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Andrew Maximov from Naughty Dog is probably one of the most vocal artists in the game development world. He has worked on a number of big AAA titles including World of Tanks, Natural Selection 2, and most recently Uncharted 4. Originally from Belarus, Andrew had an incredible career in game art and became a great lecturer, teaching students and game developers about games, art, and beauty. We were honored to be able to touch on these topics in this exclusive interview.
My name is Andrew Maximov. I’m a Senior Artist at Naughty Dog in sunny Santa Monica, California. The titles I’ve worked on include: World of Tanks, Uncharted 4, Natural Selection 2, Modern Combat 4, and a good half dozen others.
Art is my primary discipline, but over the years I’ve also had much involvement with a lot of technology and education. I co-run the Art Direction Boot Camp at Game Developers Conference, as well guest speak at Universities and schools around the world.
Combining Realistic and Artistic Vision in Games
Most art is problem solving, commercial art especially. If you are a small studio with a tiny budget, it’s harder to compete with gigantic powerhouses in terms of just raw production power. Adopting a unique art style allows you to stand out more without having to invest as much. When you are a Mirrors Edge type of game, visuals are also solving gameplay problems. Mirrors Edge with a Gears of War level of detail would be unplayable, because it relies on quickly identifying a path so much.
Color in Games
I think it’s a question of balance and contrast. Your visual attention, just like any other, is limited. If you take an extremely realistic and detailed aesthetic and try to add a lot of vibrant color contrasts, you run a high risk of sending your viewer into sensory overload. It’s just going to be too much. You can’t fill a cup that’s already full. In order to add something, you have to give something away. Journey, Monument Valley, and Mirrors Edge are all good examples of that. They all lack excessive visual noise that they replace with other things. Mirrors Edge relies a lot on neutral white color and vibrant pools of color added as accents, rather than all colors being everywhere all the time.
Color is also a problem solving tool. In DMC it serves a great purpose of differentiating the demon world from the dreary gray real world. So in that particular case it also has a lot to do with context. It’s not just about the color, but about the contrast with the other parts of the same virtual world where there is none.
Sometimes excessive coloring can even hurt the game. Everything is good in moderation and everything exists in context. It’s a pendulum thing. The reason last gen games were so gray and dreary was because we were moving away from the culture of cartoony-looking games being the mainstream of console gaming, and going desaturated was a great way to stand out.
Again, it’s not what you take away; it’s what you add in return. Shadows of the Colossus boss fights are larger than life and they seem even more so because you don’t do any fighting with anyone else throughout the entire game.
So yes, by strategically removing things you can amplify other aspects of your game. And it could be great artistic tool. Just don’t go cutting things out for the sole purpose of cutting them out.
Evaluating Your Work
Here are some images from an Unreal 4 project where I was responsible for tech art direction as well as benchmark art production and set dressing.
If you are fairly new to art the “hunt for perfection” much of the time is an exercise in procrastination. You don’t know how to fix bigger, more fundamental issues and you’re too attached to your work so you prefer to get lost in the details. For the first couple of years I would recommend practicing the initial broad-stroke steps a lot more then small details.
However, for a seasoned professional I’d say do get lost in it! Nail the big picture and then work your ass off making every little detail perfect until someone rips the gold master out of your sweaty, sleep-deprived hands.
Best Tools for Game Artist
As far as choosing a 3D package – the differences are quite minute and it’s not unrealistic to know most of them. My go-to tools are 3ds Max, Maya, Photoshop, Substance Designer, ZBrush, Keyshot, Unreal Engine and Notepad++ and I do believe that most of them can be learned in a couple of weeks. I think the problem is that a lot of people seem to confuse learning a tool with learning the art. Music I think, is a great analogy. Learning how to compose notes has little to do with specifically a violin or a trombone.
Yours truly responsible for pretty much everything apart from character production. I put specific effort towards ensuring strong art direction and great atmosphere, aside from producing all the shaders, textures, fx, animations, most of the environment art and creating an easy to understand and flexible pipeline for other people to be able to contribute in a split second.
So, tools are important. But it’s more important to master choosing a good subject, lighting, color and composition. For personal projects I usually start with light and color first. Once a mood is established, it’s relatively easy to fill the space with details and it should still hold up. Then all you have to do is keep refining it as you go.
All texturing for this scene took exactly one week. More details here.
Realism and Beauty
It’s an environment roughly based on an amazing picture by Arnold Tsang. I didn’t just replicate the thing in 3d, but rather used it as a base to build upon. My story with it is that it’s a garage of a genius kid Billy, who built a robot working on soup for the school science fair and won!
If everything was stylized, realism would be the cool artistic thing people would go for to stand out. So yes, we do absolutely need it. It brings a lot of great things with it.
But, what we need even more than that is quality education for the artists that teaches how to differentiate between the notion of realism and beauty because the two don’t come as a packaged deal. In fact, they have very little to do with each other.
It gets confusing because the general public substitutes the terms a lot, but the developers themselves cannot afford too. Whether their work is realistic or not, beauty has to come first. Any style can produce compelling or even mesmerizing and transcendent imagery, and that is what we need to strive for first and foremost.