Sunday, 30 November 2014

Fine Detail - The Art Of Production Design In Games

I originally wrote this for Forces Of Geek on Thursday 20th November 2014. I've been massively interested in the production design of film of late and that's where this article came from!

The look and style of any game is created through imagination, artistry and visual storytelling. The ability to interpret written ideas into something visual is a difficult thing to master, production design in games (and also film) can transform not only the story and the characters into being but also narrative themes. Every detail must be thought about; decor, architecture, clothing, locations, texture, physical space, colour palette, tonality, physics...the list is practically endless depending on how long you have to research.

Many games, despite being fictional forms of entertainment require a sense of authenticity to ensure the player is suitably engrossed. Survival horror games need this especially to set the tone and aid the overall experience - imagine a survival horror game with bright lighting, upbeat music and flashing multicoloured objects (wait a I describing a Nintendo title?!) - it would no longer immerse the player in their surroundings and thus, could no longer be labelled as 'horror'.

This is why production designers and the creative team behind a game are absolutely vital. Until recently, I believed I solely enjoyed the my favourite games based on their stories (being a writer, I relish great stories over everything else!) and to some extent I still do, however, it occurred to me that all of the games I hold in high regard also benefit from incredible production design.

Location, whether real or imagined can really set the tone of a game so it's no surprise to know that the Assassin's Creed series involves a high quantity of research which is undertaken by the design team, months of location visits, searching libraries for etchings and drawings from specific time periods, studies of ancient architecture that still exist today and all with the intention of keeping the look as close to the original location and time period as possible.  

Image Credit: Ubisoft
Nicholas Guerin, the game world design director on Assassin's Creed Unity (speaking with explains that although gameplay is the priority when creating a game, the architecture of Paris needed to feel Parisian and reflect 1790s France;
 "Very few changes were made to the buildings to make them easy to navigate. Instead the navigation system was retooled to fit the world" 
It's not just Assassin's Creed games that contain a high elvel of architectural accuracy; speaking about Fallout: New Vegas, game designer Chris Avellone exaplains that;
 "Some of our most interesting locations are the ones taken from real life and then given the Fallout “touch” (usually nuclear with a slight 1950s sci-fi aftertaste)." 
However, unlike Ubisoft who strive to make their games mostly accurate (some architectural aspects are embellished to allow for smoother gameplay for example), the L.A.Noire creators Team Bondi and Rockstar actively wanted to re-create LA of the 1940s so extensive research was done to ensure it looked the part. 

Take a look at these authentic paint swatches from the 1940s next to a photo from Team Bondi's extensive LA locale photo shoot and finally a shot showing Cole Phelps and his partner that shows how direct these references were used in-game. The level of detail is astounding.
Image Credit:

L.A. Noire's Production Designer, Simon Wood explains that the process of creating each part of the game followed in-depth research made up of several mediums;  
"We created 'Production Bibles' which are like production design style guides for all the locations in the game...thebibles have floorplans, material, dressing, graphics and signage, lighting details and any other reference images that are needed to create the locations in the game. We had 140 in total"
Games with such detailed and historically accurate locales need their characters, NPCs and AI to look the part too, especially in games that depict overcrowding like Assassin's Creed 2. Nicolas Collings who worked as Senior Character Modeller on the game said in an interview with CGSociety said;
 "We had hundreds of characters to bring to life in a Renaissance style. It was also challenging, because one of the strong aspects of Assassin's Creed, as opposed to any other games, is the heavily crowded street."

It's an easy thing to dismiss the weight of this task and assume that it must be easy for someone who makes their living in character modelling but when you consider the fact that at times during Assassin's Creed 2, there can be upward of a hundred characters, it's actually very impressive. Impressive still is the fact that in Assassin's Creed Unity there is one scene that features 10000 NPCs with individual character designs and AI programmed to act independently! 

The hustle and bustle of a crowded renaissance life in Italy and the grimy, busy streets of Paris are brought to life due to these detailed, authentic character designs. This attention to detail brings a historical period alive and who would have guessed that one of the bestselling game series of the last 5 or so years revolved around a historical theme!? 

The creators of Dishonored used similar methods during their design period, they visited museums to research the time around the great plague in London (a theme that they wanted explore), it including prototypes that were never realised which added to the overall aesthetic a steampunk edge. 

During character design the creative team at Arkane Studios used early portraits of English or Australian faces as a guideline which might explain why the characters seem to fit so well in the plague-ridden London-like setting. Elements like this give the game an underlying realism that remains subtle enough that it doesn't outweigh the gameplay.

One of the many character concepts by Viktor Antonov for Arkane Studios, Dishonored
Art and design directors, Sebastien Mitten and Viktor Antonov produced over 3000 individual pieces of concept art! Along with their team, they spent two years researching, ensuring that they conceptualised every detail to perfection - all this before they even showed it to the publishers! The amount of research and scope put into the game shows as it's a wonderfully unique game to both look at and to play. 

When a game lacks good pre-production design and research, it diminishes the overall quality. If gameplay is good, that's one thing but if you can combine decent gameplay and well researched design techniques then all parties benefit.  

Video games like cinema are a visual medium. First and foremost, gameplay is always paramount however, if we forget that gamers are lured in by the bright lights and flashing imagery, we lose something of what games are. Subsequently, for a game to lack an exceptional level of detail in production design is the equivalent to gameplay design which boils down to 'steer left and right'. It can work but that doesn't mean it should.  

In Fallout 3 the pre-production team studied commercial production design and military design of the 1950s to the early 60s and antique advertisements. The design of the Pip Boy 3000 (the wrist device that also serves as your in-game menu, inventory and plays delightful old fashioned music including one of my favourite 1930s/40s vocal quartets, The Ink Spots...seriously, they are wonderful!) is an amalgamation of various research from army field radios to old tv sets. 

This resulted in a bizarre future-retro style which appears modern yet has antiquated features and a basic early Apple-esque inspired text based interface. Interesting, especially as smart watches are a relatively new technology (commercially, at least) and have become quite popular of late. If only there was a smart watch that looked like a Pip Boy 3000!

Hint, hint Bethesda...take my money!  

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