Creating artwork for indie games can be a rewarding, if hectic, experience. We chat to a small Scottish studio with big dreams
We visit Blazing Griffin, the small Scottish indie games studio with big dreams.
We’re a precocious studio that has done things big studios wouldn’t consider
These days, there are more indie game studios in the UK than you can shake a stick at. But Blazing Griffin is a little different, says its creative director for games, Stephen Hewitt. Its size might be small but its dreams are big. “We’re looking to create high-end indie games that will position us somewhere between quality indie and triple-A,” he says. “We’re a young and precocious studio that has done a lot of things that larger and less-agile studios wouldn’t even consider. And it’s worked out pretty well so far.”
It’s still early days for the studio. Set up in Edinburgh in 2011, it’s learning as it goes. In 2012, for example, it launched an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign to fund a sequel to The Ship: Murder Party.
Stephen says this wasn’t an entirely negative experience. “The failure was more down to our own ignorance over how Kickstarter works than anything inherently wrong with what we were trying to do,” he explains. “And we learned a lot of valuable lessons about crowdfunding along the way.”
It’s shelving the Ship sequel for the time being and instead starting work on The Ship: Remasted, an HD remake of the original title, which it acquired when the original developer, Outerlight, went out of business. Another ongoing project is Distant Star: Revenant Fleet, a real-time, space-strategy game for PC launched with last November that boasts some stunning looking spacecraft and alien environments.
“Distant Star was a bit of a love letter to sci-fi artists like Chris Foss and Syd Mead, as well as films like Blade Runner and the game Homeworld,” says art director Paul Scott Canavan. “I always loved the vibrant visuals of that game and the way Blade Runner was lit has always been hugely inspiring to me. Shape design was important in Distant Star and I wanted to simplify the ships as much as possible, to make them instantly readable as different factions.”
But although the work is rewarding, it has to be done quickly. “The biggest challenge I have day to day is just managing several projects at once,” Paul says. “It’s
pretty rare for my role to exist on one game alone: I’m generally doing some concept on this project, some preproduction on another and maybe a bit of sketching for stuff I know is coming up in the future. It’s definitely exciting to jump between projects and push my creativity but it can get a little overwhelming.”
Paul approaches each project in a different way. “My process changes all the time,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll start on paper and scan the image into Photoshop, other times I’ll begin with silhouettes and use light to carve into them. I’ve been experimenting with 3D lately and trying to see how it fits into my workflow – I think it’s important to try everything these days, there’s no reason not to experiment.”
And it’s important to go the extra mile to get it right, he believes, because superior art direction can help a small company like Blazing Griffin bat above their weight.
“Strong art design can elevate even a simple video game to something so much greater,” he enthuses. “The most important aspect of concept art isn’t your ability to paint, it’s your ability to think and to be imaginative. Games like Monument Valley, Journey and Limbo are well designed but without their astonishing art direction I doubt they’d have had the impact they did.”
So what’s it like to work at Blazing Griffin? “For me, it’s the best example of a small studio atmosphere with big studio aspirations,” says 2D/UI artist Searra Dodds. “We have a lot of daft office traditions, including ping pong tournaments and Ham Day – the official Blazing Griffin holiday. We are a pretty silly team, but we also have a lot of passion and drive to create beautiful, immersive, fun games.”
A recent starter, junior programmer Martin Scott tells a similar story. “The company is like a large family,” he says. “Being fairly small, all departments work closely together, meaning everyone gets to know everyone else. We often end early on a Friday to mingle and play games.”
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If that sounds like your kind of office, Stephen urges you to consider working at Blazing Griffin. “We’re always on the lookout for talented people, so I’d keep an eye on our recruitment page,” he says. “There’s plenty of space here for new starters to make a name for themselves, and a really great opportunity to grow as the company does likewise.”
So what kind of artists is Blazing Griffin looking for? “People who can express themselves imaginatively, and can work semi-autonomously with a responsible attitude,” says Stephen. “We’d rather be wowed by what artists can do, than have to bug them every five seconds to keep them on track. Also, we’re looking for people who can all get along together,” he adds. “The whole team gets a chance to hang out with potential employees before we hire them. And of course, that gives you a chance to see if you like us too!”
Blazing Griffin’s The Ship: Remasted is a high-definition remake of the original murder-mystery multiplayer.
The team hard at work, with producer Melissa Knox in the foreground.
In Distant Star: Revenant Fleet you take control of a near-destroyed spaceship armada, and must rebuild your forces.
The Ship: Remasted is due for launch in early 2016.
Dino Tribes is a free to play, match-three puzzle game
for Windows Phone.