The Concept Art Conundrum

It probably doesn’t surprise anyone that I like looking at concept art. As a creative person and game enthusiast I like taking a look behind the curtain to see the bones of a project. Those early rough pictures that were eventually refined into the products we buy are fascinating to me.

Because the scenery, characters and worlds of games are built from scratch, naturally there’s going to be a lot of art involved. Anyone that’s been playing games the past few years is familiar with concept art because it’s often sprinkled throughout games as collectibles or bonus items. Many people don’t like this, in fact “concept art as a prize” might be one of the most hated forms of reward in gaming. Some say working to collect every last widget in a game just to look at a picture is lame. As much as I like concept art, I have to agree. I love seeing the hard work of the artists on the development team, but the way they are incorporated into games usually doesn’t do them justice. I’ve seen blurry, poorly resized images, pictures stuck in slideshows that can’t be paused, and great art hidden behind ridiculous unlock requirements.

Here are two ways I think concept art in games could be improved:

Add commentary
For people like me, the hows and whys behind character and level design are as interesting as the final outcome. Maybe the hero starts with a scarf but it has to be taken out because animating it would be a pain. Or maybe he had cool wavy hair but ends up bald because that’s easier to render. In most cases we can only guess at why certain decisions were made when it comes to content creation. Some of my favorite art books are filled with annotations and blurbs by the artists that explain those decisions. For example, maybe they made a character wear red clothes because it established an angry tone, or maybe it was just easier to see against the background (as is the case with Kratos from God of War). Those bits of info are ultimately useless, I know, but I find them interesting. This commentary could be in the form of a short couple of sentences of even a Valve-esque audio log.

Send it out
I’m constantly cycling cool concept art around on my desktop background. What if collecting X number of widgets rewarded you with the art itself, instead of just the ability to view it on your TV? I’m sure there are all kinds of crazy logistics behind it, but it would be cool if you hit an achievement and it prompted you for an email address or gave you a login to a site where you could retrieve some high res image. I know that once it got online people could just send it and share it without getting the achievement, but I’m choosing to ignore those people in this scenario. I’ve seen tons of art in games I’d like to display, but I’m stuck with an undersized picture on my TV screen.

Several games in the past few years have come packed with art books, if you buy the super deluxe editions. That’s fine if you like paying $90 for a game and don’t mind having a special collector’s edition box that won’t fit on any shelf in your home. If developers want people to care about the art that was used to create their game (and people should care), then they have to make it worth caring about. Don’t leave it as an afterthought, an unobtainable bonus or a poorly produced pack-in. Treat the art like art and let us see it in the best way possible.