Best known for creating the Spawn comic book franchise, Todd McFarlane is no stranger to the world of video games. While his chain-wielding anti-hero has appeared in a handful of games, McFarlane himself has worked in a limited capacity on titles like Soul Calibur II and McFarlane's Evil Prophecy.
With Tuesday's Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, McFarlane has finally taken the creative reigns as Executive Art Director, guiding the design of the characters and locales for this open world role-playing game. Despite the fact that the lands of Amalur are being overrun by dark elves and all manner of nasty monstrosities, the game bears a darkly whimsical look that is more akin to Fable or World of Warcraft than the hulking, gritty designs McFarlane has become known for.
McFarlane spoke with Gamasutra about his involvement with the project, how he settled on its aesthetics, and what it was like making the jump from the pages of comic books to the realm of video games.
How did you become involved with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning?
Todd McFarlane: I had a prior relationship with [38 Studios'] Curt Schilling. I had met him years earlier when he was a pitcher here in town for the [Arizona] Diamondbacks. We would bump into each other and we also did some charities together, so there was some common ground there. After he got traded over to Boston and was starting to wind down his career, eventually he gave me a phone call out of the blue and said, “Hey, Todd, I'm thinking post-athletic career here and I want to put a game company together. I've got this crazy idea, so I want to know if you want to come up to one of my games and I can explain it to you.”
So myself and a gentleman named R.A. Salvatore flew out to Kansas city in August of 2006. [Schilling] had always been a big gamer. Instead of going out to the bars and carousing, he just went back to his hotel and played online games. So he gave us this skeleton of an idea and said he was going to need a story teller and an artist to help guide it along. We both jumped on board. R.A. took on the task of creating this 10,000 year Bible for the brand name and I took control of character design, weapons, wardrobe, class sets, spell casting. Pretty much everything you see with your eye, I thought somebody should be bringing some commonality to it.
To keep it all clear, we started in the Boston area making an online game, and then the economy went south a little bit; or a a lot-a-bit, really. At that time Curt picked up a second company called Big Huge Games and they had a game engine that was pretty far along. So Curt was able to take the brand we had already been developing and put that paint job on a console version instead. Then EA came on board and threw some money on the table and now we're literally days away from finally giving birth to that baby we've been working on for a long time.
What did you think when you found out you would be working alongside the likes of fantasy writer R.A. Salvatore (Forgotten Realms) and game designer Ken Rolston (The Elder Scrolls III and IV), all under the umbrella of 38 Studios, which was founded by former baseball star Curt Schilling?
TM: The question that's usually asked is where was the clash of the titan egos? But the reality of it, if you'll look at it in a sports metaphor, is that we each understood what position we played. We each had a skill set and, maybe to the disappointment of some people, there wasn't really a lot of drama. I understood what it was that Ken brought and that he was very good at his discipline. I have had some success in my discipline, which is the visual art, and obviously R.A. is a New York Times best-selling author. I wouldn't go and say, “Gosh, R.A., why aren't you writing it like this,” or “Ken, I don't understand why the quests work like that.”
Once they gave me the seed of the idea, my job was to look at how we would visualize it. So R.A. never came in and said, “Hey, Todd, how come the wizard doesn't have blonde hair?” He would give me the character's parameters, all the back history, and we'd say, okay, we have an idea of who these people are, so now let us go put some visual chops to it.
Speaking of your role as Executive Art Director, was it more of a front-heavy position or did you need to stay involved throughout the development?
TM: I've been doing it nonstop since the beginning. I spent more time physically in the offices at the beginning, but once we got it going, there's great technology these days where I can sit in Phoenix, they can download all of their content to me from Baltimore or Boston, I can look at it, and people sitting in those cities can see my screen. I can draw on the art, have comments, make notes or whatever else and they can see it. It's sort of like the X's and O's on football when you watch on TV. Same thing. You don't have to physically be in a room to get your point across any longer. In a perfect world, everyone would be in the same spot. But it's not as much a disadvantage as it would have been 10 or 15 years ago.
Did you have a specific goal when you set out to work on Kingdoms of Amalur? Something in particular you wanted to achieve?
TM: Very early on we sat down and I knew I was working with some people who had already worked on some big games or, at the worst, were big fans of those games. So we said, okay, what's out in the marketplace from an RPG point of view? Let's see if we can put a list together of the twenty cool things we really admire, and then a list of the things we wish we would have seen in some of those games, or at least that we wish maybe had been polished a bit better. So once we had that list, it was easy for us to move forward.
I sat with my 15 people and said, here's what I need from you: Each one of you needs to give me one percent more than what is out in the marketplace. If you're going to try to lose 20 pounds, try to lose it one pound at a time, 20 times. It's way easier. So I said if I can get that one percent more from 15 of you, I can have a 15 percent upgrade. I said I don't need it all from just one of you. None of you has to be the guy that has to carry this burden on their shoulders. Everybody give me just a little bit more—visually, at least—and we're going to rock and roll here. Once you glue it all together, if we've all done our jobs, then the whole is going to be even better than the parts.
Were you given any specific guidelines from the onset or was this pretty much your playground to create in?
TM: The only goal that Curt had was, if we're going to build a game, then we needed to build a different and better mousetrap. You can get away with things if you have a strong brand name. I think if you have that, you can sort of cheat it a bit more and go, “Ah, they're going to buy it anyway.” But we didn't have that luxury. We're a brand new IP and, if we don't deliver a better experience, then why wouldn't the players go and play something that already exists? You have to deliver something that the other games aren't and, if you can do that, then you leave it up to the consumer to decide if it's a better sort of different or a worse sort of different.
In any healthy environment there needs to be a steady flow of competition and new ideas. You can't have the same five bands be at the top of the charts for 10 years in a row. Video games are no different. Somebody has to come in and put out the first version of a game that might eventually turn into a series with a number after it. That's what everybody strives for. But if nobody is ever trying to do something different, you're never going to get those sort of pleasant surprises.
The look of Kingdoms of Amalur is pretty different from the type of work you've done with, say, Spawn. How did the game's aesthetics evolve?
TM: We knew we were going to do this big, immersive world, so we wanted to create as much variety as possible. If it was all going to look the same, it wouldn't make much sense to me. Is there dark, gritty stuff that someone would typically attach to my style? Sure, there are pockets of it. But then there are the sort of mundane areas that every world has and the more whimsical, happy areas. There's a wide range of color pallets, environments and architecture, so when we say it's a giant open world, then the variety really shows that.
I've seen a couple of games that, to me, at times the color palettes are a little too consistent. The whole game is blue, brown or whatever, and the reason is that those games are trying to be hyper realistic. The reality is that nature's colors aren't really vibrant. The sky is, flowers are and so are fish, but that's about it. Everything else that's vibrant is pretty much man-made; our clothes, buildings, signs. So if you're doing a fantasy game where there isn't a lot of man-made structures in the world, then you can fall into the trap of saying we want to be realistic, so we're just going to put a lot of brown in there. We didn't want to do that. We wanted to have a little bit of fun with the word “fantasy.”
Is there anywhere you would say you drew inspiration from?
TM: Not really. And I say that because my goal at the beginning was not to have 15 people who think and draw like Todd McFarlane. My job was to sort of inspire and talk about the art from a different perspective; to take our artistic theories and make sure we were applying them so that A) The experience to the gamer was enjoyable and B) That there was never a moment in the game where you look at the screen and say, “I don't even know what I'm looking at. What is that?” I don't care how detailed or fancy it is, it's not right if the consumer is confused at any moment.
What was it like working with the art team? Did you present your ideas and see where they ran with them or did they pretty much stick by your original concepts?
TM: The best day I have is when I'm the dumbest guy in the room. I say that because my job was to help inspire and guide them, but at no time was it to tell them how to draw or use their imagination. So when they'd come back with stuff that was cooler then I would have even done, I can say, “It's a good thing I'm the boss because these guys could run circles around me they're so awesome.” Those are good days.
How does the video game process differ from working with comic books? What would you say is the biggest difference?
TM: You read a novel and that's words on a piece of paper. If you go to comic books, then you've got words and pictures. So you're adding a dimension to it, but the pictures are still static. If you go to television, then obviously you're getting the whole cacophony of things; the words, the motion, the music on top of it, the acting.
The other thing about all of those other areas I'm talking about--with comics and even toy making, music and movies--is that I would be the director and at no time would you have any input into it as the consumer. I make it, you buy it and decide whether or not you like it. But at no time do you get to tell J.K. Rowling what Harry Potter is going to do. You just strap yourself in and go for the ride.
The great thing about video games is that we direct to a certain point and make sure everything is ready to go, but once game launch comes you have to get out of the director's chair—especially in an RPG—and put the steering wheel in the consumer's hands and say, “There, you finish the story.”
That's especially true in a game [like Kingdoms of Amalur] in which you have a character we call “The Fateless One,” and at the beginning you have a character that has no predetermined history. So the question is now, what is his back story and what is he capable of doing?We've spent years building the possibilities and now those possibilities are in your hands.
Is there something about working in the field of video games that you perhaps prefer over other mediums?
TM: Oh, yeah. Getting to have interaction with your product is one. Also, I've lived the lonely life of being the guy in the room, all by himself. As I get older I'm liking the job of not needing to have all of the answers, which is what you have to do when you're sort of being isolated as an artist. I like being in a room with a bunch of smart, collaborative people and, by the time you springboard ideas, you get a mountain of possibilities that make you go, “Yeah, cool. On my own, I wouldn't have thought of that.” Collectively we got there, though, and that's cool.
What was the most difficult part of the development process?
TM: As it relates to an RPG, if you ask 10 different RPG players why they play those games, you will invariably get 10 different answers. So the question is how do you develop for that? The only way to do that is to treat each one of those areas equally and with the same preciousness as you would any other area. You can't pick favorites. You literally have to become a communist developer, treating them all as equals.
You never know what the next consumer is going to want. Somebody might come in wanting the side quests and the looting, someone else might want a big world and adventure, and someone else might just want to do fighting and spell casting. So they all have to work.
Is there something in the game--a location, character or monster, perhaps--that you are particularly proud of?
TM: Probably the Fae. They live in an area that is very organic and has a lot of green in it. I think the artists did a great job of making this super organic place, but where everything is recognizable. You still see the buildings and the castles, but it just has this cool, organic feel to me.
For your part, what do you hope the gamer gets out of their experience with Kingdoms of Amalur?
TM: We hope that they feel our game did some things that were unexpected. There are some surprises in it. If we delivered enough of them, maybe they'll phone up their buddy and go, “Hey, Fred, I just played this game and you've got to see it. It's kind of cool, man.” If we can get that word of mouth going, then there's a big potential for us to succeed and maybe have a sequel come out someday.