Mar 21, 2012

Rant 1 - the dev artist's focus

I've been recently following a series of trailers about some enemies in the highly anticipated Irrational Games' Bioshock Infinite, and a thought has come, one that's very frequently surrounding my head but that today got the need to be expressed: about what a concept artist does, and how the focus is often getting totally lost.

There was something in the designs within these videos that struck me: their amazing sobriety, and the precision with which they seemingly communicate what they need. This is something I tend to be obsessed with (often in prejudice of my own results), and I've been admiring in Irrational's concept designs since pretty much always. It's something we're really losing the focus about, in favour of just pimping pretty eyecandy.

Enter some CGWhatever page about dev art, and you'll get dozens of pretty pictures that barely communicate anything at all. Some even from top games. You know, a gorgeously-rendered ex-marine main character in his early 30s with his canonically-proportioned facial features and his five o'clock shade to show his testosterone levels, that looks as generic as every other main character you've ever seen before. Often times, the rendering time invested is an obscene amount of polishing hours, yet they communicate very little, or nothing at all. Don't get me wrong: I'm often guilty of that too.

Then you have these guys, isolated in their studio from the most clich├ęd trends, who incidentally do some of the most amazing games in the industry, and who focus in communicating such a depth with their designs, and in nailing the flow of sensations you get from the playing experience, without showing a real need to paint every pore or set the characters in a complete, hyper-rendered landscape. Why should they, is it for the art book? Eventually the results speak from themselves, and it's frequent to see all those multi-million preproductions and insanely rendered art dressing uninspired-looking, "meh" games.

Now, I don't want to say that nice drawings are a bad thing. It's just that at this point, the production art industry (I guess you can call it an industry per-se) has mostly lost its focus about what matters in their job and what doesn't. Our job is to design a precise idea that visually describes a particular intention and function. Sounds abstract, but that's what it is about. The rest is just gratuitous eye candy to sell our work. Some times it will help inspire the artists and even designers in the rest of the chain, but they won't need a Sixtine Chapel painted if the intention of the design is clear. Often times, to be fair, it's the idea of the movie/game itself what is so generic, and artists are pushed backwards (something I'm thankful of not suffering at Tequila), but that's definitely not as common as we tend to think, and it's a completely different story out of our reach. Often the guilt is in artists ourselves, and we won't do anything at all to enrich that experience, but rather make it as generic as it comes to us.

Anyway, Nate Wells and his Irrational art team are not alone there. I also wanted to shed a bit of light in other studios that might not have superstars of development art within their ranks, and yet they manage to nail exquisite, highly creative experiences far above their competition.

Double Fine, Valve, Twisted Pixel, Irrational... my personal kudos for how you work. I'd say the applicant limit for 'industry guru' vacancy was exceeded long ago, let's deflate our egos and get the focus in the player's experience now.


  1. I suppose how concept art turns is produced depends on numerous factors: time/budget of the studio, the overall theme, the artist's personal style and strengths, whether any of the pieces are meant to be used for promotional purposes, what are the technological limitations, etc.

    It's interesting to hear you champion the more sketchy, minimalistic stuff that still conveys shape, function, colour, and any other core attributes of the artist's vision. You should write more of these rants!

  2. It might sound like I'm throwing stones whithin my glass house, but I'm not. Artists often see their job as "making a game look cool". I find that vision very limited and, even though a game should eventually be visually gratifying, our real goal is to visually communicate an abstract game concept, reinforcing it.

    That requires precision in understanding the concept beforehand, and in finding the best visual way to express it, but it often conflicts with the immediate "cool factor" that many artists consider as the very first goal.