To illustrate some of the ways in which this tidy model breaks down, let's look at a concrete example.
The HiveHound (see Figure 1) was a typical game industry monster, an acid-spitting cross between a scorpion and a Doberman of the sort you meet all the time in our business.
Despite a very thorough, meticulous design process he was blind sided by the unpredictable, infuriating realities of going from concept art to game asset. So he can serve as a cautionary tale about what you can and can't get on the strength of good illustrations.
Like most characters, the HiveHound was born as a handful of bullet points in a design doc. The spec called for a medium-sized creature that operates in packs, was basically feral but had some rudimentary intelligence, and shared a kind of hive-mentality.
The drawing stage kicked off with lots of pictures from the web, then silhouettes and sketchy thumbnails.
Figure 1: An early sketch of the HiveHound, as the basic formula began to take shape.
As often happens, the gameplay and the visual concepts ping-ponged back and forth, as fresh ideas emerged and fed off one another, so that the spec which emerged from the first round of meetings was somewhat different from the original design concept.
Nevertheless, at this early stage the process was working pretty much going according to plan: lots of quickie pencil sketches and Photoshop iterations that gradually honed those vague designer commandments into something like a graphic formula for the character. Thankfully, it was all done quickly, without a lot of polish wasted on unfinished ideas (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: So far, so good -- the basic design in place without too much wasted work.
The next task was to get from "what are we making?" to "what does it look like?" Hence, another round of concept art, this time farmed out to the consummate pros at Massive Black, an outsourced art studio. The sketches coming back from the concept team started taking longer and longer and were becoming more detailed as the formula was refined.
As the visual vocabulary for the character solidified, we tried hard to anticipate future problems and head them off. Will that arrangement of neck plates be flexible enough? Can he climb a tree with those limbs? How does that ranged attack work?
Each new question sent additional drawings flying back and forth as we tried to settle those questions early, and, it was hoped, cheaply. At this point we felt like we were just about ready to really start flowing through that pipeline like $100-per-barrel crude.