Interview:- Todd McFarlane, Executive Art Director of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

At the recent EA Winter Showcase event’s Richard Burley and Tom Wallis were fortunate enough to be able to meet with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning’s Executive Art Director Todd McFarlane. If his name seems familiar it may be because was one of the most popular comic book artists of the 1990s, having a legendary run on Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man comics, before going on to co-found Image Comics and create Spawn.

As well as having experience in films and TV, Todd McFarlane has written and produced a number of Spawn tie-in videogames, and is now lending his considerable artistic talent to EA’s next big role playing game Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.

Many people will be familiar with you who are, but for those that don’t know you, I wondered if you could tell us a little about who you are and what you have done with this game?

My name is Todd McFarlane, and I started my career in comic books. I did a little bit of Hulk and Spider-Man, created a character called Spawn, started my own toy company, did a little bit of movies, TV, and music (video) directing, and a little bit of videogames, but never in a big way like I am with Reckoning. I’m the Executive Art Director, which basically means when Kurt Schilling, who started the company, came up with the idea he needed some people to help him get it off of the ground, to help guide some of it. He got R.A Salvatore to come in and write this long expansive story, and eventually Ken Rolston came in to bring the game questing mentality, and I was there as the visual guy, the artist. So (I said) “Kurt, I just don’t want to look over concept designs, I want to be the guy that signs off and looks over all of it”.

So that we understand what ‘art’ actually is, basically it’s everything that you see on the screen; colour, characters, models, backgrounds, buildings, sound effects, music, spell casting… you see it, if it’s there, I want to be able to have said ‘yeah, cool’ and signed off on it. Why? Because the experience of a videogame, the whole is way better than the parts, right? So if the animations are good, but the backgrounds are terrible, it’s a distraction. If the backgrounds are good and the characters are good but the music is irritating, it’s a distraction. It’s all a distraction, right? It’s not unlike making a movie, where the moment where you get people to stop and think about the movie you break the magic in it. So for me, there’s all of these elements, and at the end – if we do our jobs right – Reckoning should just be kind of cooler that some of the other RPG games. If they (players) can walk away with that experience then we did our job right.

What challenges did you face when working on Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning that you hadn’t faced when working in other media?

The biggest challenge that, arguably, I’ve never had to do before when I’ve been involved with a group of people was create a world, going ‘Todd, here’s a blank canvas, go create a world!’. I mean I’ve created stories, and in movies you’ve got two hours, so you’re not globe-trotting so you keep it fairly tight. But the most daunting task in front of us is how do you create an entire world? It’s not that we can’t come up with buildings, and not that there isn’t enough variety of environments (in world) because we can come up with plenty of them. Somehow you have to come up with enough of all of these elements that need to be in a game such that, when we’re done with it, unlike my comic books, and unlike a movie, or TV show, or music video where I get total control over the story and you follow my lead – I tell it you follow. (in videogames) We build all of these components, and then we take the steering wheel and we give it to you, and we go ‘ You’re the Director, you steer it wherever you want, you go and play it in any way you see fit’. That’s the fun of videogames and RPGs. But, and here’s the difficult part, knowing that you can go anywhere, any time, any place, the way you play may be completely different from one of your (readers) may play it.

There has to be enough substance there so that you are satisfied and they are satisfied, and nobody is frustrated. We’ll soon find out if we succeeded or not, and I’m sure we’ll be stronger in some areas, and weak in a couple of others, but overall you have to be strong in all of those areas so that no matter how you want to play it, if you want to be grim and dark and gritty then go to the dark places, if you want to have some lightness in your life and some fun and humour, go to the light place. We’ve got the wide spectrum. There just has to be enough for everybody to fulfil every whatever fantasy they’re looking for in a game.

How did you manage the people that would be realising your creative vision for the game? I think people may be interested in hearing the mechanics of how that works. Were you over people’s shoulders, were there regular reports, or mission briefings?

Kind of yes to all of the above, but let me see if I can be a little more specific. I told them that my task, as I told them, was that I didn’t want anybody to draw like me and make it look like my artwork. Any hardcore Todd McFarlane fan will be completely frustrated with the look of this game, because that wasn’t the task. As I’ve said before, in a global sense, there are more fans of videogames than there are fans of Todd McFarlane, and I am way more concerned about the videogame fans than the Todd McFarlane fans. So we needed to make a good expansive game. Within the confines of videogames there is a comfort level that people have, and we needed to stay within that comfort level in terms of the look. I wasn’t going to design something that only makes sense if you know who I am, because that would be completely egotistical of me. What we wanted to do was make a hell of a RPG game.

What my rules were, the thing that I looked over the shoulder for, what I did and had conferences about – with video conferencing I can talk to any group anywhere at any time in any place – is the rules of clarity, clean art, and story telling. To me, if you’re going to build an environment that is mostly green, I understand if you want to do something that is monochromatic, but, just so that you understand, the range of monochromatic green goes from black, then to dark green, then it starts to go through all of the shades (of green), and then it goes to white. Some of the people that don’t understand that think that it goes from light green to dark green – there’s too much green in it! You have to have extremes to separate all of the degrees of green. I’m not here to say we can’t have a green environment, I’m here to say that if we’re going to have a green environment it had better be as clear to my eye as possible, so that when I turn I’m not going ‘Is that two trees or three trees? Is that a building?’ it has to be that quick, and we’ve got some of that in the game.

When you’re laying all of these pieces down, be it all green or a village, then we have the foreground, mid-ground, and the background. There needs to be a clarity to each one of those, because if you’re blurring the depth of what you’re looking at, then instead of making it look deep to the player you’re going to flatten (the image) instead of making you go ‘ Wow, that mountain range looks like it’s a hundred miles away!”. If it is the same colour as something in the foreground it’s going to come forward and squish it, so now all of a sudden you’ve got flatness, like the background of a Broadway play. All we can do is create the illusion on screen of that depth, so let’s push it as far as we can.

We had so many conversations about fogging, which is something you guys may not be interested in, but fogging is the thing that, if you’re looking at a range of mountains, the further the mountains get away the less black there is in it and it gets bluer. To our eye, because we just intuitively know that, the ones that are closer have a lot of black in them, then it’s grey, and a little bit of blue, well those are about ten miles away – we just know that because of the colour of it that they’re ten miles away. We have to apply some of the rules that are in our life to this fantasy that they’re about to play because it still has to make sense in the way that they’re moving around. We can’t just invent light, we can’t invent the way things reflect shadows, we can’t do any of that.

We’d have these goofy conversations that became Todd’s Rules – the Todd Rules are not about how an elf looks, it’s more about clarity and simplicity and easy reading with the eye, and even the way we place things in the game. I didn’t want there to be a lot of straight running, I wanted a lot of weaving because perspectives change when you do that, so all of a sudden the canopy of a tree will move, and if things are moving on screen then it seems like there’s lots of animation, so we’re always tricking the eye. If we can give you a good experience then I guess we’ll have accomplished our job and I will have accomplished mine.

How has the dynamics between yourself on art design, R.A Salvatore on story, and Ken Rolston on gameplay mechanics worked out?

If everybody does their job right and actually knows their skill set, for instance you can have your goal keep, your fore back, your midfielder, and your defence, as long as everybody knows where their skill is then we’re ok. Under no circumstances am I going to tell R.A how to write a novel, he’s not going to tell me how to draw the artwork, and I’m not going to tell Ken how to make the quest and the adventure deeper. We all knew what it was that we had to do and we just sort of passed it along to the next time until we got our “goal” to use football vernacular. It’s interesting because people thought we would have ego clashes, but it was quite the opposite. Maybe if Kurt Schilling, who founded the company, had hired four novelists or four artists, maybe there would been more, but he was very smart going ‘I need somebody in that position, that position, and that position’ he put us in different positions so there wasn’t a lot of overlap.

The fun that I have no is not saying ‘artists, be like Todd!’ it’s actually the opposite. My job is to inspire them, to get them fired up, to draw a couple of elementary ideas on the board and then watch 22 year old artists go crazy and come back with stuff that, I’ve got to tell you, I never would have designed in my own brain. I think I’m pretty good, but we have a lot of talent working on this game that makes you go ‘WOW!’. We get a lot of stuff that’s a lot better than anything I could do.

For people that are still on the fence about Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, what is your favourite part of the game, what can they really look forward to?

Well, it’s an RPG, so if you’re looking for a big giant adventure, it’s here. And if within the confines of the big giant adventure you’re looking for characters of all sizes, shapes, creeds, and colours, they’re there. If you’re looking for architecture that’ll blow your mind that looks like Kings live in it, all the way down to places that burrow down to where monsters are, with different backdrops, different colour palettes, and different ways to get down there… Oh and by the way, once you discover all of these things you don’t even have to sample them all, it’s like going through a video smorgasbord.

We have built all of this visual food, you play the game and you only need to put on your plate exactly what you want. We think we’ve added on every element, there’s almost every sampling of food that you could want in this buffet, (laughing) and if you can’t find something to satisfy your appetite, that arguably isn’t our fault, it’s your fault, you just don’t know what you want, because it is in the recipe some place!

Todd, unfortunately that’s all we have time for, thank you for speaking with us.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is due to be released on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 early next year. For more on the game  be sure to read our recent hands on preview of the game, as well as our interview with the game’s creative director Ken Rolston.

Thu, November 10 2011 » Interviews

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