We’re happy to present our interview with extremely talented Piero Macgowan, Senior Concept Artist from Firaxis Games. He was kind to talk about the importance of concept art and some of his recent projects for XCOM.
My name is Piero Macgowan, and I am a Senior Concept Artist at Firaxis Games in Hunt Valley, Maryland. I’ve worked on XCOM: Enemy Unknown, XCOM: Enemy Within, XCOM 2 and contributed to the Civilization franchises at Firaxis, as well as other freelance projects throughout my career. I graduated with a degree in Illustration from MICA in Baltimore, Maryland, and I’ve returned there to teach Concept Art, Character Design, and Illustration.
A couple of months after graduating from college, I landed my first full-time job as a Concept Artist at Firaxis Games, where I am now starting my tenth year. I had previously dipped my feet in the game industry by working at Big Huge Games on an unannounced title, as well as what became Kingdoms of Amalur: The Reckoning. Since then at Firaxis, I’ve had the rare opportunity of being the very first person to explore and define the aesthetic vision of Firaxis’ XCOM universe at its conception. I started by working together with the Art Director, and eventually with a “strike team” of other artists during pre-production. This eventually led the franchise to getting greenlit, and since then, XCOM has proved to be quite a success!
The Importance of Concept Art
Because of the ever-growing possibilities in gaming software and hardware (take VR as an example), art and visual development have become more important than ever in creating compelling experiences for players, making Concept Artists an essential part of the process. This applies to high-profile, multimillion dollar franchises as well as small, experimental indie games. As an example, during Firaxis’ early days (way before my time), when the number of employees was a fraction of what it is today, being a game artist meant getting involved in almost every aspect of the artistic process, whether it was concept, modeling, UI, effects, or animation. As the needs for game development have grown, so too have game studios. Artists still need broad skillsets, but their roles have become more focused.
The Concept Artist’s role is an interesting example of this change. Even though our job is specialized, it requires us to be versatile with different tools like 3D software, which should complement a traditional 2D approach. A nice mood painting or interesting character Illustration can help a game’s visual appeal, but concept design works best when problem-solving. This is why the game industry is increasingly focused on having Concept Artists with a wider range of skillsets; it helps streamline production.
Working With the Real Game Measurements for XCOM
Because of XCOM’s gameplay grid and the cover systems that come with it, environments needed to be created in a very mindful way. On the concept side of the pipeline, sometimes this would mean working with 3D mock-ups that snapped onto the same measurement units of the game’s grid, so that anything we designed would provide necessary cover and/or work with the flow of gameplay. That way, the artistic process had a more direct impact when going down the pipeline, because the concepts were much clearer. You can literally hand over a 3D mesh to an environment artist to refer to, and use the 2D concept for details, textural information, or lighting and mood cues. We would often also use the game’s engine to do mock-ups that we could easily light and populate, which would make content creation easier for the environment team, since they would have a one-to-one reference point.
You’ve built concepts for different climates making sure they work with procedurally generated levels. Could you talk about this task? How did you approach the production?
The purpose was to use every tool available to make a concept that was as useful as possible. I created these by first putting together rough volume mock-ups in the game engine’s editor. This helped keep all the necessary assets like rocks, trees, or bushes correct to scale, since they can provide cover. I would then do a rough texture change in the engine to approximate what I wanted in terms of color and value, and paint over the scene accordingly. I had to make sure I kept the camera angle the same in each climate to accentuate the swapping nature of the props and textures. Because these assets were re-usable, they easily accommodated the procedural nature of the game’s environments. So it was a combination of level design, texturing, and painting.
My favorite tools are the ones that can get the job done most efficiently. Depending on the task at hand, I use anything from Zbrush, 3Ds Max, and Keyshot to Photoshop, Sketchbook Pro, and even the Unreal Movie editor. Some tasks require you to think volumetrically or sculpturally, while others only need simple line sketches. The most important thing is to keep myself engaged, inspired and helpful, no matter what tool I use.
Human and Alien Concepts
Aliens are easier. With creatures, you can have the freedom to make something very strange and unusual, and still make it believable (within certain guidelines). With humans and characters, especially in the style of XCOM, there is much less room for exploration, because they need to be believable and connect with the player. My way of focusing on this issue was to make sure the faces had a relatable quality, even if they were slightly stylized. The Sectoid’s face is not a vehicle for emotional expression – all it needs to do is screech at you during battle. But if you look at the face of Shen, Tygan or Central, they need to convey the game’s narrative and connect with you. This can prove to be a very tricky task.
The most important ingredient is passion, combined with a lot of hard work. It sounds rote, but it’s true.
First of all, you need to enjoy being an artist, regardless of whether you turn that interest into Concept Art or not. One of the most important things I tell students is to be honest with themselves, because I often watch aspiring artists becoming bad carbon copies of their favorite Concept Artists or illustrators. If you want to get noticed, do it because you are making your mark, not someone else’s.
On the flip side, to become a professional Concept Artist you first need to make certain disciplines second nature (design, form, light, perspective, etc). Games are a team effort, and you’ll have to rely on these skills to learn from others and adapt your work for the good of the project. Just make sure to express yourself while doing it!
If you’re finishing college and want to get your work out there, show work that you’re passionate about. Make your own story and illustrate it. Create a videogame idea and concept it out. But just as importantly, show you’re a good team player. We’ve turned many talented artists away because their personality didn’t fit our studio. Skills can be taught; being a good person can’t. You never know who you could end up chatting with at an expo or portfolio review.
In my case, the two people who were interested in my senior portfolio during my graduation event happened to be the art directors at Firaxis and Big Huge Games! As it turned out, that brief meet-and-greet would jump-start my whole career as a Concept Artist. That could be you too!