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Hi! My name is Anna Kolodeyskaia, and I am the Character Art Team Lead at AB Games. Our company makes mobile games in the free-to-play hidden-object genre. My team consists of 4 experienced artists. And our experience is exactly what I want to share with you in this article, but, first of all, we should say a few words about our game.
Hidden City – our biggest love, our hardest challenge
Our main project is Hidden City. It’s a game world where technology and magic are playing on equal terms. Every day more than 1 million people from 200 countries visit Hidden City.
Now, this game has 60 locations, about 5,000 quests and more than 40 unique characters (kinda our job). But for players to come back to our game for months and years, to build a strong community, the game has to be something more: a big story, an exciting world, which gets more and more interesting over time. It has to develop new events, new stories, new adventures! And new adventures mean new characters – and that is where we step in.
So you see that in our case we can’t just release a game and go rest. Once a month magic fog brings to Hidden City a new building, and characters give players new quests to solve some new mystery together. Just to be clear, we’re always heavily loaded with work.
How to Avoid Burning Out from Endless Releases?
Our releases cannot be hit-and-miss, but we also cannot put off each release because we’re redoing the content again and again in the pursuit of perfection – either way, our audience won’t forgive us. We keep up thanks to having a finely-tuned production pipeline that cost us many years and many painful mistakes.
Some of the most common mistakes are:
- not factoring in the time needed for reference searches
- not factoring in the time to prepare the file for animation
- not asking questions when something in your technical task is confusing or seems wrong
Basically, not asking questions and not approving intermediate results are the most dangerous mistakes in the course of any production. Because of that deadlines are missed, leading to overtime being required or the release getting stalled (resulting in thousands of upset gamers that support has to deal with!) Now I’m gonna be talking about how we create our characters – and I hope our experience will save you a lot of anxious moments!
Narrative Design and Research
Wait, this article was supposed to be about character art? The thing is, before you can pick up your stylus, you have some preparation to do. The creation of each character starts with writing a bio, making up a personality, an image. If you have no concept, drawing elaborate garments won’t help, no matter how beautiful they are. Your character should be a person with their own history.
In our company, we have narrative designers and game designers, who develop character concepts. And they are the ones who come to us with a character that needs to be drawn. But an artist isn’t a silent doer here. We can and we should give feedback, send the task away if it’s not well developed, suggest our own ideas or provide some references, carefully saved for this day. Of course, in order to do so, an artist has to know game lore from A to Z, understand the target audience and possess basic narrative design skills.
Know Your Audience, Do Your Research
The audience of Hidden City is mostly women, 35+, they like beautiful decorative details, patterns, and clothes, rich colors. All new characters have to hit the audience and also match the existing game art.
When an artist receives a new character task, they have to start with some research. In our case, it has to do mostly with the historical period the character comes from and their cultural background. This is not just about nerding out, it’s about making an effort for your international audience.
For example, our game has a lot of Asian content, such as Chinese New Year updates, Japanese hanami blossom. And characters in kimonos cannot be flipped, they should be fixed to one side of the screen just as they were drawn. Because, as we discovered first-hand, if you flip them, the whole meaning of their clothes will change: a kimono wrapped up to the left means that the person is in mourning. And if you are drawing a Japanese woman, you have to cover her shoulders if she’s not a geisha. The same goes for Arabic princesses: cover their shoulders and faces. Otherwise, the community will be confused or insulted.
These are some examples of why we have to research stuff: to find a balance between cultural authenticity and commercial appeal for our graphical content.
Compiling Moodboards, Looking for References
The next step is looking for references. We estimate several hours to several days, depending on the complexity of the task.
For each character, we create a mood board and a ref board. A mood board is a collection of pictures that define the colors, the mood. It helps to more accurately recapture the atmosphere of the holiday or location.
On the mood board, we define the basic colors that we will use for this character. Color is a powerful narrative tool. If the character is negative, we use dark colors, for example, deep purple, and can add a contrasting element – as a hint that something is wrong with this person, this thing might not belong to them.
A good character means light colors that leave a lot of air and warmth. And, of course, we always have to keep in mind the event theme: if the character is part of a New Year event, that same deep purple color won’t work.
A ref board is a collection of specific images, details, accessories. Don’t gather too much, you can get lost in a lot of references while working. Our project is drawn in a pseudo-realistic setting, that is why we are looking for historically accurate details here. It can be useful to find some anatomically correct references, specific poses. If you can’t find a reference in the right angle, there’s a lifehack that we use: you can create a reference yourself using only a camera and a colleague who’s ready to do some modeling for you.
Creating Sketches: Basic, Preliminary, Final
It’s time to finally start drawing! At first, we make basic sketches to find a silhouette. We draw purses, hands, hats, hairstyles – a lot of them, pages and pages. Then, you select an interesting one to create a preliminary sketch. To select good ones, you can ask the team for help or do it yourself – you are all grown up, after all! Basic sketches are just for you and never leave the department. For sketches, we use Adobe Photoshop.
We’re looking for a good silhouette, and it is good if all the details of the characters go well together and can be easily read. This is a narrative tool, too.
For example, if we have a task to draw an evil ballerina, we have to first make sure players will understand that she’s a ballerina by adding things like a ballet skirt or points. We also use the fact that players unconsciously make conclusions about the character: triangular face, triangular elements of clothing, and the audience will assume this character is evil. Oval face – soft and kind character, square face – rough person.
The next step – preliminary sketch. Now, we’re looking for specific images. Will this girl be wearing a hat or not? Will she be holding a kitten or a puppy? Or maybe we need another stage where she’s holding a doll because in the story she lost her kitten? As you see, another reminder of why we need to approve and discuss our work at all stages.
There are two schools of sketching: lineart or working from dots. Some use mixed techniques. We use lineart, because it’s faster and more concise. We don’t pay great attention to the beauty of the line at this point, it just has to be readable. Beautiful sketches need to be done for art books, but in the game production, there’s simply no time for this.
Then, we choose one of the preliminary sketches and finalize it: add details, paint, approve all accessories. And we have our final sketch!
Shapes and Volumes
After we’ve finalized the sketch, it’s time to create the basic shapes. These shapes will be used later to create volumes, implement textures, and handles. We basically divide a figure from the final sketch into contained parts and paint them with basic colors.
It’s not unusual for one character to be created by different people on the team: the concept comes from one artist, the drawing from another, the animation from a third. That is why at this point you have to compartmentalize the file. That’s how we do it: everything in the foreground will go towards the upper layers, everything in the background will go down. All the layers should be divided into groups and named clearly so that they can be easily understood by another person. Keep your files in order, we say, and it will save all your colleagues lots of time. And you’ll be glad you structured it if you have to make some changes or alter a character’s color scheme.
Another important thing is to think of how this character will be animated. For example, a character’s hand consists of many shapes: shoulder, forearm, wrist; the wrist is also divided into the palm and fingers, and each phalangeal bone is a different shape. Why is this important? Because when the character is animated, it will move its hands or fingers, maybe play with some object in its hands. You have to consider that when you’re creating shapes: they have to overlap each other, so there are no holes during the animation.
Volume can be created both in color or black-and-white, choose whatever is more convenient for you. To create basic volume, use light and shade, tints, and other artistic tools. At this stage, you can create an atmosphere if this character will be placed in a specific location: for example, basic sunset lighting if the character will be placed in a location with sunset.
Also, the basic volume helps understand, which way to go next and find weak spots in your design.
Beautification: Lighting, Animation, Render
For our game, lighting is crucial because we try to make it all look real. Usually, we use warm and cold lighting, sometimes neutral. To make players pay more attention to the character’s face, we put more light on the face and it fades down on the torso. Always think about whether this character is alone in the scene – if someone else is there, the lighting should be adjusted!
When we work on lighting, we use Ambient Occlusion, casting shadows, backlight. Ambient Occlusion gives us an opportunity to add more volume, make the character more realistic and picturesque, emphasize shapes at the intersection of objects. And it can also help to create an atmosphere of mystery.
Casting shadows also makes the picture more realistic and helps to integrate all the art elements in the scene.
Backlight helps us detach a character from the context, and also, if it’s well-adjusted, kind of embed the character into the scene. We love backlight because it also creates a wow effect that deepens the players’ first impression and makes the picture more pleasant.
Animation, as I said earlier, may require some additional work and even additional stages. For example:
Common courtesy while working with animators – give them a file that will simplify their job. You cut off everything that moves, paint everything underneath it that may be revealed. Minimum layers, all normal.
When it’s time to render, go back to the character history. Cultural background can be important here as well: different fabrics, different furs, even gold can have a different color for other countries! Think about your character’s nature: coarse wolf furs or gentle mink should strengthen the character’s image.
Rendering takes a lot of time, and, to make it easier, you can create an internal common base of materials for all departments and specialists. It can be one page with metals, woods, furs, and textiles.
It’s good to make a big base of textures, and don’t hesitate to use them. Sometimes, of course, you have to use your hands and really dig in, draw each and every feather. That common base of materials is probably the only way to make it quicker.
When it’s all approved, we add additional layers: creating an aerial perspective to make the character look almost like they’re alive. We also check that the shadows don’t have any collapses, there’s no overexposed lighting, and so on.
Only then, can we add all the little pretty things: luminescence, particles, glitter, magic dust. We draw them only as examples because these are best created with scripts in special programs for animation, like After Effects. Visual effects should be drawn without overlapping, and layers can be animated only in normal.