of the games that Schofield worked on during this period were licensed properties. Though these types of games have a reputation of being rushed into production, they provided him the opportunity to change artistic styles quickly and strengthen his versatility. As such, according to Schofield “there was a huge time investment put into studying the characters and backgrounds of the IP to ensure that I could nail a certain style. The changing of styles for me was quite fun. I looked forward to the challenge, plus it kept each game interesting.” This exposure to different styles and genres taught him how to jump from style to style, and prepared him for myriad types of franchises he would work with and develop for the rest of his career.
Crystal Dynamics, MBA, and Transitioning from Artist to Manager
In 1996, Schofield joined Crystal Dynamics and became its Vice President. Crystal Dynamics would be purchased by Eidos Interactive in 1998, and he would remain at Crystal Dynamics until 2002. At this studio, he would direct games such as Gex 2, Gex 3, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, Disney World Racing, and more. As such, Schofield’s time at Crystal Dynamics was one in which he transitioned from being only in charge of a game’s art to being in charge of a whole project.
Though this could make for a difficult shift, Schofield relished in his new position, stating, “I loved it. The pressure was on but I thrive on it. At the time, I had already focused heavily on designing games because back then designers were starting to come into their own.” Becoming a manager meant that in addition to overseeing a project, Schofield was able to become an active leader by engaging the others who worked with him on a project. As he said about this subject, “I enjoy the process of getting a team of people to rally behind a project, and the satisfaction I get from creating something great with a team is equivalent, or actually, more gratifying than finishing a painting on my own.”
During his time at Crystal Dynamics, Schofield also made an important decision that would further cement his place in the management side of game development – he decided to return to school and earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Golden Gate University. At the time he went back to earn his MBA in 2000, he observed that “the video game industry was growing and becoming a lot more mature.” As a result, Schofield felt that “in the years leading up to getting my MBA from Golden Gate University, I got a sense that I needed to know a lot more about finance, business, accounting, and scheduling. I knew that I wanted to continue in development and run large teams, or perhaps a studio, but I needed the formal business training and knowledge.”
Though the value of an MBA is currently being questioned more and more, for Schofield, getting an MBA proved to be “one of the most important decisions I ever made.” In addition to providing him a formal understanding of management and business, the MBA, according to Schofield “has opened doors, given me the ability to speak at the same level as execs and taught me how to research deeply into a subject.” An outcome of this is that Schofield now believes that “marrying a creative degree with a business degree is perfect for the game industry.” These are not only skills that would guide him through his tenure at Crystal Dynamics and EA, they would also help when he co-founded Sledgehammer Games.
Electronic Arts – The Lord of the Rings and Dead Space
After earning his MBA in 2002, Schofield left Crystal Dynamics and joined Electronic Arts as a Vice President and General Manager at EA Redwood (Redwood would be renamed Visceral Games in 2009). One of the first games that he would work on at EA would be part of one of the largest entertainment franchises that he would ever work on – The Lord of the Rings. Building off the success of The Two Towers videogame, the game based on The Return of the King was announced April 2003 and was scheduled for release in November 2003 (a month ahead of the movie’s December premier). This project was one of the more challenging projects Schofield had experienced, stating that it “was an extremely hard project working for countless hours….In addition, there was a lot of pressure on us to deliver something great.”
Luckily, Schofield and those at EA Redwood Studios had significant access to the production of The Return of the King. However, despite both the game and aspects of the movie being in production at the time, he remembers that there was a lot he and his team had to develop on their own. “We created as much as we could from their concept art but during the development process a lot of their characters and scenes changed,” he recalls. After completing The Return of the King, Schofield would work on the games From Russia with Love, Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, and Whiplash. More importantly, Schofield began working with Michael Condrey and helped developed Dead Space.
First announced in 2007, Dead Space is a third-person shooter that merges spacefaring science-fiction and survival/horror to create a game in which the player (in control of an engineer named Isaac Clarke) battles against reanimated human corpses aboard an interstellar space ship. According to Schofield, EA “set out to make the scariest video game ever.” Though he acknowledges that this could be “consider[ed] a lofty goal,” he does believe that they came close. Falling back on his philosophy that started at Pratt, the team working on Dead Space “tried every type of horror convention while making the game. Some worked, others didn’t.”
One horror convention that was re-imagined for the game was how the player viewed the action. Given that the camera in video games isn’t static like it is in the movies, Schofield mentioned how the EA staff strived to innovate how players visually observed the moments of horror in the game by trying to create a nearly completely immersive experience. “There was a lot of trial and error,” he says. “In the end, I think the atmosphere and pacing were the main reasons why the game was successful in being quite tense.” To add to the immersive quality wanted in Dead Space, the game developers sought to “innovate on the HUD/UI to aid with player immersion – hence the health bar on his back and the ammo counter on the gun,” Shofield says. “I’m also proud of the video logs that you were able to play in your helmet because they added a new layer of objective and story delivery.” Another convention common in horror and third person shooters that Schofield wanted to move away from were headshots in favor of dismembering enemies. As he stated, “headshots were another controversial decision to do away with. I really liked the idea of dismembering your enemy, but there was always the question of whether or not we could train the player that headshots weren’t the answer.”
In addition to these user interface goals Schofield, Condrey, and the other developers had for the game, Dead Space also provided Schofield with the opportunity to work with comic book creators and turn Dead Space into a franchise with licensed properties. The comic book creators he worked with were the critically acclaimed writers Warren Ellis, Rick Remender, and Antony Johnston. Echoing his experience of hiring Milt Neil for his expertise, one reason why these three were hired was for “their Sci-fi knowledge and ideas.” And though Schofield had never published a comic book, he has observed that comic books were closer than other mediums to the narrative structure found in video games. This was a key reason why the studio sought out comic book writers in general, stating, “comic books have a very limited amount of writing; they have to get their ideas and thoughts across very quickly without lots of dialogue. A video game is the same way. It was also another way I thought that Dead Space could differentiate itself from other games.”
The use of comic book writers not only helped Dead Space become a successful game, it also created an opportunity build of the game’s narrative by creating spinoff stories for multiple mediums to expanded on the game’s story. For the Dead Space comic books, EA turned to Antony Johnston to expand on the back story created by Schofield and Bret Robbins – Robbins being the Creative Director for the game. To preserve the franchise’s continuity, all artwork, covers, and stories would be approved by Schofield.
Dead Space was released in October 2008. Its success meant that 2009 would professionally be a great year for those involved in its production. After all, the game was not only a commercial success, it would also be nominated for and won dozens of awards, and Schofield himself was named #58 in Edge’s “The Hot 100 Game Developers of 2009.” This is also the year he decided to leave EA and cofound the studio Sledgehammer Games.
Sledgehammer Games – A Different Type of Studio
With the MBA providing him formal business credentials, years of experience of in the business, and the desire to strike out on his own, Schofield co-founded Sledgehammer Games with Michael Condrey in 2009. Sledgehammer Games would soon face an uphill battle to complete its first game, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Originally, Sledgehammer was going to create a unique third-person shooter. However, a falling-out between Activision, Infinity Ward – the studio that created the Modern Warfare franchise – and the original co-founders of the studio resulted in Activision requesting that Sledgehammer and Infinity Ward develop the Modern Warfare 3 together.
By this point, Sledgehammer had become an independent studio within Activision, but had not produced a single game. At the time, Sledgehammer had spent months working on its own Call of Duty installment, and working with Infinity Ward would mean abandoning their own project and having to work on a shortened timeline. This new direction would luckily payoff as MW3 would have the most successful game launch in history with over 6.5 million copies sold and grossing over $400 million in a twenty-four hour period, and would hold this record until Call of Duty: Black Ops II.
Overall, Sledgehammer was founded on the desire that Schofield and Condrey wanted to create games that were innovative and had superior craftsmanship. Though this desire isn’t entirely unique among game studios, they did create a culture at Sledgehammer that would cultivate an enthusiasm in its employees. Specifically, Sledgehammer not only prides itself on transparency, it only accepted the deal to work on Modern Warfare after its team had the chance to vote on accepting the project – making Sledgehammer the type of studio that will only develop a game if the majority of the people working on it are truly interested in the project. Whether this was by design or accident, the decision to form Sledgehammer in this manner creates a passion-driven atmosphere that one would encounter among traditional artists.
The type of studio culture that Sledgehammer has is also rooted in the type of person Schofield wants as an employee. When asked about what he looks for in a candidate, he is clear that beyond specific job skills he is always looking for “passion, first and foremost.” On this topic, he goes on to say that “working in games is a tremendous opportunity and a privilege. If someone isn’t passionate about it, there’s no reason I’d give him or her a job.” He also says that he additionally looks “for intelligence and the ability to work with others” and that “the perfect candidate requires the ability to not only come up with great ideas, but to know when they have a great one. Leave your ego at the door; it’s a team effort. I like people who can throw out lots of ideas and when something is rejected, move on and keep trying.” It’s an approach to hiring that has not only allowed Schofield to build Sledgehammer’s staff, it has also allowed him to hire and groom employees that have gone, in his words, “on to great success, like my friends at Naughty Dog and Toys for Bob.”
The Gaming Industry – Looking Back and Looking Forward
After being in the gaming industry for over two decades, Schofield has seen videogames go through massive transitions. As he told us about these changes, “I’ve witnessed most of them – from the industry being small to growing to the largest entertainment business, the move from 8-bit to unlimited colors and 2D to 3D, they’ve all been huge transitions.” And when the arcade portion of the videogame industry began to decline in the 90s and caused sense of uncertainty throughout the industry, Schofield was unfazed.
Moreover, not only was he unaffected by the industry’s shift in the early 90s, he’s never believed the reoccurring cries that the death of the videogame industry was nigh – saying, “I never felt that the industry was dying, and still don’t. It changes and your job is to adapt. Every console transition, I hear about the death of the console game. I don’t agree and I am quite positive about the future. There will always be a need for entertainment and it’s my job to adapt and learn the newest medium.”
As for the future of the industry, Schofield believes that “we’ll see more of a convergence towards integrating all the platforms in our games.” For example, with more and more people taking their games with on mobile devices and more children playing games on tablets that engage multiple players across social networks, he believes that “the social aspect has changed video games from somebody playing alone in their room for hours to playing co-op in the living room or joining huge groups online.” Schofield notes that this is not only just a new market transformation that studios will follow; social gaming is allowing developers to “keep in touch with our fans and hearing what they like and what they don’t like” and that “games are better for it.”
In addition to these technological changes, Schofield sees the industry further embracing diversity. Not only does Sledgehammer Games have several lead positions filled by women, Schofield sees more women in the industry overall. When asked about this topic, he says, “I think more and more women are playing games these days, and we see more female candidates. The differing opinions, viewpoints and perspectives only make the games better. Diversity in every form is great for every industry.”
A Manager with the Heart of an Artist
Schofield still enjoys painting and drawing in his free time; stating that his “styles in painting and cartooning are quite different than my video game directions,” but that, as an artist, he likes the difference. “To have all these outlets keeps me sharp,” he says. “I get to hone my skills in so many ways every day.” And just like any professional artist – regardless of the medium – he strives for quality. As a game developer, Schofield feels that for high quality, “the bottom line is either get the right budget for the game you want to make or don’t do it. Quality is everything, and I found it important to find a company like Activision that believes in that philosophy as well. I haven’t had to compromise art for budget on my last few games. Yes, we have tight deadlines, but companies now realize that quality is king.”
Possessing a passion for art at a young age, Schofield was ambitious and fortunate enough to be able to develop his love of art into a career. Transitioning from painting and drawing to digital mediums to now overseeing the complete production of bestselling videogames, Schofield’s career has taken him far from the classes of the Pratt Institute. Yet, his ceaseless appreciation and practice of traditional arts continue to guides his approach to the videogames he develops.
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.
In the short space between numerous exciting projects, Gamesauce got an opportunity to speak to Blizzard’s lead writer on the Diablo development team Brian Kindregan about storytelling, changes within the movie business and why he switched to the games industry, where he worked for Bioware before ending up with Blizzard. Plus, he explains the key to his success: being too stupid to give up!
A Passion for Storytelling
Kindregan’s journey begins with his admission to the Character Animation program at the California Institute of the Arts. “I started out with a passion for storytelling,” he recalls.”I had known for years that I wanted to create stories, worlds, and characters. Since I’ve always enjoyed drawing as well, I thought it would be great to combine the two by becoming a storyboard artist in the animation industry. I’ve always heard that the Character Animation program at Cal Arts was the premier school for animation and I was lucky enough to be accepted there.” One of the requirements is that every student creates a short film every year, which narrowed down his aspired fields of expertise. “I found I enjoyed the story creation and storyboarding process much more than other aspects of creating a film,” he adds.
Once he had graduated, getting a job proved to be anything but smooth sailing. Kindregan ended up being one of a group of the lucky students that were hired out of school as an intern for Turner Feature animation. “They were wrapping up on Pagemaster and starting Cats Don’t Dance, but after three months, our internship ended and they announced that production had been delayed, and they wouldn’t need any of us for a year or more.” So he set out looking for work as a storyboard artist, only to be told that it was a prestige position and one would have to work as a clean-up artist, then “an inbetweener” and then an animator before he could even hope to get a job as a board artist. “It should only take a decade or so,” he was told.
But Kindregan had no interest in committing to that career and didn’t really see the point of being so far removed from storytelling. Instead, he kept looking for work as a storyboard artist, eventually getting short-term work storyboarding “fairy tale knockoffs that would be sold in supermarkets and such”. He also made some money reading and commenting on Hollywood scripts, but didn’t make enough to make ends meet. Taking up a job as a window blinds salesman was the only way to pay rent, but then his luck turned. Warner Brothers was starting a new animation division and Kindregan decided to drop off a portfolio. “A few days later, they called me at my window blind sales job to offer me a three year contract as a storyboard artist,” he says. “It was absolutely one of the best phone calls of my life!”
After showing what he was made of at Warner Brothers, Kindregan went on to create storyboards for an impressive number of companies, including Disney, Universal, and Sony Imageworks. Although happy with the many different projects he’s worked on, it’s clear that working on big franchises demanded some attitude changes. “It was a case of going from project to project. The film industry is very mobile and many professionals are hired on a per-project basis. I initially found the constant change a little unsettling, but eventually realized that it kept me sharp and focused,” he says. “I worked with a wide range of people at many studios, on different films in different genres. I got to work in live action and animation, in features and television. Overall, creative people are empowered by dynamic, changing challenges.” He eventually settled into animation quite well and started teaching on the side, next to his increasingly successful work as a storyboard artist.
A few years later, however, Brian decided it was time to make some changes in his professional life. “I was working as a board artist and teaching at the same time. I enjoyed teaching very much, but I needed to be involved in creating content.” He became increasingly less engaged with storyboard work in the film industry, due to changes in the nature of his job. “The role of storyboard artist changed, and storytelling gradually became the purview of writers only. ‘Just board the script’, was a phrase I was hearing a lot. I’m not that great of an artist, and the main contribution I made to a film was as a storyteller. So even though my reputation was good enough that I kept finding work, I wasn’t as motivated about it since I wanted to do more than ‘just board the script’.” So he took his storytelling skills to the games industry and applied for a writing position with Bioware, admiring the company out of personal interest: “I was playing a lot of Baldur’s Gate II and really enjoying it,” he remarks. The jump from visual artist to writer did not seem at all odd to Kindregan, both being a means of expressing story through characters.
Bioware had clear, simple criteria for Kindregan when he applied as a writer: “They wanted you to create a game mod using their Neverwinter Nights toolset,” he recalls .”So I sat down and did just that. The process of creating that mod was an education in itself: being able to play a quest I’d written taught me a great deal about how writing and story integrate into gameplay.” Bioware liked Brian’s mod and decided to hire him, where he started out working on titles like Jade Empire. Though making the switch from film to games wasn’t that hard for him due to his adaptability, he certainly saw some differences. “On the surface, a game studio looks very much like an animation studio: T-shirts and sneakers, toys on the desk, ping pong tables. But just under the surface, it’s still software development and so it moves in a different way than film. Games are a young art form and they change by leaps and bounds each year, whereas film is a fairly well established form.”
Funnily enough, after working on Jade Empire, he went back to work in film to direct the first two seasons of a CG animated show for public television. It didn’t take long for him to realize directing wasn’t all he’d hoped for. “I was too focused on the managerial aspects, which removed me from the actual content creation that I loved so much.” Luckily, after a few years back in film, his good friend Drew Karpyshyn, a game scenario writer himself, asked Kindregan to come back Bioware to write for Mass Effect 2 and he “jumped at the chance”.
Having finished his work on Mass Effect 2, Kindregan once again decided to leave the company, though this time for as much of a personal reason as it was a professional one. “One of the reasons I’d gone back there was to work with Drew Karpyshyn,” he explains. “When he announced during development of ME2 that he would be leaving Edmonton to go work on the Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO in Austin, I found myself open to the idea of a move. At the same time, my wife and I realized that we are both coastal people at heart.” Since Bioware’s headquarters are in Edmonton, Alberta, they felt themselves too far removed from the ocean. It wasn’t an easy decision, however, and knew that he would only leave the company if he got to go to “another developer with the same commitment to high quality games”. This narrowed the list down “considerably”.
Having made up his mind, he decided he wanted to join Blizzard’s Starcraft team. “It seemed perfect, I had always loved their games and they most certainly understood quality and . . . StarCraft,” he says. Kindregan emphasizes that it was only his enthusiasm for the IP that determined his decision and not the prospect of better pay or a better position. “I didn’t go to Blizzard as a lead writer. I was hired as a senior, but quickly found myself doing lead work there. They promoted me shortly after that. In general, I would not recommend taking a creative job solely for a higher title. I’d look for a company, team, IP, and project that all get you excited. If those elements are good, the job will be worth it regardless of your title. If they aren’t, then a title won’t help you.”
Even with his love for Bioware and the work he’s done there, “they have amazing, dynamic IPs, some of the characters I wrote on Mass Effect 2 feel like old friends”, he’s always fully immersed in the universes he’s working on at the time. “I am lucky enough to live in the fictional lands of StarCraft and Diablo. They are so fun, dynamic, and rich that they occupy my mind and creative interests. I love every game universe I’ve had the privilege to work on, but I’m always most excited to be working on the universe I’m in at the moment. If I am not excited to be there, that’s a sign that I should change!”
Empowered to Keep Growing
Not a man for sitting still for too long, Brian explored his opportunities with Blizzard itself after finishing Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm. “At that time, the Diablo team had been looking for a lead writer for quite some time. All told, I felt like we’d gotten the StarCraft story on to a good track with Heart of the Swarm, and that I could do the most good by moving over to Diablo. I am very excited to be playing around in the Diablo universe and helping this talented team shape the future of the story.” Thankfully, Blizzard empowers their employees in this regard and encourages development where they can. “There are many discussions about career paths and growth, and they encourage continued education. They bring in guest speakers and allow employees to share their knowledge via a series of internal talks called ‘/learn.’ I’ve presented two of these in my time at Blizzard, and hosted one as an interviewer.” With Blizzard expecting nothing but the best from those who work there, Brian feels “very empowered to keep growing!”
Surely, specific choices and precise planning determine such a successful career? Nope, but here’s what Brian has to say on the matter: “Every person I know whose career has taken them to a fun and creative place got there in a different way. So the bad news is that there’s no set path. The good news is that there’s no set path! I always tell people that the key ingredient is: you should be too stupid to give up. You’ll meet many people who will tell you that you’re not good enough, that it’s not a ‘real job,’ that they don’t want people like you, that you can’t make a living at it and the list goes on. But if you’re too stupid to give up, it will bounce right off you. You’ll meet people who you will think are more talented than you, smarter, faster, better, and more creative. But those people will often give up, and you can always be better than they are at being too stupid to give up. That’s what worked for me!”
How Hard Could It Be? The Story of a Cinematic
At this year’s GDC, Brain talked about the role cinematics play in the storytelling of videogames and it’s pros and cons, speaking from his experience with Starcraft, which is notoriously reliant upon this tool. The mentoring role Brian takes on shows the teacher in him hasn’t gone for good. “I’d love to teach again, but it would definitely have to fit in with my schedule at Blizzard. I realized long ago that I always need to be on a job where I am creating content. If my schedule ever stabilizes enough to allow me to teach and still write for Blizzard, I would jump at it. Meanwhile, I very much enjoy speaking and lecturing on the things I’ve learned over my career!”
A little more than a year ago, I was working in the strategy division at the Sony headquarters in Tokyo, busy making financial forecasts for new ventures and evaluating business deals. I had a typical MBA job, working with spreadsheets, writing feasibility studies and business plans, and meeting with executives to discuss high level strategies for one of the largest consumer electronics company in the world. My job couldn’t be further away from what I am doing today.
Armed with an education only in Economics and Business, I had no experience with programming a game, creating 2D and 3D art assets, or making sound effects and music for games. Not to mention my lack of proper game design experience. In the beginning of 2010, when I quit my corporate job, I had nothing but a desire to make games, and an idea for the first title. Insane? Maybe, but at that point, I had already decided that, no matter what it took, that game had to be made. Here is the series of events that led to the birth of “Megan and the Giant.”
In December 2009, I went to England for the first time to visit my in-laws for Christmas. My wife and I went on the Duck Tour – an amphibious bus that takes you around the city, and transforms into a boat that goes into the River Thames. While on the Duck Tour, I saw a road sign near the River Thames that resembled a giant creature, with a red line crossing through it. We couldn’t figure out what the sign meant, and I had the idea that perhaps there are giant creatures living in the river, and that the sign is saying “No Giants Allowed”.
I decided it would make a pretty interesting story, and spent the next few days sketching out ideas of how the story would unfold. I imagined England at war with another country, and these giants were thought to be secret weapons from the enemy, but eventually they became friends with a little girl and helped defending London from an invasion at the end.
The story was modified over time, and eventually I decided to stay away from a war-themed game to keep the game family-friendly.
After I had a rough idea of what the story was about, I started thinking about gameplay. Initially I imagined a game similar to Professor Layton, where puzzle game is the main gameplay with stories in-between play sessions. But I kept having this idea where in one scene, Megan would have to help the Giant escape from the police. Eventually I decided that that is what the game would be about, a simplified stealth game with elements from Metal Gear Solid and Pac-Man.
After the basic concept was in place. I decided it would be great to have some concept art for development, and to help explain to people what the game is about. I asked Shawn Yu from Yu’s Art Adventure to help me with the concept art. This is when I finalized the look of the Giant and his personality.
Design Doc: DEMO
I decided to make a short demo for the game first so I could get some early feedback on the game. I used to write business plans, and I thought having a design doc, even though this is a small project, would help me think through the design and find details that I’d missed. So I wrote a design document that described the story, the gameplay, the visual, the target audience, and the purpose of the demo.
After the design document for the demo was done, I wanted to outsource the development to a third party since I didn’t have the skills (programming, art, sound, etc.) to make it. I talked to many studios around the world, and found several talented studios interested in the project. However the development cost was too high, and I also decided that having the knowledge of how a game is made is crucial for me if I want to lead Studio Pepwuper to success. After one month of business development activities, I put my head down and started learning how to make a game from scratch.
It took me three months from the moment I had the idea of making a game to actually seeing the prototype on screen, with the majority of the time spent on learning how to program and finding my way around Unity. It was great to finally see the idea come alive, and to know that maybe, just maybe, I can actually make games!
A prototype is not a game, and the game was still 7 months from completion. Armed with my new-found confidence in self-studying, I continued my journey into more topics involved in game development. In the next part, I will talk about 2D and 3D art, sound/music, level design/boss fights, play-testing, getting the game onto an iPhone (Xcode), and the final crunch to the finish – the much juicier – and rewarding -parts of game making.
Brandon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org