Concept Art: Are We Doing This Right?

By Jitske Habekotte [08.06.19]

Does the game industry care about concept art? The answer depends on the nuance of the question. If you're asking if the industry cares about research into the development of concept art then the short answer would be no, not really. This becomes very clear when looking into the published research on the topic, which is close to nonexistent.

If you're asking about the process of concept art itself, however, then the answer immediately becomes a strong yes. This seems strange though, a process that is so fully embraced by more industries than just our own, relying solely on the assumption that, because it has worked so far, probably means that everything is fine.

But what if there are faster or more effective ways to go about doing concept art and nobody knows because there is no research being done? Or what if concept art is already extremely useful in the earlier stages but they still get developed further than needed because there is no definition of 'usable' in this context?


The research

Time to dive deeper into the topic of concept art and specifically into the question: what is the earliest usable step in the process of 2D digital concept art creation? 

This was the central question in the research that was done, focussing on the development process of 2D digital concept art and determining the value of a few defined steps. The steps were sketch, value sketch, initial photobash, rough shading, edited photobash, and final (mood) concept. All the steps were defined for three subjects: character, prop, and environment.

Four game industry professionals were interviewed on their thoughts about the concept art process. Two of the participants were company owners and two were in senior art positions. One out of four worked at a large AAA-studio (500-1000 employees registered on LinkedIn) where the other three worked at smaller companies (from 1-10 employees to 10-50 employees registered on LinkedIn).

The participants were asked about their personal opinions on concept art and the development process, specifically by defining the usability of the aforementioned steps. They also compared the three earliest steps in the process: sketch, value sketch, and initial photobash to see which one was the most useful, in their opinion, for that subject.


The Outcomes

The answer to which development step would deliver the earliest usable result is that it differs per subject, meaning that, although most people would assume a sketch is always, obviously, the first usable step, this is actually more complicated.

One of the interviewees, who worked at the significantly larger company compared to the others, differed greatly in their opinions on the usefulness of certain steps in comparison to the other interviewees. Three of the interviewees agreed that sketches are always the first step and are essential. They argued that this is due to the speed of creating a sketch and the possibility for many iterations.

However, the other interviewee, from the larger company, gave preference to using photobashing, arguing that, in general, there is hardly ever a need for something to be created in minutes instead of an hour so time would be better spent putting together a comprehensive photobash that helps solve problems as soon as possible. This same interviewee also mentioned that sketches and value sketches could be useful but only if they are being done for the gain and development of the artist themselves, not for the team or a client, and that you would generally not show anything to a client or your art director of the stages before a photobash or even an edited photobash.

Among all the participants there was a consensus on a value sketch also being useful, specifically for the development of an environment.

Conclusion

Though a lot of variation has been found when it comes to preferred methods and/or development steps, out of the four interviewees, three agree that a sketch can already be useful. This has been defined as the first usable step, although a ‘value sketch' is also deemed very usable for the development of environment concepts. The one interviewee that did not propose a sketch as the first usable step instead focused on photobashing. This person is from a considerably larger studio than the others suggesting a difference in usability when it comes to company size. 

In conclusion the assumption that a sketch is always useful turned out to be a lot less ‘cut and dried' than perhaps previously assumed and the interview outcomes clearly illustrate the need for research into established workflows so we can keep on improving them.

Habekotté, J (2019) Framing the value of Concept Art, An insight into the applicability and development of concept art in the game industry

This thesis was written as part of the Master Game Technology at the Breda University of Applied Sciences.

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