Art Direction in Games: A Story of Research and Iteration
Inspiration

Art Direction in Games: A Story of Research and Iteration

Graduate student at Full Sail University and aspiring Game Designer, Hugo Bouvet, shares his tips to improve art direction for multi-player games, based on his entry to the Rookie Awards 2022.

Hugo Bouvet is a student at Full Sail University in the Game Design's Master program. When developing a game as their graduating project at Bellecour Ecole, Hugo and his team decided to create a multiplayer game based on cooperation and dynamic motion. The project received great feedback and was enjoyed by so many, that the team decided to submit it to the 2022 Rookie Awards. It was through this project that Hugo learned how important research, iteration and strong art direction is. Learn more about Hugo’s tips for improving your art direction on your own project.


Be it in design, fashion, movies, games, comics…or any other creative media, the Art Direction (“A. D.”) keeps a coherence between content and its form. It is the visual, auditive, and interactive touch giving an identity to your creation, defining its style, and expressing the meaning you’re trying to convey.

The role of the A.D. is to bring both the content and the form of a project in the same spirit, completing each other through the use of matching features and aesthetics, in order to create a harmonious mood and a unique uniformity.

A great A. D. isn’t defined by its look or its originality, but precisely by this state of harmony between the message and its shape. This is what gives a whole identity to games like Fortnite, Apex or Warzone for instance, which are all part of the same game genre and share common rules, but which are also all distinct and unique thanks to their A. D.

Art Direction: “The way in which we build a particular aesthetic for a purpose.”

As working on the Art Direction, your main objective is to immerse the players in the universe you’re building and to have them identify your game among those which inspired you during the design process. In order to do that a lot of research has to be made on every aspect of the game’s topic, to set up the environment. Moreover there is also an often underestimated but very important step: iteration.

Throughout this article we’ll see in detail the process behind designing an Art Direction, and the importance of research and iterations. This will be based on what we have been through for our Rookie Awards 2022 entry “Slammin Legends”.

Identify the concept

Now you should be wondering if you need to start designing the A. D. before or after designing the gameplay. The answer should come from what seems the most comfortable for you. Usually artists tend to start working on the A. D. first, whereas designers start with the gameplay. On Slammin Legends, the team and I followed another way that felt more balanced: we started working on both at the same time. It allowed us to strengthen this idea of harmony between gameplay and A. D., as they were conceived at the same time.

The very first thing you should do is brainstorm some ideas with your team on the concept of the game, at a macro-scale. The goal is to find a topic, an environment and the feelings you want to convey through your game.

If you want more advice to improve your brainstorming session, I recommend you to read David Mullich’s linkedin article on Brainstorming Game Ideas And Turning Them Into Workable Concepts”.

We started to make a list of ideas on the kind of game we wanted to do. We quickly came out with the idea to make a competitive sport game in a futuristic environment.

Brainstorming, Slammin Legends (2022)

After being sure to keep working in that direction, we had a lot of questions that needed to be answered: What sport is it? Where does it take place? How would you play it? What kind of vibes do we want to share? And this is how we started to get closer to our concept.

Once you get a list of ideas out of your brainstorm sessions, you need to develop each of them in order to finally identify the concept of your game. If you are hesitant between different concepts, having some notes to rely on will help you to have more materials to make a choice.

Moodboard, Slammin Legends (2022)

We decided to make a moodboard of the different competitive sports that exist, but we also started to look more closely at what they had in common: the rules, the courts, the leagues, the colour palette of their competition, etc.

We had a few different sports in our list like Handball, Ultimate, Hockey, Soccer… But we came to the conclusion that Basketball was the closest sport to what we had in mind. Our concept would be a competitive sport game close to Basketball, in a futuristic environment.

Now that you have found the concept of your game, you have enough basis to design the gameplay, and you’re able to start the first very important step concerning Art Direction: the “research”.

Research phase

The goal of the research phase is to gather enough materials to design the settings of your game (environment, lore, aesthetic, mood…). This phase can take a long time to be completed, but it is crucial. It allows you to bring a lot of meaningful details and references to your game, and it improves its coherence for better immersion. There is nothing more frustrating than playing a game and noticing some elements making no sense in this universe or feeling like something is missing. Moreover, the rewarding feeling when you find one of these references in the game as a player is very much welcome. This is why you should research everything that is relatable to your concept, to the point where you begin to master this topic perfectly.

In his post, Adrian Gimate-Welsh talks about the importance of references in the creative process of a video game. If you want to know more about it, I suggest you read it here.

We made more research on the basketball environment; trends, clothing style, music style, and more importantly, the history. We started to look at the most recent basketball achievements and technologies (Stadiums, seasons, rules, etc...), but afterwards we felt that our game would feel too generic. Our Art Direction was starting to look very similar to other sports games, and that's not what we wanted.

Concept Ideas, Slammin Legends (2022)

Keep in mind that the research phase has two main points: Master the theme of your game, and determine whether or not this direction is interesting enough to dig out.

Whenever you feel like this might not be the way you want to design your game around, or if you found better direction while searching, don't hesitate to take a step back and redefine your A. D.; the design team won't be that much impacted by this decision since this is happening at an early stage where they just started to design or prototype some mechanics.

In our case, after learning more about basketball history, we realised that there was a period of time which was: colourful, rich in terms of sport events, and having a strong funky vibe... the 70's. Indeed, the team fell in love with its architecture, its style, its music and its colour palettes. Moreover, the 70's had a lot of potential to embody the fun and the competitive mood we wanted to express within our game.

Art Directions moodboards, Slammin Legends (2022)

When doing your research, you'll have to use some tools to share it with your team and get everybody on the same track. I would suggest you make some visual mood-boards and update them as often as you can with what you found.

Once you start mastering your theme in most of its aspects: history, architecture, fashion, trends, music, environment, it is time to start creating your Art Direction's Bible. This is a document that anyone can use to refer and keep track of the direction the project is following. In other words, this is a referential of aesthetics, time and places settings, and overall mood.

Art Direction's bible: Lore, Slammin Legends (2022)

The first thing you want to add to your bible is a brief lore of the game, to set the boundaries of your universe and avoid overcharging it with multiple directions.

Then, the next step is the list of items and assets you want to have in the game. This goes from the environment, to the sounds, and the characters model and animations. For this list, you will have to coordinate with the Design team, as they would need some very specific assets for the game mechanics.

This list is very important and needs to be as accurate as possible because it will be mainly used to determine the kind of artists you'll need and set the deadline priorities.

Assets list, Slammin Legends (2022)

The communication

After writing down the first components of the Bible, and knowing exactly what assets you need for your game, you have to find the right artists to create them. I think it is very important to choose them wisely according to their affection for the game, I believe dealing with people who are passionate about the topic they are working on is the best way to emerge new ideas and bring their creativity to another level. The best thing you can do to find them, is by communicating your Art Direction and constraints efficiently, using visuals and accurate guidelines.

On Slammin Legends, we needed to find some 3D artists, animators, texture artists, voice actors, concept artists and VFX artists. We started by making a documentation for each "pillar" of assets that we needed: the stadium, the characters, the court, the abilities, the VFX and the animations.

Each documentation would contain a colour palette, visual references and some guidelines. It is important to give more references than guidelines, in order to let a wide range of creativity for the artists.

When designing the artistic part of your game, it is better to work with the concept artists first, as they will drive the ideas of the A. D. through more detailed visuals, and it will then be used to communicate precisely what you want to other artists. This is where the second part of communication comes in: the feedback.

Here is an article from Ricky Baba (2014) to have some tips about communication around the A. D. on a video game project.

Since we were designing a game around the 70's, none of the team members was old enough to know about this period of time, which means that the artists are very likely to require some time to understand this style through their practices.

The only person who knew the most about this topic was the person who undertook the research phase, this is why this person had to review each of the iterations from the artists and send them feedback.

This feedback needed to be constructive and help to improve the current designs, this is why we made new documentations to follow each feedback we sent. Meeting with the artist and talking directly to them about the feedback will speed-up the feedback-iteration process.

Feedback samples, Slammin Legends (2022)

During this phase where we were briefly designing the look of every visual asset of our game, we received a lot of concepts and had to choose the ones we preferred and improved upon them until we got the best match.

The closer the concepts are to what you want for the Art Direction, the better it will be for the other artists to create them and add them to the game.

As you are getting more and more validated features, you can keep filling the Bible and update the list of the assets you need. Keeping the Bible updated is very important to keep your universe coherent and in harmony. As the Art Director, you also have to make sure this universe is also coherent for the players, this is why another very important step must be done: the Iteration.

Iteration

I can’t talk about iteration without quoting Ian Shreiber on this topic: “The purpose of iteration is to lower design risk. The more times you iterate, the more you can be certain that the rules of your game are effective” (2009). This quote also applies to A. D. in order to be sure that the coordination between the universe and the design of your game is efficient.

Iterating the coherence of the A. D. must be done in conjunction with two sorts of audience: the experts and the target audience. The experts are the ones who are specialised in a specific topic, they are able to tell you if a feature makes sense among the others and what is the best way to highlight it.

The target audience, represents the players you're designing the game for, their feedback is very precious and will tell if they see and understand the game the way you're designing it. In order to identify what's wrong or what works best with your A. D. you would need to iterate it with both of these audiences.

Playtest session April 2022, Slammin Legends (2022)

When we were working on the voice acting of our characters, we wanted them to sound very 70's so we decided to use some slang and words from that period of time. The name of the game, "Slammin Legends", itself is based on slang from the 70's. Moreover, the characters of our game were supposed to come from different countries (Australia, Brazil, and Ireland), so we definitely had to know whether or not the voice lines were sounding authentic. So we iterated them with the help of "experts" (in our case native people from those countries) and our target audience, who in most of the cases identified correctly our 70s slang.

Voice Actors guidelines document, Slammin Legends (2022)

Since the A. D. is supposed to rely on a harmony between the content and the form of your game, you must iterate the way it blends with the gameplay.

When the design team is playtesting the prototype of the game, you must use this opportunity to check what the players think about the A. D. of the game: what are their opinions on it? Can they identify the references correctly? The period of time? The inspirations? etc... But you also need to check whether or not the A. D. is not limiting the gameplay or annoying the players under certain conditions.

For instance, on Slammin Legends, we had to try a lot of different colour palettes for the court in order to find a good balance between having a readable map which was easy to navigate; and an environment conveying funky vibes.

Indeed, the bright colors of our 70s palette were preventing the players from easily locating the ball on the ground, which had a huge impact on the gameplay and the flow of the game.

Palette proposals, Slammin Legends (2022)

These iterations are what is reinforcing the coherence and harmony of your universe. If you're able to identify what to improve after each of them, your game will definitely develop a stronger identity. You can also develop this identity through the trailer, the communication, and the interface of the game.

Arena, Slammin Legends (2022)

At the beginning of our project, Slammin' Legends was often compared to the games that inspired us: Roller Champions, Knock-out City, Rocket League...We were even called "Rocket League game" by some playtesters. But the A. D. we built through our research and iterations really helped us to develop our own universe, and at the end the players remember our game for its unique identity and its universe and always call it by its name. This is when you know that you reached one of the main objectives of the Art Direction: being recognisable.

Conclusion

The development of an Art Direction requires you to follow a few principles if you want it to be identifiable and remembered. There needs to be a long and efficient research phase about the history, the components, the rules and the context of your concept. This will help you to make sure that the direction you're following has the potential to merge well with your gameplay, but it will also help you to master the topic you're dealing with and discover very interesting references which could be exploited.

Then, you need to dedicate some time of your project to iterate. You obviously need to iterate your gameplay very often, but I can't stress enough the necessity to also iterate your art direction as it will help you to avoid design mistakes and improve gameplay readability or understanding. The more you iterate your gameplay and art direction, the better they will blend together and harmonise as one.

Designing the Art Direction is very interesting, from learning about literally any theme, to communicating your ideas to the team, sending them feedback, and observing the player reactions and feelings during playtests. However, no matter how well rounded an A. D. can be, the quality of the gameplay has to follow as you cannot compensate for the depths of the content by the look of its form.  

If you're interested in learning some game and level design tips to enhance the experience of your game, I would suggest you read my previous article on Game Design, which is also based on the processes we followed with Slammin' Legends.


You can find more of Hugo's work on The Rookies, ArtStation, his personal website, and LinkedIn.