How Does Video Game Art Get Made?

Creating art for video games is a rewarding experience, but equally strenuous. Most gamers know how much work goes into the engineering of game engines and mechanics, but just as many hours and just as many people are required for the creation and curation of video game art.

Concept art vs. reality for Sine Mora (source)

Most consumers draw a blank over what happens to video game art between early concepts and the final product. In most studios, the art department always falls behind schedule, requiring outside assistance in order to make deadlines. That’s where video game art outsourcers come in – to aid studios in the creation of assets, illustrations, and promotional images. The two studio representatives sit down together to discuss the overall look and feel of the game and what kind of art style the artists will have to emulate. Sometimes, the studio would provide a rough asset in need of refinement; other times, the outsourcers have to create the art style. This is typically common in smaller projects, such as mobile and social games.

The process begins and ends with the client, who, at first, provides references and a list of requirements for the project. In order to stay on the same page with the client, the Project Manager (PM) has to go over all the client demands in order to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Afterwards, the production team in Shanghai is handed the project for initial sketches or thumbnails, which are a series of different recreations of the requirements.

Once the thumbnails or sketches are done, the PM comes together with the client to discuss which option is best and which changes will be made to the original image. Once the client gives the go ahead to move forward, the artists get to work.

Final Fantasy 12’s infamous character Fran in concept stage (source)

The next phase is a cycle: the art team creates or updates the image in accordance to the client’s feedback, the US PMs review and QA the art, ensuring top-tier quality, the PMs submit the art to the client, the client gives feedback and then the asset is sent back to the art team. The usual stages for 2D art are as follows: a black and white sketch, a color rough, and final color render.

Sometimes, an artist is inspired enough to start working on a project immediately, rushing to find reference images so that they could dive straight into the creative process. Other times, artists can be slower on the uptake, and struggle to find some inspiration. Every artist finds their own way of stimulating their creativity; some take walks around the office building, while others play a lot of ping pong. The illustrations are first sketched out in Photoshop using only black and white brush strokes, the focus being composition. The point is to capture the basics of the illustration and see if the client is satisfied with the foundation of the image. Once the client approves, the artist can refine and the image by adding color. However, the image remains rough, as the client has to first approve of the value and coloration. Once the general idea is solidified, the artist can go back and add in the level of detail the client desires. The PMs step in at the end of each step to refine the image further and ensure that the asset is up to the client’s standards.

Vector assets are used mostly in mobile and social games (source)

Vector assets follow a similar workflow as 2D illustration with a different finished look.  Vector has a clean, graphic art style using combinations of flat colored shapes to create gradients in light color and dimension.  Vector images are created by plotting points on a grid.  This allows for an image to keep a high resolution no matter how large or small it is resized, from mobile game to billboard. Creating the final asset can take more time than creating a 2D image depending on complexity of the image, especially if the asset must be prepped for animation, which requires separating parts of the asset and breaking them into different layers.

3D work relies on 2D maps which are layered on top of a model later (source)

3D work has a different workflow altogether, depending on the model type, resolution goal, 3D engine and the artist. First, the artist first uses an array of references and concept illustrations to build the 3D model in using Maya or 3D Max. After a model is approved, a UV map is created, which is a 2D image representation of a 3D model’s surface, and used as a guideline for all future texture maps. A combination of 3D software and Photoshop tools are used to create Diffuse, Specular, Normal, and Ambient Occlusion maps. These maps are used on the model with multiple overlapping layers, giving the model different dimensions, like light, depth, detail, surface properties and texture. If the client wishes to animate the 3D model, the outsourcing team then rigs the model, creating a skeleton that is easily manipulated through programs like Maya or Max.

Once the artwork is done, be it a 2D illustration, a vector asset or a 3D model, the client gets the chance to approve it one last time. Conditions for all revisions and how revisions a client gets are set by the business development team and the client prior to closing the deal initially. Revisions do not necessarily have a set number limit; more often, revisions are unlimited if done within the estimated hours billed to the client. Sometimes, assets are completed before the deadline; other times, there can be a time crunch by the deadline due to the intricacy of the project. Once the final version is approved by the client, the agreed upon final deliverables are turned over to the client.


One thought on “How Does Video Game Art Get Made?

  1. Just looking at the background for the Screen before the stage in Hyrule Warriors, I notice that it looks REALLY damn good, like the kind of thing I’d expect to be a personal project for myself for like a month. The quality and quantity of art going into a game is unparalleled.

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