22 min read

Building A Fantasy World - The Art Direction Of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

Gamasutra recently spoke to Tim Coman, studio and project art director of Big Huge Games, about creating the game in concert with 38 Studios, working with Schilling and McFarlane, and the studio's philosophy toward art direction.

In 2006, star Major League Baseball pitcher Curt Schilling formed a company, now called 38 Studios, to create an MMO. That game, codenamed Copernicus, is still in development at the company's Rhode Island headquarters. He sought the cooperation of big names -- artist Todd McFarlane, creator of Spawn, and R.A. Salvatore, the author behind the popular Drizzt Do'Urden books -- to help flesh out his franchise.

In 2009, Schilling's company acquired Big Huge Games from THQ and backed the studio's work on what would become Kingdoms of Amalur: Recknoning, a single player game based on the same lore and world as Copernicus, but overseen by Morrowind and Oblivion lead designer Ken Rolston. Due early next year, the game is a complicated and expansive undertaking that transformed from an original IP Big Huge was creating into a key piece of the Kingdoms of Amalur mythology.

Gamasutra recently spoke to Tim Coman, studio and project art director of Big Huge Games, about creating the game in concert with 38, working with Schilling and McFarlane, and the changes the project saw as it moved from an original title to part of a larger universe of IP.

He also talks at length about the studio's philosophy toward art direction and its process for creating a look for the game that stands out, while serving the needs of the project.

First of all, with fantasy, the influence of other things like the work Weta has done on Lord of the Rings looms large over the last five years, and probably the next five years of the way fantasy is being imagined for screens. I was wondering if you could talk about that.

Tim Coman: Sure. I'm obviously a huge fan of Peter Jackson and Weta. When people really take a look at the genre, they really tend to go one of two ways. One is that they try to basically kind of make a photoreal version of that. So, for Lord of the Rings for example, it's like the idea that makes it fantastical is you see Gandalf running around an epic landscape, but the landscape looks real.

For us, we kind of went the other direction with it. We really wanted to design everything. So everything is designed. Like, the ground is designed. The trees are designed. The weapons... Everything has like a style to it. It's like a production design. It's almost approaching like a Pixar film, you know what I mean. They can't run out and do photo reference for that. They really have to design it from the ground up.

So, for us, that was really what we wanted to do. We really wanted to make something crafted from the beginning to the end, especially in this genre. Again, you want to find your own way to try to contribute to that, regardless of all the influences that come in. It's one of the things we always talk about.

If you're really doing the job right, you really should be trying to find your own identity, and do what's right for the project. As opposed to trying to say, "Well, this other project did it this way," or "This movie did it this way." So we're really trying to build it from the ground up based off the needs of the individual project.

The other big thing is World of Warcraft, right? WoW dominates the fantasy space in games. How has that had an effect on your art direction?

TC: There are a number of titles that [you can] bring up in relation to this genre. I think there are always kind of the go-to things. When we started making the game, we really didn't set out to try to re-create anybody's style. We really wanted to have our own unique kind of thing.

But I think once you point to kind of the edges of where people have gone in this genre, either you're trying to re-create reality or where you're trying to do a production design where you're really building every asset from the ground up. So, certainly some of the things you can point to in our game are very colorful. For us, that was one of the key ideas behind what we were doing.

I think you saw this a lot when the next generation hardware came out. There was a process called bleach bypass, which is a film technique, where everything has that kind of washed out look, where white highlights bloom and everything has a kind of desaturated look to it. For a while, it was like if you wanted your game to look next gen, it had to have that look to it.

For me, I always wanted to, from an art direction standpoint, look at something and say we shouldn't be basing design necessarily off of the hardware. You should be basing it off of what's right for the title. So, for us, we really wanted to combine the idea of building everything from the ground up... We've got tons and tons of concept art where we build these ideas around this stuff.

So, what we would do is we wouldn't necessarily try to say, "Okay, what is the hardware good at?" What we would do is we'd say in those cases where we would build something unique would be based on our engine, what our engine could do, and play to the strengths of that. For us, it's like the big picture of things, like making sure we have our own identity...

I always look at this as, if you took screenshots of like five different games in the genre, would you be able to pick ours out of the lineup? So, for us, that was really kind of the angle for it. Even in the other games we've talked about, it's like, "that has its own unique style, and I admire their art direction, it's fantastic." But it's certainly one of those things where we didn't walk around saying, "What would they do?", do you know what I mean? We always kind of say, "What should we do? What's right for the project?"

Did you ever say, "What wouldn't they do?" Did you ever deliberately avoid certain things?

TC: I don't think there was any specific conscious effort to that. The biggest thing that we tried to avoid, just in general, was just trying to do something that was so expected. There are always certain things in the genre... You have to have these kind of classes in the game, for example. If you make a gnome, for us, people have an expectation of what a gnome is like. If you made a gnome that was 12 feet tall and had giraffe legs, you'd be like, "Eh, really? That's a gnome for you guys? You kind of missed it? You're going off in this tangent."

You're being too deliberate in saying "we're not like other games."

TC: Exactly, to the point that you're breaking the heart of what it is you're trying to do by just being unique for unique's sake. So, for us, what we try to do is always try to find a unique angle on things. So, there's a mix of familiar, understandable, and relatable, and there's always a twist on it.

And then again, some of these things are built into the lore. So, for the cases of the gnomes, for example, one of things [bestselling author and game world creator] R.A. [Salvatore] was really big on is gnomes are not comic relief. He didn't want it to be like the wacky like "Hey, I'm a gnome, man!"

It's like, he really said, "If you're going to do it, we've got to really make them like they're the seed of knowledge in this thing." They're the ones with libraries. They're the ones that have this sense of experimentation. They would know about magic in the world. They would be on the cutting edge of things as they were developing.

He's big on universes that function. He's big on the idea that the society actually works, the society makes sense.

TC: Yeah. The fun part about it is having a back story to pull into. So, when we talk about stuff, like there are different cities in the game -- I can't go into all the details -- but if you happen to find them, it's really cool, because we really wanted to have that identity of that city feel fully fleshed out. So, for us, a city that might be based off one of the races in the game would feel totally different than a city based off of another, and the fact that it still has a city center. It still has an epic feel to it.

Did you have a feeling about making the city center feel consistent, and functioning, and realistic?

TC: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, we would get into huge debates. There's always a challenge... You know, we didn't set out to create a simulation... But we would have debates about how many actual structures would be there and how many individual characters would be walking around. We would talk about just the core.

Whenever you talk about a city, for example, there's all these things like, Where's their water supply? How would they get this? Where is their means of transportation? What are the main things that they do? Is this a merchant city? What it is about this city that makes it that city, versus another one? So, we would have all these in-depth conversations about this stuff.

Even at the concept stage, we would start to dive really, really deep on this. Like we would come up with all these things -- like the gnome city, for example. What are symbols that are recurring that are relevant to the gnome culture? What are the glyphs and the language like? There's actually a fully developed gnome language in the game, and it's not just an alphabet. It's a full, structured language. An incredible amount of depth went into this stuff.

When you're talking from a process perspective, how did you start with this "design it from the ground up" mentality, and where did you start?

TC: I don't know how familiar you are with the back story of the project. It was originally a different project. When 38 [Studios] came on board, we basically started the IP over. So, we went back and sort of built everything from scratch. The first thing we usually do is, we sit down and have a lot of conversations about it. We looked back to all the [material] R.A has written... I mean, we keep saying, "Oh, he's got 10,000 years of history that he wrote for this game!" He really did write that. There is this huge tome of knowledge on this stuff.

And the cool part about it is we could dive back through all that and start to find things that we're like, "Oh, this is really cool! We really like this. Here are the races of the games. This is what makes them, them." So we went back and we tried to craft each of the weapons, craft the weapons that they would use, the armors, the clothing, the cities, the environments that they're in, basically feeding back to that one basic idea.

That's kind of what my job is, to take all the individual pieces of those and try to craft it like, "Okay, a little bit less this. A little more this. This is maybe a little bit too standard, like I've seen this before. Why don't we try to innovate a bit more on this, this, and this? It's a great process.

When creating the individual look, that must be when you generated so much concept art.

TC: Yes, yes. We've got some fantastic concept artists we've been working with on the project. Sean Andrew Murray is our principal concept artist -- he's a fantastic concept artist. And a number of other folks that we've worked with over the duration of the project.

What we do is we sit down and start talking about things. Like we're going to do a creature, for example. We'll sit down and start brainstorming about what it could be. But we actually brainstorm with the designers and the engineers.

We get everybody in a room and we do like, "Wouldn't it be cool if we did this, this, and this?" And we gather all those ideas up, and we get the best of the best of them. Like the leads kind of round up and say, "Well, these are really good things we want to do."

And then we start diving in on the concept art. And some of the concept stuff is awesome. You know, we get lots of thumbnail sketches, and then we refine it down to the final piece.

But then, in addition to that, I sit down with the lead character modeler, Alan Denham, and the lead animator, Young Vo. The three of us will be like "Okay, now we're really going to have to make this thing, so let's really dive deep on this. Are there any technical constraints we need to be worrying about? Any specific things that are like "Yeah, that's not going to work with these other bits and pieces that we have?"

And the cool part about is like every person in the chain tries to find a way to plus it. So, even at the concept stage, everyone's saying, "Oh, we can make it 5 percent better if we did this, this, and this!" It goes to the modelers, they try to find that like "Oh, you know what? I'm going to do something that's going to blow your mind! Everyone tries to find that angle.

And when the animators get it, it's like they're looking at it to try to say, "Okay, we want to make this combat as cool as we can possibly make it." So, they work with combat designers, and the animators are all in one pit together. They sit around and they brainstorm this stuff, and then we kind of refine it.

But even at that point, it's almost like an actor coming to a role. By putting different people on it, you get different results. So, the fun part about it, is it's like the creatures, we actually designed them in such a way that they have different personalities to them. And as you get deeper and deeper into the game, the nature of who they are, the types of creatures you're fighting, and the areas that you're fighting them in, you can see there's an evolution that takes place over the duration. It's pretty cool.

It sounds like you're very cross-discipline at a very early stage, at the studio.

TC: Yeah. I think it's really important, especially from an art standpoint. You really don't want to over-emphasize any one slice of the overall project. Every part of it is important.

One of the things I keep saying is, for this project, every part of it was considered. There's lore. There's back story. We basically developed this game in our own engine, so we're trying to build to the strengths of what we think is going to be the best possible game.

And at each point, everybody checks each other. The team is very, very collaborative. So everybody is always looking at it saying, "Uh... Really?" We have a running joke where people come in and go, "Really? Is that final?" It's like, "Ugh. Okay, yeah, alright. I've got to put in another weekend on this, because I think it can be that much better."

You're talking about moving things from concept to modelers, to animators, and stuff. You're passing things along. I'm curious about how that works.

TC: It's pretty cool. One of the things we do is we don't... It's not like a hard line where the concept guys are done, and then there's nothing more the concept guys do. We round up with everybody on a regular basis and say, "Look. Let's look at this stuff together as a group." And I'll point out the high level styling cues of things that are like, "No. I think we're missing it. I think we need to come back a little more here. The timing and animation may be a little bit off. Maybe what we need to do is kind of push that or make that a little bit sharper."

In addition to that, we're also working with the visionaries that are connected to the platform. Todd McFarlane, for example, is connected. Todd has a personal passion for animation, and so he'll come in and be like, "Oh my God. You could make this, like this... You have to go way over the top. You're halfway there." So, he's one of those people who pushes for that really high-level quality. By the time it's even being showed to Todd, the team has gone through vetting it multiple times, so it's really constantly refined and tuned.

Do you work with outsourcers? Because it sounds like your art process is very tightly controlled within the studio.

TC: We do work with outsourcers. For the project that we're working on, this is an open-world RPG, it's huge. There's this massive, massive game. So, just to populate this with all the individual bits and pieces that you need to fill, the size of the studio would need to be just absolutely huge. So, in some cases, outsourcing makes a lot of sense for a group like us. But what we do is we try to pull the most critical stuff in-house, things that are going to be mission-critical to the title. Those things, we really want to make sure it's as good as it can possibly be.

These days, I hear a lot of outsources doing props, not as much critical game stuff.

TC: I don't know if I'd say it's a hard philosophy. It's case-by-case. Certainly for this, there's so much stuff in the game... It's not like we have a checklist like "Okay, all these must go to outsourcers." Whenever there's an opportunity to give people the work in-house, we'll do that first.

But certainly from our standpoint, we don't want to shortchange anybody playing the game. We don't want to be like "Oh, we're just going to do what we can do." If we can extend the quality of the title by bringing some more folks in to help us get the thing done, we'll obviously do it.

In some cases, we're working with some fantastic freelance concept guys that are dynamite -- really, really talented folks. So again, I would give them all the props in the world. There are things like "This guy is awesome at this, so I will absolutely give those types of pieces to those people."

When you're talking about getting so many assets back, and you wanting to give your stamp to each one and say, yes/no, is that a real challenge to you? How do you handle it?

TC: Currently how I'm handling it is just throwing lots and lots of hours at it. It's an incredible process. I think with this, one of the things we want to do is make sure it's all cohesive. That's really important to me, that it feels like it's all fitting together into just like one big universe.

You mentioned Todd McFarlane. What is he, to this project?

TC: Todd's a visionary. Ken Rolston has a great line about it. Like, he's the high-level person that comes in and says, "Okay, once you've got something in place, maybe you need to think more about this, and less about this."

Todd will be the first person to tell you he's not a hardcore gamer, but he's got a really, really good art eye. He's fun to work with. I mean, the coolest part about working with Todd is he's just... I can't describe it. You have to meet the guy.

You talk to Todd, you get about two sentences before he starts getting excited. And he's like, "Oh, you're going to love this! This is going to be great!" He's just got a ton of energy that he brings to it.

He and I, we have phone conversations every week, so we're constantly talking back and forth about stuff. He's like a really, really great mentor. He's somebody you can call up and say, "Hey, I had a thought on this. This is the angle that I think might be really good." He'll be like "Well, you know what you might want to think about... Think about this, this, and this. This is what we did on the toys, and when we did a toy, we had a toy that had this similar kind of idea to it. But what we found was that this, this, and this made it a lot stronger." And he's got really good insights on this stuff.

And the fun part about it, too, is a lot of people at the studio grew up reading his comics. So, there's something about working with somebody that you admired before you even got into games. He's a very passionate individual. So, from that standpoint, I think he brings not only the art skills, but I think there's a passion that gets people excited about working on the project.

I know about the history of the game. It started as an original IP. With 38, you came together, and made something new out of it. I mean, for you, personally, how was that, in terms of re-imagining things?

TC: To be honest, it's great, because the amount of depth that they put into the lore is fantastic. There was so much material to draw from. It wasn't like starting over 100 percent from scratch. It was a question of how we would imagine that section of the lore. So, we really were able to dive deep and develop a lot of stuff.

Working with the 38 folks has been fantastic. I mean, Curt is awesome. He's another person who, if you haven't had a chance to meet him, you should meet Curt. All these guys, they bring -- I don't know how to describe it -- like an excitement to the project.

One of the things I have to say with Curt is, he'll send out an email to everybody across both companies and be like, "We just made this new poster. It is AWESOME!" and it's all caps. It's like he's so excited about doing this stuff. It's like he reminds you that it's fun to make games. He's doing this because he loves it. He genuinely loves it.

When he comes into the studio, he will walk up and down, and shake everybody's hands, he'll pat you on the back, he'll say, "Ah, man, you're doing great stuff. Keep it up! This is how we do stuff that's great." It's like, "When I was doing the baseball stuff, the reason we were able to do this is because we cared about it every single day." He brings that action to it, so everybody gets all fired up about making something great.

I really do feel like we're building that, building an IP from the ground up. In a year of sequels -- and I love all the sequels that are coming out -- it's so cool to be doing an original product. I wish more developers had the opportunity to do that. So, from us, I see this as like this perfect constellation of things coming together. I'm 100 percent honest. I'm loving working on this project. It's great.

So, from a process perspective, working with 38, in terms of ensuring consistency between the MMO project, Copernicus, and this, how does that work?

TC: Thom Ang is the art director for Copernicus. He and I basically talk every week, so we're constantly going back like, "Here's our version of X." I can't go into any details on the MMO obviously -- we're not announcing that stuff right now -- but we basically work together on things, things that are core to the IP.

There's also Steve Danuser. I don't know if you met him. He's in charge of the overall IP, and so whenever there are questions about something like, "Would this creature or would this race do X?" or "Would this type of structure make sense in this world?" those are the kind of people that we have those conversations with.

Again, what I keep saying is everything is considered. We don't kind of casually do stuff and just throw it in the game. Everything has a back story. So, for instance, in the first opening area, as soon as you get out... I don't want to spoil too much, but there are ruins that you'll come across, and those ruins actually have a back story that aren't presented in the games.

There's lore, there are books you can find about it, and there are people in the town who will talk about it, but it's not something that's directly covered. So, there's that much story to pull from for everything in the game, so there's nothing in the game that's just arbitrary.

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