When visual style is one of the distinguishing features of a game, it is important to recognize that an ad hoc approach is not a sure way to execute a strong visual direction. There are less than a handful of cases where such an approach has worked and usually there is a strong vision to begin with that helps guide the direction. The typical game development approach involves floundering around in hopes that a direction will magically appear; this naïveté can be the death of an original project and is easily remedied. If you know where to look, and know how to plan, resources are available that can help jumpstart the creative process and actually save production time.
As the scope of game projects attempt to match the entertainment value of feature film productions, game companies are specializing, adding new departments that mimic film production models, adopting a more disciplined approach to pre-production. This approach is not just necessary for monster budget games, but also for competitive more moderately budgeted games and game companies will look to feature film animation professionals and CG film professionals to help answer the call.
Using Crash Nitro Kart released for the Game Cube, Playstation 2, XBOX and GameBoy Advance, as an example of an approach to visual development, this article highlights some of the challenges faced and processes used by visualization teams at Vicarious Visions in Troy, NY and Animation Academy in Burbank, CA to bring a game vision into focus for a cartoon-style racer.
In order to have successful art direction in games it is critical to decide as early as is possible what the visual goals are going to be and how the visual direction can complement the game design and technical goals of the project. There is an assumption that pre-rendered content has less technical constraints than real-time game content; this may be partially true, however in both cases, technology will often determine what can be achieved creatively. Having established goals is not only critical to provide sustained focus during highly creative brainstorming but can prevent time-consuming departures from the intended vision. Understanding the license and the approach can really aid the cohesiveness of the design work. For example, Disney encourages their entire team of artists to avail themselves of the script and storyboards so that the artists are continually thinking about the property and the motivation for their work.
Key questions should be asked before the visual team is sought out to begin visualizing the world. This can help avert a lot of wasted effort and assist in defining goals. What is the intended effect of the visuals? (Does the overall game want to convey humor or horror?) What are the property’s origins – is it depicted in other forms of media? (For instance, comic book heroes are born in strong graphic worlds that can serve as a great starting point for visual direction.) How does the protagonist fit the world to be designed? (Color schemes can be designed to play up the main character or characters, to frame key moments in worlds or to convey an overall mood) What is the timeframe? (Time can certainly determine the scope of the visual development and the complexity of the world that can be created.) What are the technical constraints? (Visual direction can sometimes be ineffective if limitations are not considered before designing – consider the target platform and game genre.)
Do your homework. Learn as much as you can about your subject matter and jot down your observations – design notes can really go a long way to build a foundation for the art direction of a project. It doesn’t matter if you are tackling a new license or an established license or original IP (intellectual property); any of the visual development giants (Disney, Pixar, Warner Bros, DreamWorks, etc.) build their style guides from the notes and observations of the art director. The style guide gives production artists a direct reference for the visual direction.
The more preparation the art director can do to help the pre-production and production artists understand the intent of the art direction, the quicker the implementation aligns with the vision. The pressure to be artistically specialized is greater now, and so is the need for more efficient direction. Encouraging all team artists to adopt more disciplined attitudes toward preparing for the work is critically important for efficient development. It is equally important for project managers and project planners to allow and support for this time.
Ask lots of questions. Depending on the industry the visual artists on your team have come from (film animation, comics, graphics or illustration) there may be a whole series of issues and assumptions that affect their approach to the work. The communication pipeline, the interpretation of direction, other work commitments, these are some of the factors that can impact your schedule, your workflow and the result. Make sure you have the opportunity to discuss and document your process as well as learning about the artists’ processes.
What is obvious to you may be completely counterintuitive to them. For example, in the case of the offsite team in Burbank, out of 5 professional film animation artists, all but 2 were new to visual development for games. While story and acting is key for the film animation artist, games rely on events and gameplay timing. Camera angles and game engine speed affect the artistic decisions for a game artist working on a cartoon racer rather than character motivation or scene staging. The Burbank team played the prototype of Crash Nitro Kart not only for creative reference but also to better understand the nature of gameplay progression and timing. Gameplay events were described as opportunities for visual staging in the same way as a movie relies on cues and story progression.
Don’t assume too much. Define and prove visual direction early enough that risks or challenges can be reduced before too much has been invested in actual production. However setting expectations based on assumptions can cause problems. Some common misconceptions can lead to big disappointment and unexpected results:
- All of the work that is generated in pre-production is going to be used. Typically, 95% of what will be created early in the visual development phase will be scrapped because the nature of early visual development is more like visual brainstorming; we called this the freeform process on CNK. It was a fast and loose, highly creative process using rough sketches which served the purpose of inspiring or proving ideas to help move along the visual and design direction. Without this process, we may have committed to ideas and generated polished conceptual work that would have taken great effort and been wasted. The smaller percentage of actual conceptual work that is used for the game, the percentage that hits the mark, serves as the key concepts that set the tone for entire worlds or characters and are worth the overall investment.
- Any visualization professional can jump in and nail the style. Without an assigned “keeper of the vision” or art director, it is difficult for artists to interpret the intent of the design and focus on a cohesive vision. If the visual development team is trying to emulate the vision of someone not available to them, then developing a style guide before the artists start visual development is very important. This guide will also serve to lend focus to the production team who must implement the visual direction. It is also important to find visual artists with the skills appropriate to the style needed; if you want a cartoon style game, hire animation professionals from the film or TV animation industry – if you want a comic book style game, hire professional comic artists for your visual development work.
- The development team will readily implement the visual work. Sometimes the 2D nature of conceptual work is difficult to translate in 3D space, especially where scale and perspective issues arise. Be prepared to test the production implementation of conceptual work early on before the visual development work is too far along to determine if your approach should be modified.
- If we hire an offsite team, we just hand them the work and they will deliver exactly what we want. In particular when traditional artists have to adjust to their approach to account for unfamiliar technology, it is very important that at least one person is available from the game development team to support the creative process. References are very important to convey ideas and to help give context to the game design.
For Crash Nitro Kart, the non-game artists spent a lot of time looking at the design of a variety of games to help them get a feel for the work they were assigned, in addition to the visual references provided. Recognizing similarities between the design process for games and the design process for film animation was crucial for the non-game artists to frame a context for their work and made their designs stronger and more relevant to the game.
When professionals in two industries converge to work on a project, terminology can be a challenge to communication. It is important to establish a common language or choose the terminology to be used when working between industries. The process created at Vicarious Visions for world visualization was formed partly from traditional animation processes and partly for custom needs. Following is a detailed description of that process with visual examples. The name of each stage of the process used for game development visualization is followed by a comparative name in brackets, which is used in animation development.
The high concept is a broad strokes description of all of the game’s worlds that describes the essence of the world. The high concept tries to capture the progression and tie-in elements of the world before the track or level is designed to jump-start the visual brainstorming process. In essence it serves as the script for visualization.
An example: Lava World – large pools of lava bubble by the path’s edge, steam vents intermittently blow steam across the path and there is a large series of caverns in the distance. A giant broken statue of a Roman god lies half sunk in the mud…
The freeform is not tied to the map overview or to progression specifically, but rather attempts to unify the high concept and thumbnail sketches to begin to shape the world and the props within it. The freeform is intended to encourage the creative brainstorming of visuals rather than restrict it by thinking too much about the technical constraints.
The map overview sketch uses the track or level design generated by the design team and brings together all sections of the world in an overhead shot, directly using the shape of the track or AI path, and indicating the placement of landmarks, props and re-use of elements. This helps provide contextual reference for how the player will experience the world.
The screenshot can be used to help frame a series of key moments experienced during gameplay. This image can be taken from raw playable levels, may include placeholder objects, and can really cut down on the time spent trying to find appropriate concept perspectives. FIG 4: Screen shot – early blocked out levels can help frame key moments.
The moment sketch frames key “moments” in the level. The moment sketch is the final result of having taken the free form concepts, raw screen captures of the bare track or level if available and developing the fully stylized versions of the key moments. The sketch should be clean and ready for color, and in the proper visual style.
The color concept is the color version of the black & white, finalized moment sketch. The color version should attempt to capture color schemes accurately, as well as lighting and FX as accurately as possible. It can also convey texture map ideas. The color concept artist should be aware of the color scheme outlined either in the High Concept or by the concept lead.
The gameplay sketch is a rough sketch, similar to the freeform or thumbnail that specifically demonstrates gameplay ideas. Some gameplay sketches can be rough layouts of gameplay progression through a level; some gameplay sketches convey character moves or boss fight designs. Ideally, the gameplay sketch is created early in the design process to help prove design ideas.
The object detail sketch is a focused drawing of a particular object or path element that needs specification for the development team to implement. Often the object detail sketch is an afterthought, when a development artist or designer realizes they need to see a mockup in order to get their head around the idea. Sometimes the object detail is a power-up or a hazard, again serving as a visual aid for an idea before implementation is attempted.
Character visualization has closer similarities in process since it has its own unique set of needs. Developing a character for games still requires the development of a model sheet and pose sheet to assist the animators and modelers, so in this regard is very much like traditional methodology. One of the key differences in creating a character design for 3-dimensional games as opposed to 2-dimensional film media is that the character has to be approached more thoroughly. Planning for interaction, collision in the game environment and range of motion affects the character’s girth and scale as well as the shape and design of cloth, equipment or weapons.
The production flowchart is a one page, simple visual diagram to help convey the overall process flow. This can be very helpful as a quick reference for the visual design team to understand the context of their process and to understand when approvals should be sought out. In traditional animation production, the process has been established for a long time and most companies invest in internships to train their new artists in their processes; however, game production is still in its infancy and items such as the flowchart help to define and communicate the process structure.
Time is money and affects quality. Any manager who must schedule contractors needs as much information as possible to generate a reasonable schedule. Taking into account the various visual development team members and their availability, and taking into account the needs of the production team and project, scheduling visual development work is still a best guess scenario and requires adjustments like any schedule. The main thing is to try to keep the schedule moving as closely as possible towards the deadline. As the art manager, it is important to keep the lines of communication flowing and encourage team artists to speak up as early as possible if there are problems with meeting the schedule.
In situations where an offsite team has been assembled, it is critical for the art director to spend some time early in the process with that team. In the offsite environment it is easier to discover some of the issues the team is facing; you can learn about the team members, help with communication setup and protocol, and in general be available for the team to communicate expectations and test the process discussed. For Crash Nitro Kart we scheduled an extended visit to Burbank right at the beginning of the collaboration. This was hugely beneficial to establishing a smooth communication pipeline, but in retrospect, we probably could have scheduled another visit to offer the offsite team more instruction on how their work was being interpreted and to share work in progress via testing stations.
Scheduling and budgeting for onsite visits is one of the best investments a producer can make and facilitates a much smoother pipeline for your pre-production leads. If you have visual development occurring over several months or even a year, plan to schedule 3 – 4 visits at least to facilitate feedback and reviews especially if it is not possible for your art director to be on site full time with the visual development team.
Part of the challenge of successful communication is taking into account personality and methods of communication. In particular, if you are coordinating a group of visualization contractors, it is critical to adapt your approach for the inevitable different needs of your visual team. For example, one freelance artist may have several commitments to juggle but you really need their style of work – it is very important in that case to have a strong communication loop with that individual to ensure the work is not slipping or that there is an issue deterring the artist from getting your work done on time.
Something to keep in mind when considering the approach demonstrated in this article is that it was appropriate for the style of the game, the time constraints and the professionals involved. For instance, if you are looking at doing a free-roaming platform game, you do not necessarily have the same technical or design constraints present in developing visuals for a racing game. Your level of detail in off the path elements may be greater, you may have a greater number of concepts to develop and you may need to introduce different steps into the process.
Visual development is usually much greater an investment for a free-roaming character platform game. For example, on a recent top-selling character license it took roughly 12 months for one artist doing about 70 drawings for just the character development. The time spent developing new characters for Crash Nitro Kart was closer to 3 months but this was with already established main characters, strong design and fewer new characters. So if the license required all new characters including the main characters, and the design of the characters was completely open, it would take that much more experimental time to develop the characters.
For the world visualization on Crash Nitro Kart, 6 onsite and offsite artists worked for a concentrated period of nearly 5 months; then a smaller core group of onsite artists worked during the production for an additional 3 months. In total 800 inspirational drawings were created, not including the final concepts which added up to 60 black and white moment sketches and 50 color moments (keys) for 13 worlds. Compare that to world development for a free-roaming character platform game that required 1 year of pre-production to produce hundreds of inspirational drawings, and then 2 years of concentrated visual development with 2 concept artists in parallel to production.
Taking into account how the demands for visual excellence keep rising while budgets stay the same, in order to achieve solid visual development it is imperative to have a strong art director, a professional concept team and the willingness to invest proportionately more for pre-production. This investment has proven it reduces the amount of time that is wasted on art production that needs to be redone due to a lack of clear vision of what the game visually should look like. To date, the games industry has made more use of pre-production for cinematic portions of games than for the in game visual direction; and for in game visualization it appears as though certain types of games such as character platform games or CRPGs have historically made more use of pre-production. But as our efforts on Crash Nitro Kart have proven, the benefits of using visual development to help focus visual content creation remain to be seen.
Thanks to the artists who created the beautiful color work seen in this article: Rui Tong and Chongguang Zhang. Thanks also to Karthik Bala for the great creative direction on CNK and for the opportunity. Kudos to the many production artists on CNK who worked hard to implement the vision! Thanks also to Tobi Saulnier and Steve Derrick for proofreading and support.
For more information:
- The Animation Academy, animation school featuring animation industry professional faculty: http://www.theanimationacademy.com/
Animation Industry Database, search for production companies, for hire specialists and art schools: www.aidb.com
- Mega Animation, resource for layout and concept artists: http://www.meganimation.com
- Games 411, resource for layout and concept artists: http://www.games411.com/
Di Davies is the visual development manager at Vicarious Visions in Troy, NY.
She has 8 years of traditional animation experience in addition to 11 years game development experience.
She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
PS: Any questions, comments, feedback or corrections, feel free to leave a comment below.