Poor Rusty!

What’s Art Direction in Video Games? – #Heistuesday 16


Last week we delved into the analytical mastermind of our programmer Tobias Lilja. Today we’re having a chat with SteamWorld Heist’s Art Director Tobias Nilsson. Yup, there are two of them. Mix-ups aside we’re happy to have 200% Tobias in the office. But let’s zoom in on Nilsson for a moment.

Julius: Hi and welcome Tobias! Please introduce yourself.

Tobias: Hi folks! I’m the Art Director at Image & Form Games. I live in Gothenburg with my wife and two kids. I’m into science fiction, old cars and to create and fix stuff.

J: Art Director, huh? What are your main responsibilities?


T: Well, I lead the process of creating the graphics theme and style of the game together with our art team. During the development I make sure the style, and consistency of all art, animation and UI (user interface) elements match our goals for the game. During development I mostly do character design, environment art and animation.

J: Do you have any favorite types of games?

T: I like immersive story-driven games, survival games and sci-fi settings. Once in a while I play shooters and strategy games. One of my all-time favourites has to be Journey.

J: When faced with the challenge of creating a new art style for a game, how do you take it on?

T: It all depends on the platform and theme but ultimately comes down to what we like and our own personal styles. With a sequel like Heist, we had to consider the art style of SteamWorld Dig. We discussed it and made concept art of different styles, but we decided to evolve the existing direction to make our Dig fans feel at home.

J: What was your inspiration when setting the art style of SteamWorld?

T: SteamWorld Dig kind of set the style. The Dig universe and characters are inspired by steampunk, Spaghetti Western movies and games like Metal Slug and Day of the Tentacle. The vector art style is inspired by illustrations by Trevor van Meter. The game had to look good on the 3DS low-res screen, so we discussed making the game in a retro pixel art style. Finally we went with a straight line vector style, that still had some retro feel. It worked great on the 3DS and scaled great on HD screens.

At one time Rusty even had the bad habit of smoking...

J: Has the art direction evolved from SteamWorld Dig to SteamWorld Heist?

T: Yes, absolutely. The art in Heist is much more detailed. More focus on character art. We have a bigger art team now making that possible. The environment graphics are on a completely different level.

J: You’re working with quite a big team of talented artists. How do you make sure everyone follows your direction without them losing their own creative spark?

T: I look over their shoulders constantly (laughs). Seriously though, I usually make some concept mockups together with the team and we have regular meetings discussing changes or suggestions. I really try to encourage new ideas and designs as long as they’re in line with the overall style and goals with the game. Someone might come up with something great and we decide to implement it in the art style. It’s like taming this big evolving organism.

There's a new art style in town...

There’s a new art style in town…

J: What’s it like designing space settings and steam-driven spaceships?

T: Space is awesome and spaceships are awesome, so it’s awesome! Almost all of us is really into sci-fi stuff so the fact that SteamWorld Heist is set in space is really fun.

J: We’ve confirmed several platforms for SteamWorld Heist. Do you think the game will look the best in full HD 1080p on a big screen or in stereoscopic 3D on a 3DS?

T: The 3DS with stereoscopic 3D is really up close and immersive. With it we have to make sure every detail works, although many of the details are lost. HD is a graphic artist’s best friend, and worst enemy at the same time – everything you’ve created is there in plain sight. It’s interesting that the 3DS is still doing well, although there are so many other HD systems. It means we have to make graphics that work both in low and high resolutions, and believe me – it’s pretty tricky.

The art of SteamWorld Heist is VERY detailed.

The art of SteamWorld Heist is VERY detailed.

J: Community member Lover of steambots asks: “I’d really like to hear about how you create the spaceships in Heist … Do inspiration just strike you or do you plan it out? Are you given an idea of what the game designers need?”

T: The spaceships and backgrounds are inspired by old 1930’s submarines and aeroplanes mixed with late 1800’s tech. The characters’ abilities are defined by the game designers. We artists are pretty free to create what we like as long as it matches the overall style as well as character classes and abilities. We’ve come up with some pretty cool robots!

J: What’s the best part of your job?

T: Well, the worst part is pondering about if the game’s good enough, like “Could I have improved on this and that?”. The best part is I get to create games together with very talented people! Sometimes I have to pinch myself to see if it’s all just a dream.

J: Same here! Thanks for your time 😀

T: My pleasure! 🙂

Question: If you could work with Tobias for a day, what would you create/draw together with him?