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 same.
What follows is a smattering of rag-tag concepts.
Some saw the light of day, some were changed dramatically, some were scrapped entirely.
All were necessary.
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, Ashley.
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 funny forms.
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 language.
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 glass.
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:
Plastic-skin, 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 Normandy.
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 though.
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 grass.
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 question.
To me, 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 practical.
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.
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.
Our goals were:
-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)
This 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.