Making platform adventure games seems to be no great challenge, but making good platform adventure games is another matter entirely. With three outstanding titles under its belt (Rocket: Robot on Wheels, Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, and Sly 2: Band of Thieves), Sucker Punch Studios definitely falls into the latter category. I was fortunate enough to run into the subject of this interview, talented Sucker Punch art director Dev Madan, and took the opportunity to dig around into the creative process for an artist-centric view of making videogames.
Tell us a little bit about your position at Sucker Punch.
My name's Dev Madan. I'm the art director at Sucker Punch. My job requires overseeing the artistic aspects of our games. This includes setting the direction of the environments, character designs, cut scenes and story for our games.
How did you get into the business? What kind of education/training did you get?
I was fortunate enough to get a job right out of art school at a company that was making 8-bit Nintendo games locally. The job lasted about a year and a half before they shut the company down. I got a chance to work on three titles at that point. As far as training, it was all on-the-fly, using in-house tools. As each platform shift happened, there was always the issue of learning a new program and a new way of doing things. Nature of the business, I suppose.
How important are traditional art skills vs. the importance of using 3D software to model/animate? Are there any other skills that you had to learn outside of visual skills, or other skills that you didn't expect to need, but did?
While I feel that both are important, traditional art skills are something that we look for in all applicants here. The principals of good drawing on paper hold true on a computer; a person can be taught to use a computer. Most artwork here always starts on pencil and paper. As mentioned above, with each platform shift, there was always the issue of learning a new program; however the one thing that stayed constant was a good drawing ability to communicate ideas quickly and effectively. While Photoshop and Maya are great tools, having 99 levels of undo can sometimes block progress. Drawing an image on paper gets you halfway there. It forces you to make decisions before committing to it in 3D.
How would you describe the life of a game artist?
I suppose that answer would vary depending on the person you ask, but here, there is an effort to keep an open atmosphere and constant collaboration. While there are limitations that you have to deal with, sometimes they can be great places to start pushing creatively. Ultimately, all involved just want the game to
be the best it can be. It's pretty amazing seeing a level at different hand-offs, as each member of the team puts their mark on it. While we do get paid to watch cartoons, play videogames and talk about comic books, there is the occasional "crunch" mode. Those times are definitely offset by days when a cool movie opens and the company pretty much shuts down so we can all go see it.
To what extent does the Sucker Punch art staff influence the final design of games? Are members of the art team involved with the planning and brainstorming portion before actual work begins? Or does the art team swing into action once most of the game's concept has already been worked out?
There is a rough outline of where we want the story of the game to go and what we want to achieve in the level before a world gets started. Our designers are artists who came up as environmental modelers so they build their levels with incredible sensitivity to camera issues, layout and the aesthetic of each world. There are waves of brainstorming meetings, before a level gets started all the way through to mission ideas once the level is ready to hand off to texturing.
Your most recently-completed game was Sly 2: Band of Thieves. Can you tell us what parts you were especially proud of, and how Sly Cooper & the Thievious Raccoonus affected the development of Sly 2?
At this point, Sly 2 has been out for two months… Something that I'm proud of, that hopefully players can see, is the characters growing as the storyline progresses. There's a real care in the handling of it. I think this comes from a group of people that has commitment to the characters and the worlds they live in that everyone on this team has, and I think it shows. It's cool to be a part of that.
What was the advantage (if any) of cel-shading over standard techniques in the original Sly? How did you arrive at the decision to go with the visual style you used? Was that the vision from the start?
Well, the game isn't really "cel-shaded." I can understand how people may think that at a first glance, but in the traditionally cel-shaded games that I've seen, both the character and the environment get a treatment of flat colors and an outline. With the Sly games, the outline as well as graphic treatment of the character are used to separate the character from the background. The idea being that the closer an object is to the camera, the more graphic it is. So a rock at Sly's feet might be more graphic than the mountains in the distance.
From the beginning, we wanted the player to feel like they were playing a cartoon and we stayed pretty close to the initial production paintings. Sly, on the other hand went through a wide variety of looks and personalities.
Can you describe the evolution of creating the visual style for the Sly games? As for Sly himself, how many versions did you create for the character before deciding on their final looks?
As I mentioned above, the look for the game didn't really stray too far from the original production paintings which were driven by the initial concept of wanting the player to feel like they were interacting with a cartoon. The character design was pretty straightforward. We got a lot of support and feedback from Sony, and it never felt heavy handed in any way. All the characters stayed pretty much the same, except for Sly, who had a fair amount of redraws, as his personality needed to be reflected in each pass.
One of the notable facets of both Rocket: Robot on Wheels and Sly Cooper 1 has been the design of the environments; they seem designed more for the player's enjoyment rather than being strict obstacles to overcome, which is reflected in the visuals. How big a role does the art team play in achieving this effect? Can you describe the team's views on aesthetics in relation to functionality? Any examples from Sly 2 that we can look for?
Well, I think this stems from the fact that our game designers design the worlds as they model the environments in 3D rather than on paper. Every tree, rock or ledge is placed with a purpose: to frame a shot of your next destination, give you a place to hide from a possible upcoming enemy, or give you a good vantage point of your surroundings. Those guys really labor over the details that give the players a great experience. With Sly, they design the worlds with the phrase, "If it looks like you can interact with it, you should be allowed to" in mind. They treat the environments like jungle gyms for the player to climb all over and interact with.
Sly 1, 2 and Rocket share the same type of bright, upbeat visuals. Do you think of this as Sucker Punch's "trademark style," or are you open to exploring different types of graphics in the future?
As far as the games go, they're fairly lighthearted fun adventures that try to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. While there's something for a younger player to look at and enjoy, there are layers of gameplay that an older player can find challenging, as well as humor that an even an older player can laugh at. No matter what kind of games we make in the future, I do believe that they'll have some kind of stylization because of the people that work here and how involved they are in the process. Could we make a hyper-realistic looking game? I have no doubt; there's an amazing talent pool here of experienced programmers and artists here.
What do you think about the current state of the game industry and the quality of the games out there, in terms of graphics and content?
While there are a ton of beautiful games out there, it's kind of a shame to see the lack of variety that exists. It's at a point where it's hard for me to distinguish a lot of games from each other visually (as well as content-wise for that matter) as I walk the floors of shows like E3 where walls of TV's showcase "new" games. I worry that as games continue to get bigger budgets, the risk factor development houses take will get lower.
What do you think about the current drive towards hyper-realism, as compared to other, more traditional graphical styles? On the same note, do you think there will be more development of games with abstract or stylized graphics such as VibRibbon, ICO and Sly Cooper as graphics reach the limits of realism?
I suppose the upside is it makes a game that tries something different stand out all the more. I think as the consoles get more and more powerful, there can be different ways to take advantage of the hardware; it doesn't have to be about how shiny your car is, or seeing every pimple on a football player's face. I'll be curious to see what games will be looking like in five years.
What non-Sucker Punch games or artists in the industry do you respect or admire? Who (or what) are your influences? Are you playing any games right now? If so, what?
I think Ubisoft does a great job with their titles visually; each game has a distinct look and feel. I also think Naughty Dog and Insomniac games look great. I'd also say (Legend of) Zelda, Viewtiful Joe, Space Channel 5 (1&2)… That's all I can think of off the top of my head. I know there's more.
Any words of advice for our readers who might entertain dreams of getting into a similar line of work?
If you want to work in games as an artist, the best advice I can give you is to be able to draw. Programs will come and go, but the principles that you learn with drawing—anatomy, composition, light and shadow, volume, proportion—these are things that directly translate to making models with polygons and really help communicate with others on your team quickly. Look outside of game art to create games, and try to bring something different to the table.