The role of a Concept Artist is the role of an explorer,
tasked with charting a world without sunlight. Bear with me here:
You start off with your reference and research. These are
well established base camps. They’re well lit, highly populated and safe. The
better your reference the better your bearings will be. The artist’s job is to
start at base camp with a bag of torches and run furiously out into the
darkness. Every doodle, sketch, painting and storyboard is a torch lit
somewhere out in the black. You mostly find weeds and rocks out there. But if
you keep pushing you sometimes find a rich landscape that can hopefully become
a new basecamp.
I was inspired by my friend Hethe Srodawa, who recently
posted his most nitty-gritty of concept work: his paintovers (http://hethesrodawa.blogspot.ca/2013/05/local-watering-hole_21.html
We can tend to keep our less pretty, less refined work hidden away on our
drives but I think it paints a disingenuous image of the role of concept
artists. There’s a lot more to the job than the few polished portfolio pieces
that get released. Hethe pulled his pants down and it has inspired me to do the
What follows is a smattering of rag-tag concepts.
the light of day, some were changed dramatically, some were scrapped entirely.
This was a very, very early idea for Shepard. In this image
he has been forced to turn to Reaper technology to accomplish his goals
(*cough* Saren *cough*) and he’s being confronted by the new human Specter,
When designing the Cerberus troops, there were a lot of
requests for thickness. I tend to go thin by default (a handicap I have to
constantly work to counteract). What I wanted to maintain was a slight
“goofiness” to their appearance. I think that if you try to design something to
be cool, it will fail. The best designs (especially designs for characters that
are meant to be scary or intimidating) are ones that maintain a percentage of
goofiness. Real world designs typically have this element because engineers and
designers are concerned with function first. This tends to create unintentionally
Bubblehead here was meant to be the ultimate stress test for
this concept. He would show up looking like an idiot, but once he murdered a
prisoner in cold blood and then ripped your health down to nothing you would
learn to fear that stupid looking shape. I believe that the juxtaposition
between the goofy appearance and deadly menace creates an iconic, lasting
enemy. That said, it still wasn’t an idea that fit within the Mass Effect
Two early takes on Kai Leng. Playing with Ben Huen’s idea
for robot legs, and a battle scarred version. The scarred version was an
attempt to create an evil Shepard (As though Cerberus had rebuilt him as well,
but done a crappier job).
Here were two early renditions of the Illusive man after he
had overdosed on Reaper Tech.
This was an early take on Ashley’s costume. The idea was to
create a hybrid of uniform and armor. I’ve always been fond of the idea of
futuristic wet-suit armor. I wanted to try a suit that was flexible, but sturdy
and protective. Flexible, futuristic armor is a concept that requires too much
in-game exposition though. At the end of the day it was decided that players
need to see hard-shell armor.
This was an aborted painting of Jack escaping from
prison. I’m pretty sure it was abandoned
because the level was already looking and playing great, so it wouldn’t be of
much use to anyone.
The same goes for this Legion image. By the time is was
started, it wasn’t needed.
Here’s a version of Wrex on his throne that was never
released. It was drawn to help give the level artists a starting point.
The Collector ship and the Human-Reaper both took a very
long time to design. This biggest challenge was communicating the immense
scale. These concepts were all part of the long discussion about scale, but
also how abstracted the Human-Reaper would be. Early experiments leant more
towards a fetus, others towards adult skeletal and muscular systems.
This one in particular was far too literal. I include it
because the human-tube has been a long running and terrible joke between a few
friends. Just imagine the deafening squeak of a thousand asses rubbing on
An unused alien idea. Thank god. I wanted to design an
alien that was completely horrifying and was failing in every possible way to
come across as relatable to humans. If we actually went this direction I would
have loved it if you could see constantly shifting eyes and teeth behind his
“Hue-Mon” mask. Just awful.
Early passes at the Shadowbroker.
This one is my personal favorite. I kind of wish we’d
gone this direction, even though admittedly it's a bit more boring that the final version. This was a response to the description “He’s basically
Ares, in space.”
This was a quick idea for the interior of a Turian
structure. It was cobbled together from photos of abandoned planes.
This was a sketch to try to describe the look of Reaper infection
inside the Geth system.
Edi went through a lot of quick, early iterations. When you
know a character is going to be a particular challenge it can help to explore a
lot of territory quickly and early. We tried:
with and without glowy-bits.
A more literal avatar of the Normandy.
A love letter to Blade Runner’s Pris.
Mechanical manequins, attempting to own the uncanny valley
by creating a disquieting look.
I still find that concepting major characters in T-pose (or
just standing there) to be challenging. When I feel stuck, it helps to put them
in context. This image explores Edi being more literally connected to the
These were early Reaper drone concepts that remain my
favorites to this day.
Some drawings for Jack’s updated look.
Protheans were interesting. At first I was trying to design
a creature that could conceivably be (if you squint your eyes) the genetic root
of all the alien races in our galaxy (yes yes, just like that TNG episode). I
was trying to stay as close to their original appearance in ME1 as I could (which
had been kept intentionally vague for just this reason). That didn’t last long
Here I was trying to design a suit that was reminiscent of a Mass Relay.
Okay, admittedly, I’ve kept these drawings far away from the
internet for a while. That’s because they’re connected to controversy in one
way or another. Please take them as they are: drawings done during development,
posted for interest’s sake. I’ve been asked to comment on these subjects in the
past but will continue to let the work speak for itself.
These were some of the first images drawn for the finale
level. The original thought was to create a serene space in the middle of a
pitched battle. I thought it would be interesting to create this golden lotus
flower out of panels and protective foil.
Here are some sketches used to explore the different aspects
of your final decision.
This image was purely speculative on my part. I imagined the
galaxy changed by the synthesis choice. Because life and technology were joined
(and I didn’t know the Mass Relays would be destroyed yet) I imagined that
there would be no more need for space ships. Any creature could just link in
with the nearest relay and jump to any world they chose, surface to surface.
This would start changing the biology of every creature in the galaxy as they
would no longer be limited to any one environment. Here are some
Asari/Salarian/Human/? in the far, far future taking a carefree stroll in the
The debate about whether or not to reveal Tali’s face was
another one that lasted a long time. Versions of her were being worked on
fairly often. These were three that I thought worked in their own way.
Personally, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to push players to
the edge. Tali was like a pen pal, or a friend you’ve only ever known online.
Depending on how attached to her a player was, how well could they handle her
appearance challenging their expectations? If she looked a little too alien,
just a little too repellant, would they still feel the same way about her? Or
did her personality and your history together trump appearances? It’s an
interesting area to explore and I hope we can find other ways to ask that
this has always been (and always will be) Tali. This was drawn during ME1 when
she was first being designed, and when her appearance under the mask wasn’t a
big deal yet.
Here’s a nice segue image. I had just polished up the ME2
armor when we heard about the crossover armors.
It was never built, but I forget why. Maybe it was a little too Mass
Effect to fit into Dragon Age)
These were redesigns of Dragon Age Origins appearances. We
were trying to reshape or reuse as many existing assets as possible. These were
two attempts to strengthen the designs, making them more readable and
We did a lot of simple stuff like this, attempting to
address readability and the overall “final frame” of the game (Dragon Age 2 in
this case). This was obviously very early on in the levels development, but it
helped to establish the right ranges early on.
These were attempts to flesh out the city of Kirkwall
in Dragon Age 2. The first is a bare-bones “quarried city”. We wanted it to
look like much of the city had been carved straight out of the rock.
This shows Kirkwall’s slave prison as it would have appeared
in the past, under Tevinter rule.
Quick and dirty sketches like this helped out sort out some of the more
challenging architectural and sculptural elements. The central idea remained
the same in game (that a giant chain kept the entrance to Kirkwall defended),
but the slave driver/slave sculptures changed. And the chain was no longer
covered in gibbets, sadly.
Here is a very early attempt to redesign Flemeth for DA2. We
wanted her to be more imposing, letting more of her power show through. It was
decided that this was still too restrained.
Early sketches of some party members. These are
quickly sketched out as we read the character descriptions. It’s really nothing
more than a way of keeping notes on various features, affectations, or poses
that strike us.
Designing Merril was a great exercise in Writing and Concept
Art learning to speak one another’s language. In her early descriptions I
picked up heavily on her willful dabbling with blood magic. On paper she was
scary, so early drawings reflected that. After the writers understandably
freaked a little, it was explained how those more deadly aspects of her
curiosity would unfold and we reined her in a great deal.
Alternate versions of party members at different stages in their development. In order:
Giving some Dalish armor to Merril
Giving Fenris more armor and a better haircut
(we were to late…god help us, we were too late…)
This was an early version of Isabela. Duncan’s
appearance is my favorite from DAO, so I wanted to try translating it directly.
A few pieces from this carried over to her final look.
Carver didn’t change much. He has tan stripes on
his arms, which were a bizarre design idea and I couldn’t tell you why I
thought they’d work on him.
This was my original costume design for Tallis.
It turns out she has a guy for that so her final appearance was different, but
that’s all part of the fun.
Fenris, Fenris, Fenris….The widowmaker. These barely
scratch the surface of how many attempts we made at Fenris. Somehow he was just
impossible to capture. He was like a game of musical chairs. His design kept changing
until the music stopped and the version we had was the version we had to live
with. I still would love to redesign him, but like him or not, Fenris is now
Fenris’ tattoos (you never see this much, but we needed
to know what they looked like under there)
Orsino and Meredith stood as opposing forces in DA2.
Meredith’s design was pretty much finalized, and she looked like a heroic
paladin (still one of my favorites from DA2). I took this opportunity to design
Orsino in contrast, making him look as much like a Disney villain as I could
get away with. I think it’s a nice contrast for his character too. He looks
like a vampire but is a pretty nice guy
This lineup was drawn as part of a visual development
project we tried. As a way of summing up all the design elements we wanted to
bring together we made a simple animatic, trying to capture a slice of the art
direction over all. These guys served as our temporary cast.
This was a hypothetical cast we used as part of an
internal design fundamentals discussion. The idea was to take a cast of
characters and design them together as a group. By doing this you start making
choices about major shapes, color themes, etc… This was a relatively simplistic
one, but it got the point across.
Early stages of Hawke’s evolution. Affectionately named
“Biker Mage”, our visual development guy
ended up being a launch pad for our protagonist.
I don’t have many of these lying around as they tend to be
deleted shortly after the fix has been made. I’m going to try to save more of
them since they’re a key element in the process. There are very few concepts that
get translated into 3D exactly as intended. You have to pick your battles, but
it’s quite often helpful to send a quick and dirty paintover.
The Darkspawn redesign. Some people like them, some people
hate them so much it probably hints a serious underlying medical condition.
Here’s my thought process.
You only every know how to design your game when it’s done.
That’s just the reality. We’re fortunate on Dragon Age to have the freedom to
correct or finesse designs according to what we’ve learned in the past. At the
end of the day, Concept Art is about telling the story of the game and we felt
that the original design of the Darkspawn wasn’t doing the story justice.
-We wanted to show that the Taint hadn’t just lead to
pointy-teeth monsters, but that it was a sickness affecting people who used to
be Human, Elven, Dwarven and Qunari.
-We wanted to show the brain-decay the disease caused by
making their armor far less sophisticated (The Origins Darkspawn armor was more
complex and intricate than most human armor)
-We wanted to show that it was the same disease effecting
all members of the Darkspawn (We felt the Darkspawn in Origins were a bit too
hodgepodge in their appearances)
was an early pass that went too far. We didn’t want to go full horror show on
it, but it acted as a starting point for the discussion. The strong reaction we
got internally showed us we were on to something. By making them more
recognizably human, it triggers your empathy more strongly.
Another aspect of the Darkspawn we considered was their roll
in combat. They could appear in almost any environment so we wanted to make
sure they were readable. The original design tended to blend into the
background too easily. So, we designed the sickness and armor to create a high
contrast design. The skin became pale and the armor was darkened. This way you
could always spot them, and animators wouldn’t have to fight as hard to
telegraph their attacks and movements.
Here are the design principles applied to the Hurlock and
the Ogre. Both a little closer to their races of origin (though we had more
restrictions with the Ogre), both following the same high contrast color scheme
and primitive aesthetic. That was the intent. Execution is something else. But
it’s all a learning experience and each step gets us a little further.
Concept art is a strange business. There’s all sorts of odd
jobs, rabbit trails, misfires and victories. As I said earlier, you never know
how to design a game until it’s finished. All we can do is keep running out
into the darkness, lighting torches until we find something good.
If you read this far, holy crap. Congratulations, here’s an
unused Qunari barbarian for your trouble.