Friday, April 23, 2010

The Concept Art Gallery Lies!

Did you notice the title? It’s not a question – it’s an exclamation.

This makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. I’ve never claimed to hold some kind of Truth and I definitely don’t have the urge to sell my ideas to the world. If anything I suffer from indecisiveness, looking at things from different angles, arguing back and forward in my posts and my thoughts. The one who spoke last always seem to be so right, until someone else says the opposite, sounding just as cleaver.

And the older I grow, the less do I find that I know. Everything flows, panta rei, as Hereclitus used to say. It's weird.

One of the reason why many of my posts have question titles is that I’m actually interested to get some further input from the readers who might sort it out for me and help me to come to a conclusion. However Krizzlybear wrote a thoughful post the other day, showing why question marks in the titles might not be such a good idea. And even though he kindly enough said that PPI is an exception and was excused, I’ll listen to his advice and try to cut down a little bit on the question marks. That’s why this post looks like a yet-to-do quest and not like a turn-in.

Ouch, this was a strange way to start a post! When am I getting to the point?

I’ll blame the Casual Friday atmosphere at the inn for this. In case you didn't notice, the bar is open and we have happy-hour prices for a while longer. Right now I'm just slacking with some of the guests in the armchairs in front of the fire, enjoying the perspective of a job free weekend. No wonder my tongue and thoughts will drift away in different directions.

Focus Larísa, focus!

The Concept Art Gallery
So. Back to business. This post is supposed to comment on the new Concept Art Gallery which Blizzard launched this week. This is a treasure box filled to the brim with pictures from various Blizzard productions such as World of Warcraft, including some pen sketches, but also very impressive full-coloured all-out paintings, which are absolutely stunning in their beauty.

The gallery offers eye-candy to any Warcraft fan, and especially the Cataclysm pictures give me thrills. That dragon in fire looks so bad-ass, not to speak of the underwater scenes, which makes me want to dive, even if I hate swimming in games (more about that another day.) Gief. Now! I want to explore that world, I want to face those creatures, I want to play Cataclysm! In this aspect the Concept Art Gallery definitely works as intended.

However there’s a back side of giving us all those pretty pictures, namely the fact that the game doesn’t quite live up to the expectations they awake.

I come to think of those frozen ready-to-eat potions that can help you out in an empty-fridge-and-no-time-to-cook emergency. They look so tasty in the store. The box shows a delicious dish in lustrous colours. But when you open it you’ll just find a pale copy. You could even call it a lie.

The image and the truth
It’s the same with those concept pictures. Howling Fjord may be a pretty zone, but hands on heart, it doesn’t look like it did in the pre-released pictures.

While we’re at it, let’s also look at some of the cinematics that Blizzard has done over the years. There are the machinima-looking ones, with figures that look more like in the game, and I suppose they’re not too far from the truth so I don’t argue about them. I loved the in-game cinematic introducing Wrathgate. But the motion pictures are different. They suggest something that that the game won’t deliver.

On one hand I cried out loud of happiness and excitement when I saw the cinematic introduction to Wrath. It was so alive that I almost could touch it, smell it, push the snow to the side for myself and shiver with cold. I was excited to start out my new journey into the winter landscape.

On the other hand – as I continued to the actual game, I couldn’t recognize myself from the movie. Arthas isn’t exactly an actor walking around, making the ground tremble. He’s just a small cartoon figure. Northrend is a pretty world, no doubt, especially if you have a computer that can handle to set the graphics to a high level. But the “for real” feeling from the 3d version just isn’t there.

Tricked and disappointed?
Do I feel genuinely tricked and disappointed at this? Am I upset because Blizzard are trying to fool me with their simple marketing devices?

I wish I could say “YES!” since it would make a funnier read. But to be honest I’m not all that devastated.

After three years in Azeroth I’ve grown used to the concept. I love the world for what it is and I’ve learned to be realistic as I look at the exciting movies that comes with a new box, well aware that the game waiting behind will be more ordinary, far from a holo deck-alike experience.

I try to regard the Concept Art and the movies as a source of inspiration for my own imagination rather than as a table of contents for the game.

The Concept Art Gallery is a lie. But a nice one.

And those words will finally put this post to an end and call for a toast for the upcoming weekend.

Cheers all!


hound said...

Well, if done right, all marketing is a beautiful lie. I used to get so upset when I opened up a new game and the graphics did not match the pictures on the box. Somewhere along the way I learned that the pictures on the box were just screen captures of the in-game movies, which were certainly not the graphics you would be playing with.

But really, to some respect, they are doing us all a favor. If the game played like the cinematic, most of our home computers would explode from the effort of running it.

But on the other hand, they do want to doll things up as much as possible to wow the audience.

edawan said...

I remember being disappointed at the difference between the paladin T2 concept and the actual model in-game. It's still one of the most beautiful sets but it lacks all the tiny details that were on the drawing.

More recently i had the same disappointment with the paladin T8 set between the concept art and the model. But again it's still one of my favourite sets.

Hatch said...

I was actually impressed by how much of the Howling Fjord drawings actually made it into the game. But the engine is old and limited, so they were just pale imitations. Still, they got the spirit.

The concept art gallery is beautiful, but it did just remind me of how little of that stuff actually makes it into the game, or how far from the drawings the in-game graphics get.

I don't know if you saw the new Cata concept art over at scrollsoflore/mmo-champ, but I was really impressed with it and it made me more excited about Cata than anything else I have heard or seen. I didn't realize until I saw that how sick I am of fighting the same enemies with the same animations for 5 years straight. I can't take another 2 years of it, that's for sure. Need lots of new models and animations or we're going to start puking it back up at them.

Sadly, seeing the official gallery of old concept art reminded me that 90% of that concept art won't even come close to being in the game, and if it's there, it will just be a reskin of an existing model using old animations.


Reversion said...

I think one of the ideas behind concept art is to inject 'feel' into things in away that is more than the final model will be. In game we get elements of 'feel' from the world, music, background sounds, general level of danger from things that might kill you.. all sorts of things. The art is trying to inject all that 'feel' into a still picture. Personally, the first time I took the boat into howling fjord it had all that the art promised and more. Now it might be pale by comparison because now I don't have those same elements of wonder and mystery that made up a big part of the 'feel' that first time I visited.

I think the art is trying to draw in elements of that first visit that you lose later. They are still in the art but you have lost them in the game since that first time.

Rabidwargamer said...

Concept art is exactly that. Illustrating a concept, not an actual finished game/item/thingamabob. The thing with concepts is many times they are not practical in application. Look at the auto industry's concept cars. Very rarely does the finished automobile resemble the original concept. To expect otherwise is unrealistic.

Gevlon said...

Every "look at me" picture shows more than the truth is. I never felt cheated, because I have not believed them for a second.

Chewy said...

Firstly, I'll raise my glass with you to a good weekend.

"And the older I grow, the less do I find that I know."

I'm going by memory but I think Socrates said something about the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing, so you're on the right track.

Gevlon made a good point, one which is echoed by one of my favourite singer/lyricists, Tom Waites, he said "The large print giveth and the small print taketh away"... The art is just that, art, the reality is slightly different.

Iapetes said...

Well it's not a lie... it's concept art. Artists paint those primarily to inspire the game developers, not us. Then those guys try to translate the concept art into something that works in game.

Magma said...

Good post. No biggie but thought i'd point out near the beginning you said "When am getting to the point?", left out the I =P

Larísa said...

@Hound: Well, who knows, maybe one day in the future our MMO-games will look like holo-deck movies? I can always dream.

@Edawan: I try to enjoy the pictures as pretty pictures... not what I'll see in game, so I won't pay as much attention to details in my next tier set. But if you're really into it I can see that you might get disappointed.

@Hatch: yeah, I saw that too, I just forgot about linking it into this post. I always love to see pictures from the Blizzard HQ - not just what's on the walls, but also glimpses of the environment and the people. I too hope we'll see a lot of really new stuff now. Not just another identical naga to what we've seen all over the place already. Let's hope that the devs are longing for a change as much as you do.

: that's true. The first-visit-feeling is always a bit closer to the impression you get from the artwork. And then after a little while it always sort of wear off. I too loved the entrance to HF, I remember being absolutely thrilled at it.

: but what would be the problem with makeing slightly more realistic concept art you may ask?

@Gevlon: yeah... that goes with anything in the world I suppose, including pictures of people. Photshop ftw. Don't trust anything you don't see for yourself in real life.

@Chewy: the relation between art and reality is interesting though. Art can change our way of seeing the world. I remember a short poem written by the Swedish author Göran Palm. In a rough, probably terrible translation it ran something like this:

I'm standing by the sea.
There it is.
There's the sea.
I'm looking at it.
The sea. Oh well.
It's like in the Louvre.

Somehow this poem leaves me pondering.

@Iapetes: yeah, there's a difference between the concept art and the movies I think. The movies are directly aimed for us.

@Magma: thanks for pointing it out! I do that sometimes, leaving out small words and bits. I try to prevent it having a spelling and grammar check, but sometimes it slips through the net.

spinksville said...

I don't think concept art is there to show the players what to expect. It's guidance for the artists and world designers.

I know when I'm writing properly, I set aside a sort of scratch pad and jot down concept text, bits of paragraphs, just stuff to remind me of what theme and feel I am aiming for. Concept art is like that, it's for the artists, to help them conceptualise the basic ideas.

Concept art isn't done with a view to being practical to implement. It's there to inspire.

Tesh said...

Might I chime in as a game artist with a background in film production? I've worked with some fine concept artists, but inevitably, given engine or time constraints, the final implementation of concept art will not match the concept perfectly.

Some companies do try to match it as tightly as possible, and others use concept art as mood pieces to set the emotional tone for a piece of the game. Still others are mere color studies, a great many others are merely experiments, and it's even likely that the bulk of concept art is merely sketch work. It's practical to polish it all up to "museum" quality. I'd go so far as to say that we're not likely to be seeing even 5% of the concept art created for the project, and what we do see is likely a cross section of varied types. Straight up production pipeline concept art almost never makes it out of the studio.

Even if it did, probably only 10% of that art is faithfully represented in the game down the most granular details. There are simply too many compromises to be made in the translation from fine art to game art, most especially in the change from 2D to 3D.

If the final game art can match the mood and spirit of the concept art, evoking the emotional response that the devs desire, even if some details are lost along the way, the production is successful.

Think of concept art as a sketch (as so many of them are for various reasons; trying to make the equivalent of the Mona Lisa in 3D would be ridiculous in game production schedules) that must be translated into something playable. Much as the translation from vision (or reality) to painting can lose fidelity, translation from concept to final can lose fidelity.

The best production pipelines don't sweat that loss. They find the most important parts of the art and focus on those and let the unnecessary bits go. That's where the artistry and skill comes in on the production floor, making the choices on where to spend time. That's where the art director steps in and keeps both the concept artists from going too far and the production artists from endlessly chasing miniscule details. It's a matter of scope... and a LOT of game devs don't do that well, to be blunt. That's an article in itself, though.

To be sure, it's possible to take concept art and match it to a high degree of fidelity, as in a Pixar movie, but the practical realities of game production mean that a different approach is necessary. (This, both in the production cost and the lack of prerendering... Pixar's 30 frames per second are typically rendered over the course of DAYS, while we have to render in real time.)

Tesh said...

Er, that should be:

"It's IMpractical to polish it all up to "museum" quality."

Larísa said...

: yeah... but even if that's the intention, it's also a part of the marketing of the game, don't you think? Otherwise, why publish it?

@Tesh: cheers for getting some input from a real authority in this. Would love to see that article you mentioned...

Talking about museum stuff: I come to think of the works of Carl Barks, the Disney artist. After he had retired he made a fortune on doing 3-d-looking oil-paintings from the Donald Duck universe. they're awesome, but they're also very separated from the comic as such. You don't expect the cartoons to look as the paintings. For me at least I think the lines between concept art in WoW and what's actually in the real game are more blurred.

Tesh said...

Oh, sure, Barks' paintings were *awesome*, but they weren't concept art. They were after the fact. If we could see Barks' sketches on the Duck family, his concept art, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be anything close to those post production pieces.

...and now you've got me itching to go reread some of my Barks' comics. Man, that was a golden period in Disney history.

There have been a couple of good articles out there relatively recently on scope. Moorgard has one up as a good starting point: