Concept Design For Games Vs Films
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

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 everything 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 / Disney

Notice how the colors in 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 point. Bob's 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 / Disney

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 Experience". Basically, you need to put yourself into 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 different king.

For the rest of the article, I will outline a number of more specific differences, big 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.

1) Concept 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.

2) Avoid 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 department 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 in 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 through the world too quickly.


3) Place Things In The Background That Make Players Want To Go There. Many 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 final goal.

Copyright Bungie

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.

4) Cover 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

5) Distant 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 they realized the bad guys were tough to see / point a weapon at on the landscape, because their color hasn't different enough from the environment. So the art direction changed and the enemy suits became white.

Copyright V1 Interactive

6) Extra 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.

Guerrilla Games / Sony Interactive Entertainment

7) Designing Buildings:

A few things to consider when designing buildings.

8) Painting 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 like.

Copyright Bungie, image by Jeff Horal

9) Know 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.

Copyright Bungie


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!

This site is ©2021 by Neil Blevins, All rights are reserved. Blogger Tumblr Twitter Facebook LinkedIn Tumblr ArtStation DeviantArt Kickstarter Gumroad YouTube