Saturday 25 January 2014

Concept art can be raw: early designs for AI Station

When people think of concept art, they usually think of the super slick artworks that AAA games release as part of their marketing. However, making such perfected art takes a lot of time and is very inefficient when the goal is to explore many concepts. Today I would like to show the concept art that our artists made for the map AI Station 404 in Awesomenauts, as it is an excellent example of how rough real concept art can be.

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A couple of months ago I was at a presentation at the Control Conference where concept artist James Daly showed their concept art for one of the Transformers games. Every image looked mindblowingly awesome (have for some examples a look at this, this and this), but in a sense this is also weird: it seemed like concept artists only make superbly detailed and shaded paintings.

Presentations like that give the impression that that is how concept art works, but in practice making such high quality art is highly inefficient. The goal of concept art is not to make pretty pictures, but to design things for the game, to explore. If every image needs to be so detailed, then there is much less room for exploration than if an artist instead creates many simpler, quicker sketches and tries out many things that way. I suppose Daly and his team also made tons of quicker sketches and designs, but I don't remember seeing any of those in his presentation.

Of course such slick concept art does serve several purposes: it can be used in marketing and to make people enthusiastic. I imagine that any art that needs to be approved by a gigantic IP holder like Hasbro (for Transformers) has to be extra slick just to convince Hasbro to approve the designs. However, in practice most concept art is not intended for marketing and can thus be much simpler. Another reason why concept art might be so detailed is to help 3D artists, especially if the artist lacks imagination or is outsourced off-site.

The concept art that the artists at Ronimo make is usually not intended for outsiders, and only for exploration and internal communication. That means that it is often rough, but at the same time communicates the core ideas really well. The result is series of pictures that explore ideas in all kinds of directions. Such series are often really awesome to see, especially for the great variation in colours and shapes they play with. Good artists can create magic with just a few rough lines. An excellent example is this set of designs that was made for the level AI Station 404 in Awesomenauts:

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These images were drawn halfway development of Awesomenauts by Tristan Kok, who did an internship at Ronimo at the time. Below are all of them individually and at full size. When you look closely, you can see that only as much has been drawn as is needed to communicate the idea and colour scheme of the map. The right half of the map is often even left out, and objects are drawn very roughly.

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I think the final choice our art team made was to combine the shapes from number 8 and the colour scheme from number 10. Some of the brownish ones also look pretty cool in my opinion (like numbers 3 and 5), but would not have added enough variation because their colour schemes are similar to the then already existing Sorona map.

Which of these designs do you like best?

Another thing you can notice here is that the level geometry is still visible in many cases. These images were drawn on top of a screenshot of the level as our game designers had made it at the time. At Ronimo most ideas start with a gameplay idea and the art is only made after we have played it and concluded that it makes for fun and interesting gameplay. A while ago I wrote a blogpost about how our artists usually jump in when the gameplay is already set: Extreme Transformation Of Nauts During Development.

The art is based on the gameplay, so what better way to draw it than on top of an actual screenshot of that gameplay? Beginning concept artists often forget this link between art and game: they draw objects from their most awesome angle, instead of from the angles under which the objects are actually seen in the game. When designing a car for a racing game, the most important thing is what it looks like from the back since that is how the player will be viewing it 99% of the time. Yet many beginning concept artists focus only on the front, since that is where a car looks most awesome.

After some more concepting the level went into production. Art for it was gradually implemented into the playable level. Some shots didn't work immediately, so our lead artist Gijs grabbed a bunch of screenshots of the art that was there already and started drawing on top of them. Again: rough, drawing only as much as is needed to communicate the idea and style. A smaller studio like Ronimo does not have the limitless resources that AAA studios seem to have, so we need to work efficiently. Spending days on making awesome concept art while something simpler would suffice is not efficient.

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Gijs also drew a concept for the central machine in the level, as you can see below. In the bottom right this image even still shows the selection boxes of the objects that happened to be selected in our editor when the underlying screenshot was captured. I could personally never work like that, since I am way too much of a perfectionist. However, working so roughly is highly efficient and very fast, so this is much better than spending more time on perfecting an image while it already contains everything that is needed to communicate the point. (Another reason I could not work like this is that I am a programmer and am horrible at drawing...)

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I hope these images make it clear that concept art does not have to be super slick and detailed to work. The key thing is realise what the goal of the concept art is. If it is marketing or persuading people, then an image might have to be as awesome as possible. But if the goal is actual concepting, then it is much more important to explore many directions than to make slick images. As soon as the image communicates what it was intended for, there is no real need to add more detail.

Also, I personally think that despite the roughness, these images look incredibly cool, so I hope you enjoy viewing them as much as I do!


  1. Thank you for this very interesting look behind the scenes. It's nice to see that a developer is actually putting effort in giving people an idea of how the process of making a game actually is. Keep up the good work :) I enjoy the blog alot! :)

    Groeten uit Belgiƫ :p

  2. I love this kind of stuff.

    On the subject of design/production/concept, I will recommand this YouTube channel:
    It's a "design professor" doing some videos about what he's doing and how things work in the industry.
    Here is one video which rephrase some points Joost made in his post:

    Those don't show really early concept like the ones in Joost post, but the goal is the same: creating a lot of them in a short amount of time to "get the idea". For the sake of his videos, he tends to add some details at the end. He often says that adding those at least double the amount of producing time, meaning that you don't always want to do that, because your early concept is enough to "get the idea".

    Note: I have absolutly nothing to do with this channel, I just found it really interesting on that subject :p.

    <3 Awesome post! Looking forward to the new map(s) with Starstorm.

  4. Hmm is anyone else encountering problems with the pictures on this blog loading?
    I'm trying to figure out if its a problem on my end or if it's the blog.
    Any feed-back would be greatly appreciated.

    1. The images look fine when I check this post in Chrome. Do the newer posts on my blog also have this issue for you? Blogger at some point changed something and I now upload my images differently. Are for example the images in this newer post okay?