Building A Fantasy World - The Art Direction Of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
November 28, 2011 Page 1 of 4
In 2006, star Major League Baseball pitcher Curt Schilling formed a company, now called 38 Studios, to create an MMO. That game, codenamed Copernicus, is still in development at the company's Rhode Island headquarters. He sought the cooperation of big names -- artist Todd McFarlane, creator of Spawn, and R.A. Salvatore, the author behind the popular Drizzt Do'Urden books -- to help flesh out his franchise.
In 2009, Schilling's company acquired Big Huge Games from THQ and backed the studio's work on what would become Kingdoms of Amalur: Recknoning, a single player game based on the same lore and world as Copernicus, but overseen by Morrowind and Oblivion lead designer Ken Rolston. Due early next year, the game is a complicated and expansive undertaking that transformed from an original IP Big Huge was creating into a key piece of the Kingdoms of Amalur mythology.
Gamasutra recently spoke to Tim Coman, studio and project art director of Big Huge Games, about creating the game in concert with 38, working with Schilling and McFarlane, and the changes the project saw as it moved from an original title to part of a larger universe of IP.
He also talks at length about the studio's philosophy toward art direction and its process for creating a look for the game that stands out, while serving the needs of the project.
First of all, with fantasy, the influence of other things like the work Weta has done on Lord of the Rings looms large over the last five years, and probably the next five years of the way fantasy is being imagined for screens. I was wondering if you could talk about that.
Tim Coman: Sure. I'm obviously a huge fan of Peter Jackson and Weta. When people really take a look at the genre, they really tend to go one of two ways. One is that they try to basically kind of make a photoreal version of that. So, for Lord of the Rings for example, it's like the idea that makes it fantastical is you see Gandalf running around an epic landscape, but the landscape looks real.
For us, we kind of went the other direction with it. We really wanted to design everything. So everything is designed. Like, the ground is designed. The trees are designed. The weapons... Everything has like a style to it. It's like a production design. It's almost approaching like a Pixar film, you know what I mean. They can't run out and do photo reference for that. They really have to design it from the ground up.
So, for us, that was really what we wanted to do. We really wanted to make something crafted from the beginning to the end, especially in this genre. Again, you want to find your own way to try to contribute to that, regardless of all the influences that come in. It's one of the things we always talk about.
If you're really doing the job right, you really should be trying to find your own identity, and do what's right for the project. As opposed to trying to say, "Well, this other project did it this way," or "This movie did it this way." So we're really trying to build it from the ground up based off the needs of the individual project.
The other big thing is World of Warcraft, right? WoW dominates the fantasy space in games. How has that had an effect on your art direction?
TC: There are a number of titles that [you can] bring up in relation to this genre. I think there are always kind of the go-to things. When we started making the game, we really didn't set out to try to re-create anybody's style. We really wanted to have our own unique kind of thing.
But I think once you point to kind of the edges of where people have gone in this genre, either you're trying to re-create reality or where you're trying to do a production design where you're really building every asset from the ground up. So, certainly some of the things you can point to in our game are very colorful. For us, that was one of the key ideas behind what we were doing.
I think you saw this a lot when the next generation hardware came out. There was a process called bleach bypass, which is a film technique, where everything has that kind of washed out look, where white highlights bloom and everything has a kind of desaturated look to it. For a while, it was like if you wanted your game to look next gen, it had to have that look to it.
For me, I always wanted to, from an art direction standpoint, look at something and say we shouldn't be basing design necessarily off of the hardware. You should be basing it off of what's right for the title. So, for us, we really wanted to combine the idea of building everything from the ground up... We've got tons and tons of concept art where we build these ideas around this stuff.
So, what we would do is we wouldn't necessarily try to say, "Okay, what is the hardware good at?" What we would do is we'd say in those cases where we would build something unique would be based on our engine, what our engine could do, and play to the strengths of that. For us, it's like the big picture of things, like making sure we have our own identity...
I always look at this as, if you took screenshots of like five different games in the genre, would you be able to pick ours out of the lineup? So, for us, that was really kind of the angle for it. Even in the other games we've talked about, it's like, "that has its own unique style, and I admire their art direction, it's fantastic." But it's certainly one of those things where we didn't walk around saying, "What would they do?", do you know what I mean? We always kind of say, "What should we do? What's right for the project?"
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