The Joy of Art Directing
Friday, June 15th, we finally announced the original project we are in the middle of development on, Forge. Forge is a pure multiplayer game that takes the best design sensibilities from First Person Shooters, but without the guns or grind. It is set in a high fantasy universe but strays away from conventions normally associated with fantasy.
We are co-developing Forge with two other studios; Southern California startup, Dark Vale Games and New Zealand programming house, Digital Confectioners. Having multiple studios partner on a game is a great way to develop and something I believe we’ll be seeing more of in the years to come. It allows specialization studios to focus on what they do best. In our case, art and animation.
At SuperGenius, there are few things we love more than pure art direction. We are at our best and happiest when we are brought in early on to help define the look of a game. With Forge, we have had the pleasure of art directing the whole title, and we are loving every minute of it.
Adam Danger Cook, our 2D Art Director led the charge during the art direction phase and it was his team’s work that ultimately defined the look of the game. We agreed with Dark Vale early on that we would have at least one month devoted purely to concepts and art direction. This would be a dedicated time for broad strokes and laying down the foundation for not only art style, but environment and character design. Whatever Adam’s team ended up with at the end of those four weeks would be our style guide. I think everyone agrees it was one of the best decisions we made. That four weeks gave us the world of Forge and its characters.
We definitely give credit to the team at Dark Vale for giving us such rich fodder to draw from and they have been one of the best teams we have ever worked with, hands down. We were sold on the game design early on by Tim Alvis, Dark Vale’s CTO and Lead Designer, and knew right away that it was something we wanted to be a part of. Tim had a very complete vision of the game play which is what powered every one of our choices moving forward. He also knew that we needed to stand apart from the usual medieval, Western European look that most high fantasy titles fall back on. We couldn’t agree more. We set out to develop an art style that would accomplish this while still upholding the spirit of the genre.
I know many titles begin with this in mind, but end up slipping back into the same old patterns. It’s too easy to do once you are neck deep in production. When you have 30 or 40 artists working on a game, it can wear an art director out, trying to keep everything consistent. Well written guidelines can be an art director’s best friend. We don’t begin any work without written guidelines, even small projects, and Forge called for very specific guidelines. In our experience, the best art direction begins with a set of rules so artists’ at least have the opportunity to break them. As any game developer will attest to, nothing brings out creativity like a good ole fashioned set of constraints, so we moved forward with our first rule: begin with battle.
Beginning with Battle
Forge is about conflict, first and foremost. It is the heart of the game design. We decided from the very beginning, everything we built was going to have its purpose in battle. This would help us define everything man-made in the game, from costuming to architecture. Any decorative architecture would be driven by either the need to frighten enemies, protect the occupants, or bolster the occupants with ferocity. The rest is functional. Structures need to look built to withstand the ultimate stress test; war. Walls, pillars, and statues would be huge and reinforced with metal. Stone blocks would appear as if they were laid by giants. Wooden gates and doors would be built out of the entire tree for extra girth and protection. If it didn’t hurt, frighten, or protect, it had no place in the game world.
Norse meets Inuit
We originally intended to draw most of our influence from Norse culture, which embodies a lot of the same battle-centric values we wanted to convey. We were, however, dead set on standing apart from anything else out there. Going for something fully Nordic would have meant rehashing many of the same elements used in games such as DragonAge or Skyrim. Beautiful games, both of them, but they already exist. Some of our team members also worked on the original Mythica MMO from Microsoft, which was canceled in the early 2000’s and there might have been some pain left over from that. Not a lot, mind you, but as an artist you get emotionally attached to the games you work on, and it can be especially devastating to lose a game you spent a year or more of your life on. We knew we need to mix things up a bit and take some roads less traveled.
We took an atlas and drew a line across the northern hemisphere. We then made a list of all the cultures we could think of above that line – Russian, Mongolian, Celtic, Inuit, and Norse. These were the ingredients for our first stab at the art direction. We let that stew a while, but the same two cultures came up to the surface every time – Ancient Norse and Ancient Inuit. There was something very intriguing about the mixing of these two cultures. The Viking side had the heavy steel and stone and leather that we’ve all called on at some point, but the Inuit side always broke through, peppering the heaviness of the Viking clothing and architecture with tribal accoutrements – feathers, war paint, totems, and fur. Not all of these were necessarily Inuit, but the tribal accents boosted the art with a kind of shamanistic savageness that compliments the war sensibilities of Forge. Everything looked more ferocious when accented with war paint and feathers. Pretty soon everything had a tribal accent to it that screamed warrior, blood and battle. The two fit together incredibly well.
As a disclaimer, we would like to add that we took massive liberties with these cultures and when we refer to Inuit, or Norse, we are really referring partly to ancient Inuit and Norse, which is half-historical and half-imagination, on our part. The last thing we want is to offend any existing tribal nations with our poorly researched, fantastical reimagining of their cultures. As far as I know, no native tribes rode panthers into battle. That might have changed the outcome of the taking of the New World. Take that guns, germs and steel! I ride a F***ing panther!
Silhouette. Silhouette. Silhouette. It would be our battle cry if it didn’t sound so effeminate. The nature of Forge requires each character to have a unique silhouette, so that they can be recognized quickly from a distance. Battlefields breed confusion and one of the quickest ways to discern who-is-who is by the shape of the character coming towards you. As artists, we were hoping to negate the need for name plates, but I don’t know if that’s possible in a multiplayer game. Every character began with an exploration of silhouette and progressed from there.
Adam and his team produced several rounds of silhouettes for each character. After each round, the best four or so would be picked to be taken to the next level – the tonal rough. We then moved on to costume and armor details. Having characters divided by class helped with their creation. Each of the classes are distinct and lend themselves to certain predetermined specifics, such as their size and shape. The Warden, for instance, is a defensive “tank” character and needed to be big and intimidating. The Assassin, being well, “Assassiny,” relies on stealth, and therefore needs to be smaller and built for sneaking around in the shadows, scaling buildings and stalking prey from the rooftops and the thick of the forest. Once we had these attributes solidified, we moved onto costume design, or what my wife calls “outfits.” This is always a lot of fun. “Her outfit is cute, but I think her shoes need matching bear teeth.” It’s like being a costume designer only we get to work with seasoned killers instead of Tyra Banks.
The Strength of Female Characters
One of the calls the team made early on was to shake loose from two clichés many modern games have fallen into. Strong characters are almost always many men, and female characters almost always wear ridiculous armor that is built more to flaunt fleshy bits than to protect from a swinging weapon. It was strongly felt amongst the team that we could make a kick-ass female Warden and Assassin that were both fun to play and functionally clothed. Well, not so much functional, but not something you would see on the cover of a geek Maxim, either. Coincidentally, Viking culture includes the Shield Maiden – a historical embodiment of a strong female character – which we drew on for inspiration. Once character design got underway, it became apparent that this was the right call. We knew we risked alienating some fans who are very interested in seeing fleshy babes in fantasy lingerie, but we felt the majority of gamers, both male and female, would appreciate strong female characters that kicked ass instead of flaunting it.
That said there are no thigh high boots and no revealing cleavage. No short shorts and fishnet mail. The Warden is a big, scary female warrior and anyone will think twice before slapping her ass. In a perfect world, Forge would be that one PVP game that appeals to all genders. We can hope.
Every Good Character Needs a Story
The creative team at SuperGenius approaches everything by addressing its back-story first. It does not necessarily matter that the story makes it into the game, so long as it has been considered. A thing’s history is what gives it weight and a reason to exist. Every pillar, every wall, every gravestone has a story – a “Where?” “Why?” and “How?” The result is a tangible element, with purpose, that lends credibility to the world it exists in.
A notable demonstration of this point is the Assassin’s design. While this is not something emphasized in the game at all, we pictured the Assassin from the far north, where civilization is more tribal-based and they live off of the land. The Assassin comes from a place where whaling knives are a common weapon and animal skins are the base material for most clothing and domiciles. The Assassin is decked out in animal furs and appears a bit more tribal than her fellow warriors. Adam applied face paint to her in the shape of a skull and it cemented her aesthetic in the tribal realm. She looks fierce, as if she just came out of an Arctic winter and she is completely believable – like something out of a National Geographic. I love that about her. Back-story elevates our characters from two dimensional avatars into living, breathing people who you can relate to and root for.
Architecture, Animals and Totems
Creating the look of Forge’s architecture was a bit more challenging than designing its characters. Dark Vale liked the idea of having lots of giant stone structures, but ancient Inuit did not build with stone, and while the Vikings did in many cases, their buildings were nowhere near as grand and monolithic as we wanted. There was no historical imagery to draw from for reference, really. At least nothing that fit the aesthetic of the game world we were intent on making. We knew the architecture had to be monolithic and larger than life, but to achieve this we had to make it up completely from scratch. The end result crosses many cultures but doesn’t settle on any particular one. We are hoping this will reduce complaints from historically minded gamers.
One of the early breakthroughs we had was that this culture worshiped animals, or more specifically, animal familiars, which is appropriate considering the nature of the game. Whenever a building started looking a little too European, we decorated it with fierce animal statues and animal motifs. It always brought it back to that savage, battle-centric place where we wanted to be.
After working on quite a few high fantasy titles, not to mention playing them, there is one particular element I come across and over the years it has started to get to me – decorative motifs. It seems the same arches and pillars show up in every fantasy game. You know the ones I’m talking about. They look like any European or Greek pillars and arches, and they all have a very similar decorative swirly motif. I noticed this while working on Ultima Online years back. As an artist, you are stuck wanting to decorate a pillar, so you search Google images and find decorative borders, either for books or free vector images. They work perfectly for embossing stone work. They are ready-to-go medieval motifs. It works, but it’s lazy. Being guilty of this myself, I am always quick to spot it in games I am playing and I think, “hah, you too huh?” This is something we wanted to avoid with Forge.
One of our concept artists, Chuck Lukacs, on top of being an incredible artist and author, is a teacher of traditional art at a nearby art college. He spends his spare time doing wood carvings and engravings instead of playing games like the rest of us. He’s not only an amazing digital artist, but one of the most accomplished traditional artists I know. We put him to work for several weeks on nothing but motifs. Horizontal motifs, arch motifs, vertical motifs, square motifs – you name it. He is our Motif King.
We focused on sets revolving around Wolf, Bear and Crow, which was one of our early stabs at mythology. The three animals were perfect subjects, and by the time we finished we had several sets of motifs for each animal. These motifs went into our image library and were made available for use by the environment artists. Having custom motifs not only helped unify the art direction in the game, it also saved a lot of time in the end. No artist had to search Google images for motifs even once. Instead, they had only to go through our custom image library and grab a motif best suited their asset. Being in the middle of asset production at this point, I can confidently say it is working exactly how we intended. This is a technique we will definitely utilize again.
We are now moving full-speed-ahead in production and are watching the worlds and characters come to life. Every day something new comes off the line that gets everyone excited. There are no words that can accurately describe the pride I have in the team here at SuperGenius. Their dedication to making Forge the best looking game possible is inspiring. The characters look like the concepts come to life and we owe so much of it to the time we spent art directing. Even though it was short, we made the best of that time and defined something truly compelling and unique. Between Dark Vale, Digital Confectioners, and SuperGenius, we have some of the best, brightest, and most talented veterans in the industry on this, along with a whole new generation of incredibly talented, young artists who are proving themselves worthy of a seat in game development Valhalla. We are consistently inspired, humbled and proud to be working with such incredible talent.
And of course there is the concept team, who laid the groundwork that would become Forge. Not only are they an absolute pleasure to work with, but simply amazing to watch in action. Traci, Egil, David, Chuck, Shawn, Eric and of course, Adam, who has led them all with impeccable care and creativity.
Concepts and other art will be published as they are announced on the following websites:
Paul Culp is the Studio Head for SuperGenius, a west coast game art and animation studio located in Portland, Oregon.