Recently I had the chance to talk to ArenaNet (and thus Guild Wars 2) art director Horia Dociu about his work at the studio. One of the interesting things about his promotion to the role is that he succeeds his father, Daniel. As a result there’s a lot in our Q&A which is actually just a touching account of a partnership/mentor/mentee relationship across two generations of a family which was nice to read. I particularly love the point about making sure people have a place where it’s safe to try and to fail. Beyond that we talked via the email questions and answers about the art of the game which has been the most personally satisfying for Dociu The Younger, how to keep an art style from looking dated in a living game and the relationship of concept art to in-game assets…
Pip: Hi, Horia. Can you tell me about your background and how you came to work on Guild Wars 2?
Horia Dociu: Back in 2003, when I was an prop artist at Valve Software, my dad, Daniel Dociu, took an AD gig with ArenaNet. Six months later I left Valve for the opportunity to work with my dad because I knew him to not only be a great artist, but an awesome mentor and teacher. I worked at Arena for 8 years, happily gaining more responsibility. I had worked my way up to cinematic department lead, and from building a team, pitching the 2D animated art style we use now, and getting to work with literally every department under the Arena roof, I thought it felt an awful lot like I was getting ready to become an art director. I ventured out and worked for Sony for four years, art directing Sucker Punch’s PS4 launch title Infamous Second Son. I returned to ArenaNet over a year ago because I just loved the studio’s art culture. As my father – nearing retirement – went looking for new adventures, I was fortunate enough to step into his role, getting to work with the leads I’ve known for well over a decade, plus a small army of talented new artists. It’s great to be back!
Pip: I’m interested to know more about that family/colleague relationship – what was it like working with a parent for a boss?
Horia: My dad and I have a great relationship. He really is a friend of mine. Friends thought it was weird that we got along so well, but I guess I’m just lucky. Both of my parents are really nice, and they met at art school, so I always had constructive yet supportive criticism on my drawings growing up. Now, my pop is a terrific teacher and coach to all of the artists who work under him. Working with my dad was like a dream come true. Back in the mid-90s he was the AD for SquareSoft’s only American effort on the SNES, Secret of Evermore, and I got to be a tester for that game in 6th grade. Walking around the office, with his art on the walls, shelves full of video games, and all the free candy you could shove in your pockets. I asked if he thought I would ever get to work with him, and he said “sure… someday”. When I was 18, we got to work together at Zipper Interactive, on SOCOM for PS2, and it was so much fun! Even back then my pop was like a friend, and he always challenged me without pushing. I got to learn a lot, but we also had a lot of fun just joking around and making art together. I still call him a couple times a week about work stuff- and he always gives me great advice. I’m extremely lucky!!
Pip: How would you describe both of your approaches to art and games? I’m interested in the ideas or methods you share and where you differ.
Horia: I think we share a lot of ideas. It’s easy to say that I learned it all from him, but the truth is, I learned from seeing his methods work over the years. He leads by example, he teaches as he directs, and he challenges everyone to add their own bit to whatever they touch artistically. I think it’s hard to argue with that type of method. All of the talks I’ve attended and bits I’ve read about creative leadership and all the greats like Jim Henson or the Pixar guys – all of that sounded like the type of environment my dad set up. Work hard, have fun, never stop learning, make it safe for people to try and fail, and always advocate for the strongest ideas, no matter where they come from. I’m going to do my best to keep things fun and interesting, because if people are having a good time, it shows in the final product. I truly believe that!
Pip: What has it been like taking on the art directorship role yourself? How do you take someone else’s guiding vision and make it your own?
Horia: I certainly am not trying to fill my dad’s shoes. That’s the first thing I had to tell myself – it’s impossible to be someone else, so just be yourself. Either I’ll do great, or I’ll crash and burn, but trying to tread in anyone else’s footsteps is a recipe for disaster. I think that I’m a strong collaborator, and we have over 100 artists on this team who are amazing in their own ways. I just have to help everyone do their best, and the game will surely continue to be great.
Pip: What are you most interested in pursuing with regard to the art side of Guild Wars 2?
Horia: The truth is, the DNA of Guild Wars is rooted in constant change. Looking back, every expansion was set in a different continent with different cultural touchstones for artistic inspiration. Guild Wars 2 pushed the franchise forward 250 years! The charr, who were a race of savage barbarians in the first game, are now one of the most technologically advanced races in the game. We’re not afraid to try new things. If we make a “known fantasy creature” we do our own take on it. Even if we revisit areas from previous games, we’ll remix them and give them new themes. The bottom line is that Guild Wars has never been stagnant, and I’m going to fight hard to make sure we’re not taking it easy going forward. I don’t think I have to push for things to look a little different, I just have to push for innovation and not being satisfied with the first creative solution that pops to our minds, and the game will be better for it. I love the world of Guild Wars and it’d be equally a crime for me to force a change in it arbitrarily as it would be for me to try and rehash anything we’ve done before.
Pip: With Guild Wars 2 specifically I love looking through concept art but a lot of it is so different to what you experience when you look at screenshots – sometimes it’s just about the style and the use of brushwork instead of the in-game graphics and sometimes it’s significantly different and serves to express the emotion of a place or the general atmosphere/architecture/sense of space. I’m interested in how you use or think of game concept art at ArenaNet. How do you make sure people are getting the same things out of the imagery that they need to work with and following the same core ideas?
Horia: We don’t sell illustrations, we don’t sell 3D models, we don’t sell textures, effects, skyboxes etc. We are bringing fans a unique and living world. Everyone’s job is to make the best game possible. That means, we don’t judge something until it’s up on the screen, in the format that the players will interact with it. Concept art is used as an emotional note – a seed if you will. Everyone who touches the assets along the way is encouraged and expected to improve the assets, to make them performant, and to make them cohesive. So long as the final product is as cool or cooler than the tone the concept art meant to evoke, we’re good to go. This keeps everyone engaged because they’re all adding to the overall experience, not just following blue prints. Heck, there’s a ton of concept art that is not 2D illustration. We have gray box levels, 3D prototypes, pre-rendered CG tests and simulations. We will use any tool necessary to make the final product as cool and engaging as possible.
Here are a couple of pieces of concept art from Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns, shown next to their final in-game 3D assets. Side by side, you can see that the concepts are certainly followed for the major proportions and general texture quality, but there are also a number of changes that were made along the way. [click on the pictures for the large versions]
What matters most is the spirit of the concept making its way through to the final visuals. For the Lion’s Arch city redesign, you’ll notice that both concepts were used in different ways but still retained the gestalt the artist, Tsveta Komaticheva, intended. The jellyfish-like canopies were more of an inspiration for the grounded design that ended up in game, while the gate you see on the lower concept is more or less modelled exactly as intended. The reason these things differ is that when you experience things in 3D, they take on a new feel, and adjustments need to be made to ensure that we get the intended mood. Also scale and proportions should be expressed in a way that will be easy for the player to take in from their ground-level perspective. In the case of the jellyfish, the height was so tall that the canopy was almost not visible unless the character looked straight up, and the swirly bits at the bottom, while beautiful, created a lot of confusing geometry that made navigation through the city too cumbersome. Most times we throw a rough proxy model into the game quickly to see if it’ll work before we devote a lot of time to detailed modelling or texture work.
For the enemy character Diarmid, designed originally by Carlyn Lim, you can see that a more feminine shape was adopted in the model to add variety to the enemy forces. Because of this, the chest region was decorated with quite a nice plant-like embellishment that not only helps camouflage the look of a nude figure, but also plays well with the shapes of the headpiece, shoulders and legs, giving the character a more cohesive look. The idea of a cape was changed due to the complications it would bring with the dynamic combat animations Diarmid might perform during gameplay. The chest ornamentation also does a good job of bringing back in the swoopy curves that the cape brought to the front of the design.
For Hareth, exaggerations were made to the red magic corrupted areas where his armor is cracked. Bringing out the red glow of the shader really helped the character stand out from the backdrop in game, as well as giving him a more menacing evil feel. Visibility and a clear read is important in games, especially when playing 3rd person, so often times a model will go beyong the concept to help a character be more visible. In this case, some of his spikes were simplified into larger, broad shapes, so that the details of the concept would not read as noisy in 3D. This is a subtle change, but we’re always pushing to ensure that every asset is judged in game, because that is how the player will view it.
Concept art at ArenaNet can be used as a detailed guide, as in these cases, or it can just be the seed of an idea that takes completely new shape as it makes its way into the game and matures with each of its ever-more-detailed art passes. This not only allows for our concept artists to be loose and focus more on a piece’s emotion when needed, but it ensures that everyone who contributes to an asset along the way to getting it into the final game is engaged in improving it, giving us a richer final product.
Pip: You’ve also worked on the cinematics and trailers and other marketing materials. How do you make sure that ideas in the game translate to other media accurately?
Horia: When pitching 2D animated cinematics, the goal was just for us to communicate mood better. But we ended up with 2.5D cinematics. There were things that were way better to show with illustrations (big explosions, huge armies etc), and there were things better to tell. That’s why we have conversational cinematics to take care of conversational stuff, which include animated 3D characters, rendered in real time, and showing off the players’ custom armors etc. The biggest choice I had to make in editing scripts and deciding what we’d work on was ensuring that I coupled each type of story the writers wanted to tell with the best tool to do so. I know that’s rather broad, but it took this type of approach to ensure that we weren’t constantly trying to make the translations you spoke of during production. By the time we were in full swing, the writers knew how much and how little to write for every scene because they relied on the storyboards to show rather than tell.
Pip: As a related question, one of the pieces of concept art on the GW2 site which always stuck out to me as it was so different was this one:
Concept art by Theo Prins
I was just curious to see whether it was one of your pieces and whether you could tell me a bit more about it if it was?
Horia: It is not one of mine, but it’s quite beautiful. This is a perfect example of what I spoke about before – each concept, first and foremost, communicates a tone or mood. We’ve had several concept artists on the team over the years, and never have we asked them to change their hand or alter their style. It’s important to us that artists feel comfortable doing their work, because that is when they feel most free to explore. I honestly don’t recall what this image was for, but there are many others that stand out to me as “different” in our archives, and they each served a unique purpose at the time.
Pip: Guild Wars 2 is nearly five years old now, I was wondering what your relationship is to a project which lasts that long – how do you maintain your interest and keep bringing fresh inspiration?
Horia: The franchise is constantly changing and new themes are always being explored. Even when we revisit old ideas, we twist them and make them new. We’ve covered several continents, dozens of different cultures and races with their own unique architectural styles. We’ve got ghosts, dragons, robots, gods, centaurs… you name it. If this world can’t keep your interest as a developer, it’s hard to imagine what will. That goes for our fans too. They’ve stayed with us because I think we do constantly try to surprise them and keep them guessing, and it’s something that we have to do for ourselves too so we never lose interest.
Pip: As a related point, what role does an art team have when it comes to keeping a living game from looking dated? In some ways graphics/aesthetic are tied to the tech like the game engine and so on, but are there particular decisions you make which help a game stay either up-to-date or timeless?
Horia: You can look back at illustrations from 20 years ago or 200 years ago, and you’d be happy to put them up on your wall. However, who would want to frame a screenshot of a sports game from 2005? Those games that come out yearly use the latest graphical tricks as a crutch to sell more copies. That works when your sales model depends on the last game you did being obsolete in 12 months, but for us its different. We take the painterly, illustrative approach. We work in a style that is interesting, inclusive, expressive, but never puts graphics before art. The ideas and artistic creativity have to take lead if we don’t want our game to look dated after many ears of people playing every day. While we’re always making small graphical improvements and using new tools, we put mood and tone at the forefront of all of our artistic decisions, and that’s what will sustain us going forward too.
Pip: What’s the piece of artwork – concept or trailer or screenshot or advertising image or box art or… anything – that you’ve found most satisfying and why?
Horia: There are a handful of things that stuck with me, mainly because they got the intended emotional response from people. Art and games are a two-part story – the performance and the audience. If you can touch the audience in any way, whoever it is, it can feel great.
– I got to make a lot of beautiful wheat fields and poppies and oak trees for the very first area in Guild Wars, and fans still reminisce today about how lovely it was. A couple fans never even left that area, they just levelled up their characters in that zone because they liked it so much. That was awesome to hear.
– The first trailer we put out for Guild Wars 2 was made by myself (storyboarding), Kekai Kotaki (illustrating) and Matthew Oswald (doing the motion graphics). Other companies have big cinematic trailers made by huge studios, and basically three of us made something unique that got a lot of positive feedback from our fans and critics alike without spending a million dollars. The best part was people found it entertaining and never thought of it as cheap.
– While we were still in production of Guild Wars 2 and doing marketing pushes here and there, I came up with an April Fools joke to put a modern combat soldier on our site, as though it’d be a new profession for the yet to be released game. I talked all of my friends here into contributing website art, in-game models, wallpapers, skill icons, basically every single asset you’d need to make a convincing profession reveal, and everyone did the work in their own time. The fans thought it was just as stupid and funny as we did, and it was super rewarding to see how passionate all my teammates were to make that little side project just for fun!
– As for a piece of art, I did a character sketch for Guild Wars 2 that was never used. The illustration has its flaws, but I still love the character, the huge city behind her, and the moody lighting. It feels like it’s own little world, and the truth is, I’d love to play that game one day. It’s fun to look at a piece of work you did and, if you can see past the shortcomings, still get a little emotional response from something you created.
Pip: Thank you for your time!