"Beauty is more than skin deep."
It's a cliché we've all heard once or twice in our lifetimes but when it comes to video games, for some people, the way it looks can make the difference between buying and enjoying a game, and leaving it on the shelf.
While visiting the studio for The Chronicles of Spellborn, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk to Romano Molenaar, one of the game's Concept Artists, about the overall style of the game, as well as the process that gets that look from concept to the screen.
When production began on The Chronicles of Spellborn, the thought was that they would try to create a photo-realistic world for their players to enjoy. This means that everything was supposed to look "real", from the characters, to the trees, to the architecture. Somewhere along the lines though, a decision was made that the look of the game didn't match the feel that the developers wanted their world to capture, and a new look was born, dubbed by the team to be the "Spellborn Style".
"The Spellborn Style is the feel of the game, it has to feel like one world," Molenaar said, highlighting the importance of an appropriate and uniform style. It gives the game what he describes as a look that is "slightly curved and visually appealing... The buildings [for example], aren't just cubes. It's more dynamic."
In truth, the newer Spellborn Style is indeed more visually appealing than its previous incarnation, lending itself far better to a game that is set on various shards of a destroyed world, being held together by a magical storm. While that may be an interesting and innovative fantasy setting, it's fairly easy to see how a photo-realistic style might not serve to capture the appropriate mood. Instead, they needed to capture the feel of what Molenaar described as an "unconventional game world".
Molenaar went on to tell me that the art team works very hard to make sure that each and every art asset that is produced, matches the Spellborn Style. Concept, models, textures, animations, each department and developer plays their own role.
For those who may not know, The Chronicles of Spellborn was designed around a story based on a pen-and paper campaign that was eventually adapted into an MMORPG. With that in mind, I asked Molenaar about the process of taking a world that exists solely in the imagination of one person (who was not the artist), and translating it into a piece of concept art.
"The [game's] creator knew what he had in mind, but he didn't know how to put it into visuals," he said.
It is the job of the concept artist to be able to take the game world from an idea through to an image. You start with information from the game's creator, and you "start sketching to see how you envision the world."
Often, the artist ends up doing multiple drafts of the same concept until the look is just right.
"Concept Art is an impression, not a blueprint," he said when asked about how much of his concept work ends up on the screen. "Everyone's contribution put together creates the Spellborn Style."
From there, the concept image gets passed along to the modelers, given textures and eventually animated and placed in the game.
There are approximately ten people working in the art department at Spellborn, and they always have to be communicating. After all, "everyone on the team has to be on the same page to make sure it stays in the Spellborn Style".
Finally, I asked Romano what the biggest difference is between working on a comic book, as was his background, and working on an MMORPG. He told me that the biggest difference is in the way that people are going to be looking at the final product. In the case of a comic book, readers are only treated to small snapshots of the action and the world of the story. Because of this, artists are sometimes able to cheat the eyes of the reader. MMORPGs, on the other hand, present a different challenge.
"You have to remember," he told me, "that people are going to be walking through your world." It is, after all, a 3D space. Where comic books are passive, MMORPGs are interactive. The audience sees far more of the world, and that world needs to look good.
In the end, it was great to have the chance to talk to some of the developers behind the art, look and style of The Chronicles of Spellborn. That wasn't all though. Romano was kind enough to display some of his talents for me by drawing a caricature of yours truly as a character from Spellborn. I thought I'd share it with all of you. It's good for a laugh.