Lessons from the Video Game Industry on Art Direction

Successful games depend on great art. It greatly increases the amount of attention that a game gains via social media before launch. And it helps immerse players in the theme, making the game more memorable and increasing the chance that players will share the game via word-of-mouth.

Art directors determine the overall look and feel of that art. These decisions, in turn, drive the visual style, photographs, illustrations, and other visual content created by artists and other team members for a project. Art directors are key to the success of games, magazines, movies and other media.

Although I have yet to find a great book that concisely teaches the skills of art direction for tabletop game design, such resources do exist aplenty for video games. These include presentations at the Game Developer Conference (GDC) and similar gatherings.

Videos that helped me

Here are 4 videos that helped me to better understand the key issues involved in art direction. They affected how I thought about Cartref, particularly in terms of realizing that I wanted the game to visually evoke the “Wild Wild West” (because that’s how life is in this little town slowly growing into a city). These videos are also settling into me more deeply as I plan the look and feel of Emblem, and I expect to rewatch these videos several times. There’s so much to learn!

Notes to self

Goal: Create emotions and memories.

  1. Deeply research the theme
    • What has the audience seen already?
    • What visual tropes and motifs does the audience already know?
    • What are the deeper meanings of these touch points?
    • Distill: If the entire game was a snow globe, what would be in the globe?
  2. Create the visual plan
    • Aim for iconic, striking and bold. You are creating an in-game brand.
    • Choose visual tropes (that aren’t cliches) to quickly introduce the setting and characters.
    • Plan how you want players to feel at specific points in gameplay. 
    • Select palettes and fonts to achieve those feelings.
    • Design a style that plays to your strengths, media, and tools.
    • Plan how to emphasize key information (making it pop off the background using value, complementary hues, saturation, silhouette, detail, and contrast).
    • Summarize in a single sheet of paper, plus an actionable mock-up.
  3. Drive adoption
    • Use strong examples to start nucleating an audience. Grow this into a community.
    • Summarize the core game in a single gif. Lean heaviest on parts of the game involving visual tropes. Emphasize why people play through to the end–what’s the payoff?
    • Save expensive stuff for last. When adding or changing content later, always refer back to the visual plan.
    • Continue adding streamer-friendly content that gives the game a heartbeat and continued life.
    • Cultivate community and competition.
    • Give people a reason to play it *today,* particularly with a new group of potential customers.
    • Identify friction points that impair adoption. Then break them down.