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Lessons in Color Theory for Spyro the Dragon
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Lessons in Color Theory for Spyro the Dragon

May 2, 2000 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

Spyro Production Design

For the Spyro, Insomniac Games faced the challenge of creating a unique look for a new game. The production design needed to be strong and consistent enough to endure a year-and-a-half development schedule, yet even more significant was the need to set Spyro apart from an already crowded field of platform games and various titles that involved dragons and medieval worlds. To do this, our team established and followed a rigorous set of production design guidelines while making the game.

Our goal was to make Spyro the Dragon visually unique, coherent, and memorable. Well before starting production we developed a set of artistic guidelines that we came to know as our "production design bible." Our basic rules were as follows.

Use bright, saturated colors. We felt that too many games, especially 3D games, achieved their look of realism by using muted color palettes which favored gray, brown, and black. By applying bright, vivid color schemes throughout Spyro, we would stand out from the start.

Leverage the look of Camelot and fairy tales. While there were many games set in medieval and fantasy worlds, most seemed to favor a darker more serious Dungeons and Dragons look. To complement our use of saturated colors, we pursued a lighter medieval style, closer to Camelot than to D&D.

Characters should complement the environments. Spyro was going to be a character-based game, and much of its personality came from its animation. Therefore it was necessary to make the characters stand out from the environment while maintaining our fantasy theme. Often much of a character's body was gouraud shaded which allowed its design and movement to stand out to the player. By keeping the colors of the characters bright, we further emphasized their appearance while maintaining our global color palette.

Use soft textures and simple decorative motifs. Our early tests showed that the Playstation's display sharpened textures to the point where highly detailed artwork degenerated into distracting visual noise. By avoiding hard outlines, high contrast, and too much detail in individual tiles, we were able to create a soft atmospheric quality which was aesthetically pleasing, yet not distracting to game play.

Figure 6. Insomniac Games' production
design for Spyro the Dragon created a
distinctive look for a new character and
game. Spyro's medieval fantasy world was composed with bright colors, soft decorative textures, and a cast of fairy tale characters.

These basic rules formed the foundation of the game's appearance and helped us achieve visual consistency throughout the title. With these rules established and understood by our entire team, there was little room for miscommunication or confusion since we had established a look and a definitive way of qualifying it (Figure 6).

Spyro's universe comprises six distinct worlds, dozens of animated characters, bonus flying rounds, a secret level, and introductory and win sequences. With so many characters and locations, adhering to our production design was essential. Yet at the same time we needed to give each world as distinct a look as possible without straying from our basic design rules. One of our solutions was to design extreme variation into the game's environments. Spyro begins his adventure in a castle garden and proceeds through a desert, snowy mountain peaks, a swamp, dreamscape, and finishes in a mechanical world. Furthermore, the flying rounds are made of glowing crystals. Finally, to differentiate each world even more, we designed a dramatic three-dimensional panorama at the start of each world to give the player a memorable first impression (Figure 7).

Figure 7. To give each of Spyro's six worlds
a unique first impression, we often employed
a dramatic three dimensional panorama.
This opening scene of the Magic Crafters
world established its basic characteristics
and created a memorable view.

Within each of these worlds there were three levels of game play, a boss round, and a central navigational hub. Again, we faced the production design challenge of giving each level an individual look while maintaining a consistency to the overall world. Our first method was to vary the locations and geography of a level. For instance, in the desert (or "Peacekeeper") world, the settings include a fortress, pueblo village, ice cavern, and volcanic crater (Figure 8). We also created unique looks within a level by depicting varied and dramatic times of day. In the Artisan world, the levels occurred at daybreak, mid-afternoon, sunset, and under a full moon.

Figure 8. Different settings, climates, and times of day added variety to Spyro's levels while adhering to the overall production design. Here, in the Peacekeeper world, locations include a pueblo village at sunset, an ice cavern at night, and a desert fortress at midday.

In Spyro's worlds we developed a series of visual motifs that emphasized the connection between them. One such motif was a member of a family of balloonists that Spyro had to hire to travel from world to world - so seeing one of these balloonists indicated the way out of the level. Likewise, within a world, a system of portals gave access to each of the levels and each portal was styled to fit its world. Similarly, the architecture within each world maintained consistent design sensibilities which included flared bases, crenellated turrets, and decorative buttresses. For added variety, we sometimes located rival civilizations in a level, which allowed us to display the contrasting styles of the indigenous and invading characters and their architecture. Regardless of a level's theme, each one shared the same amount of ornamentation, and this gave each level a rich appearance.

Some of our greatest production design challenges arose within the levels themselves. In these massive, free-roaming, 3D environments, it was very easy for a player to become disoriented and lost. Just finding a level's exit often proved difficult. Searching for that last piece of treasure or completing a spatially-oriented puzzle could be especially taxing. Getting lost could even prove fatal in any of our timed flying rounds. To prevent players from getting too frustrated we needed to supplement our production design rules with a series of visual solutions that kept the navigation of a level as straightforward as possible. Here are the supplemental design rules we created.

Use landmarks whenever possible. A landmark is a unique structure or geographical feature that distinguishes one area from another, which gives the player a reference point in the level. Specific pieces of architecture, such as bridges, castles, fortresses, or other buildings that had a strong presence and appeared only once in a particular level proved to be the most effective landmarks (Figure 9). To enhance the uniqueness of a landmark, we added specific natural features around it, such as waterfalls, rivers, rock formations, or trees.

Figure 9. Specific pieces of architecture proved to be one of the most effective ways of creating a landmark. From initial concept to the finished play field, we designed unique areas into the game to help players maintain their bearings.

Create gateways and checkpoints. To indicate that a player was making progress in a level, we tried visually to emphasize the transition between specific areas. This could be as fundamental as entering a castle gate or crossing a bridge, or as subtle as adding more snow on the ground to indicate higher elevations within the level. These transitions would often occur after passing through a narrow corridor or completing a long glide, and they served as memorable focal points in a level.

Balance interior and exterior spaces. We found that a variety of interior rooms and exterior spaces throughout a level provided a player with strong visual references. It also gave us the opportunity to create unique geometry. By placing a cavern between two valleys, for example, we not only defined different zones of game play, we were also able to change the look of the environment markedly and naturally. And by varying the types of spaces using caves, halls, valleys, or courtyards, we were able to create numerous unique locations throughout a level.

Change scenery lighting. Varying the lighting in different areas of a level created environments that were dramatically different. We lit interiors in a variety of ways, including natural light, fire and torch light, and any number of colored, glowing light sources. This helped players get their bearings, and also gave us added aesthetic opportunities throughout a level. Outdoor lighting varied as well. For instance, where a mountain divided two valleys, one side might be sunlit while the other lay in shade. Narrow spaces such as canyons allowed us to create strong shadows, while open places contained bright areas of sunlight.

In addition to our visual choices, a number of technical and game-play elements influenced our production design. Since Insomniac's game engine for Spyro did not use fogging to reduce the on-screen polygon count, many areas of the game were designed to hide large portions of geometry in the distance. Wherever possible, the world had to be built in solid, continuous masses, such as mountain ranges, castle walls, cliffs, and buildings. Artistically, we were careful not to build monolithic fortresses, walls, or cliffs which dwarfed Spyro. Where we needed exceptionally large sections of geometry, we tried to reduce its scale by varying the surface with unique textures, buttresses, or decoration. Fortunately, and not coincidentally, our decorative approach, fairy tale theme, and softened textures also reduced the scale of Spyro's world.

Figure 10. We found that solving a visual problem
on paper was much faster
than using a computer. Modifications to an area
during the design phase
could be completed in a
matter of hours instead of
the days or even weeks
it took to implement
the finished design on
the computer.

Spyro's ability to glide great distances forced us to design areas that would contain him, yet not feel enclosed. This meant that most of our worlds had a horizontal orientation and simultaneously needed boundaries to halt his free-roaming nature. Wherever possible, we sought to vary the limits of the worlds. In addition to walls, we employed bodies of water, cliff tops, or infinite drops to define our outer edges - the more boundaries in a level the better.

Our team soon learned that time was one of the biggest limitations in creating Spyro's look. In every instance we needed to streamline our production processes. We relied heavily on sketches and diagrams in our production design, because solving a visual problem on paper was much faster than using a computer. Often, a series of preliminary studies could be created in a matter of hours, instead of the days or even weeks it might take to implement one finished design on the computer (Figure 10).

Ultimately, the production design methods we used to create Spyro the Dragon were as much common sense as inspiration. We discovered, however, that defining them as rules or guidelines aided and quickened our production process. Our framework of visual motifs resulted in efficient development as well as consistent presentation. While we were always short of time, we used our production design to streamline the creation of finished artwork. Not only did the production design support the technology and game design, it also unified the playing experience. Players of Spyro were rewarded with a game that was visually logical, possessed artistic continuity, and in the end was memorable.

After finishing a degree in Art Education from San Jose State, Craig Stitt started making videogames for Sega in 1991. While at Sega, he worked creating 2D textures and animations on Genesis title's Kid Chameleon, Sonic 2, and Sonic Spinball. In 1996, Craig joined Insomniac Games and began creating both 2D and 3D art for Insomniac's debut title, Disruptor, followed by their hit title, Spyro the Dragon. Visit Insomniac Games' web site at

John Fiorito is an artist at Insomniac Games where he creates wireframe models, textures, and conceptual sketches for Spyro the Dragon. He received degrees in architecture from the University of California, Berkeley, CA and illustration from Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, CA. Contact him via e-mail at [email protected].

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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