"The concept artist's work is essential in communicating to the team exactly what we're going
to spend the next three, four years of our lives working on," says Alessandro Taini, Art Director at Ninja Theory.
Concept artists are rarely clebrated, but they're the ones who bring creators' ideas to life, and they're among the very first to work on any game. First comes a plan, then the artists step in and bring the plan to life.
"It's one of the first stages of development after the initial brief is conceived," Taini goes on. "On Enslaved, we didn't have any concept artists apart from myself. Because of this, it wasn't possible for me to create all of the details of the environment. So instead, I tried to create an impression of the mood of the game."
Working for Ninja Theory in Cambridge, Taini's approach is unique thanks in part to the size of the company and the importance they place on consistent themes. "The big theme for Enslaved was organic forms in technology - so, for instance, the prison ship at the start of the game has pipes like the roots of a tree. Once I've communicated themes like these through my concepts, it was easy for the character/environment artists to go away and create."
A concept artist gives the team an idea of where we'll be spending the next four years...
Enslaved's concept art is an explosion of oranges and greens, full of wild flowers dappled in soft light and crumpled skyscrapers bursting with flora. It's beautiful, yet for some studios, Taini's impressionistic approach is the exact opposite of what they're looking for.
"I'm freakishly obsessed with details," says Eidos Montreal's Jon Jacques-Belletete whose visual style defined Deus Ex: Human Revolution. "As an Art Director I never strive for the most beautiful concept art. If it's
beautiful, great, but for me the art is a tool - blueprints the Production Artists reproduce."
Production Artists turn the concept art into usable models in-game - a series of 2D frames in a fighting game, perhaps, or 3D models of guns and characters in a modern shooter. "If a piece of concept art does not properly display the details - the anatomy of an environment or a character - then it fails its purpose", says Belletete.
Straddling both of these approaches is Nate Wells, Art Director at Irrational and creator of Bioshock's Rapture - one of this generation's most striking and atmospheric game worlds. Now building Bioshock Infinite's city in the sky, Wells believes there are no rules for success: "Whenever you are talking about concept art," says Wells, "especially conceptual renderings of gamespace, it's wise to remember Field Marshal von Moltke's famous adage: 'No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.'
"Often the most beautiful concept painting will prove impossible to execute with our current technology, or that gorgeous expanse the painter visualized makes for the worst possible tactical environment for FPS gameplay. Conversely, I've often seen semi-inebriated scrawls made hastily on a bar napkin that have a greater impact on a game's final visuals than a well-planned, highly directed concept painting. The thing to remember with all these approaches is that they are all immensely flexible and iterative. I often find that when I'm most certain of an approach, assembling materials and direction towards a specific end, those are the times when I'm most wrong."
Methods, processes and inspirations take different forms. But one thing is constant: concept art isn't just about creating beautiful or instructional images; it's about identifying a look that engages with a game's themes.