Shedding new skin in Sins of a Dark Age - designing a MOBA hero, step-by-step
Ben's note: I love running stories about concept art, and Craig does a great job of explaining the power of early artwork when it comes to getting things done, and then you get to enjoy the work itself. I hope you like this story as much as I do.
Ideas are important, but the ability to share those ideas with the rest of the studio and your players in a meaningful way is essential to creating amazing game characters. This is where the indispensable process of creating concept art comes in. Hero concepts at Ironclad begin with game-play ideas and the lore. It is essential that the hero starts with a sense of belonging in the universe and has the attributes that would make him really fun to play. These details also evolve throughout the concept phase.
Slivus is a cruel monster from beneath the sands of the southern desert. His venom infects body as well as mind, wracking his victims with constant pain, even as it warps their memories into nightmares.
Slivus seems to feed on this agony, and has come to be known as the Dream Eater among those unfortunate enough to lie within his grasp. Often, his victims are found by the light of morning, their faces and clothes ripped to shreds—the nightmares so great, that they try to claw their way out of their own bodies, succeeding only in death.
His venom’s physical effects are no less horrifying, literally bringing blood to boil, and making every movement agony, slowing even the strongest warriors, and bringing them to their knees.
Before Slivus existed as a concept, we were tossing around a caster hero loosely based on the mythological creature Typhon (below, far right). He was to have a humanoid upper body and grotesque body. I used his face was an early starting point for Slivus, but decided early on that I wanted to push his animalistic nature much further. I broke his face out of the 'reptile make-up' design space into a much more protruding shape. (left) When designing new characters one of our primary goals is to provide a unique silhouette.
While snake-men are certainly no stranger to video games, I always felt the connection point between the upper and lower bodies felt very unnatural. To solve this issue, I decided on extending the snake body into the external obliques and the lower back and creating a nice pocket for the upper body nestle in seamlessly. The abs were continued down the front - very gradually transitioning into the ripped muscles of the snake underbelly. An exaggerated sway back allowed a strong continuous S-curve. It was important to keep consistent weight/thickness to the body throughout. The result was a seamless blend with no awkward 'cut-off' point.
Often concepts are designed simultaneously with the game-play design for that hero in order to feed off each other and create a cohesive experience for the player. Once our design lead, Steve and I had his abilities roughed out, I met with our concept lead Quinn to plan. We decided on referencing the bold red-bellied black snake for his overall feel and coloring.
Before and during conceptualization we collected a lot of references. Our goal was to find interesting details that will help make our characters believable - even a completely fictional creature should feel anatomically balanced. Another goal of this phase was to see what has already been done to make sure we are evolving into an original design space and not simply rehashing the familiar.
Although Slivus is half-creature, he is a hero, and I really wanted players to be able to relate to him as a personality. It was important that his face had clear eyes, mouth, and hands that could gesture. The side view reveals a sadistic smirk. Here you can see the forms, details, and rough colors starting to take shape as Quinn worked his magic.
It's great to have a strong lateral silhouette nailed down, but as a 3D character we've got a lot more to worry about! Below you can see various versions of a 3/4 view in progress. This view is a blessing for the modelers who need to interpret the digital paint in three dimensions. Something just didn't feel right about the head from this angle so we went back and forth with lot of tweaks.
Once the general shape was finalized, it was time to experiment with the texture and color. We decided to blend muscle divisions in with scale divisions so we didn't have conflicting shapes. We knew the strong contrast of the center stripe would show off the animation really well.
Once the body was complete, Quinn and I started talking about how to bring this creature into a more heroic status so he didn't just feel like a world creep. We decided that clothing would be a bit too much for him, but felt comfortable with some armor and accessories. We felt natural snake scale divisions etched into the armor, and finger and nail claws, gave him a special refinement without overcoming his primal nature. His chain had to be s-links, of course! Below you can see a few stages of these refinements.
Once the 3/4 view was complete, there was information in the texture and general form. All that was left was for Quinn to sketch a front and back view so our modellers have a great guide to work from. Often arms, legs, and texture details are not necessary for these views, depending on the character. Slivus, being the unique shape he is, needed much more.
Once Quinn's hard work was done, the modelers took over and we passed the finalized concept over to Rodrigo, our hero profile painter. His job was to create an exciting scene that depicts the hero in a dynamic pose. Ideally, it will hint at the hero's personality, a special ability, and a glimpse into their homeland. I described the lore and composition to Rodrigo and he began a draft painting that shows where he is going:
An excellent first pass. Slivus's anatomy needed a few tweaks to bring it closer to the original concept. I felt a forward-facing hand would engage the player more, and a carcass would help tell a story.
After a several rounds back and forth, Rodrigo put the finishing touches on the profile painting and alas, Slivus was complete!
We hope you enjoy playing him as much as we enjoyed creating him! We'll see you in Sins of a Dark Age!