How to work like a games artist
Concept artist Remko Troost reveals how he creates character assets for games including Assassin’s Creed Unity and the upcoming For Honor
Remko Troost on the process of video game art.
Often when trying to land a job as a concept artist in the film or video game industry we concentrate on art sets. Of course, skills and understanding what you see play an important role in our work, but there can also be a lot of discussion between several people in the production process. You’ll have to find solutions to constraints and needs that come from different departments and directors. Your art may have to fit the gameplay, story, animation and creative vision, all at the same time. A lot of decision taking and breaking happens before the final art goes public.
Here, through some tips, notes and tricks, I’ll try to show you how to create easy recognisable, original and readable characters quickly… all by solving several industry design problems!
In the end you’ll need to create a workflow that will enable you to quickly solve your client’s visual needs and/or problems, all by – most importantly – keeping your inner-child and passion for creativity alive!
1 Work on your workspace
The more familiar you are with your digital workspace, the faster you’ll work and over the years using it will become second nature. I like to keep it as simple as possible. I mainly open my colour palette and layer windows, and eventually my brushes when experimenting with texture or painterly brushes. I use the Tab key to make them disappear while I paint. And remember to save your workspace. I create a folder called ART-TOOLS, where I name and save my colour palettes, brushes, textures and so on, in order to use them when needed and avoid having unwieldy, overloaded palettes.
2 Thumb nailing and sketching
You need to be able to quickly communicate your intentions with the team or your client. Some artists will do thumbnails, others quick sketches or speed paints. This is not the moment to show off your skills or get picky about details. Keep it simple and go for readability, and clear and recognisable shapes and forms, which you can use to explain your first ideas. Share and show them before you go further, to avoid wasting time on rendering.
3 Limited sample
Avoid doing too many thumbnail sketches. Your client is busy and giving them too many options isn’t going to help. I ask some questions and invite them to put keywords on their ideas. I usually do two or three iterations of a character, like in this speed painting for Viking research in For Honor. Then get back to them to see if we’re heading in the right direction. The more you know about your client’s vision, the more precise your designs will be and the less time you’ll waste.
4 Variety keeps things fresh
To maintain coherence, my final works are often rendered the same way. But when I start on a new character I like to switch styles and experiment. Sometimes I’ll do colour speed paintings, like the Viking research. Sometimes I’ll start in black and white or on paper. Other times, like this one, I’ll work with strong outlines.
Each approach forces you to think differently and helps keep the passion for creativity and discovery alive. It’s also a way of challenging myself. This is early Viking research for For Honor. I started with paper and pen, then scanned it into Photoshop.
5 From cartoon to rendering
This is a design for Sophie Trenet, a former assassin from the game Assassin’s Creed Unity, and it’s a good example of my previous point about limiting the number of my initial concepts. I found out as much as possible about her character and then put down a few simple thumbnails, to communicate my ideas to the team.
I often sketch these thumbnails on a low-resolution canvas. For my outlines I often use a hard-edged Round brush, leaving Pen Pressure unchecked and Opacity set to 80 per cent. Then I apply flat opaque colours with either no or minimal amount of shading or gradients.
Once we agreed on her design (on the left), I increased the canvas resolution to between 5,000 and 9,000 pixels and then started painting in light, shadows, details and so forth, until I was happy with the final image (right).
The more you know about your client’s vision, the more precise your designs will be
6 Look into my eyes...
You don’t need to design a whole character to capture the essentials. Much of a character’s allure and personality comes from the head, its position, the face, and especially their expression and their eyes. Often it’s about what he or she reflects when you look them in the eyes for the first time. Shoes come later, once you all agree on what really defines the character’s personality. This was early research for For Honor, where I tried to catch the spirit of an old, proud and powerful warrior.
7 Body language
You’ll often use static poses when concentrating on character design. But static doesn’t have to mean boring and sometimes it’s their body language or pose that shows what they are all about. This revolutionary for Assassin’s Creed Unity needed to show fighting spirit, so I tried to visualise this in his pose, expression and body language. Trying different poses also averts the danger of routine getting into my workflow too often.
8 Be what you draw
I got asked to redesign the legendary assassin’s blade on Assassin Creed Unity, as well as their other weapons. I felt honoured and excited.
I imagine sitting there in my blacksmith’s forge and these assassin dudes walk in and ask me to design weapons for them. I like to imagine how I would have done it if I had to design these weapons for real. By doing this I already know what it should look like before I start to draw.
For Arno’s Phantom Blade I made fake technical designs, inspired by clocks, trying to make them look like they could really work. How could an assassin kill somebody with a hidden blade from afar without a noise… A mini crossbow blade! The Phantom Blade was made for real in the Man at Arms YouTube series. It was a blast to see it work!
I’m sitting there in my blacksmith’s forge and these assassin dudes walk in and ask me to design weapons
9 Make it look real
These weapon concepts were done as early research for For Honor. When designing weapons, characters, props and so forth it’s important to make them look real. Think about them as actual objects. What have these people or weapons been through? In this case, I ask how long have the characters been fighting with these weapons? The shields, for example, would have been hit a few times already and so they should show cuts, dents and scratches. For the swords, their metal becomes less shiny through time perhaps, and if a character has been in a battle recently he probably won’t look at all clean and shiny either. Scars, dirt, ripped clothes, scratches and so on make your designs look authentic.
10 Lasso and Pen Tools
As a concept artist, sometimes you have to tackle other tasks during the design stage. These can range from mockups or storyboards for trailers, to presentations and logos, or even ideas for the player’s interface and menus.
Here I’ve mainly used the Lasso and Pen Tools for creating the faction logos in For Honor. I directly draw the shapes using the free-hand Lasso Tool, with Feather set to 0 per cent and then fill the mask with either the foreground or background colour using a shortcut on my Cintiq or Intuos.
Directly drawing shapes using the Lasso Tool and filling them up with foreground or background colours is a technique that’s often used when speed painting.
11 Triggering emotions
These designs were done for the For Honor faction web pages. Mood and colour play a big role in how a viewer takes in a character or landscape, and you can use these elements to trigger or boost a viewer’s emotional response. For example, emotions such as fear, anxiety or evil can be triggered with dark or washed-out greens and blues. They’re often used in horror films. Using warmer or pastel colours could generate more positive emotions. Try to observe which colours are used in films to bring about certain emotions, and apply them to your art.
12 More possibilities, more characters
The next-gen consoles come with more power and more possibilities. One trend that’s accompanying this boost in hardware technology is the endless choices players have when customising their characters. This means artists have to create plenty of costumes, weapons and accessories for the same character, to enable people to create their own heroes. These costume designs were done for Arno in Assassin’s Creed Unity. Often I start out with a basic costume and then slowly build it up by adding layers, to create several variations of the same outfit.
13 Backgrounds and... action!
Sometimes, just like I did here for early research done on non-playing characters for Assassin’s Creed Unity, adding a background can strengthen the storytelling of your characters: where they’re from, who they are, and what faction they belong to. Furthermore, adding some action or storytelling to the scene could show what they’re up to or the role they have in the game. I like to add backgrounds, when time permits, because it’s fun and better emphasises the character’s part in a story. It’s also a way to energise your character’s presentation.
14 The magic of keywords
When creating a character from scratch I find it helpful to sum up their nature in just three or four keywords. If chosen with enough thought and care, such words will often create strong mental images. For example, what springs to mind when you try to visualise ‘desperate’, ‘ruthless’ or ‘scheming’?
During the character design process I like to ask the client or team for a couple of keywords that best describe the character for them. I’ll always remember the words Dan Hay, producer of the Far Cry series, told me when working on Citra from Far Cry 3. “Remko, think about: bitch, voodoo and sexy mama!” Just by hearing those words, I directly saw her there standing in front of me, without picking up my pen. In the end, concept art is just a language through which you express your ideas.
By hearing those words, I saw her standing in front of me, without picking up my pen. Concept art is a language to express your ideas
Characters would wrap leather or rope around a weapon
for better grip. Impact on enemy armour,
shields or other surfaces would create scratches and
blows on the axe. Polished and/or glossy wood would gradually appear more mat
over time. When new leather straps are added, they wouldn’t
be the same colour.
You can either start out simple then add layers to the character to create variations, or start with more details, as shown here, and slowly
Slots can be used to define which parts of the character can be customised.
Z ones enable the player to change colours or textures for even