Interview with Matt Rhodes about Art and Games

Lead Concept Artist at Bioware Matt Rhodes talked about stories, good concept art, creation of characters and building game worlds.

Matt Rhodes (@MattRhodesArt) is the lead concept artist at Bioware. He’s been with the company for 10 years, taking part in various projects including the amazing role-playing game Dragon Age: Inquisition. Matt has an incredible talent for creating stories with his images. His characters and landscapes capture your attention and become the first chapters in incredible imaginary journeys. In this exclusive interview, we’ve discussed Matt’s creative process, his years of working with Bioware, and the incredible power art has in video games.


© Matt Rhodes, Bioware.

My Name is Matt Rhodes and I’m currently a Lead Concept Artist at Bioware in Edmonton. I got into drawing for the same reason a lot of professional artists did. At an impressionable age I was given praise and encouragement for a piece of artwork that showed a glimmer of aptitude. I’ve been working in games for my entire career thus far, but growing up I didn’t even know that could be a thing. I had always imagined I’d sacrifice a limb to work in film or comics. Video games found me at college when a few ACAD alumni from Bioware came down to scout for fresh artist blood. I became their first art intern, and I’ve now been with them for over a decade.

What’s It Like Working at Bioware?

Bioware is a weird place. If the video game industry was the Roman Empire, working at Bioware is like being posted at Hadrian’s Wall. It’s isolated from every other studio in a part of the world that is inhospitable for over half the year. Ray and Greg were crazy. Like a couple of lunatics they dug in and created a stronghold of creativity in the most unlikely place, surrounded themselves with passionate people and then did the unthinkable… they trusted them. Ray and Greg created a culture of trust that is still just as strong now as it was when they were at the helm.

For myself and the artists I work with, that’s one of the best parts about working at Bioware. We can trust our leads, and our leads trust us. We can get weird, we can experiment, we can tear down and rebuild. The concept art team on Inquisition was given a huge amount of autonomy, and we did everything we could to respect that trust. This meant that we became proactive, seeking out or anticipating work before the requests came in. There would be months at a time when the majority of work we were turning in was either “stuff we know we’ll need eventually” or “stuff we know is too cool not to at least try”. I’m very proud to say that I lost track of the amount of times people would come in with a request, and we’d immediately hand them a finished drawing.

That’s also a benefit of our retention rate. Ten years sounds like a long time to be at one studio for a lot of developers, but at Bioware I’m *still* kind of a young’n. That means that we’re building up a lot of grizzled vets who’ve been in the trenches with each other time and time again. As the years progress you start to move with each other. It can almost start to look like choreography.

Artistic Training

I was trained in the various traditional paint mediums at art school (acrylic, oils, watercolor, gouache, etc…) but I have kept up with none of them. I was using Photoshop before I got to art school, and I’ve been using it ever since. Working digitally is clean, fast, and incredibly versatile. Within a single minute I can switch techniques from acrylic to watercolor to collage to… stuff that only digital mediums can do. I have the utmost respect for the traditional mediums and the artists that excel at them, but my personal priorities as an artist make them unfeasible.

© Matt Rhodes, Bioware.

I’m hyper-focused on storytelling so to me, the moment the viewer can see and understand the story being told, our interaction is complete. Most often this can be done with line, but some simple color helps. I would rather have ten efficient images that communicate an interesting, emotional story than to create one beautifully rendered image where you can tell exactly how reflective the metal on someone’s shoulder pad is (again, more power to the people who can knock this out of the park). That said, the lessons learned in school are still critical. Color theory, the psychology of color and shape, composition, even the stages of planning and crafting an image that have been honed and passed down for centuries. I think it would be a disservice to yourself as an artist to skip that step in your development.

Every Image Tells a Story

© Matt Rhodes, Bioware.

I would love to be a writer, I just don’t think I’m that great at it and would much rather draw a thousand words at a time. The storytelling aspect is everything for me. If you’re made uncomfortable when people start getting all weird and passionate, skip ahead a few sentences. I really believe that stories are the best mirror we can hold up. At their best they can teach us and encourage us, they can warn us about what’s hiding inside us, and also inspire us to be the best versions of ourselves.

© Matt Rhodes, Bioware.

That may not hugely inform the process of designing barrels, curtain rods or space-crates, but the principle remains: I can’t draw it if there’s not a story there. To me, a concept artist’s job is to support the story (I include setting and gameplay under that banner) and not get in the way. People should just absorb the world, the characters, the experience, and never once think about you.

Concept Art

© Matt Rhodes, Bioware.

I like to say that concept art is half blueprints, half inspiration. During pre-production we lean much heavier on inspiration. Early on we spend a lot of time talking about what the different departments would like to accomplish. We want to collect as much of the overall vision/story/design as we can and then try to unify that through beat boards, sketches, mood paintings etc…

© Matt Rhodes, Bioware.

Art can act as a kind of universal conductor between the various departments. The effects artists, character artists, environment artists, animators, writers, graphics programmers, audio… seeing an illustration can sometimes be the first time everyone really gets on the same page.

© Matt Rhodes, Bioware.

There are definitely challenges at this stage though. Building consensus requires a lot of discussion, a lot of negotiation, and dozens if not hundreds of iterations to find the right direction.

Building Characters

© Matt Rhodes, Bioware.

I want to talk about Han Solo. Han is universally loved and recognized. He’s iconic. You could probably draw him right now, even as a stick figure. As a concept artist, if I were on that project my task would have been to design his costume, maybe do some beat boards of him in major moments throughout the film. Have you looked closely at his costume? It’s insanely simple. A shirt, pants, vest, ray gun. The most “sci-fi” he gets is a belt that *gasp* splits into two belts. BUT, he’s Harrison Ford. He oozes charisma and scruffy charm. A complex costume covered in lights and panels and Totally Awesome ™ little metal dingle-futzers would have just distracted the audience from Ford’s classic performance.

© Matt Rhodes, Bioware.

I try very hard to think about that when designing characters. Animators, writers, voice actors, they all contribute to bringing these characters to life. I only want to draw things that support the character, that tell their story, and that don’t get in the way of the performance. I’m still not there, but that’s my goal. If a character really nailed it, you should be able to draw them as a stick figure.

World Building

© Matt Rhodes, Bioware.

I have what could be a weird and deceptively boring answer to this one. It’s my belief that in order to craft a convincing world, you need to remain as consistent with the economics of your world as possible. I don’t necessarily just mean money, but the distribution of and access to resources, wealth, power. This will inform every single thing you design.

© Matt Rhodes, Bioware.

A mundane example: designing a box. Is this box one of a kind, one of a thousand, one of a billion? Is it made from common, unified materials and if not, what special material it made from? Is this box still serving its intended purpose and if not, how many different uses has it seen? What does the exterior of the box imply about the value of its contents and is that implication justified or misleading?

© Matt Rhodes, Bioware.

I actually deleted about half of what I originally wrote because once you start asking questions like that it’s hard to stop. Those are all questions about the economics of the world. If you have a firm grasp of the economic landscape then you can quickly design anything.

© Matt Rhodes, Bioware.

The Best Fantasy for Artists

I think books are still my medium of choice for consuming fantasy. In the recent past I’ve enjoyed Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle, and Mike Mignola’s graphic novelization turned me onto Fritz Leiber’s Swords and Deviltry. My absolute favourite lately hasn’t been fantasy, but history: The Great Game by Patrick Hopkirk.

For games, I put an astonishing amount of time into Skyrim. That game nailed the fantasy fulfillment, and the idea of giving you the tools to tell your own story.

The Art in Games

© Matt Rhodes, Bioware.

I think we’re going to continue seeing people pushing hard in all directions. There are artists who want to push the limits of stylization, abstraction, derivation, idealization. Meanwhile, there will always be those quixote-esque pioneers trying to squeeze the sweat from pores and get the sub-surface scattering on eyelashes juuuuust right. Stories can be told at all points along the spectrum, so I’m happy to watch it all unfold. As for the next big thing, this will probably sounds hilarious if anyone digs this up in the decades to come, but it feels like the VR clouds are looming large on the horizon and I’m excited to see what opportunities arise when the clouds finally burst. Mostly I’m just hoping to set up my virtual office in Rivendell.

Special thanks to Matt for his time and for his amazing work! Check out his Artstation page for more awesome images.

Matt Rhodes, Concept Artist, Bioware.

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