oday, I've asked Daniel Gelon, the D&D Digital Art Director, to wade in and give voice to the digital side of D&D for a little bit.
Before I dive into what I'm really excited to talk about, let me tell you a bit about myself. I am a tremendous geek for a lot of things (tabletop gaming, minis, video games) and comic books are near the top of the list. I love reading and collecting them. In fact, maybe comic book movies make me anxious due to my familiarity with them. Whenever news of a new film based on a comic book is announced, I rush to blogs to get any tidbits that I can, which means I usually see stills of the characters. Then that brings the rollercoaster of emotion that has me asking, "Why did they do that to my favorite heroes?" The costume shouldn't be a leather jacket and pants. It should be yellow and red spandex. What were they thinking? Of course, this never deters me, and I'm in that movie seat anyway when the film comes out. Although most of the films are less than stellar, I'm hardly ever disappointed in the visual changes to the characters. Things in real life and in motion feel different than panel art, and the characters just feel "right" even though they are interpreted differently. My expectations are ultimately met.
My role in the greater scheme of things for D&D is as the Art Director for our digital offerings. It's my job to ensure that what you are seeing in a Dungeons & Dragons video game meets your expectations. D&D has always been a transmedia brand; transmedia is storytelling across multiple forms of media, with each element making distinctive contributions to a user's understanding of the story universe. D&D has been a game for close to forty years, but it has also been toy lines, comic books, Saturday morning cartoons, movies, and, most importantly to me, video games. Back in the early eighties when I was playing Dungeons & Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin on my Intellivision, it defined what D&D was to me. The monsters were immobile and blocky silhouettes, vaguely recognizable, but the spirit was there and they felt "right." Today our expectations are a bit higher, and authenticity is even more important so that we feel connected to the entertainment experiences we invest our time in.
As part of my job, I deal directly with several partners who make games for a variety of digital genres and platforms. Each of them have their own art staff and style, so when we choose partners, we pick people who will be the best fit in terms of giving you an enticing and true D&D experience. But, just as I do with comic book movies, you may ask, "Why did they do that?"
Soon we'll be releasing Dungeons & Dragons: Arena of War with our partner DeNA, which is known for creating popular mobile games such as Transformers: Legends. When Perfect World's Neverwinter recently launched with its visually rich world and high-end graphics typical of an MMO RPG, we had many opportunities to ensure your gaming experience had the soul of D&D. With Arena of War, we worked closely with DeNA to deliver a D&D experience that was both true to the brand and also fun to play casually on a smartphone screen. Everyone involved wanted to make sure that these two objectives were achieved in order to offer a truly great D&D experience to players.
Who Is DeNA?
DeNA started in Japan, but now has offices worldwide. The team developing Arena of War is located in Chile with Japanese and Chilean employees; we also work with several members of their San Francisco division. The game will be available on iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. I work very closely with DeNA, including daily email contact, which allows for a great deal of collaboration between our teams. We have a great partner in DeNA, and they are very passionate about D&D and want to make sure that the experience they deliver is authentic.
What Is the Game?
The upcoming free-to-play mobile game is a casual arcade strategy physics game and takes a fresh approach to the standard RPG fare that many players are familiar with in a D&D game. I suspect you will enjoy this genre, because the game is fast, fun, and addictive. You create a hero who gains experience and who can be boosted through acquired abilities. A player forms a group by taking that hero, grabbing a few heroes (created by friends), and heading off to a battle.
Battles are a little like a billiards match in which you select a hero and "aim" that hero at an enemy. Pulling back from the hero adds force, and, when you let go, the hero charges forward to attack an enemy in his or her path. The game has environmental pieces your hero can interact with, such as bombs and teleporters, and you can propel your hero into other members of your party, which sends those affected charging off into enemies. The game is set in the Forgotten Realms with familiar locations, races, and monsters; plus we added story elements that tie into our D&D Encounters seasons at retail, special boss events, and global alliances. We have a lot there for you to like.
DeNA has its own Art Director (Juan Andres Saavedra), a dedicated UI director (Jean Ruiz), and a stable of just over half a dozen contract artists working on the game. Overall, the game feels visually cohesive even though there are a variety of different art styles present, ranging from the illustrative realism our fans are used to from our tabletop roleplaying books to a painted pseudo-anime style that is typical of games of this type. The art lead for the game paints in the latter style, and many of the key art pieces are in this style. Due to the slight characterization, this style works very well at the smaller sizes required for phone and tablet screens, and it's a friendlier aesthetic that matches better with the game type and marketplace in which the game appears.
The heroes are the true visual stars of the game, and you'll be customizing and sharing these characters with your friends. They too have some stylization that is part cartoon and part anime. Despite the smaller screen, the images have detailed and appealing textures. Their style helps them remain distinctive at phone and tablet sizes, and, although they are different than the illustrative realism of our books, a lot of care has been taken to make them feel like D&D characters.
Due to the size, we have exaggerated some aspects: Elf ears are longer for better visibility and half-orcs have no visual tusks to help differentiate them from orcs, which have large tusks. Some of the monsters, such as bandits, are slightly stereotypical in their black leathers to help them "telegraph" on screen. Because of this telegraphing, the player doesn't have to think about which characters he or she controls and who the bad guys are. The sinister folk in black certainly don't look heroic—the feel of their villainous nature lets the player know who to attack on screen.
We have made a lot of subtle changes to the characters on screen to help them feel right. If we did our job correctly, you won't notice these subtleties, but subconsciously you might pick up on them and everything will seem correct.
Getting It Right Both for the Genre and D&D
DeNA has a lot of huge D&D fans working there, and they know their stuff. In addition, we are blessed with a fantastic spirit of cooperation on this title, with DeNA asking for and accepting guidance while still adding their unique take and leveraging their expertise with casual games. This gives us a lot of say yet still gives DeNA freedom in their designs. The process has been as follows: Both Wizards and DeNA come up with concepts to appear in the game, I supply references to get them started, and they return concept art where I provide feedback. Most of the time they are spot on—especially with their monsters.
Sometimes I ask for changes to get the art to match the brand more. A good example of this is the drow hexblade character. We have never illustrated a drow hexblade, but we have done hexblades and drow. I gathered up the best examples, sent them off, and received back some character concepts combining them. Initially, they needed just minor and subtle changes, but, after round 2, they were ready to head off to their modelers with both sides pleased with the results. This process happens over and over again until we have a game that is uniquely DeNA's and in which we have had a hand in shaping. The end result is one that matches the standards of what a D&D game should be.
I hope you enjoyed this little peek at some of the process of making a D&D video game and that you check out Arena of War soon.
Jon Schindehette joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the website art director. In the intervening years he has worked as the marketing art director, novels art director, and creative manager. In January of 2009 he moved into the role of senior creative director for D&D. Jon is a long time D&D player (started in 1978), and currently plays in a Tuesday night game and DMs a random pick-up game for younger players. He can be found on Twitter (@ArtOrder) and at theartorder.com.