Concept artist Isaiah Sherman, who worked on Destiny and Infamous 2, talked about the building of worlds and characters for videogames.
We’ve talked with Isaiah Sherman – a freelance concept and matte artist, who worked on a number of big and small projects. He was one of the guys behind the amazing world of Destiny (read out article about it here), Infamous: Second Son and the one creating the visual look of LawBreakers (the most recent Cliff Bleszinski game also known as Project Blue Streak). Isaiah is also working on his own indie game Gaimoria, so he can look at game art from a very interesting perspective. In this interview he discussed the main questions of game world building, the importance of concept art and the future of the art in games.
I’m Isaiah and I am currently a freelance concept & matte artist, as well as an indie game developer. I have been working professionally in the AAA game industry for just over six years, mostly notably at studios such as Sucker Punch Productions on the Infamous games and at Bungie on Destiny.
Concept environment render of “The Shattering” event in Boss Key’s Project Blue Streak.
When I was younger I was mostly interested in being a digital painter for comic books, but video games have always been a huge part of my life. Eventually I realized that creating art for video games was a real job so I switched my focus from just digital painting to game art.
Artists Shaping Worlds
Skybox work for Bungie’s Destiny.
The impact of an artist in building game worlds varies greatly depending on the team size and your position. If you are a prop production artist at a very large studio, for example, you’ll typically be tasked with creating assets that have already been thoroughly discussed and planned by other teams. Your own creative input would be rather limited because you must constrain to the needs of everyone before you in the chain.
Skybox for Bungie’s Destiny.
However, if you are in a smaller team, you typically don’t have specialized roles such as a “3d prop artist,” and you’d need your production artists to be capable of larger scale environment tasks. You will be working with team leads and art directors much more closely and you’ll have more of an impact on creating the world.
Skybox for Bungie’s Destiny.
Creating a brand new world takes an immense amount of work. You’re starting from scratch. The reason AAA companies often focus on franchise development is because after the first game is created they can reuse and polish a lot of pre-existing art. This drastically reduces the production time. It also allows artists to make significantly larger worlds because they can focus more on layout, rather than asset production, due to having a library of assets already built.
Working with references and closely communicating with your team is a very important part of pushing the vision of the project forward. When you’re in a team setting, you can’t go rogue and make whatever you please, as it may not fit with the project’s needs.
The Search for References
Working from reference is one of the few things that sets professionals apart from amateurs. Pulling ideas and referencing shapes and structures in real life is what makes games feel genuine, people can see a well designed creature or vehicle and immediately think “That looks pretty cool, it reminds me of this other thing.” Making sure players can attribute the visuals in your game to the tangible world allows them to relate to it and doesn’t alienate them.
Most of my reference images are from Google searches, Flickr, and Pinterest. A very large portion of my reference library also actually comes from Imgur, sometimes you’ll find something golden like a huge collection of environments, art, or architecture. If you have a decent camera taking your own photos you can usually get exactly what you need!
Combining different reference images together to create something new takes a lot of practice. From my personal experience, you’ll usually be combining 2-3 major elements from different references. If you start trying to combine too many elements from too many images, you’ll lose your ability to relate the image to life.
Concept Art: Before And After Production
A large portion of the concept art is done before production, mostly environments and character designs. However, there is also a very large portion of concept art that needs to be made as production continues, such as props, weapons, and ideas for new environments and characters/creatures not previously thought of.
The iteration process is a normal part of the job as a concept artist. If your team isn’t iterating on ideas, the ideas may suffer from a lack of originality. A concept artist is most useful to the production team when they make multiple renders of the same environment or asset from a few different angles. The concept and production artists typically have a two-way conversation as the asset is being created to make sure the original concept is accurately recreated in 3D. Optimally there would be minimal design changes when the production artist takes over, as the vision is usually established in the conceptual stage. However, it is not uncommon to find structurally inaccurate design elements in concepts when recreating them in 3D, so small changes are made to some shapes to make them “work” in 3D.
Building The Characters
Pedestrian concepts for Infamous: Second Son.
Early in the project the team creates a vocabulary for the game. They establish time, setting, level of realism, etc. The types of characters that get concepted for the game are directly derived by these early conversations. Using real-life influences in attire and accessories helps the player understand the theme of the game. You (usually) wouldn’t have a starship full of mech warriors invading a peaceful game about growing flowers! That is a confusing theme and designing for that world could be a potential nightmare, unless the team really had a solid vision for everything.
Pedestrian concepts for Infamous: Second Son.
The principles of design are what makes strong concepts: composition, shape, direction, size relations, contrast, silhouette, and balance are just a few of them. The character’s attire and equipment must be focused around those principles, in context of the game’s theme, to make a successful design.
If your team really knocks the conceptual process out of the park, and the production team recreates it effectively, the characters will look good in game. The rest comes down to in-engine rendering, lighting, and animation, all of which are extremely important in their own regard. If you want the player to like and understand the character, than that gets in to how effective your game’s story telling is. It doesn’t have to be a movie-game where you have cutscenes littered everywhere either. A character’s actions in the game have more of an impact on how likable they are, not just what they say. It’s just like real life! Imagine that!
Art Direction in Modern Games
I enjoy seeing the diversity in art direction in both modern AAA and indie games. There are a lot of highly skilled and driven teams that create awesome worlds out there. A small list of games/studios I love the art direction most are: Secret of Mana & Seiken Densetsu 3, Super Giant Games, Blizzard, Journey, and Ori and the Blind Forest to name a few. I am a fan of polished, yet simplified, shapes and colors, often hand painted. That’s not to say I don’t greatly appreciate the visuals of more realistic games, they’re just not my particular niche of art direction.
The Future of The Art in Games
Most AAA and indie studios are kind of headed in opposite directions with how they approach game art production.
You’re seeing a lot of mocap, photogrammetry, and 3D scanning in some AAA studios to make things as realistic as they can. The role of the production artist in that scenario will be less of a producer of assets and more of a manager of software workflow. It’s similar to how the industrial revolution changed from having thousands of working hands, to fewer people managing machinery. In the indie world, and currently many AAA studios still, they prefer a more hands-on approach of creating assets. It allows them to make more unique work.
You will always see new tools and workflows to simplify the artist’s responsibilities so they can spend more time focusing on tasks that matter rather than tedious steps.
I am excited for the direction of both because I love seeing where large studios are taking hyper-realism and where smaller teams are pushing the boundaries of creativity.