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Why is concept art so important in game design?

One of the many reasons I love working at MLC is that I’m surrounded by amazingly talented people every day. Ask anyone that has ever played Pictionary with me and they’ll confirm, I am useless at art! However, I’m fascinated by beautiful artwork and the process behind creating it. The role of concept art is invaluable for most game devs, whilst others use it less.
So, I wanted to find out more about it and why many see it as such an important step in game design.

level design concept art for 2D game

Our senior 2D artist, Ludmila, gave me the low down…

The concept art we are talking about here is nothing like conceptualism in the traditional art academy sphere. So, let’s start by crossing that out.

The reason why concept art is important in the game industry is that ideas can come from anyone. However, not everyone has the artistic skills that allow others to see their vision (🙋🏼‍♀️). This visualisation is where concept art steps in. Although, it’s not just “what will it look like”, it’s also “how will it feel”? Should it convey realism? Will players be transported to a fantasy world? Should players be on the edge of their set?

Concept art of a village, before being moved into a 3D environment

Generally, this is the work of the Art Director to pinpoint and direct the art team. Each artist will give their interpretation, perhaps even a full sheet of options from their POV. Once a pool of concepts has been drawn up, the Art Director will choose the style which is the closest match to the project’s vision. That concept is taken through the remainder of the pipeline. Linework, colouring and final rendering with plenty of feedback along the way!

Ludmila thinks that every part of game development is important for different reasons, this comes from her player experience. Like how will it be received, how can be it improved and what kind of player is willing to pay for the game?

She described a simplified process for me, although in my experience these processes are revisited many times before the release date. Ludmila identifies the steps as the mechanical part (the control), the automatic part (the code), the insertion part (the music) and the inception part (the art). We’re all aware the eye plays an exceptional part in our lives, to create the real world around us and for fictional ones, it is for the artist to be the game dev all-seeing eye to allow others to become immersed in the vision of their game.

What makes it so important, anyway?

Concept art gives a game developer a way to, with a single shot, capture a moment of the story or gameplay and transform that idea into a tangible thing. This artwork will help inspire the rest of the team. This inspiration leads to discussions about the direction for the mood and general feel, ensuring everyone working on the game is on the same page. The end goal is to essentially create a style guide for the game/level/character, therefore playing with colours, hues and time of day are important, but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg.

Concept art of Some 2D Assets

Concept art encompasses the development of environments, characters, props and slice of life sketches. There are so many ways to portray a game that sometimes the concept art goes to a secondary focus, but it is a step that is integral to exploring options within the design. Playing through that exploration takes time, brainstorming and research but it’s a process that, when done right, can unite a team on the overall image and feel of a game and the characters within it.

Concept art is an exploratory process, allowing a team to play with ideas on the aesthetic nature of characters, environments, and assets without the need for code or complex animations. The final outcome that we experience as a player is often the result of the exploration and understanding of alternative options that are brought to light within this stage.

What’s the process behind creating concept art?

What the artist tries to convey is a fully fledged idea, that may or may not have a figurative form. Ludmila explained that concept artists generally start big, then continue to drill down to the finer details. The starting point could be a feeling or a simple sentence and then somehow the magic happens ✨. The artist’s inner eye (a thing I believe only really creative people have 👀) starts to brainstorm images: Castles, dungeons, dragons etc begin to appear. An image of what could be is implanted in the artist’s brain. Their work is to then portray that the best way they can onto a canvas. The end result is thousands of tiny details that gave the game it’s feel, presented in a visual way.

Ludmila explained that having a mood board for inspiration is key for research. Track down artists that have portrayed similar ideas or solved an art technique and collect photos of real-life for references. This will help explore options and perspectives to open up your artwork, without stepping away from the art director’s view.

The art team at a studio is often made up of both 2D and 3D artist. The two kinds of art may be totally different but 2D is incredibly important for 3D. In her experience with the 3D team at MLC, the two teams work closely. This is partly because some 3D artists (no names shall be given here) can’t even draw stick figures. It’s funny, but it’s true (I can confirm this after playing drawing games with the 3D team at the Christmas event 🤫).

Concept art and then 3D models of characters for Expedition zero

They research different perspectives from the 2D team. This allows dynamic poses to be decided for characters, storyboards for cinematic to be made, and maps established. Then a concept art is chosen: front, back, profile, backgrounds, everything; before 3D can start (if needed) or it’s moved over to animation.

Ludmila concluded, concept art is the beginning of every game development journey. It inspire the team and creates a feeling and a style to ensure differentiation from the rest of the industry. After my research, I couldn’t agree more.

If you need help getting your vision on canvas, then get in touch. We’d love to help.

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