Hyung-Tae Kim is perhaps the best-known Korean game developer -- even if his name isn't known by all, his art is very recognizable, as seen in the later entries to the War of Genesis series, and Magna Carta for PC and PlayStation 2 and its sequel on the Xbox 360. His style exaggerates the female, while also promoting the masculine. His characters straddle the line between Japanese minimal lines and Western emphasis on musculature and detail.
I've long been impressed with his work, especially his willingness to go outside the constraints of human physicality to make appealing characters. All of his characters, male or female, are soft and curved in ways that make sense, even if they are not tied to real anatomy.
For Kim, it's all about flow, and in the past most of his actual art was relegated to 2D. Now that he's working on Blade & Soul, NCSoft's next big MMORPG after Aion, he has the chance to completely control his work in 3D as an art and technical director on the game.
In this interview, conducted in his native Seoul, we discuss his process, his thoughts on anatomy and character, and his influences.
Can you tell me, step by step, your process for character design? When you're designing one character, how do you go from envisioning that character to the actual process of making them into full illustrations?
Hyung-Tae Kim: First of all, you have to decide the direction of the character, in concert with the design teams. You have to know where the character will be used, and in what manner. And then I have to actually begin the sketch, which is the most difficult part of the process.
What I take into greatest consideration when doing my sketches is first, whether this style reveals the personality of the character, and then if it will be attractive in three dimensions. It didn't really matter when I was working on War of Genesis though, because it was 2D.
Then after the sketch is finished, we start the color planning, deciding which colors we want to use. If the process goes well, it can end in two days. Sometimes it can take as along as three weeks. Then for a final illustration, we would polish by zooming in and fleshing out all the details.
Do you have assistants drawing in your style, or are all illustrations in your games by you?
HTK: Until recently, all illustrations were completely done by me. But for Blade & Soul, which is an MMORPG, it's a game that requires a lot of characters and a lot of design. So now there's a team doing our drawings. Besides me, we have eight artists working on the images you see.
And are they drawing your style, or adding elements of their own?
HTK: When we hire people, I try to recruit artists who naturally can understand and draw the kind of image I need. It's not that I need them to draw exactly in my style, it's more important that when it transitions into 3D it'll be up to my standards and fit my direction.
So at first the artist's style could be different, but since the beginning of the Blade & Soul project I've had everyone practice drawing these characters and images in a certain style. Everyone's pushing for the same end result with the 3D models. That's actually what I did from the beginning. I provided a 3D polygon model so that everyone had a specific goal to move toward, and the direction to get there. It's all basically an attempt to maintain a consistent style.
I've noticed with 2D illustrations in Korea that there's a more frequent use of vibrant color. I'm wondering if you have any theory why that is, why color is so well used?
HTK: One of the characteristics of Korean digital art is that it's pretty energetic. I guess that's something to do with the cultural background of Korea. Of course I can't speak for others, but in my case, I'm not really comfortable with a stable kind of picture, with something balanced, because what is average is so well-represented in reality. You see it anywhere you go. I want to express through my artwork something that's not possible in reality, something that cannot exist.