Concept Design For Games Vs
By Neil Blevins
Created On: Aug 16th 2020
After 16 years working
at Pixar (where I did a number of jobs, including Digimatte, FX,
Modeling / Texturing, and Previs / 3D Concept Art), I decided it was
time to move into Concept Art fulltime, and shift from film to games.
Now almost 3 years
into my modern gaming career, and on game #2, I've had a chance to
observe and experience the similarities and
differences in the job of concept artist in both mediums. So decided to
write a little article on the subject, in case there are others like me
who are making the switch and want to have some idea on the major
differences they may have to deal with.
Some quick notes...
Story Is King, Player
Experience Is King
- This article will
not focus on the business aspect, just the art aspect, may do a
business compare and contrast at some future date.
- This is all from
my perspective, and so won't be as broad as if it were an article
covering the experiences of a large group of people. So as my
experience was Onsite Staff Artist for Animated Features and Freelance
/ Onsite Staff Artist for AAA 1st/3rd person Games, my tips
below will focus on that experience.
- While some of the
below are from film / games I have worked on, several are images from
games I have not worked on. I am just using them to illustrate my
point, will swap
out more of the images with images from games I've worked on as I have
more images I can legally show.
- In videogames, the
"Game Designer" refers to the person who is designing the gameplay,
challenges, rules and interactions that define the game. They also
frequently set up simple 3d levels called greyboxes that are used to
test out the gameplay, and are used as a general layout for the final
levels. A "Concept Designer" or "Concept Artist" is a
different job, they produce visuals, and design the form of the worlds,
objects and characters in the game based on the functions designed by
the game designers. Just want to clarify
because I'll be using these terms a lot in the article.
- Will update this
article as I observe more differences and tips, so this will be a
living document as opposed to a once and done article.
Perhaps the number 1 thing I learned from all my years at Pixar is that
"Story Is King" when it comes to great films. Every discipline in the
film making process is
there to enhance the story our characters are going through. And that
includes concept art.
Every shot in a Pixar film is just filled with artistic choices that
are meant to enhance the story, but here's just two simple examples to
illustrate the point. First, the beginning of the Incredibles, young
Bob (Mr Incredible) at the top of his game, the prime of his life, and
is going awesome.
Copyright Pixar / Disney
Then a shot of
Bob no longer doing hero work, he now works at an insurance company and
all the joy has left his life.
Copyright Pixar /
Notice how the
the first image sequence are strong, saturated and striking. And the
second image is
basically monochromatic, dull and lifeless. This isn't by accident. The
colors used in
these two sequences are designed specifically to enhance the story
life used to be awesome (colorful), and now it sucks (bland).
Here's another example from Incredibles 2. Helen is now the
breadwinner, and her new job is taking her away both physically and
mentally from her family. So when a painting needed to be designed for
the hotel room Helen is staying in, the painting was made to be an
abstract portrait of Helen alone on the right side of the painting, and
her family far away on the left side of the painting.
Copyright Pixar /
Hundreds of these decisions are being made all the time, how can we
incorporate the story we're trying to tell in every aspect of the
film's concept design.
So what about videogames? Is Story King? For some heavily narrative
driven games, perhaps. But for most action / adventure, hack 'n slash,
first person shooter AAA style games, the thing that is most important
is the "Player
you need to put
the role of a player in the game, and design everything to enhance that
experience, enhance the fun the player is experiencing, immerse the
player in the world. If I was playing this game what would I expect to
see? What would I want to see? What concept design decisions would make
me happier? Would help me traverse the space I've been put into in a
more economical way? What concept design decisions will help me find
the bad guy? Beat the bad guy?
So videogames have a king, it's just a slightly
For the rest of the article, I will outline a number of more specific
and small, that I've noticed now doing concept design for games. At
their core, each point is really
"focus on the player experience", but I will give these practical
examples to bring the point home.
Design for the 360. In my film experience, a lot of things
could be designed to look good from only one angle. I mean, if it's
just in a single shot in the film, and the camera doesn't move much,
design the front of the object, but no need to design the back. While
there is a portion of this in games (like
for example, if you have a set of buildings that are made specifically
to block the players from going in a certain direction), far more
objects will be seen from every angle,
because you never quite know where the player is going to walk. So keep
that in mind, your object will more likely need to look good from every
angle, so you must think in 3d.
Giant Spaces That Aren't Fun To Traverse. In films, if a
hallway is 20 meters, but you don't want to spend 10 seconds of
screen time walking down it, you use a "cut". In games, there are no
cuts (except in cinematics). The player will have to walk down that
whole hallway. Will that be boring? There's a whole game design
whose job it is to
lay out the 3d world in such a way that the player doesn't get bored or
annoyed, but how can you, the concept artist, help them with that job?
For example, if
there's a long hallway, maybe placing a couple of interesting items in
the hallway will help break up monotony. Or if the whole map the player
will be in is say 1km x 1km, then you need to take that into account
when doing your concept art. In films it's easy to paint these
huge structures or vistas, but in a game you're more likely be limited
scale, so if you're asked to paint an environment, get some idea on how
big the environment may be first. Avoid painting a 20km x 20km sized
monolith if the actual size of the playable map is only 1km x 1km.
Also, if the 3d world is quite
large, it's likely you'll be designing some sort of vehicle, like a
motorcycle, car, spaceship, perhaps horses, so that the player can
travel faster through the environment. But if the environment is
smaller, it's likely you won't be designing much in the way of
vehicles, because the game designers don't want the player traveling
the world too quickly.
Things In The Background That Make Players Want To Go There.
games have a goal to achieve that involves going from point A to point
B. This can be enhanced through concept design. For example, in Destiny
2, you start a level seeing this giant something in the far distance.
What is that? That looks cool, I want to go there! As you travel along
killing enemies, you get closer, still seeing this giant building peak
above the landscape, but it's getting closer. Now you're close enough
to see what sort of structure it is, but how do I get there? Oh I see,
a giant bridge. Follow the bridge, get inside, and then reach your
This sort of leading the player needs to be a concern when it comes to
your concepts. For example, making an entire area a giant pit may seem
like a good idea from a visual perspective, but a pit can't be seen
from far away, and so won't
be an ideal design to lead the player in a particular direction.
In a related note, a skybox is the unplayable area beyond the main map
in 3d space. These used to just be skies (hence the name), but now can
include all sorts of 3d geometry like terrain, to help make the
world seem larger even if the playable area isn't huge. When doing
concept design for a skybox, remember to include points of interest,
these can be good landmarks to help orient the player so they always
know what direction they're pointing in (North? South? East? West?).
Objects in the skybox can also be aspirational content, make the player
want to travel to a particular
area in the skybox because it looks neat, and you may have a new
location for a future expansion of the game.
Objects. I have played a lot of videogames, but until I
started working on them, I didn't realize how many objects are placed
in 3d shooting games as cover objects, objects that player can hide
behind to avoid getting shot. After this was explained, I now can't
play video games without constantly noticing cover objects everywhere.
So expect to design lots of crates and barrels. And it's extra
important to make sure these objects are large enough for your player
to hide behind. So if your player is a 10 foot tall robot, you won't be
designing many wooden boxes, but you're likely going to be designing
lots of shipping containers!
Copyright The Coalition / Xbox Game Studios
Visibility. Especially in shooting games, it's important to
be able to tell some information from far away, and that will affect
your design. As 2 examples, first, short stubby weapons don't work well
on enemies, because you want the player at a glance to be able to tell
what direction the enemy gun is pointed. So favor longer barrels, or
find other tricks like special shaped muzzle flashes to make sure its
obvious in what direction the bullets are flying. Or a second example,
in the game
Disintegration from V1, one of the artists told a story about how the
bad guys originally had black suits, but once they tested the game out
realized the bad guys were tough to see / point a weapon at on the
because their color hasn't different enough from the environment. So
the art direction changed
and the enemy suits became white.
Copyright V1 Interactive
Attention On A Character's Back. While I mostly focus on
environments and props, many character concept artists have told me to
make sure when doing concept for the playable
character, spend a lot of
time designing their back to look really cool. Because it's likely the
player will spend a lot of time staring at the back.
Copyright Guerrilla Games / Sony Interactive
A few things to consider when designing buildings.
- Pass through
opportunities, when building architecture, give plenty
of ways to pass through the architecture, like a skybridge, or adding
45 degree angles
on the sides of buildings so the player doesn't have to walk too many
hard 90 degree angles. It'll speed up the player's travel from point A
point B, which will make them happy.
- Avoid flat buildings. Your player will likely walk down a lot of
streets, and so see a lot of buildings not from face on, but from a
glancing angle. So make sure the buildings have ins and outs and
dimension like planters, balconies, windows shutters, awnings,
etc. That being said, also make sure that buildings aren't so
dimensional that your player has to be constantly ducking, jumping or
weaving in and out as they walk down the street.
- One trick we used
frequently in films
was if we needed more space inside a building than the outside allowed,
we'd frequently have 2 completely different sets that wouldn't fit
together, and just made the rule that we wouldn't have any shots moving
from the outside to the inside or vice versa, so no one would realize
it's 2 completely different sets. This kind of trickery happens less in
a 3d game, since the character will likely be going in and out of
buildings a lot, and there's no "cuts" to hide the seam. So make sure
the inside space matches the size of the outside.
- Many 3d maps are made up of prefabs, basically pieces of geometry
get used again and again, with specialized models used now and again to
break up a repeating pattern of prefabs. So after the bluesky concept
is done, and you're doing more detailed designs, you may be asked to
make modular pieces that can be reconfigured to make lots of different
things, like designing Lego that the game designers will assemble.
- Doorway height: If a player wants to
get from point A to point B fast, they are likely to jump to get there
faster. If so, better make sure that any doorways between points A and
B is high enough that a player can jump through them without bonking
their head, or else the player is likely to get frustrated.
Over Greyboxes. This isn't super different from films, but
I've found it a little more common on the game side. The game designer
has laid out a map as a "greybox", which is basically just a simplified
version of the map that has all the correct dimensions set up for the
space, and then your job will be to paint over top what the final game
could look like. Here's an example below from Destiny, the first image
is the greybox, and in this case the second is the final game. But as a
concept artist, you'll frequently be given a greybox image like the
first one, and be asked to paint an image like the second one to give
the final world art team an indication of what the final set could look
Copyright Bungie, image by Jeff Horal
Your Cameras. If possible, get from the game designers what
lens they are using in the game (note that there may be 2 different
answers, because frequently a different lens is used on console than on
PC), and use that lens for any work you're
doing. If you're doing 3d concept art, just plug the lens into the
software. If doing 2d artwork, at least try and mimic the lens. It's
not important to be exact, but if your concept can mimic at least
generally the player experience, that can be helpful.
So that's it for now. Since I'm still pretty new at doing videogame
concept art I'm sure there are many other differences I'll notice as I
work on more games, so expect updates to this tutorial as I learn more.
But in the meantime, hopefully these thoughts have been helpful and
maybe help other people who decide to make the transition!