A new era: BioWare's art director talks Dragon Age 3, Mass Effect and next gen visuals
24th Feb 2013 | 13:11
Neil Thompson has enjoyed a long and varied career - his credits include Psygnosis, developer of the WipeOut titles, Curly Monsters, the studio behind Xbox racer Quantum Redshift, and Bizarre Creations, where he helped finish off the sorely under-appreciated Blur. Thompson is now director of art and animation at BioWare, and the man responsible for the visual style of Dragon Age 3: Inquisition - one of 2013's most promising Xbox RPGs.
OXM caught up with Thompson at the Bradford Animation Festival to discuss art direction in Mass Effect and Dragon Age, the departure of BioWare founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, and what to expect of next generation consoles graphics-wise.
How did you get your first break in the games industry?
I wanted to paint, so I left school to become a book illustrator. I loved guys like [fantasy artists] Michael Whelan and Boris Vallejo, but I struggled to sell work. Luckily through a contact at a carpet shop where I was working, I got a job in Manchester working at A&F Software, which made Chuckie Egg. In 1987, coders were doing the graphics, so they asked me if I'd like to draw spaceships for a living!
You also worked at Bizarre Creations on Blur. It's not a typical-looking racing game - was that deliberate?
Bizarre Creations was known for racing games such as Formula One and Project Gotham - very photo-realistic sim-like titles. The team wanted to move away from that and do a "grown-up Mario Kart" - everybody loves Mario Kart but it's a bit hard on the eyes! We had lots of conversations about how Blur would be lit, all based around those stop-motion videos of traffic trails moving at night. Originally it was all going to be at night but we wanted to push it to more sunrise and sunset, otherwise it just gets depressing.
It was done with the best intentions, but the problem with racing games is that they're purely aspirational. They need to have a car that you can't afford to drive, in a location you can't afford to visit, doing something you really shouldn't be doing. The racing games that hit those pillars tend to be successful - Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit for example. Blur looked and played great, but just didn't grab enough of that mass market audience - it's a niche game that 15 years ago might have gone ballistic, like Carmageddon or Rollcage. It's a game out of time, which is a shame. I still occasionally play Blur because it's such a laugh.
What is it like working at a huge games company like BioWare?
They're really humble, and that partly comes from the isolation at Edmonton in Canada. It's the biggest gig in town regarding console development - it's not like Montreal where you have a community of 6,000 developers. People tend to go there and they stay long-term, and I think the best games are made by teams that stay together, get to know each other and motivate each other. Also I used to read interviews with Ray Muzyka [co-founder of BioWare] where he talked about games as an art form - and that's something I wanted to be a part of.
How was it at BioWare when the news broke that Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk were leaving the company and the games industry to pursue other interests?
Well, BioWare has grown a lot over the last couple of years. Ray was doing more of a BioWare label-based role, focusing on the big picture, while Greg was concentrating on the Star Wars MMO in Austin. So as an everyday presence at the studio, they weren't there so much - but I think their great legacy is that the people they mentored, and who are now running BioWare, share that vision - and that continues. No one was jumping out of the window! It was fine and we're still going to be making BioWare games.
Good to hear.
The press want a story, and so whether that's BioWare is no longer BioWare because EA has bought it, or because Ray and Greg are no longer there - the fact is the magic is still there, the same guys are still there and nothing has changed in that respect. The passion to write the games is what's important.
What is the strength of Mass Effect's art, in your view?
It's a beautiful-looking game - a perfect example of a game that transcends its technology, visually speaking. I like the fact that the medium is being pushed to the point where the player now has a genuine emotional response to the characters and the story. It's an experience, rather than "I'm just going to play this for half-an-hour and shoot stuff". That's very compelling. When I came on board they were well into Mass Effect 3, and the sheer size and scale of the game was just incredible.
How do you explain the artistic vision of Mass Effect to the development team?
The team at Edmonton isn't vast, and the aesthetic of Mass Effect is pretty much well-known now - a combination of lots of different styles and inspirations from our art director Derek Watts, who is very interested in architecture. You'll see lots of nods to Frank Lloyd Wright [19th and 20th century American architect], Syd Mead [designer on Blade Runner and Tron] and all those guys.
Each discipline in the team will get together on a weekly basis and review the artwork, and everyone has input. Obviously Derek has final say, but it's more of a gentle nudging to the end. We have some extremely good concept artists who keep the game firing along and they know the look of the game. It's much easier to iterate than to create something from scratch.
What's in store for the next generation of consoles? Will the new technology allow you to achieve things that aren't possible on Xbox 360 and PS3?
Oh yes. Clearly we still hammer up against the limitations of the hardware on a daily basis and if you push those parameters back, as I'm sure the next-gen will do, we'll hit them again. I think the main thing is that the industry doesn't get itself into a corner where it becomes economically unviable to make a game. The last technology iteration caught folks by surprise - especially the number of people you needed and the skillset jump that was required to do the work that people expected. In the last generation the perception was that it was going to be a ten times improvement over the previous generation.
For the next generation there will be a big leap, but it won't be as obvious. People will do things in a cleverer fashion - and I have to be careful here as there are non-disclosure agreements involved! I think they'll be better prepared, shall we say - but we can't see a ten-fold team increase again as the budgets would just be ridiculous. You'd have to sell 20-30 million copies before you broke even.
Can you tell us if the next Mass Effect title is a "true" sequel or a spin-off?
[laughs] Well, as you know the Mass Effect trilogy has been completed. This next one is being done at the Montreal studio and that was set up by guys from Edmonton, so the next game has definitely got the BioWare DNA...
Let's move on to Dragon Age - given the popularity of such fiction, is it difficult to create a fantasy epic that doesn't look generic and over-familiar?
It's very challenging when you have a medium such as fantasy that is so well understood - especially now after the Lord of the Rings movies, which really brought it to the attention of everybody. Before that, the films were B-movie stuff. The great thing about Dragon Age is the characters and the story - it's what differentiates BioWare from everyone else. So you have these characters like Varric who really provide a level of emotional response from the player.
Matthew Goldman is the director on Dragon Age and we have lots of discussions about how we make sure the game holds true to the tenants of what people expect from fantasy - such as epic landscapes - but try not to fall into the trap of the recent TV shows and movies, which have set up a way of how they think fantasy should be - a subdued colour palette and harsh brown feel. Can you make fantasy beautiful in a different style? We think we have something special for Dragon Age III: Inquisition.
So Inquisition is going to be a visual departure from the previous two Dragon Age games?
Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II were both done using BioWare's own Eclipse engine, and it was starting to creak a little bit when Dragon Age II came out. Inquisition is being done on the Frostbite 2 engine [created by DICE for Battlefield 3] and it is an astonishingly powerful engine. The Dragon Age artists were always slightly disappointed at how their work was visualised in the final product with Eclipse, but with Frostbite, they've just done some amazing stuff.
There was a pre-production period where almost on a weekly basis I'd be sitting in the environment reviews and being blown away by what was coming out - it looks stunningly beautiful. So I think when we do start releasing screenshots, people won't be disappointed.
Do the writers and programmers have input on the art side of Dragon Age III?
David Gaider is the writer on Dragon Age, and likes to sit on the concept art reviews and have his say - and that's great. Programmers, maybe not so much. What I've learnt about programmers over the years, is that they have a completely different way of looking at art!
What about other games - are there any recent titles that have really impressed you with their art style?
I really liked Darksiders II and Assassin's Creed III, but I haven't played a lot of games, as I've just been too wrapped up in Mass Effect and Dragon Age III.
What advice do you give to budding artists wanting to work at BioWare?
Look beyond games for your source of inspiration. Games are great and fan art is a good way of starting off your portfolio, but what I really want to see is your creativity. It's nice to see traditional art in a portfolio, life drawing and photography, sculpture - anything that's you and your work, and something that's perhaps not done within the constraints of a group project.
It's also really important that students critique their own work by industry standards, so if you've done a character in 3D, hold that up to what you see professionally done, and be hard on yourself, because the industry certainly will be.
Here's everything we know about Dragon Age 3 at the time of writing. What are you hoping for? And what do you think of Thompson's point about the next gen graphics transition?